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.


  1. I apologize that my two images are at the top of the post, but I could not figure out how to get them in the middle of the text where I wanted them. Regardless, it should be clear which picture I'm referring to in the body paragraphs.

  2. Figured out how to move the pictures, but did not change anything else on my blog.