Friday, May 7, 2010

Observation and Sight

As I looked back over the texts that we have read this semester, I decided to focus on the differences between two methods of vision – observation and sight. Tracing the theme through the rest of the blog revealed that it was present, in one form or another, throughout most of our assigned texts. The discussion became even more pertinent when I discovered that the relationship between imagination and reality, two differing visions of life, became extremely important during the Age of Sensibility, which coincides with the publication of the earliest works we studied. Contemporary authors negotiated the relationship between imagination and reality by investigating the role of vision in an individual’s understanding of life, so I am going to look at the effects of observation vs. the effects of sight in some of my favorite works from the semester: Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Wordsworth’s “The Thorn,” Keat’s “Lamia,” Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” and Doyle’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” I think the overarching relationship between these texts is that observation—close analysis and inspection of an object—reveals the concrete facts of life while sight—a glancing, surface level look at one’s surroundings—allows an individual’s imagination to construct reality. When I use these terms, observation and sight, throughout the remainder of my post, these are the definitions to which I am referring. Although this theme manifests in each texts, the authors have modified the effects of the two methods of vision to produce unique commentaries on the relationship between imagination and reality.

My initial interest in vision was sparked by our class discussion of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and the differing capacities of Holmes and Watson to solve mysteries. Although Holmes and Watson hear each case together, Watson is only able to assess the victim on the surface level while Holmes observes each minute detail to gain insight into the victim’s life. Holmes is described as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine” as a “sensitive instrument, or...[a] high power [lens]” (Doyle 1). Thus, reason and observation are inherently related in Holmes, allowing him to solve cases in a scientific manner, which is alluded to by Doyle’s metaphor between the detective and technical instruments. Holmes implies that observation is a learned ability when he critiques Watson: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear” (4). The verb, “do,” gives Watson agency; it is his choice to see but not observe rather than a natural inability. Yet, when Watson correctly observes the evidence, for instance the stationary of the Bohemian king, he is unable to come to the correct conclusion, assuming that the imprinted letters are the initials of an individual rather than the symbol of a paper company. As the narrator of the short stories, Watson’s inability to solve a mystery effectively engages the audience by placing them in suspense; although they can observe all that Watson does, they must wait for Holmes to reveal the solution.

Doyle withholds information from the audience in an appeal to the Victorian interest in visual illusions, which pervaded the scientific sphere as well as domestic households during the era. Just like Doyle demonstrates, Helen Groth notes, in her article “Domestic Phantasmagoria: The Victorian Literary Domestic and Experimental Visuality,” that authors began to use optical metaphors to convey “perceptual and psychological phenomena.” She argues that these literary techniques reflect a Victorian skepticism of visual perception and their increasing engagement with illusions in order to test their rationality. Thus, Doyle’s mysteries provide an opportunity for the audience to engage in detective work, as Watson, and practice their rationality. Because Watson, and thus the reader, is Holmes confidant and usually the first to learn the truth behind the mystery, Peter notes that Victorian audiences felt as if they were part of an inside joke, which added to the pleasure and entertainment of gaining Holmes’ insight. Groth also references Crary’s argument that the Victorian era is “an exemplary moment in the history of vision’s transition from “a privileged form of knowing” into an embodied ‘object of knowledge’ housed within an individual nervous and cognitive system,” which is reflected by the ability of the masses to engage in unraveling a mystery with Holmes.

Through Holme’s engagement with the audience and his ability to solve mysteries through rational observation, Doyle seems to argue for a realistic vision of life that is moderated by observation, yet Holmes must use his imagination to solve the crime because, as Alec notes, he collects evidence through observation and then deduces the solution with his imagination. This creates instability in Doyle’s take on the theme of observation vs. sight. The reliance on imagination is furthered by the eccentricity of each criminal, for example: the bank robber John Clay with a “white splash of acid upon his forehead” or the professional beggar with “a shock of orange hair” (64, 141). Although Doyle supports Victorian interest in visual illusions and rationality, his unique masterminds contradict another scientific theory at the time: Galton’s depiction of the criminal type through composites.

These superimposed photographs were supposed to give common people the ability to observe others and identify those who were criminals, but Sherlock Holmes proves that there is not a criminal type, invalidating simple observation and, perhaps, denying Crary’s notion of widely accessible observational skills. Holmes’ successful method of initial observation and subsequent theorizing implies that the relationship between methods of vision and imagination or reality are more complex than sight allowing for imagination and observation calling for reality; Doyle argues that both observation and imagination must be used to understand reality—one does not exclude the other—because “life always far more daring than any efforts of the imagination" (51).

Swift also employs detective work in his narration of the relationship between observation vs. sight and it’s moderation of imagination and reality, but in “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” the detective, Strephon, is punished by his careful observation. The narrator’s initial description of Celia as a “Goddess” implies that she is seen as an ideal who is worshiped by men, specifically Strephon (3). In an effort to gain intimacy with Celia and to understand her privately, Strephon voyeuristically sneaks into her rooms. Swift’s scientific diction indicates that Strephon is observing rather than glancing, awe-struck, at Celia’s room as he “[takes] a strict Survey” and provides an “Inventory” of her wardrobe and powder room (Swift 7, 10). His observations uncover a disgusting reality of bodily fluids, putrid odors, and artificial disguises, which destroy his ideal image of women. In her article “Seeing and the Difference it Makes: Occularity, Gender, and Space in Swift and Montagu’s ‘Dressing Room’ Satires,” Wendy Weise argues that Strephon “defames and punishes Celia for failing to produce a body-image, even in her absence, of ideal femininity: exposing her public persona as farce, as anything but “sweet and clean” (18), he turns her, through the powers of his “imagination” (121), into the abject.” I think Weise is absolutely correct in her assessment of Strephon’s imagination, but she fails to consider the effect it has on him. He is also punished “for his Peeping...blind / to all the charms of Female Kind” (120, 129-30). Figuratively, Strephon’s violation of Celia’s privacy causes him to lose his vision, both for observation and sight, and he is stuck in a jaded reality where women have lost any appeal. The narrator provides an objective view of both Celia’s façade and Strephon’s voyeurism when he encourages Strephon to “think like me, / And bless his ravisht Sight to see / Such Order from Confusion sprung” (141-43). Thus, the narrator depicts Swift’s interpretation of the relationship between vision and imagination vs. reality; Swift cautions against the observation of forbidden realms because one may not like the reality they discover, and he exposes the duality of imagination: it can deceptively improve one’s life, but it can also taint one’s perception. He encourages his audience to accept reality for what it is and appreciate that not everything is visible to sight.

The structure of Swift’s satire, with a narrator who observes Strephon who then observes Celia, removes the privacy of both Strephon and Celia, and establishes observation as a method of control. Strephon can expose Celia just like the narrator can publicize Strephon’s violation of her privacy, but if either knew they were being observed, they would alter their actions. Strephon only enters her chambers when he “found the room was void,” and Celia left her chamber pot in plain sight, but she might have hidden it if some “Creature [warned] her” (5, 71). The power of observation is reflected in Foucault’s Panopticism, which was discussed in one of Professor Porter’s presentations. Foucault’s theory was applied to the design of orderly, prisons in which prisoners were invisible to each other but always visible to the guards. This system “induces in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power;” the inmates will behave according to social custom whether or not there are actually guards because they imagine that they are being observed. This theory is not only applicable to prisons; Strephon’s sly voyeurism proves that it also functions in society. Foucault asserts that constant observation and the removal of sight twists an individual’s imagination against them, forcing them to obey their observer’s rules and standards.

Foucauldian theories of observational control are also present in Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” as Martha Ray is constantly discussed in society yet unable to respond, but they are slightly twisted; society’s intense fascination with her crime, but unwillingness to truly observe her and discover her story, forces Martha Ray to remain apart, alone in nature. While Panopticism advocates for omnipresent observation, a lack of observation in “The Thorn” exerts control over Martha Ray. The narrator encourages the reader to observe the “aged thorn, / [the] pond and beauteous hill of moss” where Martha Ray’s child is rumored to be buried (Wordsworth 56-7); he “[wishes] that you would go: / Perhaps when you are at the place / You something of her tale may trace” (108-10). The narrator is interested in detective work just like Strephon and Holmes, but he is unwilling to observe the true mystery: Martha Ray’s continual sorrow and communion with nature. The juxtaposition of the narrator’s observation of nature with a telescope and his subsequent encounter with Martha Ray, in which he takes one glance at her face -- “it was enough for [him]” – turns around and walks away, indicates that the narrator, and the society with which he gossips, is unwilling to observe the woman’s sorrow (200). They prefer to speculate upon her past and gain entertainment from the gossip rather than listen to her story. Her cry, “Oh misery! / Oh woe is me!” is a plea for help that society refuses to answer. Wordsworth condemns this behavior through the metaphor between Martha Ray and the thorn, both of which preside near the baby’s grave; the thorn actually lacks thorns, or a defense, and “up from the earth [mosses] creep, / and this poor thorn they clasp it round / so close, you’d say that they were bent with plain and manifest intent, / to drag it to the ground” (16-20). Society strangles Martha Ray and forces her to become a part of nature, rather than society, as she blends into the forest, undistinguishable from a “jutting crag” (193). Wordsworth’s sympathetic diction towards the thorn and the malicious agency conferred upon the moss, or society, casts a negative light on society’s refusal to observe Martha Ray. Their decision to simply look at her from afar and wonder about her past confines her to a life of sorrow and “misery”. Wordsworth criticizes sight as a selfish, voyeuristic method of vision that allows society to use their imagination for gossip and entertainment, neglecting the needs of suffering individuals. In “The Thorn” he advocates for observation, which can provide true insight into an individual’s life and allow the observer to empathize with them.

Like Wordsworth, Keats seeks an empathetic understanding of all individuals, but Appollonius’ cold, scientific destruction of “Lamia” suggests that observation removes the magic of life and destroys an individual’s ability to love irrationally and trust their emotions. At the same time, Keats uses Lamia’s initial pursuit of womanhood to argue that an individual should not strive for an imagined world, maintaining the wonder of life, at the cost of others. As a mythical being, initially half woman and half snake, who has been transformed in a woman, Lamia represents the magic in life, especially for Lycius; she has appeared from a field, enchanted him, and taken him to a never before seen mansion Corinth. Despite the irrationality of the situation, Lycius is completely in love with Lamia and intent on marrying her. When his mentor, Apollonius, appears at the wedding, Lycius allows the philosopher to sit near his bride. But, as Apollonius “[fixes] his eye, without a twinkle or stir / full on the alarmed beauty of the bride, / brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride,” Lamia fades into a “deadly white” and dies (Keats 247-49). Keats’ intense, visual diction implies that Apollonius is observing Lamia, and Lycius recognizes this when he commands Apollonius to “Shut, shut those [deceitful] eyes” (277). Lycius diction suggests that while observation reveals reality, because Lamia is a mythical being, it does not reveal the truth of emotion and love, dying “empty of delight” (307). Through Lycius’ grief, Keats implies that observation cannot be fully relied upon or trusted; it is blind to emotion and the magic of life.

Although Keats’ condemns Apollonius’ destruction of Lamia through observation, Lamia’s inherently contradictory nature as a woman trapped in a serpent’s body and her unethical attainment of womanhood asserts that one’s imagination should not be followed at the cost of others. Before her transformation, Lamia is described as “some penanced lady elf, / some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self” (55-6). She is at once a victim and a perpetrator, and if she is being punished, what was her crime? She commits another transgression in exchange for the woman’s body she has been lusting after when she allows Apollo to rape a young nymph in return for a wish. Thus, Lamia’s attainment of humanity is tainted by the beautiful nymph’s “fearful sobs” as Apollo approaches her. So, while Keats disdains observation for its ability to “unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made / the tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade,” he warns against ethical pitfalls in the pursuit of imaginative ideals.

Tennyson mirrors this message of imaginative downfall in “The Lady of Shallot” because the Lady allows herself to die when her vision of Camelot transforms from sight into observation, destroying her artistic, imaginative depiction of life. The Lady “[weaves] the mirror’s magic sights” as she observes Camelot; life seems vibrant and beautiful, and Tennyson’s depiction of Lancelot reflects this with lush imagery, blazoning his appearance for four stanzas. Yet, as soon as the Lady turns to observe Camelot from the mirror, truly seeing what life is like without weaving it through her imagination, Lancelot’s portrayal collapses into two lines composed solely of nouns: “She saw the helmet and the plume: / She looked down to Camelot.” The absence of descriptive adjectives implies that observation has destroyed her imagination as her weaving floats out the window, and “with a glassy countenance -- / she looked down to Camelot.” The disparity between the Lady’s imagination and reality figuratively kills her; her eyes are glassed over in disinterest and shock but, also, in death. She loses the desire to see and imagine, which fueled her previous interest in life. Through the Lady’s death, Tennyson depicts the imagination’s ability to cloud reality and attests to the power of observation as a force that can strongly alter an individual’s perception of life.

“The Lady of Shallot” also raises the issue of an artistic, or imaginative, representation of life, which parallels ekphrasis, in which one work of art is translated into another mode of art through the lens of the artist. For our class, the transformation of literary works into visual art becomes particularly important. Take for instance, Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shallot”:

Waterhouse must have first read Tennyson’s poem and, then, painted the picture that he saw in his imagination. Insert Painting here. You can see that he chose to focus on the moments before the Lady’s death rather than her view from the tower, which Tennyson focused on, and Waterhouse also included the Lady’s tapestry in the boat as if she has not abandoned or forsaken her imagination. Waterhouse has taken artistic liberties with the original poem, which effects the audience’s interpretation and understanding of both Tennyson’s poem and the painting. Waterhouse’s ekphrasis allows us to literally observe the poem, and the painting imposes a perspective on our analysis of the original work, influencing our own imaginative interpretation of Tennyson’s poem. This relationship holds importance for all art forms, including literature, which provide a lens through which the audience views life. Just as differing methods of vision, observation vs. sight, affect the way we negotiate the relationship between imagination and reality, authors must carefully construct their opinions to affect our vision of their work and the world. Simply by tracking observation and sight across the semester, I have found at least five different opinions on the relationship between vision and reality, all of which interact with and rework each other in a modified form of ekphrasis.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bodies and Souls

Who is man? Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with this question for millennia. In answer, Christianity established the West’s understanding of man as a binary being. Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: “A human being, these [Christian] doctrines explained, was a compound of two distinctive elements, soul and flesh” (Porter, Roy. Flesh in the Age of Reason. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. p. 18. Print). This duality of “soul and flesh” shaped Western thought and literature for the centuries that followed. In the 17th century with the advance of scientific understanding, Europeans began to delve more deeply into the question of existence. Roy Porter says, “…dogma and sedimented popular beliefs were increasingly questioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by those… for whom the Christian soul [was] puzzles, wish-fulfillments, sick men’s dreams, bizarre blather or pious frauds” (Porter, Roy 20). Influenced by Cartesian theories, especially Rene Descartes’ concept of dualism, the English were concerned with ontological questions of existence, as Professor Dahlia Porter reveals. Roy Porter admits that even though the “Christian soul” was questioned, “…the flesh proved deeply problematic… To a degree that is hard to imagine nowadays, visible, tangible flesh was all too often experienced as ugly, nasty and decaying…” (Porter, Roy 25).

If soul and body were problematic, what, then, was man to be? Mr. Porter says, “With the Christian soul problematized but the flesh an object of intensified disquiet and discipline, élite identities associated themselves with the elevation of the mind… which, while distinct from the theological soul of the Churches, was equally distanced from gross corporeality” (Porter, Roy 26). This evolution of thought is evident in the writings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This essay will proceed chronologically through five representative texts and demonstrate the development of the body/soul and body/mind dichotomy. Roy Porter’s text explores “how… that demise of the soul came about… a move from a time when everything was ensouled (animism) towards a present day in which the soul is no longer an object of scientific inquiry, though mind” is (Porter, Roy 27). My essay does not explore the “demise of the soul”—indeed, the last text to be discussed makes several references to the “soul”—but rather the fluid understanding of the duality of human nature. No matter if the “Christian soul” is less popular today than it was in the 17th century: Men and the literature they produce have recognized the binary nature of mankind, and that concept, while taking different forms, has all but disappeared.

Andrew Marvell’s poem “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” was published posthumously in 1681 and establishes a Christian dichotomy between man’s body and soul. The poem is constructed in four stanzas: The Soul begins, the Body responds, the Soul responds, and the Body concludes. The Soul’s argument against the Body centers on its entrapment within the Body. The Soul says, “O who shall from this Dungeon, raise / A Soul inslav’d so many wayes? / With bolts of Bones, that fetter’d stands / In Feet; and manacled in Hands” (ll. 1-4). The physical encasement of the Body—bones, hands, feet, et cetera—serves as the “Chains” that bind the Soul. The Soul longs for Heaven yet cannot reach it whilst restrained by the Body. Interestingly, Marvell uses physical language to describe the Soul’s anguish. As Nate points out, the language is not only physical but violent. In the “Soul” stanzas the words “bolts”, “fetter’d”, “manacled”, “blinded”, “hung up”, “Tortur’d”, “confine”, “destroys”, and “Shipwrackt” appear (ll. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 21, 26, 30). This language describes the Body’s effects on the Soul. Even though the Body cannot literally physically “fetter” the intangible Soul, as an embodied person how else could Marvell describe the Soul’s pain, but through corporeal words? The Body’s argument against the Soul delineates a different kind of imprisonment or enslavement: The Body is subject to the Soul’s moral tyranny. Its first lines lament, “O who shall me deliver whole, / From bonds of this Tyrannic Soul? / Which, strecht upright, impales me so…” (ll. 11-13). The Soul longs for Heaven, but the Body is an earthly being. The Body also blames the Soul for causing unhappiness in its life: “What but a Soul could have the wit / To build me up for Sin so fit?” (ll. 41-42). If the Body did not have a Soul, it would not worry about or know of sin and could enjoy earthly pleasures without qualm. Also, the violent language continues: “Tyrannic”, “impales”, “Pestilence”, “Hatred’s”, “square and hew” (ll. 12, 13, 35, 36, 43). Here, the language refers to the Soul’s effects on the Body. The Soul cannot literally physically “impale” the Body, but its moral strictures make the Body feel “strecht” upward. Nate says, the “Body and Soul consider that normal reactions and functions of the other as a plague that is unable to find appropriate resolution but simply continues to pester.” These “normal reactions” are what place the Body and Soul at odds because they seem diametrically opposed: The intangible Soul longs to leave the physical world and enter into spiritual bliss, while the Body feels repressed by the spiritual Soul here on Earth. Returning to the previous question, the answer reveals the intrinsic connection between Soul and Body. The Body has the last word in the poem, which emphasizes man’s inability to escape from the material. We are embodied creatures who can philosophize about the soul, but in the end we are limited by our physicality.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels satirizes English society, and the satire is especially biting in Book Four, “A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms.” Gulliver develops a profound repulsion for humanity who he believes to be “Yahoos.” His initial description of the Yahoos in Houyhnhnmland focuses on their bodies: “Their shape was very singular, and deformed, which a little discomposed me…” (Swift 209). Most interestingly, Gulliver uses the word “deformed” to describe them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines deformed as “Marred in appearance; disfigured, defaced” (OED, “deformed”, 1). This definition aligns with Gulliver’s description of the Yahoo’s bodies, but the OED also includes a figurative definition for “deformed”: “Perverted, distorted; morally ugly, offensive, or hateful” (OED, “deformed”, 4). In this sense, “deformed” refers to a nonphysical, disembodied malady: The phrase “morally ugly” refers to a deformity of the mind, spirit or soul. The Yahoos are not just physically deformed, but also morally and intellectually deformed. They brutally fight with one another, shun cleanliness and love filth, and have “their Females in common” (Swift 245). One female Yahoo even attempts to rape Gulliver as he bathes in a river (Swift 248-249). This moral degeneration is physically mirrored in the Yahoos’ corrupt bodies: “I did indeed observe, that the Yahoos were the only Animals in his Country subject to any Diseases” (Swift 244). Their bodies are weak just like their intellect and morality, or perhaps as an effect of those weakened sensibilities. Gulliver is shocked when he recognizes “a perfect human Figure” in the Yahoos’ bodies (Swift 214). This establishes what Sarah terms a “liminal space”: Gulliver cannot occupy the space of the Yahoos, but neither can he occupy the space of the Houyhnhnms. Horses are the “rational Beings” in Houyhnhnmland, and Gulliver extols their depths of “Reason” but, ultimately, they are not humans—they are Houyhnhnms—and Gulliver cannot identify with them. (Swift 222). He cannot, however, fully identify with the Yahoos either, but he develops a level of self-hatred because he realizes he is closer to a Yahoo than a Houyhnhnm. Clara says, “Towards the end, Gulliver can no longer look at his own reflection, as all he sees is fallen humanity, and he is ashamed to be part of the species of Yahoos.” Also, upon returning to England, Gulliver cannot bear human company. Human bodies repulse him: “I could not endure my Wife or Children in my Presence, the very Smell of them was intolerable…” (Swift 271). Gulliver is not only disgusted by their bodies, but by their lack of enlightened Reason: “I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in Shape and Disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech; but making no other Use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren [Yahoos]… had only the Share that Nature allotted them” (Swift 260). This fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels proposes an interesting relationship between body and mind: Inner morality and reason are reflected in the physical body. This is not the Christian binary of soul and body, but rather, in Gulliver’s Travels we see the first marks of a tendency toward secular duality. But Swift’s portrayal of an animal as the paradigm of Reason (the mind) and the humanoid character as the epitome of gross corporeality (the body) leave Gulliver in that liminal space of non-existence. If Gulliver cannot be a Houyhnhnm but he is also not a Yahoo, what is he—what is man? Roy Porter outlines Swift’s thoughts: “Evidently man was not the homo rationalis he pretended to be but rather, at best, homo rationis capax—a creature capable of rationality though by implication falling short” (Porter, Roy 151). The mind and the body together do create man, albeit imperfectly.

William Wordsworth’s, Romantic poem “The Thorn” deals with the soul’s effect on the flesh in two ways: As the traditional moral soul and as the harbor of the sentiments. Sarah proposes that Wordsworth “suggests… there is something of the disfiguring madness in [Martha Ray], that… created something stunted, unable to fully bloom…” The thorn is an allegorical symbol for Martha Ray. Martha Ray murders her baby and suffers from her guilt. Next to the thorn is a “hill of moss” which is “like an infant’s grave in size” (ll. 36, 52). Martha Ray sits next to the thorn and the hill of moss everyday, wailing, “Oh misery! oh misery! / Oh woe is me! oh misery!” (ll. 65-66). These lines denote the misery her soul endures from the guilt of her crime. Like Marvell’s poem, physical suffering is attributed to the soul. The soul’s physical suffering, however, is manifested in Martha Ray’s flesh, much like the intellectual and moral degeneration is mirrored in the Yahoos’ flesh. When the narrator searches for the thorn, he sees what he thinks is a “jutting crag” and runs toward it for shelter, except, “Instead of jutting crag, I found / A woman seated on the ground” (ll. 193, 197-198). This supports Martha Ray’s “disfiguration” and her connection to the thorn. The thorn is described thus: “No leaves it has, no thorny points; / It is a mass of knotted joints, A wretched thing forlorn…” (ll. 8-9). If Martha Ray is mistaken for a “jutting crag”, her appearance must be like that of the thorn. Both are disfigured, or deformed. The deformity, however, begins in the soul and trickles out to affect the body. Murder has misshapen Martha Ray’s soul, and Wordsworth suggests that her body has also suffered the consequences. The incident that caused the murder—the unfaithfulness of Martha Ray’s lover—caused her initial anguish and, “A cruel, cruel fire, they say, / Into her bones was sent: / It dried her body like a cinder, / And almost turn’d her brain to tinder” (ll. 129-132). The emotional heartbreak of her lover’s unfaithfulness causes a physical reaction in Martha’s body: She is burned up as if on fire. Of course, this language is metaphorical, but it emphasizes the connection between the inner emotions and the body. The OED’s third definition of “soul” is: “The seat of the emotions, feelings or sentiments; the emotional part of man’s nature” (OED, “soul”, 3a). Here we see another expansion on the body/soul dichotomy: The soul acting as the “seat of the emotions” can physically affect the body.

The study of how the body links to criminal activity developed later in English history, but in light of our discussion of “The Thorn” it seems appropriate to discuss now. In “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics”, David Green explains that modern social science began to develop in the late 18th century, but was not firmly founded until the middle of the 19th century (Green, David. “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics.” Oxford Art Journal. Vol. 7, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 6. Web: JSTOR.). Then, experimentation in composite photography, which permitted the “measuring and classifying [of] the human body in the attempt to identify and define the characteristic or typical features of race, class or social group” developed (Green 6, 8). Specifically, composite photography was used to explore criminal typology. Francis Galton famously worked in this field, and his photographs of criminal types appear here.
Popular English theory at the time held that “criminality was congenital and manifest in anatomical and physiological traits” and therefore, “criminal anthropology set about measuring, observing and documenting the body in an attempt to discover the ‘biology of crime’” (Green 10). Indeed, the theory proposed that physical traits could indicate intellectual and psychological traits (Green 10). Galton says, “[Composite photographs] represent not the criminal, but the man who is liable to fall into crime” (Galton, Francis. “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons Into a Single Resultant Figure.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 8. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1879. p. 135. Web: JSTOR). To put it simply, composite photography suggested that a person’s inner character could be known based on observations of their outer appearance. Thus, the Victorians asserted that the inner moral composition of a person and his physical body were intrinsically linked. Like we have seen in Swift and Wordsworth and will see in Stevenson, the inner mind, spirit or soul affects the body in negative manners.

Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater explores the relationship between body and mind through the medium of opium usage, which was quite a serious problem in England during the 19th century. Here we again move away from the “Christian soul”, as this text clearly highlights what Professor Porter calls the soul’s transmutation “into [the] philosophical, analytical mind.” This shift is what Roy Porter also recognizes in his work discussed in the introduction to this essay. We saw it earlier when discussing Gulliver’s Travels, but, as we will see, DeQuincey goes one step further. DeQuincey admits to years of opium usage, and extols the merits of opium’s ability to expand the mind. He says opium “greatly [increases] the activity of the mind” (DeQuincey 79), and Peter underscores the separation of body and mind as a result of opium: “At first, Dequincey falls in love with the idea of the philosopher and uses opium to escape from his body.” Opium is the means by which DeQuincey engages the intellectual world around him. He gives two examples of his intellectual stimulation while under opium’s influence: his visits to the opera and the market. In these episodes, DeQuincey seems to be disembodied—“after I had taken opium, to wander forth, without much regarding the direction or distance…”—and he simply floats from opera to market to engage his intellect with new challenges (DeQuincey 80). In describing, the “Pains of Opium”, however, DeQuincey’s body takes center stage. Peter says, “In the end, he struggles violently to re-enter his body… When he diminishes his reliance on opium, he talks about the pain of passing from one mode of existence to another. Dequincey presents an enormous tension between his body and his mind that is exasperated by his addiction.” DeQuincey weans himself off of opium, and the bodily pain he experiences is excruciating: He says, “The intention of nature, as manifested in the healthy state, obviously is, to withdraw from our notice all the vital motions, such as the circulation of the blood, the expansion and contraction of the lungs, the peristaltic action of the stomach, etc.; and opium, it seems, is able in this, as in other instances, to counteract her purposes…” (After “With dreadful faces…”). Opium acts against the body’s natural functions, and DeQuincey concludes that he “hates” his body (After “With dreadful faces…”). If the opium simply heightened his intellect without any negative psychological effects (hallucinations, agitation) that affected his physical state (lack of sleep), he probably would have never stopped using it. That, however, is not the case. DeQuincey could not completely separate his mind from his body. Because of this, he rejects his body. DeQuincey offers his body up to science to be studied for the physical effects of opium on the body, saying, “it will give me pleasure to anticipate this posthumous revenge and insult inflicted upon that which has caused me so much suffering in this life” (After “With dreadful faces…”). He viciously looks forward to his body’s dismemberment and dishonor. His body held him back. Even though Gulliver is disgusted with human bodies at the end of the text, he is equally disgusted with their minds. Here, however, DeQuincey seems to promote a disembodied mind, much like the solution Roy Porter proposed in his text. There can be no compromise like Swift’s recognition of man as imperfect body and imperfect mind; instead it is the hated body that restricts the soaring mind. Like the Soul in Marvell’s poem, DeQuincey’s mind is violently shackled with “bolts of Bones.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reveals a modernist writer’s take on the body and soul divide. Liz says, “…it would be interesting to see how our morality is effected in even the tiniest of ways: for example, stature.” In Nate and Mary Beth’s presentation on Alice in Wonderland, another Victorian text, they also promoted the idea of stature as characteristic of moral standing: when Alice was bigger she seemed smarter and more morally savvy as opposed to when she was smaller. In the same way, Jekyll is “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a slyish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness” (Stevenson 18). On the other hand, Hyde is “pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile… and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice” (Stevenson 15). Again we have a “deformed” appearance. These two descriptions oppose each other, and Stevenson suggests that largeness is associated with good and dwarfishness associated with evil. Not only are Jekyll and Hyde physically different, but they are morally different as well. Hyde is “evil” (Stevenson 55). Mr. Utterson muses, “or is it the radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?” The last, I think; for O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend” (Stevenson 16). Utterson places his reflections in the context of Christian language by using the words “soul” and “Satan”. Here, we see the “foul soul” proposed as the cause of the foul body. This is not the purely scientific or intellectual mind/body debate that we saw in DeQuincey’s text, but rather a question of morality and spirit within a body. Utterson says that he sees “Satan’s signature” upon Hyde’s face, thus immediately denoting a God/Satan and Heaven/Hell dichotomy. Jekyll recognizes man’s moral duality saying, “man is not truly one, but truly two” referring to man’s penchant for good or evil (Stevenson 52). The body is the physical medium through which this good or evil is expressed. Indeed, even Jekyll says, “Evil besides… had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay” (Stevenson 55). If we look at this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie poster image found in Clara’s blog post, we see one interpretation of the physical deformity of Mr. Hyde. He has fangs, a large nose, bushy brows and is portrayed in black and white. He looks like a monster, something almost not human. In contrast, Dr. Jekyll is young, handsome and portrayed in color. He looks like a normal man. The poster proposes the question: How can two such different physical beings turn into each other? The text offers a chemical concoction as a solution and movie clips show the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde, but Jekyll says that no chemical concoction was really necessary: “I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life” (Stevenson 52). The two natures of man, good and evil, could exist in the body of Dr. Jekyll alone—he calls it his “composite” self—the chemical potion simply exacerbated the evil side into its own body. Overall, Stevenson’s text slightly reconciles the soul/body and mind/body dichotomies. The Christian language recalls the soul/body rift, as do the moral judgments on Hyde’s behavior, yet Jekyll is a doctor and scientist who intellectually conceives of the duality of human nature. He recognizes the body, the mind and the soul.

Who is man? According to these writers, he is some combination of body, mind, soul and spirit. Even though Marvell, Swift, Wordsworth, DeQuincey and Stevenson shift the specific amalgamation according to religious and scientific thought, all propose a tension between the flesh and the spirit and develop the dialogue of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Transformations in British Literature

Throughout the works that we’ve studied this past semester, a common theme seems to be that of transformation: whether willingly or not, many characters in British literature experience a metamorphosis that ultimately changes their identity as a whole, both physically and psychologically. The morphing of identity that accompanies the distortion of the body emphasizes the British fascination with the connection between the body and the soul as well as the curious state of limbo that exists between the two divisions. As a result, many British authors, from Jonathan Swift to Rudyard Kipling, have used transformations in their works as a device to propose their individual social commentaries. And that’s one of the most interesting parts of all—that even as the authors continue to use the same devices, the way in which they use them evolves, and morphs, all on its own.

To begin, let’s talk about Mr. Jonathan Swift. A supreme satirist of the Augustan Age (or the Age of Reason), Swift’s critiques of society often surrounded materialism and the various problems which arise from its power over society. Throughout both his poetry and his prose, Jonathan Swift used transformations to highlight the materialism that consumed the British population. In his two poems “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” and “A Lady’s Dressing Room” Swift uses the metamorphosis of the two women from beautiful, almost classical figures into odious creatures worthy only of disgust. Along with these physical transformations comes a changing of identity. Celia, once a “Goddess” in the eyes of her lover, Strephon, becomes nothing but a girl “who shits!” At the same time, in “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” the same “witching hour” Celina brings up in her blog post occurs once more, now to Corinna, a common whore. Corinna, one of the prettiest prostitutes on the lane, is revealed to be something almost less than human: a compilation of parts—eyebrows made of mouse fur, a glass eye, a wooden leg, dugs to support her breasts. These two poems seems to highlight some of the same problems with British society. Through the transformations, we can primarily see the difference between perception and reality. Identification of others, as far as the world is concerned, is largely based upon looks. But in his poetry, Swift is swift to deny our assumptions: beauty is only perfume, powder, fake eyeball, lipstick, slop, and ointment deep. Beneath all those layers is something far different: but what? Here it gets a little tricky. It’s easy to see that Swift despises the artificiality of these intricate beauty processes, but at the same time, without all of the artificiality, what are these women? Hideous? Perhaps Swift was commenting on the fact that British society had become so materialistic that it had lost its ability to be natural at all. No, artificiality and materialism are not positive points, but at the same time, Swift acknowledges that there is almost no return for a society so lost in the acquiring of more, more, more. The lists he utilizes in both poems—intricate details on every commodity each women uses—points to the emergence of an emphasis on consumption, of markets. Even in the last line of “A Lady’s Dressing Room,” when the narrator marvels that “Such gaudy Tulips [are] rais’d from Dung” we see that the exchange of commodities (Dutch tulips) plays a prevalent part in British thinking. But, more importantly, throughout these poems we see that commodities do something very curious to the women they transform: eventually, they are no longer women at all, but merely a compilation of thingsthey are, in a way, literally objectified. As you can see from Professor Porter’s image from the first day of class (even though this, too, is comedic), it translates a point: that women no longer resembled women at all, that they had been, literally, transformed.

One response to the objectification of women came with a woman writer of the Romantic Period, Felicia Hemans, who wrote “Properzia Rossi” a poem about self-sacrifice. In the poem, a famous sculptor, Properzia Rossi, falls so madly in love with a man that she dies of heartache. Her last work is a sculpture she makes of a beautiful woman, hoping that she might transfer some of herself into it so that she will finally experience his love. She transfers her soul out of her physical body into that of a statue—and my question is, what does that mean to Hemans? According to her biography,, Hemans idealized women and believed in a familial ideal. When she wrote the poem, her intention was to show that sacrifice was a good thing, and that love was far more important than lasting fame. But now, I feel like it can be interpreted in the exact opposite way: at least from my modern perspective, it seems to be an argument against self-sacrifice, in its varying forms. The self-sacrifice can be defined in two ways, that of a woman transforming herself into a sculpture so she might finally be loved by the man (and only for beauty), or the second interpretation, brought up by Sarah George, who wrote in the blog about how Properzia Rossi has the problem of the artist’s obsession: and how she literally gives herself up to create art. Here now we come to something different. Swift criticized transformation because it was mostly based on vanity. Now, the opposite occurs. The transformation in Heman’s work becomes a critique because it is the absolute denial of a woman’s independence: she is giving herself up to be loved, denying all physical being to be transformed into an object, one that a male might desire. The second interpretation does fit in nicely with Swift’s work, however, because it shows that aesthetics, once controlled by humanity, eventually becomes so powerful that it can swallow a person up and deny them of their humanity, literally causing the death of Properzia by the end of the poem. What I find a bit depressing is the fact that Hemans didn’t mean for it to be a critique at all, that she actually thought it was a good thing that this self sacrifice should occur. Maybe we can pretend like it was a subconscious thing, after all, and she really did write these poems as critiques, but they were only interpreted by her audience as supporting claims of self-sacrifice. I’d like to hope for that, anyway.

Metamorphasis, in another way, is many times not associated with self-sacrifice at all, but it still is related to the transformation of identity. For Alice of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the girl merely transforms because she tries a piece of cake or drinks a potion, all of which force her to change. As Nate and Mary Beth talk about in their powerpoint, there were more than merely transformations of size. There was also the transformation of the pig into the baby. Again, we see a connection between consumption (materialism) and transformations of humans into animals and back again—all of these changes illicit a change in identity, too, and Alice often finds that when she changes size she no longer recognizes her mental self. All of this was very interesting, especially in connection with the British Empire and Imperialism. Back in Victorian times, there was an interest nature and the sublime, often associated with the largeness of something: And all of these transformations, the loss of identity, really brought me back to Jonathan Swift once again, and back to Gulliver’s Travels. I feel like both Carroll and Swift, in their use of transformation of size, were perhaps critiquing British Imperialism. Yes, “bigness” did seem to be something associated with the divine, but at the same time, Britain kept acquiring countries, and what was the result? It seems to me that many British believed that the Empire’s change in size was something that would alter it’s identity as a whole, and that in the end, it would no longer recognize itself. Like Alice, it would be lost in a world that it had walked into (that she dreamed, in a way—which is a kind of creation) and it would no longer be able to leave. The animal/human transformations tie into this, too, because often Br

itish soldiers treated the people they conquered like animals, though they were humans, and thus became animals themselves, as a result of their brutality. Soon, however, the problems of the British Empire would no longer be relevant: the age of WWI was coming on, an age that would doom Imperialism and would represent the largest transformation at all.

Rudyard Kipling’s collection of poems, Epitaphs, characterized the literary period of Modernism. By the time Kipling wrote these poems, self-sacrifice was not an option: it was a requirement. With the advent of WWI, all of Europe bustled towards the great fight. Art and literature had idealized it throughout the Victorian period, as you can see here: Kipling himself requested that his son be sent forth to the trenches, even getting a special excuse when he was denied by the army. He thought, like many Europeans at the time, that war was character building, that war was noble, that all men who went to war were heroes, and that it was about ideals. This was the naiveté that characterized many Europeans, and particularly many British, at the advent of WWI. Soon, however, all of these ideals would be smashed. Within an hour of his first day of being in the trenches, Kipling’s son was killed. Europe soon became used to a new type of war, modern warfare—with its gas, its machine guns, its mud-filled trenches, its mindless brutality. According to Thomas Schoenberg and Larence J. Trudeau, from their book Literature and the Great War, "World War I and its immediate aftermath gave birth to artistic modernism, which sought inventive ways to express the resulting chaos and destruction and the complete disruption of traditional notions of class, gender, science, and statehood." This complete transformation of culture was most readily visible by the type of transformation that the physical landscape of Europe underwent:

and perhaps because these physical transformations also were closely tied to the psychological damage that occurred, it is easy to see why Kipling used it in his Epitaphs. In “Unknown Female Corpse,” destruction is directly associated with the transformation from someone human (a mother, no less) into something that is nothing but a torso. Here’s the poem:

Headless, lacking foot and hand,

Horrible I come to land.

I beseech all women's sons

Know I was a mother once.

Although this seems like a purely physical transformation, what’s really interesting is the fact that the woman lacks head, hand, and foot: a dead woman, she is also symbolically devoid of all feeling (she lacks all her five senses: taste, sight, touch, smell), and without any means of escape from her fate (literally without feet, she, like the rest of Europe, cannot walk away from the horrors she’s experienced). That which makes this poem most powerful, however, is not that it’s the identification of a body. It is exactly Kipling’s use of the transformation—from a mother to a dismembered corpse, that makes this poem so relevant in British modernism. Once bright and full of idealism, the years leading up to 1914 were summarily destroyed: after, Europe was nothing but a body without its senses, unable to think, unable to move forward, filled with disillusionment and only the memory of the thing which it once was, and no longer continued to be.

And so, in the end, the transformations that occurred throughout British literature were all a means of critique: it was a way to point out the difference between what was and what is. It was a way to show that the body and the soul are connected, pulled apart, and that although we like to think things are in one state or another, they often lie in that state of in-between, that place that Swift called “the witching hour,” the time when the caterpillar changes inside the cocoon, waiting to be born.

MLA Citation:

Schoenberg, Thomas J.and Larence J. Trudeau, "Literature of the Great War," Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Cengage Learning, Detroit, 2010, p.209, Literature Criticism Online, date of access: 05/03/2010.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Irrationality v. Rationality

The theme of the irrational can be traced through many of the texts we’ve covered this semester, though it is not always approached in the same manner. Indeed, what exactly constitutes “irrationality” itself can be and is defined differently by singular texts. That is to say, not only does irrational behavior present itself in various ways according to each author, the treatment (endorsement or rejection) of irrationality varies by author as well. For example, in “Gulliver’s Travels,” Swift addresses irrationality by challenging the commonly held notion that the flesh and the soul are one in the same. Through Gulliver’s encounters with the noble Houyhnhnms and the nefarious, human-like Yahoos, Swift dismembers the belief that the soul must necessarily be connected with the human body. Despite most of Britain’s conviction in the equality of the two, “this kind of logic (which was to his mind deeply irrational) is certainly a target of Swift’s satire,” (Chopping logic with Horses, Professor Porter). Swift, therefore, utilizes irrationality in his work in order to satirize the irrationality of a commonly held belief at the time.Of course, the author did not actually propose that everyday horses have souls. Rather, he employs the Houyhnhnms as a metaphor for the underdeveloped, “barbaric” natives over which the British Empire exerted its will. In Part IV, as well as the other parts of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the irrationality of the cultures Gulliver encounters serves to highlight the irrationality of certain European practices and principles.

The Romantic and Gothic periods we covered in class are also riddled with the conflicts between the irrational and the rational. In these traditions, the irrational usually refers to instances in which conventional societal roles are broken, often as the fault of females. When women act irrationally by breaking their marital vows (“Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene”) or having inappropriate relationships with their children (“The Thorn,” “The Mad Woman,” and “The Mad Mother”), they are punished by either God or society in unnatural ways. As we noted in class, the supernatural is intimately connected with the irrational because the former always appears at the breakage of a fundamental societal norm. When traditional / conservative gender roles are breached, the supernatural is invited into the story. In other words, a departure from what society considers rational behavior indicates a departure from the laws that govern reality.

In further examining the aforementioned examples, Liz put it quite well in her blog post by declaring thatSouthey's ‘The Mad Woman,’ and Wordsworth's ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘The Thorn’ all are centered around the themes of the madness that takes hold of women who break the rules of society and either abandon their husbands or have their children out of wedlock,” (Mothers Out of Wedlock). To be sure, after murdering her newborn child, the mother in Southey’s “The Mad Woman” is doomed to “dreadful madness,” (Lyrical ballads, pg. 531, l. 57).And, similarly, Wordsworth’s “Mad Mother” has become subject to unnatural lunacy by either having a child out of wedlock or murdering her husband before the child was born (it’s unclear which). Wordsworth’s “The Thorn,” however, approaches the issue of irrationality from a different direction.

While the supernatural elements of the poem are certainly the result of Martha Ray’s murdering her child, the true focus of irrationality in the work centers around the reaction of the surrounding townspeople. No one ever attempts to bring Martha Ray to justice, and because nobody will speak with her the actual circumstances surrounding the death of her child remain clouded in mystery. As the speaker of the poem explains; “I cannot tell; but some will say / She hanged her baby on the tree, / Some say she drowned it in the pond,” (Lyrical ballads, pg. 109, ll. 214-216). Furthermore, as Robert Langbaum points out in The Epiphanic Mode in Wordsworth and Modern Literature, the reader of the poem must depend on “an unreliable narrative by a sea captain, newly arrived in the district, who hears the story of Martha Ray through village gossip and associates it with an earlier epiphanic experience of a thorn tree.” In other words, the real irrationality of the work can be found by examining the response of the poem’s speaker, who has neither seen nor heard anything reliable about Martha Ray. Under this interpretation, the supernatural aspects of the poem could be no more than the figments of an irrational and superstitious imagination.

Another text, which I don’t want to spend too much time on, but is important to mention in tracking the theme of irrationality, is Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere.” In this work, Coleridge depends on the irrational behavior of the mariner in order to incite the supernatural occurrences of the poem. As a result of the mariner’s pointless killing of the albatross, the entire ship’s crew is eventually killed and he becomes stranded alone amongst the horrors of the otherworldly. But as Celina points out in her blog post, there are natural explanations for most of the supposedly supernatural events witnessed by the mariner (The transformation of the natural into the Supernatural). Indeed, since he cannot eat or drink for most of the poem, the reader can interpret his visions as no more than hallucinations brought on by intense hunger and thirst. The supernatural, therefore, can once again be interpreted as a result of the irrational mind. Todorov puts it well in his book, The Fantastic, when he explains that, often in Gothic literature, “the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described” once we have completely read the work (Todorov, The Fantastic). As we have seen in the other works by Southey and Wordsworth, this is generally the manner in which irrationality is explored in Romantic literature; as the portal through which the supernatural can enter the world.

Though it can be considered as part of the Romantic tradition, I choose to explore John Keats’ “Lamia” separately because irrationality is not approached in the same way as in the other texts.Instead of the irrational invoking the supernatural, in this poem we are presented with the irrational and the rational competing side by side for dominance.

This print by John Waterhouse was painted in 1909 and depicts the figure of the mythological Lamia. According to Greek mythology, Lamia was a queen of Libya whose children were murdered after Hera discovered her love affair with Zeus. As punishment, the queen’s lower half became covered in snake skin, while her upper half remained that of a woman. It was also believed that she ate the children of others due to her rage at losing her own. The image provides insight into Keats’ poem, because the division of the figure into half serpent, half woman – or half real, half mythological - mimics the division of the poem “Lamia” into half irrational and half rational. In the work, the character of Apollonius serves as an obvious representative of the rationale-based Enlightenment philosophy (as I point out in my blog post, Beauty, Reason, and Lamia). Lamia, on the other hand, acts as an “unstable” representative of the irrational world. Her identity seems unstable because her relationship with Lycius is sometimes based on love and kindness, and sometimes based on violence and possession (see Professor Porter’s comment to my post). The relationship can be viewed, therefore, as both rational and irrational. At the end of the poem, the “cold philosophy” of Apollonius has destroyed the irrationality of Lamia, but it remains unclear whether or not Keats supports this ending. Ultimately, the sense of distress felt by the reader at Lamia’s death points to the probability that Keats saw the value of irrationality in the world. He recognized that rational thinking and cold, hard math alone cannot hope to sustain an emotion as ephemeral as love.

Moving on to the Victorian and Modern period, the thread tracing the role of the irrational remains unbroken. In fact, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” makes heavy use of irrationality in its exploration of traditional societal roles. In many respects, Carroll imitates Swift by depicting irrational circumstances in order to poke fun at irrational conventions in real British society. Unlike Swift’s work, however, there are certain Gothic elements within “Alice in Wonderland” that play an important role in interpreting the meaning of the text. As Nathaniel and Mary Beth pointed out in their PowerPoint presentation on the book, understanding the meaning of the “supernatural / fantastic” components within the work is obviously key to understanding Alice’s role as the representative of rationality. Furthermore, the pair posed the questions; is Alice the sole rational voice of the narrative? And, does her sense of rationality actually become absurd because it cannot be applied in the irrational Wonderland? My answer to the first question would be yes, although the Cheshire Cat does at least appear to understand that he is acting irrationally. My answer to the second is no, because the reader is able to maintain a clear sense of what is rational and what is not throughout the story, and Alice tries to remain rational during the entire book – which is why she eventually defeats the Queen and irrationality. Carroll places Alice, an intelligent and reasonable girl, into a world that cannot be navigated except by acting irrationally. As Virginia writes in her blog post Literalism in Alice in Wonderland, “Carroll frequently confuses and distresses his heroine by making literal what is often an expression or else plays out the duality of a pun.” Of course, by the end of the novel Alice’s reason overcomes the absurd world into which she has stumbled and she discovers that everyone in Wonderland, including the Queen of Hearts, is really quite powerless. The inability of the Queen to effect change and execute her prisoners demonstrates the inability of the irrational to supersede the rational world. Another insight into the importance of rationality to Carroll’s work can be found in the importance the author placed on making the central character of his book, Alice, as representative of real-life as possible. As we discussed in class, Alice’s character is based on Carroll’s actual love interest, Alice Liddell, and the writer stressed to his illustrator, John Tenniel, the significance of having the fictitious character physically resemble her actual inspiration.

“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle also demonstrate the superiority of rationality over irrationality. Holmes applies deductive reasoning (as Alec points out in his blog post Induction vs. Deduction) in order to solve cases that at first appear irrational in nature. The detective is able to posit rational, scientific explanations for crimes that might otherwise be interpreted as supernatural. Of course, part of Holmes ability to solve these cases arises from his recognition that everyday life itself can be somewhat strange. He readily accepts the unusual, even irrational, behavior of witnesses and suspects as a natural part of life in British society. Still, the secret behind his case-solving-prowess lies in his telescopic powers of extreme observation – a rational tool. The comparisons of Holmes to photographic technology that we made in class create a direct connection between the technological innovations of the Enlightenment and the literary compositions of the day.

This representation of Holmes’ flat on Baker Street was originally posted by Sarah, and the way in which it was created (by compiling various descriptions of the flat provided by Watson in the narrative) imitates the detective’s style of deductive reasoning – what Sarah labels the “hyper-rational.” The compilation and analysis of a complex set of individual clues provides, through this form of rationale, a complete and cohesive image of reality.

By tracing the thread of the irrational v. rational in the texts we’ve studied, it seems clear that this theme was treated in different ways by different authors. In particular, you can see how the irrational served as a much more important literary tool for the Romantic writers, whereas the more recent authors place their focus on the superiority of the rational mind. I suppose this distinction is the result of the increasingly scientific nature of the world we live in. Indeed, the place of the irrational in today’s literature seems severely impaired compared to that of the olden days – unless of course you count Harry Potter.


Imperialism is one of the most defining features of the British political landscape. By the beginning of the 20th century the British Empire had become the most expansive and powerful global political force. In the course of this rise Britain profited from a number of imperialist relationships with colonies such as India, America, and Jamaica. These relationships, which provided vast amounts of economic wealth to the mother country, often utilized theories of racial superiority and other strategies to justify the exploitation of colonized societies. The Victorian Web provides an excellent overview about the economic and political causes and effect of empire ( The spoils of imperialism have been present in British society throughout the centuries in the form of raw goods, human cargo, and political prestige. Authors throughout the time of empire have written about the moral costs and benefits of Britain’s role as a world power. This post will explore the progression of thought from the time of Milton and Swift all the way until Kipling and Yeats as they write through the First World War. The progression should not be understood as a linear one where a single idea is progressed and developed over time. It is more appropriate to understand this project as an investigation of how imperialism plays out in every age and how the political understandings of the day and leanings of the author impact the texts that we analyze.
One of the earliest texts that we read that dealt with issues of empire and imperialism was Paradise Lost.  In her post Mary Beth brought up the framing of Satan by the author as a sympathetic character. This strange point is one that suggests the author’s rejection of absolute rule. Unsurprisingly, John Milton did in fact support Cromwell’s Republic rather than the Royalists during the Glorious Revolution ( While this sympathy for the
A more direct criticism of imperialism is found in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This book presents itself as a travel narrative during a time that is ripe with exploration and the establishment of exploitative trade routes and relationships throughout the Atlantic World. Though the narrator of the book does in the end rule out colonizing any of the countries that he comes across for various reasons he does find some merit in a hierarchy system where one group of people is subject to another. The narrator is repulsed by the Yahoos he finds in the country of the Houyhnhnms and in favor of their subjugation. Ironically, the one group in the novel who Gulliver finds fit to totally disregard is actually the one of which he is a part. His condition as “a miserable Yahoo” disqualified him from life among the Houyhnhnms. This revelation suggests from an anti-imperialist reading that the peoples subjugated by the British government and other imperialist forces are most similar than different from the people who they exploit. In the closing of the book the narrator urges the British government to stay away from all his explored lands in order to preserve the best interests of all. During this section, Swift employs the sardonic wit for which he is famous to critique the nature of British colonialism. That passage reads as follows:

For instance, a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the topmast; they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon.  Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.  Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!
Directly following this passage the narrator (sarcastically) exclaims that the previous description “does by no means affect the British nation.”  This section in particular echoes the style of Swift’s masterwork, A Modest Proposal, by its thinly veiled shot at the greed and exploitation of the British. The relationship of Gulliver to the Yahoos is similar to Swift’s “contempt” for the Irish population ( The English imperialism in Ireland was, for Swift, the most pressing example of a time where England should retreat to itself and not look to rule another land, for the good of justice to the subjugated as well as for the good of England.
            During the Romantic Period the conversation about the ethics of imperialism in literature became more heated. This was due in large part to the explosion of the slave trade and the subsequent abolitionist movement. Samuel Coleridge’s “Ancyent Marinere” and Southey’s “The Sailor who served in the Slave Trade” directly discuss the moral implications of imperialism in general and slavery in particular. Coleridge writes from a religious context to expose the sin of slavery and the slave trade. Russell Hiller writes that, “The Rime treats the Albatross and the Mariner as Jesus figures” (Hiller). Such a reading suggests specifically that the last stanza of Part I, which ends with the “I shot the Albatross”, is a moment in which the sailor becomes a Judas figure who denies the wisdom of the Jesus figure (Albatross) and betrays the will of moral right.

Kathryn and Peter’s presentation on the Slave Trade and Coleridge also clearly established through research about his nonfiction writings what his stance on the issue of slavery was. With his antislavery stance well established it is clearly plausible that he use his poetry as tool to the same political ends.

This image that was also used in the presentation is one that directly ties the poem to slavery. The image of bodies being thrown overboard is an abundantly common image in discussion of the Middle Passage and even shows up in Southey’s poem with the woman. This picture’s image of the female nightmare of death shows up in the 11th stanza of part III of Coleridge’s piece Her lips are red, her looks are free, “Her locks are yellow as gold:/Her skin as is white as leprosy,/And she is far liker Death than he;/Her flesh makes the still air cold.” The reaching of the victims to the mariner suggests to me the same argument that Coleridge made in his appeals against slavery that the British should operate from a position of strength to exercise mercy upon the weaker races.

            Southey’s piece also appeals to religion. Its appeal is less supernatural and more textually obvious. This piece actually takes place as a confession from a sailor to a priest. The sailor repeats the word “cursed” three times during his recounting of the scene on the ship. He suggests that the spoils of imperialism, in this case slaves, are corrupting forces that breed evil in men. He talks about the Devil’s presence on the ship in lines 38-40 when he writes that, “The Wicked One is there;/From place to place, from rope to rope,/He follows every where.” Southey’s emphasis on the guilty nature of those who participate in imperialism is apparent when the narrator laments “Would that the sea had swallow'd me/When I was innocent!” (63-64).

            This emblematic image of the packing in a British slave ship is among the most famous scenes we have to illustrate the trade. This image brings to life the abhorrent conditions discussed by Coleridge and Southey. Such a condition as the tight packed cargo space shown in the model gives an explanation of how unbearable the conditions were for Southey’s “hundred negro slaves” and how it makes sense for the disobedience of the poor woman who is killed (66).

            In the modern era the question of imperialism took a decidedly different turn. Through a number of economic motivations and technological innovations the British Empire was able to expand rapidly from 1870 to 1900 ( With that expansion came forth a generation of writers who were deeply entrenched in the lifestyle of imperialism and who found themselves at a crossroad of history in WWI.
            Kipling stands out specifically because he was born and spent much of his life in colonized lands and not England. Kipling also stands as one of the lone imperialist in our course of study. As a result of this stance, a scholar has argued that Kipling’s work remain controversial because those who don’t share his view will experience a  “feeling of tension” at the prospect of Kipling “dragging us into a position which isn't ours” (Lackey).
Though Kipling does create a difficult context for the present-day reader to read his material by endorsing imperialism and racist ideology so heartily there is a distinction to be made between his poems that directly support imperialism and his poems that chronicle the harshness of military service. Despite that distinction I still think that his military poems are in many ways only veiled supports of imperialism. In his poem “Tommy” Kipling uses a first-person narrative to speak out against the “makin' mock o' uniforms” that he felt was commonplace in English society. This stance, I think, speaks to his imperialist tendencies because presumably the soldiers are most visible and active means by which British superiority is shown across the world, particularly in the colonies of the Empire. Kipling’s portrayal of a late nineteenth century soldier (not WWI because the “redcoat” was not worn then) shows the soldier as a knight who has fallen from grace.
Imperialism as a theme is prevalent in many other pieces of literature. From the sad cycnicism of Yeats’ realization that “the center cannot hold” to Doyle’s use of the KKK as a consequence of British greed in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This post simply displays three different manifestations of imperialism in British history (early imperialism with the Irish and others, slavery, and colonialism) and how the writers of those times responded.

Hillier, Russell M.: Coleridge's Dilemma and the Method of 'Sacred Sympathy': Atonement as Problem and Solution in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Papers on Language & Literature: a quarterly journal for scholars and critics of language and literature (Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville) (45:1) [Winter 2009] , p.8-36.

Lackey, Michael (ed.).: Kipling's Poems: lecture by E. M. Forster.
Journal of Modern Literature (Foundation for Modern Literature, Bloomington, IN) (30:3) [Spring 2007] , p.12-30.