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Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother

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Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:

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Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)

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Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.

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I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

The Collector by John Fowles

18892522The Collector by John Fowles is about a man named Frederick Clegg, a lonesome person who recently wins the lottery. He is socially strange, and loves to collect butterflies. He develops an obsession for a young, blonde, beautiful, 20 year-old art student named Miranda. After he stalks her for a while, he decides to buy a cottage in the middle of nowhere preparing everything for her ‘arrival.’ One day he chlorophorms her and actually carries out his fantasy, keeping her a prisoner.

It’s easy to compare this with Lolita, which I will hold off on because I will write a proper analysis comparing Clegg to Humbert, Jean-Baptise Grenouille from Suskind’s Perfume, and to the main character in John Burnside’s The Dumb House. There is a thread running through these works, worthy of a closer look. This novel also made me think that this is what Beauty and the Beast would really look like in real life (perhaps another topic altogether).

Clegg is somewhat scarier than the other men in the novels mentioned above because he doesn’t have sex with his prisoner. In fact, he finds sex dirty, unnecessary, and dishonorable. I know this sounds like a strange thing to say, but I kept thinking of the Oscar Wilde line “everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” That in itself makes The Collector more perverse.

The interactions between Frederick and Miranda are absolutely chilling. She says to him

“you’ve gone to a lot of trouble…I’m your prisoner, but you want me to be a happy prisoner.”

Later on, she brings up the topic again:

“’There must be something you want to do with me.’ ‘I just want to be with you. All the time.’ ‘In bed?’ ‘I’ve told you no. …I don’t allow myself to think of what I know is wrong, I said. I don’t consider it nice.’”

She tries to sleep with him out of desperation, hoping he would let her go afterwards but he refuses her. One of the many times she tries to escape, he chlorophorms her and carries her upstairs. He writes:

“She looked a sight, the dress all off one shoulder. I don’t know what it was, it got me excited, it gave me ideas, seeing her lying there right out. It was like I’d showed who was really the master…I took off her dress…she looked a real picture…It was my chance I had been waiting for. I got the old camera and took some photos…The photographs, I used to look at them sometimes. I could take my time with them. They didn’t talk back at me.”

The next day he pats himself on the back, congratulating himself for not raping her, as any other man would (according to him). As much as Frederick is disgusted by sexual conduct, he’s very much immersed in it. Miranda tries to show him that being a scientist, and a collector of beautiful things isn’t as honourable as being an artist who dwells in the vices.

“You hoard up all the beauty in these drawers… Do you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings that you would call nasty?…do you know that?”

“You can change…You can learn. And what have you done? You’ve had a little dream, the sort of dream I suppose little boys have and masturbate about, and you fall over yourself being nice to me so that you won’t have to admit to yourself that the whole business of my being here is nasty, nasty, nasty.”

I will draw a line here. I’ve read a few reviews accusing Fowles and this book of extreme misogyny. What I think is important is to examine how Miranda’s character has been written (by Fowles), and how Frederick’s messed up character views women. Miranda has autonomy. Despite being a prisoner, gagged, chlorophormed, and kept, Miranda is an educated adult. She also becomes quickly aware of the power she has over Frederick. She mockingly calls him Ferdinand (to her Miranda), but more often calls him Caliban. Caliban is so broken, and abused, but I don’t think Frederick gets the references. I think Miranda’s comments go over his head. They are her little inside jokes with us the readers. These references to the Tempest are scattered through the novel. She discusses high art, and in her portions tries to frame narratives from fiction to understand her situation, so that she may cope with being in solitary confinement, and a prisoner. The witty remarks she makes towards Fred shows that she is by far superior to his intellect. At the beginning she tries to understand him, more than to freak out. She even pull out a cigarette and discusses with him the situation like a beatnik art student in a bar discussing existentialism.

Frederick on the other hand does not understand women. He defensively admits that he is not “a queer” as if that thought also offended him, but women to him are these two dimensional characters that he bases on his aunt (who was a piece of work). He built up a fantasy about Miranda and hypnotized by her beauty the same way he is with his butterflies, he keeps her locked up. Once in a while though, Miranda will say something to him that he doesn’t expect from her, and he narrates:

“Her making criticisms like a typical woman … she was just like a woman. Unpredictable. Smiling one minute and spiteful the next.”

These “just like a woman” comments make you ask: what kind of women have you met? How can you possibly think of more than half of Earth’s population this way? But the key distinction here is how Frederick thinks of women versus how Miranda is actually written.

The second half of the novel is shown from Miranda’s point of view and we see how her thinking changes as the days of imprisonment take a toll on her. This half for me was lacking. Mainly because it’s the same plot told from her point of view, and as a reader, I inferred that already. I saw the despair and saw her thinking process without her actually saying it (for another 100 pages).

The ending, which I won’t spoil (regarding Miranda) was slightly disappointing, and a little convenient. The cliff hanger suggests that Frederick will continue to do this with a new woman. While this is the ‘creepy’ element, it made me wonder what he saw in Miranda. His “just like a woman” stabs did not match the fantasy that he made up about Miranda in his head, but that she was still somewhat special to him, that something about her was different. The end had me wondering if it’s just his own fantasy he falls in love with every time, and the girls are just vessels for it, without the girls themselves having a particular quality he likes.

Like I said, something about Clegg is creepier than the other literary kidnapper men, and because he kidnaps beautiful women, and keeps them so that he’s not alone, with no other intent, to me, he is perhaps the creepiest of them all. Like Lolita, I thought this book was by far more intriguing in the first half. While I understand what both authors were trying to achieve in these second halves, I think they both executed it poorly. Still, both really great novels! Should you read this? Yes.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istavan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. a Summary, Discussion, and Review

“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”

5925031My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke.  Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.

Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.

The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.

This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):

“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”

The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):

  1. Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elivish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
  2. Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
  3. Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
  4. Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
  5. The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
  6. The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
  7. Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.

He writes:

“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”

I recommend this  book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.

Rabbit Hole | Reading Reflection

“Rabbit Hole is not a tidy play. Resist smoothing out its edges” – David Lindsay-Abaire

38700I’m not really sure where to begin with Rabbit Hole. I loved it so much. This play was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, published in 2007, and yes, that makes it 10 years old right now. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 and in 2010 was turned into a film featuring Nicole Kidman in the leading role. I really want to discuss the details of this play, and figure out what it is that I love about it—in doing so, I will most likely spoil the play for you, so if you want to read it without spoilers, I suggest you don’t read ahead on this blog post. Consider yourself warned.

Rabbit Hole is told simply, but contains a complex narrative with complicated relationship dynamics. Beeca and Howie are two young parents who have just lost their 4 year old son Danny. Danny chased the dog into the road and got hit by a teenage driver. This play is a glimpse into their daily life several months after the tragedy and the ways in which they cope with it. Howie likes to constantly celebrate Danny’s life and look at home-made videos of him, and he needs to talk about it so he goes to support groups. Becca on the other hand can’t stand the constant reminders of Danny in the house. She wants his fingerprints gone from the windows, his drawings off the fridge, the dog away from the house, and eventually to move out. Howie on the other hand loves all those things in the house. Above all, Becca refuses to talk about it with anyone. The subtle ways these things come up are shown in the little interactions Becca and Howie have with extended family, neighbours, and friends. While others tiptoe around them and either avoid them completely or try to be extra sensitive and offer advice, Howie and Becca feel awkward around them. Advice is transparent, and ‘relatability’ goes right through them because no one grieves the same way. The worst is when people try to draw comparisons between what happened to them personally when they encountered death, and what is happening to Becca and Howie now. On the other hand, Becca gets irritated by little things, like seeing a mother ignore her child at the grocery store when he asked for candy (a fruit roll-up). The lady’s parenting style got to Becca. She wanted to grab her and tell her to appreciate her child while he is there, not take him for granted, and explain why he can’t have the candy, rather than ignoring him. Becca sees Danny everywhere in the details of her home and wishes she could just ignore the details and the memories, but this woman is purposely ignoring her living, breathing child.

The play takes a turn when the character of Jason is introduced. Jason is seventeen years old and was the driver who ran over Danny. He wants to talk to Becca and Howie. He tries to reach out several times. The first time is by means of a letter and in it he encloses a science fiction story he wrote about parallel universes, which he dedicates to Danny. The story is called Rabbit Hole. The first time we see Becca truly discuss her grief and have a good cry about it is in the presence of Jason. Jason is intriguing to her, because he seems equally broken. There are a few parallels between Jason and Danny, and (in my opinion) Becca looks at Jason as what Danny might have become if he was given the chance to grow up. For one, Jason draws a few parallels between him and Danny in the letter by referencing robots and how he too liked them as a child. Danny’s favourite book was The Runaway Rabbit, whereas Jason writes Rabbit Hole. It was so strange to me the first time I read this, and even when watching the movie, that Becca loses her temper with everyone else except the person who actually killed her son. We get only glimpses into Jason’s life but we know that he is broken by what happened, that he’s trying to be normal and can’t and has a desperate desire to have a different life. He contemplates parallel universes, because he likes to think that there is a world where he didn’t kill Danny. One can also look at Rabbit Hole as a direct reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as it being a portal into madness for everyone involved.

There are two other characters constantly present. The first is Izzy, Becca’s irresponsible sister who gets to be pregnant and one can sense that Becca feels like Izzy doesn’t deserve to be a mother—Izzy feels that judgement herself. The second character is Nat, Becca’s mother. She too had lost a son, Becca’s brother, who killed himself at the age of 39. He was a cocaine addict. Whenever she tries to compare the loss of her son, with the loss of Danny, Becca shuts her up right way. She can’t stand comparison. Most importantly, she can’t stand the thought that a 39 year old man who self-harmed and lived a “sinful life” can be compared to, or be the same as an innocent four-year-old.

Lastly, I was taken aback by the author’s note at the end of the play. He is very direct about his instructions to future actors, but in it he reveals just a little more about Jason’s character. He writes:

“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be…if the stage directions don’t mention tears, please resist adding them…I KNOW Jason shouldn’t cry, ever. (Yes, he’s haunted by the death of Danny, but his emotions aren’t especially accessible to him…please, no choked-up kids openly racked with guilt. That’s not who he is. Restraint, please.)”

I am completely astounded at how David Lindsay-Abaire managed to pack so much depth, detail, and complexity while using such simple dialogue. No one talks too much—the longest being maybe two sentences at a time. The interactions are brief and subtle, but carry with them a back story. It’s rivaling Hemingway’s style (particularly in his short stories), and dare-I-say, I think I enjoy Rabbit Hole more. There is so much to discuss. I wish I could go into the details of parallel universes and their significance, the backstory we can piece together for Jason, the potential affair Howie had, the differences in the ways all these characters grieve, attempts at healing, and the ending of the play slipping into normality. There is so much to discuss, and I think this play is so important. If they ever stop teaching A Streetcar Named Desire in schools, they should replace it with this one. This was a perfect 5-star play for me.

 

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ | Reflection

***WARNING: This is a reflection/analysis there are many spoilers“***

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the readSince 2009 I have been incapable of answering wholeheartedly, or even understand myself, why my answer for “what’s your favourite movie?” has been: “The Reader.” I had no personal relationship, nor family history with Germany and the Holocaust, nor felt particularly attached to the study of law. Many films (and books) before and after The Reader had interacted with this theme so much that Ricky Gervais jokingly remarked to Winslet in the introduction to the 2009 Golden Globes after she had received nominations for both an Oscar (which she won) and a Golden Globe (also won):

“I told you, do a Holocaust movie the awards come, didn’t I?”

I was partly embarrassed that in order to get to the highly philosophical and literary discussions at the end—should one choose my suggestion and associate me with the film through recommendations—that one would have to sit through 45 minutes filled with somewhat uncomfortable sex scenes between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.

vorlesserHaving re-watched it this past week, re-read the book, and interacted with it through Audible as well, I have finally figured out the film’s appeal: it is a highly biblio-centric puzzle. The Reader is not for a lazy audience. The film purposely leaves many unanswered questions for which the book, written by Bernhard Schlink, is an absolutely crucial companion.

Professor Rohl makes an excellent point in the film as he says:

“the question is not whether it is moral, people often tend to know murder is wrong, the question is: is it legal, and not by our laws, no, but by the laws of the time.”

The law however, can only work with facts, and these facts are rooted in text. The jury mainly worked with the text of the Jewish survivor and the records are the only proof that Hanna Schmitz or any other defendant had participated. Knowing Hanna is illiterate through Michael’s voice we understand as a distant audience why it looks suspicious to others that she should have rejected a secretarial position with Siemens and rather purposely enrolled in the SS as a guard. There’s a beautiful line in the book where Michael says

“with the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.”

Although the novel contains many more clues to Hanna’s illiteracy pre-trial, the movie displays flashes of Hanna’s passive looks at menus looking with envy at young children who have no difficulty ordering what they desire.

There is however a very important detail that the movie has left out and I wouldn’t have been able to find the answer until much later with the help of the book. In the middle of a class discussion one eager students says (about the Holocaust):

“everyone knew, our parents, our teachers, the question isn’t whether everyone knew, the question is how could you have let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”

Near the end of the novel when Michael has been notified of Hanna’s suicide he explores her cell. He narrates (in the book):

“I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Ellie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature at the camp.”

The prison manager tells Micahel:

“several years ago I had to get her [Hanna] a general concentration-camp bibliography and then one or two years ago she asked me to suggest some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards…as soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read, she began to read about the concentration camps.”

To me, this is the most important detail. Hanna couldn’t read so she lacked empathy and couldn’t read people either. She says in the film after Michael is so worried and concerned that this whole time she hadn’t learned anything from the trial, nor thought about any of the victims: “well I did learn kid, I learned to read.” Hanna kills herself because as the young student suggested: the only redemption from the knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust is suicide.

It could be argued that the film tries to empathize too much with a Nazi—but this book (and movie) is much more about the inferiority an individual has due to illiteracy. Had Hanna been able to read she might have taken the job at Siemens instead. By asking young Jewish girls to read to her before sending them away perhaps she gave them better last days than other prisoners in similar situations.

The first time I watched the film I interpreted Michael’s silence on the knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy as revenge and anger. I thought he felt that because she had slept with him, and met him when he too (like the prisoners) was weak/sick, and that she had treated him the same way as she did many other young people that he suddenly wasn’t special in her life—and the audiobooks that followed were his redemption. However, Michael is special because he’s Hanna’s only survivor. He survived her treatment and he knew her secret.

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Hanna’s tombstone

The film is entirely biblio-centric. It interacts with the legal system using text and archives for proof (memoirs included), reading aloud and audiobooks, and the ultimate shame of being illiterate which resulted in crimes beyond the human imagination. What Schlink gets to in the end is that reading teaches one empathy. Only through reading can one truly think about life in another’s shoes and only when Hanna learns to read can she really understand the camps—despite the fact that she was physically there. Michael keeps Hanna’s secret until the end because he knows that to her it is a bigger shame to admit that she is unable to read than to take all the blame for what happened at Auschwitz.  In the end all we see is what is left of Hanna Schmitz as text: two words on a tombstone hidden in a rural cemetery.

Michael shares their story as text. He narrates:

“at first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it…[then] I wanted to recapture it by writing…and it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.”

This is the film and book’s ultimate message (to me at least): stories heal. Michael and the young Jewish woman used their experiences with Hanna Schmitz and healed through text. Writing as therapy, and reading as empathy: that is The Reader, and that is why this will continue to be my favourite film and one of my favourite contemporary books.

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Movie still at the very end where Michael visits her grave