Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Struggling to See the Queer Theory in James Joyce’s “A Painful Case”

Had we not been concurrently studying queer theory in class and reading Roberta Jackson’s article “The Open Closet in Dubliners: James Duffy’s Painful Case”, I would have never considered “A Painful Case” to be an example for literary criticism in the area of queer theory. Jackson cites evidence of queer theory in Duffy’s “rejection of a woman’s love” (328), the woman being Mrs. Sinicio, a married woman whom he breaks off a potentially romantic relationship with. If his inability to accept the love of a woman was definitely the reason for his decision, I would have no problem with seeing the homosexuality, but I am more inclined to see the fact that she is married and has a daughter as the more viable reason. On one of their meetings, Duffy “seized the moments when her daughter’s attention was diverted to become intimate” (92). This passage suggests that he was intimate with Mrs. Sinicio to some extent if not sexually. Also, his desire to keep their intimacies secret from her daughter suggests that he does not want to destroy Mrs. Sinicio’s marriage, weighing the traumatic impact it would have on her daughter to live through her mother’s affair and an eventual divorce.

Sexual Identity in Roberta Jackson's Critique of Joyce's "A Painful Case"

In Jackson’s critique of Joyce’s “A Painful Case,” she claims that just two articles treat the story as being about homosexuality, particularly Reid psychoanalytic study and Norris’s survey. (pg. 332) Ultimately, Jackson claims that in spite of Reid’s and Norris’s recognition, most critics have consistently disregarded the homophobic climate that existed in late- Victorian and Edwardian Britain following a number of sensational and well-publicized homosexual scandals in the late nineteenth century, which resulted in the passage of the Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. (pg. 334) Jackson’s claim that the repression identified by the passing of laws that punish homosexuals serves as a paradoxical catalyst causing homosexuals to become aware of their identity, possibly for the firsts time. Jackson then claims that the effect of the revelation caused by the passing of homophobic laws forced the cautious, like Duffy, further into the closet. Also, Jackson’s claim that the amendment served as wedge, driving the newly self aware homosexuals further into the closet is supported throughout the text. I believe that Jackson’s recognition of the homophobic atmosphere in Dublin at the time serves to supplement Jackson’s observation that homosexuality was treated as a disease. Jackson reveals this when she claims that “Duffy’s loneliness is a disease that cannot be cured, but paradoxically both unites him with and separates him from others who are similarly affected. “(pg. 335) This makes sense because of the lack of interaction between Duffy and other homosexuals, and the feelings of loneliness that are the products of his self isolation and are brought about by the homophobic atmosphere of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Ultimately, I agree with Jackson’s claim that the model of homosexuality as a disease contributed to the individualization of homosexuality which has an isolating effect, and that the homophobic atmosphere constituted by the passing of homophobic laws fostered the notion that sexuality represents identity.

Can Joyce Portray What He Is Not?-- Russ Winfrey

I am thoroughly amazed at Joyce's ability to accommodate a number of readings through the same story. I had barely noticed the homosexual implications beyond the obvious reference to Nietzsche's The Gay Science and what is arguably effeminate about Duffy. I had developed an entirely different reading, but am floored at how well this reading was assembled, even though it was interpreted entirely different than my own.

While I agreed with much of her assessment of the story, as it concerns the sexual orientation of Duffy (which seemed to be what she argued for on the whole), I was less sold on what seemed to be her main point. She claimed that James Joyce, in writing this was channeling a kind of heterosexual anxiety, which was in response to his brother/community/nation's unspoken history of homosexuality and pedophilia. She seemed to be claiming that Joyce doesn't or can't fully represent Duffy's homosexual anxiety because it is largely different from Joyce's heterosexual anxiety, and that Joyce can only portray Duffy's apprehensions through the unreliable lens of heterosexuality. Joyce cannot accurately depict a gay man's thoughts because he does not himself share those precise worries.

I however think that Joyce does a fair job of this depiction, while not essentializing this reading. If perhaps Roberta Johnson were to offer the things that Joyce's portrayal was missing, I might've been more willing to second guess Joyce's capacity to empathize. I do not think that Joyce has developed a flat homosexual character. I think Duffy is fully imagined, but Joyce will only give you a whiff of what it is he is really feeling (perhaps due to his inability to actually know) but I believe that it was Joyce's choice to show mere bits of Duffy's psyche, though dialogue or expletive correlative, etc to let on who this character might be.

Social Repression of Sexual Identity in "A Painful Case": A Response to Roberta Jackson

An interesting aspect of Jackson's reading of "A Painful Case" is her observance of the extent to which social norms affect the manifestation of Mr. Duffy's identity. Throughout the story itself, I was struck with the vivid descriptions of Duffy's lifestyle that Joyce offered, all of which hinted at a man who faced isolation from the greater society. This feeling of alienation is accentuated by his self-obsessed anxiety which Joyce describes: "He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful sideglances" (Joyce, 90). This characterization, set early in the story, makes the reader wonder as to the nature of this mysterious figure. He is obviously concerned with some aspect of his self and remains cloistered and apart from society because of this. Jackson highlights a similar observation by saying "[Duffy's] neuroticism arises from his necessary isolation and his need to distance himself from the homophobia of the patriarchy" (Jackson, 336). It is indeed society which seems to keep Duffy emotionally caged throughout the short story. His fear of being socially ostracized keeps him in a perpetual state of insecurity and self-reflection. It is this worry that destroys his relationship with Mrs. Sinico. He cannot justify a relationship with a woman that is strictly platonic because of what society considers the purpose of male/female interaction. Sinico, in her seemingly innocent moment of intimacy, triggers a defensive response in Duffy. He cannot see a woman in that light and has therefore failed society. His connection to her has failed and all his is left with is a faint memory. He remains a lonely man in a world that will not permit the manifestation of his true desire.

A Subtle Beast:Analysis of "The Open Closet" by Roberta Jackon

Similar to Kenny, coming to terms with Duffy’s suppression of his homosexuality was a struggle for me, but as Roberta Jackson’s claim reveals, the signs are there, they only need to be analyzed and interpreted.
In Jackson’s analysis she uses “The Beast in the Jungle” by Henry James to compare and contrast each author’s look at homoeroticism. In contrast between the two works Jackson states, “The differences in their [James and Joyce] treatment of the ‘beast’ are determined by their individual relation to the overarching patriarchy and its attendant homophobia”(Dubliners 328); the character of Duffy, being in an Irish country, where Catholicism is the dominant religion, has to tame his “beast”. The interaction between he and Mrs. Sinico does a decent job in this task, but as Duffy writes” Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse”(Dubliners 94); this statement puts Duffy in a compromising position. On one side Duffy is completely isolated and as Jackson states, “Each of his ties with other men…is a tie into the patriarchy”(Dubliners 336); Duffy shutting himself off to the outside limits his interaction with anyone, and this in a way limits his “beast” from being exposed. Prior to reading Jackson’s piece I would have overlooked this, but subtle signs, once analyzed, seem to scream that the “beast” wants to be let out. Duffy’s relationships, or lack thereof, reveal his homosexual tendencies and “open the closet” in a way that does not affect his image in the town or his homophobia.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Textual Analysis of Jackson's "The Open Clost in Dubliners"

With some painful work, re-reading, and head-scratching, I finally came into agreement with Roberta Jackson’s argument: that James Duffy begins to reveal his homoerotic nature upon meeting, greeting, and leaving Emily Sinico.
It is almost painful to see how orderly Mr. Duffy’s life has become upon his meeting with Mrs. Sinico. His disdain for “anything which betokened physical or mental disorder” is reflected in the clean and methodical organization of his house, his daily routine, and most importantly, the absence of unique daily occurrences that Joyce regards as life altering (Dubliners 317-318). Yet in the next arguably mundane period of his life, the “four years” after his dismissal, Mr. Duffy is not totally the same. Originally absconding to writing as a submission of “himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen”, Mr. Duffy begins to write, albeit seldom in occurrence (320). Yet Joyce chooses the one phrase that reveals a change in thought and his morality: “Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse” (321).
Trusting in Jackson’s testimony about the existence of a “homosexual panic” infused in culture and legal systems of Joyce’s time, this most recent quotation reveals Mr. Duffy’s first acknowledgement of the situation (Jackson, from J-STOR, 84). In this writing, Joyce notes a divergence from the “orderliness of his mind”, showing the beginning of Mr. Duffy’s questioning of the world around him (Dubliners 321). Mr. Duffy’s questioning correlates with Jackson’s assertion that “the scandals had the paradoxical effect of making many homosexual men aware of their identity” (Jackson 89). Going back to the story, from who did the trigger to Mr. Duffy’s realization originate? Mrs. Sinico.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Race Analysis of Fern: The Jewish Cantor

A point that I found interesting in Fern was the exaltation of the Jew. Why would Toomer exalt another race? The narrator refers to the beauty of Fern’s Semitic nose. The narrator mentions the Jewish cantor numerous times throughout the piece, all in reference to his being focused on Fern and either forgetting their troubles or trivializing them. The Jews are in a similar situation to African Americans in that they are not the dominant race in America. In exalting another lesser race through Fern, Toomer exalts Fern and the race as a whole. The Jewish cantor’s singing mirrors the situations that the narrator experiences with Fern. His first sight of Fern makes him forget his struggles, much in the same way the words of the cantor trivializes the narrator’s problems. The cantor then causes the narrator to be drawn to Fern. The final mention of the cantor comes after the narrator presents the illusion of sex with Fern. The cantor’s voice cracks. The illusion of the perfection of Fern is shattered. This shatters any illusion of the lesser races being exalted above the dominant race.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Adebayo Williams against Marxist critics of Soyinka.

Adebayo Williams’ analysis of Death and The King’s Horseman seems to be at odds with that of several Marxist critics. Williams opens his piece with formalists praising almost every aspect of the piece. However, another critic, namely Biodun Jeyifo, states that the beauty of the poem is really just an instrument to lull us into viewing the situation from Soyinka’s point of view. Williams then proceeds to detail the clash of Western imperialism, and the ignorance of the imperialists, and the conquered people and their traditions.
Williams mentions that the marketplace is a place of particular reverence in the Yoruba culture because much of what happens as a part of Yoruba society happens in the marketplace. It makes sense that Elesin would travel through the marketplace on his way to his ritual suicide simply because it was that much apart of Yoruba culture.
According to Williams, Elesin’s relatively minor role as the king’s horseman is elevated due to the nature and time of his taking part in this tradition. The success or failure of him to perform the ritual is indicative of the success or failure of the entire culture.
Olunde, Elesin’s son, is portrayed in this article as the voice of reason, having been raised in the traditional Yoruba culture then being sent to the west for school. His voice critiques the entire Western imperial world, saying that they do not respect things that they do not understand. He is westernized yet not arrogant like the Pilkings. Olunde then commits suicide in an attempt to bring about some normalcy, proving that he still honors the traditions of his society.
Williams details the left’s thoughts on Olunde’s suicide as an action that was a product of a “reactionary culture and a flagrantly feudalistic ethos” (p.191). Feudalism plays a big role in Jeyifo’s argument against Soyinka. Jeyifo basically says that Soyinka supports the feudal system that feeds the bourgeoisies (the king) of the Yoruba society. Williams acknowledges Jeyifo’s point, but also mentions that this form of suicide and accompanying the king to the afterlife to bring back order to the cosmos is, in fact, beneficial to the entire society, not just the bourgeoisie.

Adebayo Williams: Ritual and the Political Unconscious

In my opinion, this article attempts to reconcile Soyinka's contention that Death and the King's Horseman is not political with the unyielding reality that such a work cannot possibly escape from some level of political analysis. Essentially, Williams delineates these three methods to examine this play politically: the conservative approach, a leftist/Marxist approach, and a "middle ground" which Williams appears to endorse. I think his analysis is correct, if for no other reason than it most closely agrees to what Soyinka intended.
Leftist criticism opposes the ideology of this play because it reinforces the political structures present in Yoruba society. The ruling classes have created the rituals of suicide and use them to perpetuate the myth of royal immortality (Williams, 192). According to Williams, the play "does provide metaphysical rationalization for a patriarchal and feudalist code", and this gives some merit to a Marxist reading (193). However, this kind of reading is incomplete. While a Marxist approach often makes use of class struggle as a tool for analysis, this must be balanced with a look at the utopian elements in the work. The rituals in Death and King's Horseman go beyond class—they unite the entire culture as a whole (193). On the other hand, Williams notes that a conservative approach with a "fixation on the utopian impulse" goes too far in the opposite direction (194). The ritualistic values may extend past class differences but they are still unique cultural phenomena. Additionally, class differences still do exist in the real world and in every culture—this utopia is only of the afterlife.
Given the failure of these approaches, Williams describes a superior approach which he is what he claims Soyinka accomplished in this play. Rather than attempt to beautify the admittedly imperfect Yoruba culture or side with the Europeans, Soyinka "couterpose[d] the dominant culture of the ancient Oyo kingdom against the equally hegemonic culture of the white invaders" (194). In other words, Soyinka made a political stance by not taking sides at all. This falls in line with the authors stated belief that a "clash of cultures" implies cultural superiority—something he finds abhorrent (188). This is also echoed in the words of Olunde, who challenges the Western notion that African civilization is inferior, while not unduly promoting it. If there was a political analysis that Soyinka would agree with, I think this would be it.

Williams article- Russ W.

Williams writes that, “In this play, Yorinka manages to capture the power and glory of the ancient Yoruba state in its dying moment.” He argues that this play contributes to the political consciousness of people who share a concern for those repressed due to colonization of African countries. Yorinka is able to expose the “cultural chauvinism” of Western society through his various depictions in the play. Williams writes that the Western conception of ritual is often considered primitive, and it is thus characterized in a negative way. Yorinka is able to validate these cultural traditions by illustrating the complex cultural motives they carry, and florid language with which he describes them.

However, the depiction of the ‘clash of cultures ‘ is not a typical one. For example, something that would be considered an imposition of Western ideals (such as the inclusion of a marketplace) It is not attributed to Western society but to the Yoruba culture. Similarly, Yorinka doesn’t paint the picture of a peaceful tribe and the evil English as a simple, reductive tale of oppositional political forces. Neither is purely admonished or absolved for their actions in the play, and it is this level of complexity and truth that strikes the public so hard. This work served as a zeitgeist for the political consciousness of the African people and became pivotal for stimulating political action and as a self-reflexive ideal.

Williams' Criticsim of Soyinka's-"Death and The Kings Horseman"

Adebayo Williams claims in his criticism of Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman that Elesin’s suicide is expected to induce esteem for his besieged culture, causing his role in the story to take on a major historical and political burden. Williams explores the historical and political implications of Elesin’s suicide by exposing the universal fear of death that undermines both classes and cultures. Williams’ ultimately claims that Olunde, Elesin’s son, becomes “the ideological spokesman for the playwright, who is obviously in profound sympathy with the young man’s aspirations.”(190) I believe by showing that death is universal and that Elesin’s ritual is transforms death into an ally of the rulers, Williams is entitled to his claim that the political unconscious behind Elesin’s ritual is the “ideological apparatus of the state,” that it is beneficial for the entire society.
Williams first establishes that “[d]eath become the distinguished scourge and ultimate terror of the ruling class: unconquerable…,” (192) constructing the significance of Elesin’s ritual for the upper class. Williams then shows how Elesin’s honoring of the kings through suicide is socially symbolic and important. Williams claims that Elesin’s role is a “socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the painful reality of death for the ruling class,”(193) that according to Althusser is an insidious strategy of survival for the rulers. Then Williams show that death transverses class lines by stating that “it is not just the dominant class that fears death.”(193) This supports Williams’ claim that Althusser is right insofar as this particular maneuver (Elesin’s ritual) is an essential mystification, ultimately beneficial to the entire society. Like Williams states, Elesin’s consciousness has been shaped by his material and political circumstances. Because he is hesitant to embrace his role and accompany the king in death Elesin demonstrates the material and political circumstances that cause him to value his life. However, like Williams, I believe that the ritual that honors the ruling class is ultimately beneficial for the entire society because of the political unconscious underlying it. Williams claims it is a “necessary” mystification that strengthens the culture and society as a whole. Thus, while the playwright is sympathetic towards the aspirations of the Olunde, I believe that he is as sympathetic to Elesin. Because Elesin enjoys a good life as a horseman to the king, his material circumstances, his sacrifice for the benefit of the entire culture is sympathized throughout the text. Because death is a supra-class phenomenon, the cultural implications of Elesin’s ritual are greater than the political ones. Thus, while I agree with Williams that the ritual is a socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the reality of death for the ruling class, I believe that benefit for the entire culture is more valued in the play. Further, because of the emphasis on Elesin’s necessary sacrifice, I believe that the playwright is as sympathetic toward Elesin as he is towards the aspiration of Olunde.

Being Pathetic in Williams' "Ritual and the Political Unconscious"

I found Williams’ argument that “Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority (188)” simply fascinating because of the amount of double oppression seen in the play, but was even more intrigued by the reasons that Williams gave for support. Most interesting to me was the idea that “in its dying moment, the empire can only produce an Elesin. (190)” Williams goes on to belittle Elesin to display the indecisiveness of the character. Describing him as pathetic allows the reader of the essay to understand the generality of a culture that has and is being slowly colonized and stripped of identity.

By showing the history of the tribe through such a “pathetic” character, Soyinka is demonstrating the lack of certainty in the outcome of tribal struggles in the mind of Elesin and his own mind. As Williams says, “the playwright is an unabashed horseman of a besieged culture fighting a desperate battle against the cultural ‘other’. (194)” Although Soyinka is clearly showing the consequences of westernization of a feudal tribal system, Williams believes that Soyinka is uncertain about the true identification of the tribe. Having the main character be so pathetic, uncertain, and lost between the “inequities of the traditional hierarchy” and “realizing that the culture he was defending had already succumbed to… history (194)” shows the author’s own internal struggle. The only saving grace for Soyinka, and what Williams calls “the most sensitively drawn character in the play (190)”, is Olunde. Williams, and I tend to agree, contends that Olunde’s education and time spent with the colonizers give him a better perspective on which base the “inequities” and his ruined culture’s pros and cons.

Because of his ties to the British and the tribe, Olunde’s comments to Mrs. Pilkings, his disowning of his inept father, and his suicide carry much more weight. Although Williams states the contrary, I believe this is Olunde accepting the “inequities of the traditional hierarchy.” Olunde becomes the defender for the tribe and its traditions, whereas his shamed father metaphorically becomes the acceptance of resignation to a higher oppressor.

Cultural 'Other' in "Ritual and the Political Unconscious"

Adebayo Williams criticism of Wole Soyinka’s story “Death and the King’s Horseman”, attempts to highlight the “arrogance and cultural chauvinism of Western imperialism” (188). In doing so, Williams states that “Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority” (188). After reading Donald Hall’s article on Postcolonial Theory and Race in his book Literary and Cultural Theory this notion takes on a new and fresh meaning. Here, Hall describes the issue of ‘the other’ when making a race or postcolonial analysis. Continuing this theme throughout his analysis, Williams describes “Death and the King’s Horseman” as being a “besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural ‘other’” (194). For this story, the battle lies between the Yoruba culture and that of the Westernized world. This clash of cultures for Williams lies in the history and tradition of these opposing societies. For the Yoruba tribe, the ceremonial suicide serves as a passage, allowing the King guidance into the afterworld. Designated as the guide, Elesin is responsible for maintaining and preserving the socioeconomic culture of the Yoruba tribe.
Without full participation of this ritual, the Yoruba culture and social universe will be thrown out of tilt. But it is this same ritual that Pilkings and other westerners find to be unnecessary and absurd. In fact, as the ritual begins to come full circle, it is interrupted by Pilkings and other ‘Westerners’. Williams would label this intrusion as the arrogance of Western assumptions, as Pilkings and the others do not understand the cultural importance and implications of the ritual. Like most, Pilkings has come to accept Westernized ideals of death, in that it is scary and terrifying. While for Elesin and the Yoruba community, this ritual is both a necessity and an honor. Still, as Williams accurately analyzes the issue of ‘the other’ in relation to the opposing cultures, I feel as if a few key elements went missing. Williams states that this story represents “the return of the repressed” (187). With that said, I feel as both Jane and the African officer were both being suppressed by the force of Pilkings. Ultimately, while this is a story of the repressed returning to fame, I feel as if individuals remained idle in their oppressed lifestyle. I would have liked Williams to address these relationships when analyzing both the ritual and the issue of ‘the other’.

Analysis of Adebayo WIlliam's "Ritual and the Political Unconcious" by Eric Vaughn

Considering the fact that I attend an all male college founded on traditions, I have a different understanding of the ways that traditions are kept and left behind. These ritualistic activities unite the college under a common ground that ultimately sets us apart from other places and that is why most of us go here. We don’t want to be away from women but something here draws us in. The traditions become a romanticized part of our lives that we are proud of. Regardless of wether or not this sort of pride is bad or not, it is difficult to not feel some extent of it.

Weighing the impact of these scholastic traditions, I can only imagine the importance of traditions of a society--a particular group of peoples’ way of life. In Adebayo Williams’ analytic post-colonial critic of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Williams stresses the importance of ritual suicide in the Yoruba way of life. This ritual suicide is used to guide the deceased Yoruba King in the afterlife. If the King is left unattended he wanders around causing harm and destruction to the Yoruba people. So for their safety, the King’s Horseman must commit ritual suicide. The act is considered an honorable deed. However, Williams notes the flaws of other people to recognize this culture as its own. The Englishmen in the play think the idea is silly and foolish when the Englishmen themselves are no better.

Williams mentions how the Yoruba market is highly valued in their society, to the extent of being like heaven. This is especially true at nighttime because the Yoruba people believe there is a greater spiritual presence at this time. However, the term heaven for Yoruba has a different significance than in English Christianity. For English Christian minds, heaven is a holy place of light and innocence whereas the Yoruba heaven is a place where all spirits dwell. Their highest spiritual time is at night, but English see nighttime as a high spiritual time for demonic activity. These cultural misunderstandings compose all of the problems in the play and as well as the interpretations of it.

Williams stresses the lack of understanding for the Yoruba way of life by the English in the play. He makes a good point supporting the common understanding that Soyinka’s main point is undisputedly proven that oppressing cultures often do not take the time to understand or appreciate other people’s lifestyles. They simply impose their own. Williams supports this point by recognizing Olunde’s condemnation of the English not taking the time to understand the Yoruba people as well as contempt for his father not completing his ritual suicide. Olunde is essentially between both worlds. He has taken the time to understand the English way of life for four years but has not forgotten his own.

Missing Links in "Ritual and the Political Unconscious"

Adebayo Williams’ critical analysis of Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman” delves into the practice of the sacred suicide ritual of the Yoruba tribe and the political power it holds in regards to the preservation of the cultural hegemony present in the African culture. Williams’ analysis looks at many key components of the play such as the role of Olunde, the ritual’s importance to the culture and Elesin’s transformation from “minor cultural functionary” into a “world-historic role”, just to name a few. However, I believe the absence of the “other”, the other being the colonizer, in his analysis overlooks a significant interpretation that deals directly with ritual.
The presence of Piklings, Jane and the officers in the story add another dimension to the story’s central theme. The absence of their role in Williams’ analysis, besides the few lines on page 191, forces me to believe that he does not think their role in the play, in regards to ritual, were important. As a post-colonial critic, having the colonizer/colonized dichotomy adds concreteness to a critique. Why weren't the Piklings and Jane scene, where they were dressed in the ritual garb a analyzed? For Williams' to analyze the ritual so much in his piece and not mention the "other's" ignorance of the Yoruba culture seems odd. Also, why was the African officer who did not practice the rituals of the Yoruba but respected them nonetheless absent from the analysis? His presence showed that not all Africans believed in the rituals, but they did respect them. The presence of the whites and the African officer should have been analyzed. I just feel that if there I going to be a post-colonial analysis of the ritual, these key components should be discussed or at leas mentioned.

Analysis of Adebayo Williams' "Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King's Horseman"

Many critics have voiced their opinions of the message behind Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman.” It is presented that even though Soyinka’s work is filled with lyrical grace, beauty, and depth, it attempts to, according to Biodun Jeyifo, make us accept Soyinka’s revolutionary worldview. Adebayo Williams, on the other hand, tends to disagree: “By counterposing the notion of honor in ancient Yoruba kingdom […] against the cynical presumptions and calculations of the colonial officials, Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority” (Williams 188). Williams, who is exploring the role that ritual plays within the play, argues that Soyinka is attempting to disable the idea of cultural superiority. I tend to agree with this notion more so than others because of not only the actual contrasting beliefs presented within the story, but also because of the language change within the first 2 acts. A new way of presenting dialogue becomes evident because of the way characters interact; within the first act, the dialogue between Elesin and others (including the telling of the story of the Not-I bird) is very lyrical and metric, as opposed to the interrupting and fast-paced nature of the dialogue in act ii.

Within Williams’ response to Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman,” elements of race analysis appear when discussing the role of Elesin: “In ‘Death and the King’s Horseman,’ then, the playwright is an unabashed horseman (“Elesin” in the Yoruba language) of a besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural ‘other’” (Williams 194). Here, Williams establishes the dynamic of “us” and “them,” where the Yoruba represent the “us” and the invading, opposing British represent “them.” Such an analysis proves to be very relevant because of how Williams views the role of the ritual within the play. This is best seen with the character of Olunde, according to Williams, because he has to step up and take the place of his father, Elesin, who is a “critically misendowed character” (Williams 190). By Olunde being an educated character, his death becomes yet another multi-leveled symbolic act that deals with cultural and racial superiority that is present throughout the play.

The Role of Ritual in the Yoruba Tribe: A Reaction to the Article by Adebayo Williams

Throughout Adebayo Williams' article, I strove to understand exactly what he meant by the phrase "political unconscious." Does this refer to the ways in which the Yoruba culture operates or is it a deeper meditation on the nature of ritual as a means of defining a culture's political ideals? Within the context of Death and the King's Horseman, there is a definite connection between the ritual, of which Elesin is a part, and the greater political concerns of the tribe. To the Yoruba people, the ritual constitutes the assured rest of the spirit of their fallen king. Elesin is to act as a guide to the king's spirit, allowing him to safely begin his eternal rest in the afterlife. As it is, the ritual demands the Horseman's life in return for a restful conscience for the tribe. Within the spectrum of the tribe itself, the struggle between ritual and politics is one of necessity. The political well-being of the culture depends on the fulfillment of this ritual. Without it, the foundations of their society are challenged. As Williams says: "A political unconscious always coexists uneasily with even the most apparently innocent manifestations of a people's collective consciousness" (Williams, 193). The fact that this ritual is driven by necessity rather than solely by custom suggests a potential for internal, not to mention external, concerns.

Considering the power that is given by the Yoruba people to this most important of ceremonies, the external intrusion by the colonial forces constitutes not only a challenge to their culture, but also to the very well-being of the Yoruba political structure. Such colonial conflict in the context of this play shows the results of a clash between two political consciousnesses. The external force, being the British, embraces the political ideals of life and the perpetuation of freedom. To them, the ritual of the Yoruba tribe cannot be reconciled with what they believe are universal human views of morality. Soyinka, while he may reject the idea of categorizing his play as an overtly colonial text, is still commenting on the political struggles between differing cultures. What one culture may view as an ignorant and pagan practice is, for another culture, the means of setting their minds at ease and allowing their tribe to function normally. The clash of political consciousnesses is inevitable in the colonial setting. When cultures of opposing values and customs come into contact, there is likely to be some manner of dissent or upheaval over the credence of the various practices. Soyinka examines the political consciousness of the Yoruba people from a metaphysical standpoint but nevertheless exposes the inherent issues resulting from the colonial occupation at the hands of the British.

Williams and the Young Post-Colonial Theorist

I admit, I know very little about post-colonial, race, and ethnicity theory. The only expert work I have read on these theoretical topics comes from our Donald Hall textbook Literary and Cultural Theory. That stated, I felt that Adebayo Williams’ criticism “Ritual and the Political Unconscious” struck me as a great example of post-colonial theory for a young, inexperienced theorist. Williams’ criticism regarded many of Hall’s post-colonial principles, including acknowledging that the “hegemony of the empire had long ago been fissured…by the antagonistic supplied by the conquering invaders” (190), regarding Elesin’s struggle to perform ritual sacrifice as a metaphor for “what is going on between the indigenous culture and the alien culture” (188), as well as a fairly in-depth analysis of certain aspects of the culture of Yoruba. These examples uphold principles 1, 2, and 5 of Hall’s broad definition of post-colonial, race, and ethnicity analysis.
However, most important in the essay that makes it a true post-colonial criticism is that it not only regards the dominance of one group over another in the literature but also it exposes and attacks the dominance of one ideology over another in the realm of literary criticism. Williams’ essay, in fact, performs the same role as Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman by exposing the negatives of ideological or political dominance. Williams applies Frederic Jameson’s critique of Marxism—“to restore the utopian dimension to the work of art” (193)—to explain how previous attitudes towards ritual and religious practices in colonial, “Eurocentric” circles are contradictory (195). To Williams, Soyinka is “an unabashed horseman (‘Elesin’ in the Yoruba language) of a besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural ‘other’” (194). Williams fights those critics who have been “insisting on the decadent and oppressive nature of the indigenous culture” (195) by explaining that the sacrifice is commonly viewed as a “symbolic conquest of death itself” (192), and that one culture “insists upon forcing its hardware its hardware on another culture without making a commensurate purchase in return” (188-189). This upholds Hall principle #4 in which the critic “explores a text’s characterizations…in order to pinpoint the roles and social values attributed to the groups it portrays” (Hall 271).

Taking the Moral High Ground from the West

Olunde, the son of Elesin in Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman”, takes a powerful and convincing stance against western colonialism of his country. Adebayo Williams, in his article titled “Ritual and the Political Unconscious”, describes him as “a perfect match and counterfoil to the arrogance and chauvinism of the colonial administrators” (191). This aspect of his persona is best demonstrated in the play by his conversation with Jane Pilkings during the ball.
In arguing with Jane about the ceremonial suicide about to occur with his father, Elesin, Olunde manages not so much to justify the savage customs of his culture but to point out the savage and immoral customs of western culture and in doing so appears to the reader to gain the moral high ground against the colonial administrators. Jane touts the imperialism of Great Britain in Olunde’s country as a positive thing and cites their prevention of his father’s ritual suicide as evidence to the morality of the West and the savagery of his nation that they wish to eradicate by their involvement. Olunde is quick to respond with “Is that worse than mass suicide? Mrs. Pilkings, what do you call what those young men are sent to do by their generals in this war [WWII]? Of course you have also mastered the art of calling things by names which don’t remotely describe them” (44). He implies that the West is no less if not more savage than his own nation based on the large scale war that is raging throughout Europe.
Olunde also serves as a foil to the positive view of western imperialism by citing their arrogance and disrespect for his culture. The interruption of their sacred ritual of Elesin’s suicide and the desecration of an ancestral mask for the sake of Mr. Pilking’s costume are two such examples. “No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand” (41). Olunde is pointing to the arrogance of the western imperialists who have taken control of his country. He does not see their involvement and their intervention, no matter how good their intentions are, as a positive impact on his country and he continues to oppose them throughout the play.

Response to Adebayo Williams

First off, I would like to begin by saying how I find it intriguing that Adebayo Williams begins his criticism by establishing a universal belief that the form of the play is noteworthy, “Critics with a formalist bias have hailed its superb characterization, its haunting beauty, and above all its lyrical grandeur…” (Williams 187). But Williams does not stop there, he goes on to discuss how another critic, Biodun Jeyifo, also recognizes the splendor of the form, but finds it lacking equality with the content. Although the representation of post-colonial, oppressive themes may have been unintended, the form works to facilitate comprehension and discussion these themes even further.

Williams goes on to discuss the influence of Western culture on a traditional African society, “Death and the King’s Horseman represents an attempt to confront on a creative level the arrogance and cultural chauvinism of Western imperialism... Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority” (Williams 188). This claim made be Williams is certainly agreeable, but with the specific criticism that he is going against, one would assume that he would provide backing for it. For instance, although he does cite the conversation between Olunde and Mrs. Pilkings, there is a comparison of culture within the dialogue. Trying to prove that the power of the oppressor is indeed a sham, responds to Mrs. Pilkings statement of “The ship had to be blown up because it had become dangerous to the other ships, even to the city itself. Hundreds of the coastal population would have died,” by responding with, “I don’t find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring” (Suyinka 41-42). While the action of the captain is considered honorable, as he is on the side of the oppressor, Elesin’s suicide for the sake of the village from evil spirits is considered abominable by the imperialists.

There are also a couple of other failings within the article that one cannot help but noticing. I found it particularly aggravating that the author, Williams, kept trying to get into the head of Soyinka or explain his motives when Soyinka has clearly stated, whether done factually or to simply avoid conflict, the play is meant to be interpreted from a metaphysical standpoint and not political. Yet, it is precisely politics and authorial intent that Williams attempts to use within his article. Discussing Soyinka’s possibility of “[surmounting] the overwhelming historical and social” opposition, Williams states, “That the playwright fails to recognize this fact demonstrates the extent to which his own imagination has been colored by the lingering efficacy of the ideological apparatus of the old Yoruba state” (Williams 190). By writing this play, one about cultural conflict and oppression, Soyinka does exactly that. He creates a beautifully written play that captures that attention of the audience and exposes them to the specific themes. To make this statement, it only takes away from the validity of Williams’ previous claims.

Something interesting that Williams and not many other critics that we have read so far chooses to do is to explicitly identify the theories in which he is going about his criticism so that his audience has a better understanding as to the impetus for his claims. Williams states “It is paradoxical that a Marxist critic should slip in the bourgeois notion that history and literature are no more than the study of the acts of great men. A genuinely materialist aesthetics must not be fixated on great personalities” (Williams 190). This insight into theory seems to immensely strengthen his argument against critics like Jeyufi, who seem to focus on the specific historical and economical aspect of Soyinka’s work. By negating their work, especially on the basis of theory in which they make their claims, Williams solidifies his own.

Race Criticism of "Fern" by Jean Toomer

There are many ways to critique elements of Fern; one of the most prominent themes within the story is the way that race and ethnicity are presented. At first glance, it seems that Blacks are the people who are focused upon within the story for longing after Fern: "A young Negro, once, was looking at her, spellbound from the road. A white man passing in a buggy had to flick him with his whip if he was to get by without running over him" (Toomer 17). Here, we see that Fern appeals to Black men, but White men pay her no attention. One way of interpreting this is that Black men are not mentally strong enough to resist the temptation and the appeal that Fern represents, while White men feel no urge at all to give into Fern's hypnotic gaze. It can also be interpreted that Fern has qualities that only Black men find desirable. With both of these interpretations, it is presented that Blacks and other races of men (specifically Whites) are different. These Black men, once they "had" Fern, also felt an obligation to her, which is based on the assumption that all men discussed are Black: "And it is black folks whom I have been talking about thus far. What White men thought of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy. They let her alone" (17). This reaffirms that all of the men mentioned within the first part of the story, the men who took her and received no joy from it, the men who then felt lifetime obligations to her, and the men who were everlastingly bringing their bodies to her, are Black. With all of this, we see that Fern, who is presented to have no remarkable appeal at all besides her physical traits, is captivating to Blacks.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Language and Ambiguity as Expressions of Race and Ethnicity in Jean Toomer's "Fern"

In examining "Fern" through a race/ethnicity perspective, I noticed several textual nuances in Toomer's writing which, under closer examination, seem to strengthen subtle themes of race and ethnicity.
First, let me address the deliberate ambiguity which Toomer uses to describe potential experiences revolving around the attraction of Fern's eyes. Consider the following quote:

"Anyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes. If you walked up Dixie Pike most any time of day...or maybe they gazed at the gray cabin on the knoll...perhaps they followed a cow...If it were dusk, then they'd wait for the search-light of the evening train...Like her face, the whole countryside seemed to flow into her eyes."

At first glance, I was struck by the unusual and ambiguous way in which the author choses to describe the effect Fern's eyes seem to have on her surrounding environment and furthermore found myself almost amused by the various "excuses" men could have for justifying their gradual attraction to Fern. However, a race/ethnicity reading of these peculiarities may shed some light. One of racism's greatest stereotypes is the idea that some ethnicities, particular African Americans, are, as a result of their inferior state, lacking in culture and civilization that Whites enjoy. This lack of culture was purported to imply that African Americans were to be more readily associated with the barbaric and the natural than with human society. Therefore, my point is that the portrayal of Fern as a mere aspect of nature is ultimately the greatest form of discrimination, completely separating her from humanity and displaying her as purely a function of natural forms. The amusing ambiguity in which Fern is handled by all (except perhaps the narrator after he becomes involved in the plot) seems to be a demonstration of the degree of separation Fern suffers from the influences of the interests of men and concerns of ethnicity.

Race Analysis: Jean Toomer's "Fern"

The ambiguity of the language in "Fern" makes any sort of absolute analysis seem difficult to do. The woman, Fern, with whom the narrator is obsessed, is the color of "soft cream foam," is a "creamy brown color." She isn't just "black," or "dark-skinned." Toomer's intentions escape me, but I'll guess: I think that maybe Fern is supposed to represent some sort of symbolic/metaphoric representation of transcendence across the chasm that exists between whites and blacks, a sort of bridge across an apparently (as the story suggests) uncrossable cultural expanse. The narrator describes the difference in apprehension of Fern between white and black men: " folks were made to mate. And it is black folks whom I have been talking about thus far. What white men thought of Fern I can only arrive at by analogy. They let her alone." Fern is seen as an object by black men in the story. They "give" their bodies to her. But the narrator suggests that Fern is more, should be more: "Could men in Washington, Chicago, or New York, more than men of Georgia, bring her something left vacant by the bestowal of their bodies? You and I who know men in these cities will have to say, they could not." There is something more to Fern, but her color prevents anyone from noticing it. The story suggests that color shrouds any sort of subjective value. Her probably barely perceptible darker shade is enough to prevent anyone from looking any deeper than her skin. The narrator for some reason has an outside perspective--he can see in Fern what others can't--and the story recounts his struggle to understand what, exactly, it is about Fern that is so attractive, what it is about the men attracted to her that stops them from seeing it.

Racism in "Fern" by Jean Toomer

It is interesting that within the poem/short story by Toomer, there is such a large amount of racially associated references, metaphors, and specific words. After describing how men mistake Fern for be easy, the narrator states, "That the sexes were made to mate is the practice of the South. Particularly, black folks were made to mate. And it is black folks who I have been talking about thus far. What white men thought of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy. They let her alone" (Toomer 17). This statement is particularly intriguing because it makes reference to old slave practices of the South, where slaveholders would choose and buy slaves based upon their physiology for labor and reproductive capabilities. Mentioning this within the story seems to play on the fact that blacks of the South have retained some of the original qualities for which they were first chosen by to live in the area. Although it keeps the white man separate, as the last couple sentences of the previous passage indicate, there is still a clear overlap of culture.

Unveiling of Racial Boundaries in Jean Toomer's "Fern"

Throughout the story of “Fern”, the issue of race, while prevalent throughout, remains ambiguous and uncertain. It was after reading Donald Hall’s chapter on Race Analysis from his book titled Literary and Cultural Theory that the issue of race took on a distinct connotation. The narrator of the story, while presumably a black man, casts himself in an array of lights among his quest for love. Fern is the girl of his dreams, and for the narrator “love is not a thing like prejudice which can be bettered by the changes of town” (18). Here he recognizes that he is unable to escape the emotional and psychological torment of Fern. Still, coming at a time of much disparity and racial hatred, our narrator seems to be unaffected by this in anyway. As previously stated, the narrator casts and portrays himself to be a black man throughout much of the story. But it comes towards the latter half that the narrator rises above racial boundaries and that of the Georgia sky. “In fact, there was talk of making me leave town” he says, “but they never did. They kept a watch out for me, though. Shortly after, I came back North” (19). Almost in a subconscious manner, the narrator acknowledges the racial tension within the town and what betterment is thought to come from segregation. He is a black man in the South, risking his life and freedom for the one thing he idolizes, Fern. This signifies a type of ignorance and superiority, not only over the individuals watching Fern, but also, race and segregation as a whole. Painting himself as a free individual, the narrator appears to have traveled from the North to the South in search of finding Fern. Yet, it was after feeling the eyes of the southerners that he decided to go back North. Perhaps fearing the possibility of slavery or racial oppression, the narrator seems to become aware of his unwelcoming persona. It seems as if his imagination had taken over, and in a sense, worn a veil of imaginary love that blurred and lost sight of all racial boundaries. It was ultimately the talk of the town and those threatening his liberty that caused for the veil to be dropped. Thus, the narrator becomes lost in idolized visions of love, and in doing so, gains an understanding for racial boundaries. Ultimately, the narrator trusts in his own philosophy that prejudice can be bettered by the changes of the town.

Love, Race, and Prejudice in Toomer's "Fern"

Until the end of the first paragraph when the narrator reveals that he has been referring to black men’s pursuit of Fern, Fern’s race as well as her culture remain ambiguous and unimportant. Thereafter the narrator states that “[a]nyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes.”( 17) This serves to nullify the importance of race when observing Fern, similar to the subverting of race that is constituted by the narrator’s claim “[l]ike her face, the whole countryside seemed to flow into her eyes.”(17) Along with the narrator’s outright statement that he is referring to black men’s pursuit of Fern, the revelation that “whole countryside” flowed into her eyes reveals Fern’s oblivious of race when selecting a suitor.
An analogy that the narrator establishes is on page 18 when he claims “that love is not a thing like prejudice which can be bettered by changes of town.” Like love, race is not a thing like prejudice which can bettered by changes of town, revealing an insight into Fern’s world. This shows that Fern is oblivious to the implications that her race will have on her happiness. The fact that her eye’s “desire nothing” demonstrates the limitations that Fern’s race has on her pursuit of happiness. When walking with the narrator Fern asks “[d]oesn’t it make you mad? […] she meant the row of petty gossiping people[…]she meant the world.”(19) This reveals the contempt Fern has for her society that has structured value of race. Thus, through the analogy that associates love and race as things that can’t be bettered by changes of town, the narrator reveals Fern’s devaluation of the implications race. Ultimately it is Fern’s obliviousness to race that leaves her taking the countryside into her eyes; her eyes that have and see no racial implications whatsoever. Through the narrator’s elaboration of the importance of race that seems to have no insinuations for Fern, we’re able to see what Fern can’t see, that race can’t be bettered by a change of town.

Regionalism in "Fern"

“I was from the North and suspected of being prejudiced and stuck-up…some folks already thought that I was given to nosing around.”

Jean Toomer shows many of the different divides between Northern and Southern African-Americans through the speaker’s thoughts and interactions with Fern. The speaker is first faced with accusations of “being prejudiced and stuck-up” as if something was wrong which he needed to fix (17). The speaker feels the need to counter these accusations to destroy their judgments; however, the reader sees that his thoughts prove their attitudes correct, for the speaker asks, “What could I do for her” (18). He begins by stating that “love is not a thing like prejudice which can be bettered by changes of town”, implying that differing levels of prejudice exist towards Northern and Southern African-Americans (18). The speaker categorizes Southern white men as “more aggressive” and wanting to make a pretty African-American woman his concubine.

He feels that Northern men, particularly Northern African-American men, can do something for her. However, his own experience fails him, and he must return north with only a story and her full name. What results of this? An upholding of a Southern African-American feeling of dislike towards members of their own race geographically separated results of his failure. For causing her to faint, the speaker “got one or two ugly looks from town men (assumed to be African-American because each white man in the story is explicitly identified as a white man) who’d set themselves up to protect her” (19). Such attitudes, brought about through the speaker’s captivation of Fern, reflect many of the economic, cultural, and social divides between Northern and Southern African-Americans around 1920.

For the Love of Fern

"Men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman (16)."

A look at Toomer's Fern reveals a slanted approach to love. This love takes the form of a misguided infatuation, the sort most mothers warn their sons to avoid: "They became attached to her...(16)." It is our narrator who sets the stage and informs us that the men who find themselves head-over-heels for Fern, despite being put out by her, vow to do "some fine thing for her" all the while not letting her no it is them. Yet despite this seeming foolishness there is a hint of romanticism, for these calculated acts (sending her candy, a "magnificent something" for her wedding, buying a house and deed, etc.) are not to win her favor but to simply venerate her. Same goes for the gentleman in town "who'd set themselves up to protect her". This romanticism that surrounds Fern denotes some sort of chivalry in which these men feel that they must protect this damsel who is not necessarily in distress.

Empowerment in Toomer's "Fern"

Much like the narrator is trying to help Fern find her lost racial and spiritual identification, Toomer’s venture through the south may have been to accomplish relatively the same thing. Although much of racial reading seems to be about “oppressor and oppressed” relationships, I think that Toomer is attempting to empower the southern black person by helping reclaim an identification. After much oppression, which was continued through the original publishing date of Cane, Toomer, being a northern black man, came to the conclusion that racial similarity and identification with the Southern black man was unrecognizable. Throughout Fern there are many references to “loss”, “mystery”, and “sorrow”. The narrator tries to rectify all three. The reader begins to sense that the narrator fells as though he owes it to Fern to help her rediscover her identity, he describes it as “Something I would do for he. (19)” However, “Nothing ever really happened. (19)” The narrator learns nothing more than what he already knew. Toomer feels the same way. By being a nearly un-oppressed northern black man, he feels he owes it to his southern kin to help gain identity and soul. Much like the narrator however, Toomer discovers through trying to empower the Southern black man, the only thing they have in common any longer is a name.

The Unattainable Other: Whiteness and Desire in Jean Toomer's "Fern"

Descriptions of Fern's physical aspects are somewhat limited in the story. With the exception of numerous references to the poignant image of her eyes, the narrator limits our perception of Fern by concentrating on the idiosyncrasies which keep her aloof from the men who seek her. While detailed characterization of Fern is limited, an important aspect to note is her obviously mixed racial heritage. Her face is described as "soft cream foam," and image which brings to mind subtle lightness tinged with brown. This aspect of Fern is critical in examining this piece through a racial lens. When the narrator discusses men and their preoccupation with possessing and protecting Fern, he says "it is black folks whom I have been talking about thus far" (Toomer, 17). The fact that the narrator centers his initial observations on the reactions of black men connotes an underlying desire for the acquisition of the white female other. Fern is simultaneously among the black community and apart from it. Her skin color makes her desirable to black men in so far as she is able to fulfill the external facade of whiteness. Considering the historical context of this piece, it makes sense that Fern's race would make her more desirable to one specific race. For, as the narrator puts it: "What white men thought of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy. They let her alone" (17). The appeal of Fern to black men lies not only in her emotional separation from earthly concerns, but also in the racial separation brought about by her whiteness.

The Unattainable Other: Whiteness and Desire in Jean Toomer's

Undeniable Beauty: Race and Gender Analysis of Jean Toomer's "Fern"

Throughout the story of “Fern” the issue of race is always present. The thing about Fern however, is the fact that her beauty and presence were undeniable by either race, black or white. The story of Fern is written from a male’s perspective; in fact, the beauty of Fern has entranced the narrator of the story. “It makes no difference if you sit in the Pullman or the Jim Crow”(18); Fern’s beauty would overrun any man’s thought despite their race or beliefs. According to the narrator men and sex are inseparable, “...what thoughts would come to you—that is, after you’d finish with the thoughts that leap into men’s minds at the sight of a pretty woman who will not deny them”(18). In the story of “Fern” and the effect she had on men, race and gender are intertwined, or simply ignored. White men who once ignored her (17) and black men who became attached (16) both felt the presence of Fern and were unable to deny that beauty is undeniable no matter what race a person may be.

Race Analysis of the Narrator in Toomer's "Fern"

The narrator in "Fern" is an African-American male, but his perceived racial identity undergoes a number of changes as the story progresses. At the beginning of the story, he seems to connect only with people of his own race. His description of how people look at Fern is limited to "black folks", while "what white men thought of Fern" is less clear and can only be shown "by analogy" (17). We later learn that he feels somewhat isolated even from the black community, because he was "from the North and suspected of being prejudiced and stuck-up" (17). The interesting thing about this description is the fact that it would seem to apply specifically to wealthier, more formally educated people in general from the North—which would mostly be white folks. Thus even though the narrator is of the same race as the people in Fern's community, he is suspected of sharing too much in the white culture of the North. Finally, when his uncertainty regarding Fern reaches its climax and he asks his male readers for advice, he writes "it makes no difference if you sit in the Pullman or the Jim Crow" (18). Those who sat in the Pullman were white, and those in the Jim Crow were black. Here, the narrator appears to escape the limitations of race altogether—only to limit his writings to those of his same gender. Therefore I would argue that the racial signifier in this story (as it applies to the narrator) could certainly be described as "floating."

Light and dark: Reverse Binaries in Toomer's Fern (Race Analysis by Eric Vaughn)

The narrator seems to embrace elements of darkness by labeling Fern’s appearance like the shadow of a birds wing and she apparently has an aquiline or eagle like nose as well. This constant imagery of a bird, more specifically an eagle, is rather interesting because eagles are revered for their eyes and their ability to see far more than humans can. Interestingly the primary fascination of the narrator, in this text, is with Fern’s eyes. What they see and what they desire. In order to see, eyes require light and it is typically the light in a person’s eye that draws fascination. However, in this case, the narrator, as well as the other men who have pursued Fern, seem to be attracted to the absence of light, in a sense, because she isn’t really looking at anything and she doesn’t really appear to desire anything--especially nothing a person can offer her. The only sources of white or light are the white men who could never understand Fern, the darker images that she could be looking at, and the sunset. Although a sunset gets it beauty from the presence of light, one can also argue that the beauty of the sunset is from the gradual absence of light. Considering that the piece is written from an African American perspective, a switch in appreciation of the binary between light and dark that usually shows favor for light is an interesting aspect for race analysis.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Race Analysis of “the Other” in Jean Toomer’s “Fern”

In reading Donald Hall’s chapter on Postcolonial Theory and Race Analysis from his book Literary and Cultural Theory, I was most intrigued by the issue of “the other” in doing a race or postcolonial analysis of a text. Making the distinction between the majority and the minority is fundamental in doing a race analysis of a text. After reading the chapter, it was easy to see that elements of race permeate the text of “Fern”, especially the distinction between the whites and the other (African Americans).One such distinction is made in the men’s obsession, or lack of obsession with Fern, a beautiful young African American woman. Black men thought she was so beautiful because “A young negro was looking at her spellbound from the road” (17), but white men did not feel the same because “They let her alone” (17). White men make the distinction between the races by not feeling attraction to Fern because of her race. As an African American she is part of “the other” in a white-dominated society; therefore, they will have nothing to do with her even though she is beautiful.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cheng and Confirmation Bias

I found Cheng’s opening paragraph quite interesting in that he spent much of it subverting the generally accepted interpretation of “The Dead” by the institution. He accuses the academy of “defang(ing) and neutraliz(ing)” the message in Joyce’s work. He raises many good points in the second paragraph regarding the scope of who accepted his work and who did not. He found that younger scholars tended to be more sympathetic towards his view, while the older more established scholars, including one whom he respected very much, tended to shy away from his view. He noted that this was probably due to the fact that the older scholars did not care to see something that they have invested their lives to be questioned or possibly overturned. This brings us to a matter of interpretation and how we interpret a text. The older scholars wanted their ideas to be accepted because they had spent their lives getting to this point. The problem with this is it often has negative affects on good scholarship. The academy simply will not accept a position that threatens to disrupt what they have worked for. In my psychology classes this is referred to as confirmation bias. The older scholars are letting their age and perceive experience taint their interpretations of the texts.

on "Empire and Patriarchy in 'The Dead'"

Cheng's article is well-written and clear. In his introduction he explains exactly what it is he is aiming to achieve and how he plans on doing so. His use of quotations isn't overabundant, I don't think, and every one serves a purpose, every one supports his argument. His examination of the text is particular (or close) and insightful. Nothing seems generalized as his arguments are always reinforced with textual evidence. While I might disagree with his suppositions, I envy his ability to put together a very coherent and near-convincing argument. I am always hesitant to look too much into a text in order to unearth some maybe-there political or ideological commentary, so I'm sort of, I guess, put off by Cheng's claim about Gabriel's patriarchy and imperialism and how it all relates to the British Empire and Ireland (though the parallels certainly exist), but I found his ideas on Gabriel's epiphanic episode mostly sound and definitely interesting -- and also written coordinately eloquently. So, while he maybe goes a bit too far in instances such as his discussion of the Wellington Monument (that "phallic obelisk"), I think Cheng's essay is one of the best we've read so far and I hope that in the future we read articles more like it and less like some of the other dryer, more mechanical pieces we've encountered.

The Humanity of Gabriel's Epiphany In Vincent Cheng's Analysis

Vincent Cheng closes his analysis by addressing Gabriel's final epiphany, "for it is an act of emotional expansiveness, self-understanding, and generosity...The West and the snow in his final vision suggest all those repressed elements that Gabriel's ego has denied, sold out to, or been co-opted out of (362)." Every man wants to control his world or at the very last have a grasp on the situation. Gabriel as we see throughout "The Dead" does not really have any control and his feeble attempts such as trying to pay-off Lily were simply "culturally-encoded". Not that it excuses his demeanor but he doesn't know any better, and knows nothing else. His final epiphany, at least through my own experience, is one that many people have as they are "reaching their end". As they grow older they realize that the snow falls unprejudiced "upon all the living and the dead; they grow more liberal andmore considerate of their fellow man. It is epiphanies of this sort in which a real appreciation swells forth and the moment becomes bitter sweet. Who truly wishes to live forever?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cheng's-"Empire and Patriarchy in 'The Dead'"

I believe Cheng’s identification of Gabriel’s chauvinist and patriarchal tendencies is most clearly seen through the dialogue of Gabriel and Lilly. Knowing Lilly is a servant girl prior to her dialogue with Gabriel serves to subvert the hierarchy of power and patronage. However, as Cheng points out, Gabriel’s maleness is challenged by Lilly causing him to fall back on his social standing “thrusting a coin in her hand”(353). This implies the struggle for power as Gabriel represents the imperialist sovereignty while Lilly represents the voice of the oppressed. As Cheng identifies, Gabriel’s inclination to vacation to a powerful country in Europe exposes Gabriel’s desire for sovereignty, parallel to his trumping of Lilly’s statements by giving her a coin. Thus, I believe that Gabriel’s interactions with Lilly serve as a microcosm for Gabriel’s patriarchal and chauvinist tendencies. The identification of Lilly as a servant girl parallels the oppressed nation of Ireland while Gabriel’s continental desires parallel imperialist qualities that Miss Ivors identifies by calling him a “West Briton.” Further, Cheng’s interpretation of Gabriel’s preference of things continental such as galoshes and cycling in France reiterate Gabriel’s patriarchal desires that are ultimately paralleled by Gabriel’s money domineering of Lilly.

Portrayal of Gabriel Conroy in Vincent J. Cheng's "Empire and Patriarchy in 'The Dead'"

In "Empire and Patriarchy in 'The Dead,'" Vincent J. Cheng develops a theory as to why the character of Gabriel Conroy is viewed as sympathetic: "But he is no less sympathetic in spite of [...] Joyce's scrupulously searing and unflattering portrayal of him" (Joyce 349). Cheng is arguing that even though Gabriel is portrayed as a character that belittles and puts down others, the reader is still able to feel sympathetic towards his character. To defend his claim, Cheng uses the example of how Gabriel speaks of his wife's slow tendencies of getting dressed. This claims appears to be true specifically because of the way Gabriel interacts with Gretta. Because of his interaction with her, the dialogue that Gretta has with other characters (such as Aunt Kate) shows how pitiful Gabriel is viewed in the eyes of others. Cheng cites a conversation where Gretta tells that she has to wear Goloshes, saying that the next ensemble she'll have to wear is a diving suit. Through these interactions, according to Cheng, it is revealed how highly Gabriel thinks of himself and how lowly others think of him.

Vincent J. Cheng: "Empire and Patriarchy in 'The Dead'"

Initially, I was quite confused with Cheng’s article. I found the first half to be foggy, as I was unsure as to the direction in which Cheng was headed. However, as I concluded my reading, I grew found of Cheng’s appreciation and commitment throughout his research. For this, I will discuss the latter half of Cheng’s article, as it deals with the humbling revelation of Gabriel and his own ‘self-awareness’. When referring to the situation in the Conroy’s hotel room, Cheng states that this is a normal experience for couples, as “one partner is sexually frustrated to discover that the other is not ‘in the mood’”. Aware of his wife’s sexual passiveness, Gabriel, being the powerful and dominant male that he is, begins to grow tiresome of his ‘inaction’. It is here that Cheng’s reading of Gabriel comes full circle. At face value, Gabriel is a sympathetic and kind individual. Yet for Cheng, Gabriel is merely an oppressive tyrant who finds pleasure in his superiority over others. We see this through Gabriel’s constant interactions with not only Gretta, but also, his children and even Lily. Still, as Gabriel hears the news that has been hindering his intercourse, he is “shy of intruding on her grief, let it [hand] fall gently and walked quietly to the window”. Growing faint and confused, Gabriel in a sense is brought back down to earth. Humbled by the thought of his wife loving another man, Gabriel’s manhood and lifelong virtues have been thrown into question. He is unable to control the emotional distress of his wife, which is something that seems to trouble him physically. Gabriel is unaffected by the emotional turmoil of his wife, but rather, his own expansion of self-awareness that comes as a result. Ultimately for Cheng, Gabriel is a figure that represents the British Empire and their rule over far-flung countries. Just as European forces repressed the cultures and traditions of Irish society, so to does Gabriel through his ego and hyper-masculine qualities. Yet the realization that comes from the hand of his wife, allows for Gabriel’s acceptance of “emotional expansiveness, self-understanding, and generosity”, such characteristics that often lack in oppressive individuals.