Monday, January 23, 2012

Austen's Persuasive Style

Ahhh... Austen.

Yes, I mean Jane. I'm teaching 19th Century British Novel this semester, and I admit it's with a certain degree of nervousness that I even tackle the topic of Jane's work.

I don't want a horde of angry Janeites (yes, they have their own nickname) to descend upon me.

Austen is a consummate stylist. As everyone who knows anything about Jane knows, she is a master of free indirect discourse, as epitomized in the famous opening sentence of her very famous novel, Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Who are these people, who universally acknowledge such a truth? That is the question.

Scholars have argued that Austen uses free indirect discourse to avoid speaking "individually," as a way of communicating a sense of a communal voice. A kind of gossip, if you will.

And yet, the irony of her voice undercuts the commonality: she mocks those who acknowledge such universal truths, even as she purports to speak for them.

I'm teaching Austen's last, finished novel, Persuasion, and in it, she frequently elides the narratorial voice with the voice of the protagonist, Anne Elliot.

It's a strategy that Dostoevsky will use to similar effect over fifty years later in Crime and Punishment: we forget that we are reading a novel told in the third person, and instead feel that we've entered the mind of the protagonist her- or himself.

In Austen, though, we never lose the sense of ironic distance. Dostoevsky has a sympathy for his characters that is never fully articulated in Austen's novels. She views her protagonists' foibles coolly, with a full appreciation for the difficulties they create for themselves and for others--for the lack of self-awareness they demonstrate and for its ultimate consequences.

And yet, Austen is the novelist of community.

For me, more interesting than her protagonists are her minor or peripheral characters. Although her heroines may (occasionally) lack self-awareness or only come to it in the fullness of time, her novels are peopled with characters who nevertheless understand the value of kindness, particularly in the face of a general (and unfortunately widespread) social obtuseness.

They are not quite as ... mean, perhaps?... as her narrators, in the end.

A case in point: in Persuasion, the narrator describes Richard Musgrove, a son who has died at sea and who is mourned only by his mother (if at all):
the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (45-46)
In case you didn't get it the first time, Austen's narrator goes on to point her moral:
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him 'poor Richard,' been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. (46)
I remember the first time I read this, I actually said out loud, "Holy cow. Jane Austen just called someone a dick."

She did. A "thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick" who was entitled to nothing more than being called, well, "Dick," actually.

And yet, even though everyone knows he was a Dick and nothing more, everyone respects the feelings of his mother and acts as if he were "poor Richard."

In short, we laugh because Austen's narrator makes us laugh.

But then, out of compassion for someone who wants to believe that her son was and could have been something better, we stifle our laughter and admire the tact of Captain Wentworth who, after indulging a "transient" moment of self-amusement (noticeable to no one except the woman who loves him), becomes "perfectly collected and serious," sits down next to the bereaved mother and "enter[s] into a conversation with her, in a low voice, about her son, doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent's feelings" (58-59).

As "absurd" as her feelings and her perception of her son may be, there is always something very "real" about a mother's grief.

And, in Austen's world, ridicule should always give way to "the kindest consideration."

And this is what Austen often does, I think. She uses her narrator's free indirect discourse to tell the "truth" of a character or a situation, and then shades in the reactions of others--characters who know the "truth" but who are willing to acquiesce in a few white lies to spare someone's feelings--to suggest a larger moral, a greater "truth" about who we are and how we should treat each other.

The truth hurts in Austen's world and as Austen's narrator tells it. And yet, we can always lessen the sting for one another, if we will.

And in the end, Austen suggests, the best of us will.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Winter's Day

I have been sooooo busy for the past week or so, I've barely had time to breathe, much less blog.  I'm hoping that, after next week, things will settle down a bit.

I was on my blog last weekend, but it was only to embed html code on the page and on my webpages at the College.   It was an annoying and time-consuming task, but it is finally done.

Had a troll who had to be blocked.   After seven frickin' months, I finally gave up hoping they'd get a life.

Clearly, some have not heeded the wisdom of Siggy Flicker: "A man's rejection is God's protection."  Amen to that, Ms. Flicker.

In the meantime, I had a wonderful winter's day yesterday: it was snowing, so I was alternating between reading and shoveling.

I've been rereading a Kyrgyz epic, Manas.  It's an oral epic handed down from generation to generation by the Kyrgyz people.  It tells the story of their exile to the Altai Mountains (pictured to the right and below).

The Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan, is situated between Kazakhstan (to the north) and China (to the southeast).  It is bordered on the west by Uzbekistan and by Tajikistan in the southwest.

In the epic of Manas, a branch of the Kyrgyz settle in exile in the region of the Altai Mountains. (The mountain range that spans the borders between Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and China).

Nevertheless, they look forward to the day when a heroic leader will be born who will lead them back to reclaim their homeland.

Manas is the hero who will reunite the Kyrgyz people and their homeland: the Kyrgyz shout "Manas! Manas!" as they ride into battle.  Manas leads the exiled branch of the Kyrgyz back to their lands in the Alatau Mountains (pictured below).

No one knows how old the epic story of Manas actually is: the first written versions of it appear in the 16th century, but indications are that it is much older.

One of the problems involved in preserving oral traditions, obviously, is that they were never meant to be written.  In the case of the Kyrgyz epic, it has traditionally been performed by Manaschi, individuals who devote their entire lives to memorizing and publicly performing the (lengthy) epic.

The poem, in its written form, is a little over 500,000 lines.

The film, The Last Manaschi, depicts the life of one of the most famous Manaschi, Qaba Atabekov.

If you click on the following link, you can watch a child Manaschi performing an episode from Manas.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Match Point

I watched Siggy Flicker yesterday.


For those of you who don't know, Siggy Flicker is a matchmaker who has a show on VH-1 entitled, "Why Am I Still Single?"


As if Patti Stanger isn't bad enough.

I have several reactions (obviously). On the one hand, I'd really like to see somene finally answer the question "Why am I still single?" with some hard demographic facts.

The idea that women "shouldn't" be single has been around for a couple of centuries or so. And for well over a century, critics have been pointing out that, given that women have a longer lifespan and generally outnumber men, it is inevitable that quite a few women will live out a major portion of their lives "single."

The problem for me is the way in which it has always been chalked up to being the woman's fault--and never identified as a viable choice (and one that has a LOT of perks, in my opinion).

I'd really like to see a redefinition of the term "single," but I know I won't get that any day soon. The tendency to equate "single" with "unloved" is problematic to me--especially since I've seen marriages in which everyone would be better off "single" because there's definitely no love lost.

Okay, so there's that.

Then, there's the advice. It seemed to me to boil down to making women act like they've always been told to act: a little flirty, a little brainless, a little touchy-feeley.

In short, helpless and kinda silly.

Siggy Flicker told one woman to "twirl her hair" while on a date. Second-grade girls twirl their hair.

Of course, I may just be jealous because my hair is all of about 3 inches long at its longest. A serious twirling is only going to make me look like the lead singer of the 80's band Flock of Seagulls.

She told another one to "touch" her date repeatedly on the arm. Again, I can't speak for the rest of the world, but I kinda hate it when people do that.

My feeling is, "I'm listening. You don't need to touch me."

Funny story: I was once talking to someone and they did the "touch" thing and, because I wasn't expecting it, I actually jumped back. (My friends tease me that I have "personal space" issues: my sense of personal space extends 3 feet outward in every direction.)

Siggy Flicker also advised the person to "smile and laugh" a lot. I definitely can't argue with this one, only it seems to me that, if you're discussing Nietzsche's theory of eternal return (for example), twirling your hair and giggling may seem slightly inappropriate.

I guess my main objection is, why can't people just be themselves? If you're a bit balls-to-the-wall in your approach to life, it seems to me that people should just know that right up front, and if they have a problem with it, they can go on to lead a rich, full, happy life elsewhere.

If you haven't twirled your hair since second grade, I say, don't start now.

And if someone isn't genuinely making you laugh or smile, then I say, stare at them blankly. We human beings do each other no favors by pretending that we're more interesting or funny than we actually are.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for putting your best foot forward when you want to make a good impression. I wouldn't show up in my jammies for an interview, and similarly, I probably won't cuss like a sailor on a first date. (Although I reserve the right to do so, obviously, if circumstances warrant such a reaction.)

But I really object to the idea that anyone--man or woman--has to be something they're not in order to impress someone else.

That's not "finding love." It's called "bait and switch." And it's very annoying.

I dated someone once who claimed to have all kinds of interests. Actually, he still claims to have all kinds of interests, and interestingly, none of the interests he claimed to have when I was dating him are on his list anymore.

Really, though, he just liked to doze off on the couch and stare at the TV for hours on end. I don't know whether he thought that I thought he was all kinds of wonderful (he seemed to think I did), but I didn't.

I really resented slowly realizing that he wasn't ever actually going to want to go to a movie. Or travel. Or go anywhere, in fact.

If I knew then what I know now, I'd have never given him the time of day. Yeah, the first date or two was fun, but that wasn't who he really was and it didn't take long for me to figure that out. When I did, I felt like he had royally wasted my time--and the fact that I couldn't seem to convince him that I wasn't madly in love with him didn't make me any more pleased with the experience.

So when Siggy Flicker advises women to go on dates no fewer than two times a week, all I can think is, "Oh, HELL no."

I have things to do with my life, thank you.

Meeting people who are interesting and fun is, of course, interesting and fun. Meeting people just to meet people, on the off-chance that they'll somehow prove to be interesting and fun, is counterproductive.

If I don't love my life and find myself busy and interested and engaged by all that's going on in it, who will?

Energy and confidence and a love of life: now that's attractive.

Twirling your hair and patting people on the arm and giggling? Not so much.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I've been couch-ridden or bed-ridden with a nasty little cold for the past two days.

I tried to blast it with decongestants and a Naked Juice Mango Fruit Smoothie at the first sign of trouble, but I think all I did was make it mad.

Oh well.  If this is what fate has decreed for me this week, I'm just glad I was able to enjoy the holidays to the fullest.  And I'm glad it isn't happening next week, since I'll be incredibly busy and actually in charge of things.

As to where I picked this little bug up, I can't imagine.  Certainly not in the rest stops on I-81.  Or on the train to Charlotte.  Or in the children's play area at the museum.  Or in the restrooms at the ice rink and the Olive Garden.  Or from the air hockey table at the bowling alley.  Or on the playground.

It's a mystery.

It's particularly annoying to me that, because of the underground meth lab craze, I can no longer simply stagger into a drugstore and grab the ("good") Sudafed off the shelf.  It has been replaced by Sudafed PE, in which the PE stands for "Practically Empty."

I will never forget the 5 days I took that crap, wondering why it didn't seem to be working the way it always had.

Anyway, you now have to take a little card (if you can find one), go to the pharmacist and request actual pseudoephedrine.  They will then scan your license, and if there's an unexplained explosion on your property within the next few days, you will be on the news.

I can't help but wonder whether this new procedure has had any statistical effect whatsoever on the production of crank and the existence of meth labs of America, but I don't feel like looking it up.

That's how you can tell I don't feel good: I had an opportunity to look up an odd fact, and I decided to pass.

For the record, I would like to say that I really don't know what neurons are firing in individuals' brains to prompt them to unite lithium batteries, drain cleaner, Sudafed and matchbook striker plates in order to get high. 

I mean, really.  A friend asks me if I want to try something and when I ask what's in it, they say, "Oh, drain cleaner.  And the lithium from my camera battery.  Oh, and I used up all of your Sudafed."

And nearly blew up my house in the process.  I must say, I don't like to judge but... not smart.  I'm thinking that's one small but very significant step backward for humanity right there.

In other news, my paper proposal on John Hersey's Hiroshima was accepted (see Narrative and Catastrophe), so I'll be heading to Canada in May to present that.

And I got a check for royalties on one of my articles.  Sweet.  Getting paid to write is never a bad thing, in my world.

Right now, I'm reading The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar.  Attar was a 12th-century Sufi poet, and The Conference of the Birds is about--you guessed it--a gathering of birds who discuss, among other things, politics and Sufi spirituality.

According to Sufi doctrine, we must leave behind the concerns of the self and constantly turn in love towards the divine. 

Something to think about when I blow my nose and it feels like my sinuses might very well come out my eyeballs.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


A friend shared this with me: some good advice for 2012, and life!