Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet"

Email 4:

"The Figure in the Carpet" traces a literary critic’s journey to discover the ultimate truth of author Hugh Vereker’s work. The story portrays the author as the ultimate source of authority, without whom all truth is lost. The protagonist is a fan of Vereker and enjoys his work very much. Notably, that enjoyment ends once the author reveals that all of his works have a hidden unifying message. Regarding reading for the purpose of literary criticism, the protagonist says, "My new intelligence and vain preoccupation damaged my liking...I found myself missing the subordinate intentions I had formerly enjoyed...Instead of being a pleasure the more they became a resource the less...I had no knowledge - nobody had any." Sadly, the protagonist’s plight reveals reading for literary criticism can take the fun out of reading.

If this is so, then why do George Corvick and Gwendolen Erme find so much enjoyment in Vereker’s works once they start reading them critically? The key is in the different ways Corvick and the protagonist pursue Vereker’s truth. The protagonist is not willing to work for the truth; instead he leeches off of the ideas of others. Like the student who solely reads Cliffs Notes, he just wants someone to tell him what it all means. Corvick, however, works diligently with Gwendolen to find the truth behind the texts. While his initial pursuit of the truth is communal, it is not until he is alone in India that he undergoes the Wordsworthian enlightenment and sees the truth before him. Much like the author’s inspiration, truth strikes the critic when he least suspects it.

"The Figure in the Carpet" presents an interesting contrast to Barthes’s "Death of the Author." While Vereker is alive, the protagonist has some hope of finding the truth. But with the death of this author and all those who verified their critiques with him, all hope for finding the truth is lost. It appears that Miss Poyle spoke the truest words of all: "Nobody sees anything!" Nobody, that is, except for the author. The now-deceased author "was still there to be honoured by what might be done - he was no longer there to give it his sanction. Who alas but he had the authority?" The story does not allow for the possibility that literary truth can be found without the author’s verification. If this is true, then the practice of modern literary criticism is invalid. The story instead seems to point toward the futility of relying on authorial intent to reveal the truth. The text and its truth will remain long after the author is gone. Why should they die with him?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Remains of Dante's last inferno

Ashes from the corpse of Italy's greatest poet, Dante Alighieri, were found lying in a bag on a Florence library shelf yesterday

By Reuters, Florence
Tuesday July 20, 1999
The Guardian

Ashes from the corpse of Italy's greatest poet, Dante Alighieri, were found lying in a bag on a Florence library shelf yesterday.

Two employees at the national central library in Florence stumbled across the remains by chance while searching in the rare manuscripts department.

'They came across an envelope on one of the shelves on the second floor,' the library's director, Antonia Ida Fontana, said. 'They opened it and found a bag of ashes along with documents which identify them as those of Dante.'

Dante, whose Paradise, Purgatory and Hell were among the most influential texts of medieval Europe, was born in Florence in 1265 and banished for his political views in 1302. He died in bitter exile in Ravenna in 1321.

On the 600th anniversary of his birth in 1865 scientists opened his tomb and donated a few of his ashes to the Florence library, then based in the Uffizi gallery.

The relics were displayed in Florence in 1929 but went missing, possibly when the library moved in 1935.

'We have been without these ashes for 70 years,' Ms Fontana said. 'It's a very emotional find for us. It's the only relic of Dante we have in Florence, which was always such a bitter-sweet city for him.'

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Email Three

I find it ironic that in order for us to understand Barthes's "The Death of the Author," Dr. Schwartz had to "resurrect" the author and talk about 1968 and the Paris protests. She did this so that we could get a feel for the environment that produced such rebellious language. Obviously, 35 years after Barthes's publication, we still have not had the heart to murder our authors. We have to know the circumstances of works in order to analyze them. It can be something as simple as a general time (Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan England) or as specific as motivations (The Communist Manifesto was a pamphlet specifically written for and given to workers). There needs to be some kind of context. I agree that often we look at authors as a categorization. Dr. Schwartz described Barthes as one of many 1968 Parisian writers who wrote with similar inflammatory language. If she hadn't said that, Barthes would have looked like someone making a mountain out of a molehill, but in the context of intellectual uprising, his language makes sense. She didn't need to tell us his biography or what he had for breakfast the day that he wrote "The Death of the Author." We only need a general context, and that's fine by me.

Regarding Rotman, I found the book to be very interesting, although I questioned some of his statements. He calls the new number system "Hindu" numerals. This is an inaccurate label because Hindu is the adjective form of Hinduism. There is nothing religious about these numbers, as the name implies. If he meant that they were Indian, he could have said "Hindi," although even that label is a little off. Zero was not invented in India; it was invented in Sumer. But if we want to play the "Columbus discovered America" game, then, all right, it was invented in India. Mathematicians and scientists (and almost anyone else I can think of) calls these numbers "Arabic numerals" because the Europeans learned about them from Arab traders. There is a running joke among Arabs that goes, "Everyone uses Arabic numerals...except Arabs." This is true: Arabs, Persians, and Indians all use different numerals albeit the same method of notation. Visit this website to see how I learned to write numbers: I think we could do a whole class on the semiotics of numbers, but then again, I hate math. Here's another flaw I find with Rotman: the origin of the word "cypher." OK, so the Rot man says that "zero" came from "cypher" without explaining how such a big leap took place; fine, I'll live with that. But then he says, "the etymology of the word zero, via 'cypher' from the Hindu sunya (= void)." OK, Mr. Rotman, I have to stop you there. Again, you used "Hindu," a word that refers to religion. Are you trying to make "void" sound mystical? Sunya comes from Sanskrit, the origin of all Indo-European languages, including Persian and English (not Arabic or Hebrew, which are both Semitic languages). The word "cypher" actually comes from the Persian word "sefr," which means zero and cypher (sound it out, gang, and you'll see how it makes perfect sense). How does this connect to Indians? Persian was the court language of India, the unifying language like Hindi is today. Persian was the trade language that was used with the Arabs (remember your geography, the Arab traders had to cross Persia via the Silk Road to get to India). The word "sefr" is today used by both Persians and Arabs to refer to zero, in fact it's the only name for a number that we have in common. It's okay with me that the Webster dictionary calls it an Arabic word; that's who the Europeans learned it from. I have this feeling that Rotman is British...I won't get into why, but it would help if this author hadn't killed himself by not supplying an "About the Author" page. He must have read Barthes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Email 2:

While I believe that Angela articulated her argument well, I have to disagree with her on Structuralism's validity. I think that Structuralism gives voice to a phenomenon that I have encountered many times when reading a text: I read something, and it reminds me of something else you've read. This becomes Structuralism when the text is meant to point to that "something else."

For example, last semester I took Later Victorian Lit and studied the poems of Dante Rossetti. Rossetti's poems often have a common theme of the continuum of time and refers forwards and backwards to different poems in the time frame of a particular poetic situation. While my professor taught this theme, he drew a diagram on the board of an X with two lines pointing horizontally out of either side. At the time, I was also taking Early Italian Humanism taught in the Italian department and had just studied how Italians view Rome as the Eternal City because the Empire to them has never fallen; it has just been moved. Empires, that is, are always the same just moving from different locations: Persian to Egyptian to Greek to Roman to Byzantine to Holy Roman, ie Christendom. Therefore, Italians view history as being on a continuum where the past points to the future and the future points to the past per the theological study of typology.

Obviously, this view of history is very much engrained in Italians and Italian Humanist scholarship. Rossetti's father was a Dante Alighieri scholar (he loved Dante so much that he named his son after him) who moved from Italy to England. Rossetti's father was an Italian and a scholar and would have raised his son in a similar fashion with a similar literary background. In fact, the diagram of the X with two arrows that my English prof drew was the exact same diagram that my Italian prof had drawn! Thus, Rossetti's poem and it's theme were playing on an Italian literary and historical tradition of viewing time/history as a continuum where previous events are prefigurations of future events. I found further evidence of Rossetti's Italian Humanist scholarship by reading his sonnet sequence, which takes almost verbatim elements of Petrarch's Canzoniere, as does his sister Christina Rossetti's sonnet sequence. Hers is more interesting because it is a sequence told from the perspective of Laura and Beatrice, the object of Petrarch and Dante's sonnets, respectively.

OK, so what does this have to do with Structuralism? My professor had little to no awareness of the Italian literary tradition. When I explained the tradition to him, he was very happy to learn about it because it provided a label for the unity and common themes of Rossetti's poetry that he had not been quite able to put his finger on. Without this knowledge of other works, he lacked a basic understanding of Rossetti's purpose in writing the poems and the deliciousness of his application of Italian ideals to English poetry. Rossetti was Italian-English, and he was able to express his own duality by combining the two sides of himself intellectually and aesthetically in his painting and poetry. If we are not aware of the tradition behind his works, we cannot fully appreciate Rossetti's poetry. We are missing a vital piece of information that Structuralism encourages us to pursue. Instead of staying closed-minded and focusing solely on the one poem, we can look at it as a part of an entire literary tradition that goes back centuries. This is crucial to fully appreciating a work from every angle. This form of literary criticism is not a "dissection" that kills the work. It is instead a vivisection that allows us to see the poem's beating heart and read it's genetic code to see where it came from and where it is going. We do not "murder to dissect" the poem; we instead use Structuralism to "see into the life of things."

Literary Canon

I'm required to send weekly emails to my literary theory class, so I thought that I would post them here as well so that y'all could get a feel for what I do as an English major.

Email 1:

I remember the first time I asked the question, "What is Literature?" I was sitting in Dr. Bozorth's British Authors I class after we had just read Addison and Steele's essays and before we could even begin the class discussion, I said, "Dr. Bozorth, these essays do not seem like literature to me. These are just magazine articles. Shouldn't we be spending more of our time reading great poetry instead of the equivalent of our Vanity Fair magazine?" He then said, "Class, this is a great opportunity to discuss 'What is Literature?' The answer is that if it is in the Norton Anthology it is Literature, otherwise it is not. Maryam, the essays are in the Norton Anthology, so they are Literature." He was (sort of) joking of course, but I think what he said had great merit. A literary work is only called Literature if it has been labeled as such. Holy Semiotics, Batman!

This brings us to the subject of the "Literary Canon" and the exclusion of works deemed not worthy. For example, the obsession with "Orientalism," a term which actually referred to Persian, not East Asian, poetry, was prevalent in Victorian-Era Europe, particularly in England and Germany. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward Fitzgerald was the reason that T.S. Eliot became a poet (it's true; Google it!) and outsold many the works in the traditional canon. Lord Tennyson began his literary career translating Persian poetry at Oxford and produced great poems inspired by Persian poetry, such as "Recollections of the Arabian Nights," and his "In Memoriam" owes much to Rumi's poetry about Shams. Matthew Arnold’s "Sohrab and Rustum" published in 1853 further demonstrates the influence of Persian poetry. The list goes on and on. However, "Orientalist" poetry and traditional Persian poetry are not considered part of the literary canon. There is no mention of them in the Norton Anthology even though this was a major phase of British and World literature and is studied very deeply in England (my mother earned her A levels in Persian literature after studying with an Oxford professor). It seems that politics, or as Eagleton says, "ideology" has pushed crucial and valid influences like Persian poetry by the wayside in order to make room for whatever "Literature" fits the mold of the Powers That Be. In fact, Cecil Lang's second edition of his anthology The Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle replaces Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with Swinburne's "The Leper" and "Anactoria" to "show a new aspect of Swinburne not discussed previously." Mr. Lang has little regard for showing English students an aspect of British literature not discussed previously.

We have no Persian lit courses at SMU, which is sad considering how large the Persian studies department is at the University of Texas and Ivy League colleges. I encourage you all, as students and scholars of Literature, to indulge yourself with the riches to be found in Persian poetry, even if it's not part of the canon:

from Tennyson's "Recollections of the Arabian Nights"

Then stole I up, and trancedly
Gazed on the Persian girl alone,
Serene with argent-lidded eyes
Amorous, and lashes like to rays
Of darkness, and a brow of pearl
Tressèd with redolent ebony,
In many a dark delicious curl,
Flowing beneath her rose-hued zone.

(lines 133-40)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Tennyson's "Recollections of the Arabian Nights"

Then stole I up, and trancedly
Gazed on the Persian girl alone,
Serene with argent-lidded eyes
Amorous, and lashes like to rays
Of darkness, and a brow of pearl
Tressèd with redolent ebony,
In many a dark delicious curl,
Flowing beneath her rose-hued zone.

(lines 133-40)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Livin in the Past

So I'm checking out my old high school crushes on Facebook, and they're all doing such cool stuff now. One is campaigning for his future presidency (of the US!) and prepping to ride a bike marathon from Austin to Anchorage. Another one is kicking ass at Rice, another's in Denver, and the rest are all shacked up at UT. It's so crazy how everyone's got their own life going on after high school. When you're in HS, all those people seem so important. But once it's all done, they're just blips on the radar of life. All you have left is the memory of the few things you said to them and how they made you feel. If I knew then that someday I would be so far removed from them, maybe I wouldn't have been so shy in high school, and I would have actually talked to them more. Whatever, I'm the same way now, and I'm gonna be even farther removed from the guys I know in college. Maybe it's just my personality.

Whenever I start wishing that I could go back to high school and redo a whole bunch of stuff over, I suddenly get Don Henley/the Ataris' "Boys of Summer" stuck in my head: "The little voice inside my head saying, 'Don't look back; you can never look back.' I thought I knew what love was; what did I know? Those days are gone forever. I should just let them go." I guess I'm just getting nostalgic now that I'm in my last year of college and my best friend from HS is starting pharmacy school. It just seems like my youth is ending. I know that sounds totally ominous and possibly even lame, but I just feel like I should be having fun while everything about my situation is telling me to get serious. Basically, I'm exactly where I was four years ago when I was applying to colleges: I didn't know what I was doing then but I thought I knew everything, now I know what I'm doing but I think don't know jack.