All posts by jgc3nn

Final Paper: On Politics in George Saunder’s “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”

A rather modern story published in 2012 in the New York Times, the conception for “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” came to George Saunders in a dream. The semplica girls or “SGs,” coming from different countries around the world, are strung up in some alternate universe by a microline through the head and used as lawn ornaments by affluent families. Voluntarily entering into this subordinate position in order to provide for their families back home, the SGs can be translated into immigrant workers, sweatshop laborers, or any other form of subjugated persons in today’s society. While the narrator’s first entry on September 3rd describes his intentions in keeping a diary, to provide information “for posterity” of his alternate universe, he speaks of things that are current in America today: “Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passé?” It’s almost as if “The Semplica-Girls Diaries” is actually offering political commentary on our world rather than this alternative universe, but Saunders ingeniously conceals this attempt in the same way that the woes of capitalism are concealed today. However, can it be said that Saunders’ story is simply a warning to the future about our present capitalist system? If so, why write in the context of literature or a diary instead of offering some political opinion, and what does he propose for our future?

While the narrator’s entry on September 3rd discussed subjects relevant to our present such as airplanes, demons, and windows, the first hint at Saunders’ political commentary is not discovered until his second entry on September 5th: “Who cares about stupid bumper, we’re going to get a new car soon anyway, when rich, right?” In this quote, the eldest daughter, Lilly, reveals to the reader the status of the narrator’s family. It’s true that they could just have a beat up car, but the use of the word rich here shows that his family is somewhere between poor and middle class. Similarly, on September 6th, the narrator discusses Lilly’s friend Leslie Torrini and her family’s riches after Leslie held a birthday at her family home: “House is mansion where Lafayette once stayed. Torrinis showed us Lafayette’s room: now their “Fun Den.” Plasma TV, pinball game, foot massager. Thirty acres, six garages (they call them “outbuildings”): one for Ferraris (three), one for Porsches (two, plus one he is rebuilding)…” It is made very clear the difference between the narrator’s wealth and that of the Torrinis. It’s almost mocking of the narrator in the fact that Leslie’s father has enough leisure time to rebuild a car, an operation that one could rightfully picture the patriarch of a rich family performing in a movie. As it is so focused on materialism, this passage depicts the undercurrent of class envy within Saunders’ story. Lilly is envious when she exaggerates the size of the Torrinis’ tree house. The narrator signals to his own class envy also on September 6th in saying “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle. We are very, very lucky. I know that. But still…” However, the tables turn on the 22nd when he finally has means to buy SGs and a pond. Leslie, the rich girl, calls her mother to complain about why she does not also have a pond. The narrator attempts to but does not deny that this role reversal of his daughter and Leslie makes him happy, which Farmer Rich of September 25th would probably label a “showoffy move.” On the 14th of September, the narrator’s explanation of his credit cards and deferment of payment in order to provide his kids with a sense of generosity instead depicts his materialism. “If not now, when?” Yet, the real reason for credit cards is not this developing sense of generosity, but security, a security that his kids will not be spat out by the world. It’s ironic that something so insecure and not a means of real money but rather of debt, comes to be a form of security to the narrator. Yet, all his credit cards are near the maximum limit in the story. This class envy and literal materialism (credit cards are made of plastic), in becoming worrisome to both the characters of the story and the reader, is the first warning of a capitalist future.

Despite the demonstration of class envy, the scene where the bumper falls of the narrator’s car and Leslie’s idea that her family will someday be rich is also the epitome of the American Dream. The narrator shares his American Dream when on September 22nd he calls his desire to move up the social ladder a “presentiment of special destiny” and a “feeling [he] would someday do something great.” Yet, there is a reason why it is called a dream. When the narrator wins money by chance from a Scratch-Off and hires an entire arrangement of SG’s for his youngest daughter, Eva’s birthday party, he develops the false hope that his destiny is finally coming into place. But the reader later discovers that this is not so. So long as one works hard, he or she will have the opportunity to succeed. This is what most citizens are commonly taught to believe growing up in America. However, America is not classless and social mobility, or the upward movement from a state of poverty to some degree of affluence, has been greatly misconstrued (Loewen 317-326). With this information readily available, why is no one willing to recognize that the American Dream is a myth? It seems both a question of acknowledgement and belief. No one wants to believe a person could be so disadvantaged as to be simply stuck in utter poverty, especially where social immobility is said to be impossible. Hence, everyone in our capitalist society ignores or refuses to acknowledge subjugation and oppression. The personal statements the narrator reads of the SGs he hired on September 21st are the perfect example of social immobility and poverty that cannot be overcome: “Laotian (Tami) applied due to two sisters already in brothels. Moldovan (Gwen) has cousin who thought she was becoming window-washer in Germany, but no: sex slave in Kuwait (!). Somali (Lisa) watched father + little sister die of AIDS, same tiny thatch hut, same year. Flipina (Betty) has little brother “very skilled for computer,” parents cannot afford high school…” The narrator and his wife believe that they are giving these women an opportunity to work that they would not have had in their homelands, and as their choices were voluntary, the SG system is justifiable. This mirrors in exactitude the justification of capitalism: because he or she made the choice to become an immigrant worker, a sweatshop laborer, a prostitute, all work is acceptable and legitimate. Thus, the mistreatment of those oppressed persons and the SGs is easily ignored because of our belief system.

In the same way that the narrator justifies both his class envy and the subjugation of the SGs without truly acknowledging the occurrence of either, Saunders purposely covers up much of the plot of “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” The SGs are first mentioned in the narrator’s diary entry on September 6th, but their role as lawn ornaments is not explained to the reader in the context of the microline until September 23rd. The reason that the narrator blocks feeling any sympathy for the SGs is possibly because they remind him too much of himself and his own poverty. Going along with this theme of cover-ups, the abbreviation SGs is a cover-up of the name semplica girls. While at first this seems trivial, the cover-up of ordinary language has a more significant implication. It is often the case that those with any sort of political power are able to cover up what they choose because of the power that they hold. The Torrinis’ who have power through affluence, call the paper doll set the narrator’s family gives to Leslie “kitsch,” meaning of poor taste by ironically appreciated in some way. However, the narrator didn’t conceive of the gift as “kitsch” until the Torrinis said it was so. Similarly, coercive wage offers where the immigrant worker, the sweatshop laborer, or the prostitute is given the choice between working and starving are not defined as coercion because capitalists say these wage offers are voluntary. But is it actually reasonable to say that one is not forced to work, when he can choose to starve? (Cohen 280-281). Capitalists have come to define the word coercion overtime in a way that absolves them of any and all guilt. For example, a man named Karl tends the vegetable garden of the Torrinis, but the narrator states later on September 6th that the tender of the Torrinis’ flower garden is “weirdly also named Karl.” While hilarious, it is more plausible that the Torrinis simply choose to call both their (immigrant) workers by the name Karl rather than that being the name of both persons. Thus, the Torrinis are blocking the possible coercion of Karl and Karl through not using their true names or distinguishing one from the other and not calling coercion, coercion. This situation is repeated when the Torrinis’ patriarch asks about the narrator’s work: “He said, Well, huh, amazing the strange, arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things…” The narrator’s job is never revealed to the reader, but it is supposedly degrading. Therefore, the cover-up of the woes of capitalism resembles Saunders’ other cover-ups, but the theme continues even further with Saunders’ incredible sense of satiric humor.

When Lilly asks her father, the narrator, wouldn’t he love to live in a house like the Torrinis’, he begins to laugh while his wife, Pam asks him what Lilly is saying wrong. His opinion goes without saying; it is wrong that Lilly is not covering up her class envy. The narrator instead laughs off his misfortune, for example on September 15th with “Ha-ha! Must keep spirits up. Laughter best medicine, etc., etc.” On September 20th, he discusses his previous sadness before the Scratch-Off card winnings “due to worry vis-à-vis limitations.” Through what parallels the sentiments of a mid-life crisis, the narrator covers up and laughs off his loneliness, constant dissatisfaction, embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment simultaneously. While it is necessary to read the whole story to get the full effect of Saunders’ hilarious shorthand, equals signs, etc., his satire or dark humor are best depicted in this quote on September 22nd: “Note to self: Try to extend positive feelings associated with Scratch-Off win into all areas of life. Be bigger presence at work. Race up ladder (joyfully, w/ smile on face), get raise. Get in best shape of life, start dressing nicer. Learn guitar? Make point of noticing beauty of world?…” that extends all the way to a scene in the Alps where his kids sit with a crippled girl who later receives surgery which his family paid for and lands herself in the newspaper. Saunders parodies what happens when humans are inspired or happy and the entirety of our New Years’ resolutions all at one time. Because of the narrator’s bitter laughter and this dark humor, it becomes easy to ignore—again—the dark history and horrifying imagery of the SGs that lies beneath the satire.

However, despite Saunders’ hidden commentary on class envy, materialism, the capitalist system in general, and oppression, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” is not simply a warning to the future about the current state of political America. Oddly, his political commentary is not so much about politics as it is about exposure to the problems of politics and moral complexity. Near the end of the story, Eva chooses to let the SGs down from their posts because of her innate moral compass, but because of her actions, she jeopardizes her family’s future. But the cost of the lost SGs is not the only resulting detriment; without money, food, water, or an ability to acquire jobs as illegal fugitives, the SGs while free of subjugation but still connected to the microline, will probably die off shortly. Eva’s impulsivity, in effect, represents the goodness of intentions in sending money or food to poor people overseas in impoverished countries, which more often than not ends up getting lost to the control of local warlords or false distributors. While this final dissolution in Saunders’ story could suggest his proposal to dismantle our current capitalist system, the narrator’s reaction to his daughter’s choice makes any notion of Saunders’ political direction or views unclear. September 26th: “Felt like waking Eva, giving Eva hug, telling Eva that, though we do not approve of what she did, she will always be our girl…” In that the narrator is both prideful and disapproving of Eva, the reader realizes that every character in the story believes they are making ethical decisions in the time that they make them despite where those decisions lead. No one is deliberately evil or knowingly coercive in Saunders’ story and in addition to definitions misconstrued by the powerful, that is the reason for which the narrator questions why the SGs were so desperate to run away after choosing that line of work. Therefore, Saunders wants us to sympathize with Eva and her choice. Despite his engaging dark humor, Saunders is deeply empathetic of the whole of humanity.

While Eva’s solution to the oppression of the semplica girls was not really a solution at all, Saunders also does not develop a political solution for capitalism. He writes diary entries because they are personal reflections rather than proposals for what we can fix about society. He offers critiques without need of proposing solutions unlike Marxian claims against historical materialism and the need to free ourselves of delusion in order to see where our true interests lie. Even if America’s citizens eventually acknowledge that social mobility of subjugated persons isn’t always conceivable, most do not see a viable way to fix the problem. Art and literature offer a context where the exploration of ethics and moral ambiguity do not require this reduction to empirical study or resolution, where Saunders does not have to argue morally debatable issues from a nonmoral point of view. Thus, literature can break rules and expose imperfection in a way that politics cannot, and Saunders’ exposure to political problems does precisely that, but not only that. The story of the semplica girls is originally covered up, for if the reader were cognizant the whole time, the story would be but a political proposal to rid of capitalism or oppression. Yet through the process of deciphering the plot, the reader discovers Saunders’ empathy and faith in humanity in spite of his dark humor and dark subject material.

Note: With a question for the thesis to be uncovered in the conclusion, this paper was written to emulate, decipher, and admire Saunders’ method of modern literature. I apologize for not using page numbers as Saunders’ story does not include them, but I used as many diary dates as possible for purposes of location.

 Works Cited:

Cohen, Gerald Allan. Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 34-37, 53-61. Retrieved from FAPA.

Loewen, James W. “The Land of Opportunity,” in L. J. McIntyre, The Practical Skeptic: Readings in Sociology (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Saunders, George. “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” New York: The New Yorker, 2012.

Situating David Foster Wallace’s “Girl With Curious Hair”

            I’d like to start off by explaining what I’m trying to do in the blog post before I dive into it. Instead of doing another close reading, I chose a bit more of a radical path, although not quite as radical as a deformation. I’m going to try to situate the text of David Foster Wallace according to my knowledge of the time period in which “Girl With Curious Hair,” was written: 1989.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, or the two opposing superpowers, never engaged directly in full-armed combat on any scale. However, each side was heavily prepared to arm or rather bomb the other in what came to be known as a nuclear war. Yet, because the Manhattan Project stressed the idea of the atomic bomb, the mass destruction that it would manifest, neither side wished to use their arms. Nuclear possession became known as nuclear deterrents. While proxy wars involving third parties around the globe fought the battle that the two superpowers did not, the only kind of war that actually occurred was the war of the mind. The threat of mutually assured destruction along with propaganda and psychological warfare was enough to craze that generation of youth but also to simply make people crazy.

The reader first of Wallace’s “Girl With Curious Hair” comes to see the psychological state of the main character known as “Sick Puppy” on the first page of the story. Sick Puppy explains why he wears the cologne that he does, but then he transitions into a rather erotic spiel about the commercial that advertises the cologne. In this moment, the reader can see that the propaganda of the Cold War era is affective and influential above the norm, but he can also see that Sick Puppy is deeply disturbed, a fact that is realized when Sick Puppy gives the reader his name. Wallace plays with the name Sick Puppy and his disturbance when Sick Puppy’s punkrock friends allow him to burn a puppy after pouring gasoline on the poor thing, POOR SICK PUPPY. But sick puppy has now the pejorative connotation of a mentally disturbed or insane who does or says revolting, disgusting, bizarre, and perverted things. Sick Puppy is crazy.

As Sick Puppy obsesses with fire, it comes to be a physical motif of the story. He associates fire and his “golden lighter” with sexual arousal seen by his interactions with Gimlet, his sexual partner, and the desire to burn the backs of her legs (63). Her tumescent hair plays with his desire. At a Young Republican’s Party, Sick Puppy uses his gold lighter to set a man’s beard on fire simply because he did not like the man’s demeanor or reaction to Sick Puppy’s story about his family. The reoccurrence of the gold lighter becomes much more than representation of sexual arousal and passion; it becomes related to Sick Puppy’s past. Sick Puppy had told a story about his family’s military history. His father is prominent in the Marines and his brother is honored in carrying the black box of nuclear codes for the president. However, Sick Puppy was not admitted into the military like the rest of his family because he failed two tests for reasons unknown to the reader. Besides the logical conclusion that he is disturbed or has some kind of psychological disorder, his personal past is tied up with a contextual one of the nuclear era, deployed and unused troops, and the psychological effects of the Cold War.

While the members of Sick Puppy’s clan trip on LSD and are pulled over by a police officer near the beginning of the story, Gimlet attempts to throw a revolver at a tree, claiming it is radioactive. When Gimlet sees the curious blonde girl with the hair in the Irvine Concert Hall later in the story, she repeats herself: the hair “represented radioactive chemical waste product anti-immolation mojo” (63-64). The definition of immolation is to kill or destroy something or SOMEONE by fire. Here Gimlet is trying to extinguish both the power of the gun and the power of immolation despite her intoxicated state. At once, it seems that she is trying to extinguish the Cold War and the psychological effects that have taken over Sick Puppy as a result. But at the same time, these two scenes seem to mock the Cold War for being something so powerful that never materialized.

A sadistic pyromaniac, Sick Puppy was part the product of his upbringing. His father burned his private parts with that gold lighter as a child after a disturbing sequence of incest (72). Because Sick Puppy is always happy until he recalls any of his history, he almost attempts to use the lighter on his new friend Cheese who has reminded him of it at the concert hall. The relaxing of tension that occurs when he refrains mirrors the détente policy of the Cold War or the relaxing of nuclear threat. The images of both ice and sunrises in Cheese’s eyes refer to this “un-freezing” or “thawing” that occurs. However, it is a mistake to think that the Cold War was nothing because it had barely any casualties. Hence, the attempt to discount or to deny the existence of the Cold War is as “challenging to try to convince a jury or a jurist that what really happened didn’t really happen and the manufacturer’s product did not injure the customer” (65). The “Cold” War was a war of inner fires, and the psychological warfare and damage that resulted was in a way much more long lasting than quick death.

Introduction to Thomas Pynchon

Born May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, New York of Long Island, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. is an a contemporary American novelist and writer of short stories. He is sometimes considered a “high modernist” as opposed to a postmodernist, characterized by his unwavering confidence in science and technology as means to reorder the modern world, socially and naturally, during the Cold War era. Along with his emphasis on sociopolitical themes like racial discrimination and imperialism, Pynchon blurs the line between “high” and “low” culture, focusing on both the philosophies and theologies of the upper class and the cartoons, cookery, conspiracies, and pulp fiction of those less affluent.

Pynchon was named “student of the year” by his high school newspaper for his early use of oddball names, sophomoric or wise-fool humor, odes to illicit drug use, and paranoia throughout his early writings. He went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University before serving a term of two years in the Navy. However, upon returning to Cornell, he changed his degree to English and published his first story in the Cornell Writer drawing on a friend’s experience in the Army. Pynchon graduated in 1959 and from 1960 to 1962 was employed as a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle, where he compiled safety articles for a newsletter in support of the BOMARC surface-to-air missile deployed by the U.S. Air Force. This experience in technical journalism and his knowledge of physics later combined with his love for popular culture, obscure historical tales, and contemporary comic books and led to the mix of history, science, and mathematics that appears in his novels.

After resigning from Boeing, Pynchon spent time in both New York and Mexico, where he reportedly worked from the 1960s to the early 1970s in his Manhattan Beach apartment writing Gravity’s Rainbow, his most renowned novel. He won the National Book Award for Fiction for the book and a unanimous nomination for the Pulitzer Prize fiction award, but was turned down for being “unreadable and obscene.” Warner Berthoff claimed that Pynchon’s vast knowledge and encyclopedic effort was as “encyclopedically monotonous and static” with so many ideas presented at the same time in the same way or with “exactitude in imagination” (Norton 1483). However, the artistic value of Gravity’s Rainbow is often compared to that of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Despite the disagreement as to Pynchon’s, endurance as an American writer, his wit, daring, and exuberance were thought to exceed those of all his contemporaries. Pynchon flirted with the lifestyle and some of the habits of the Beat and Hippie countercultures rejecting traditional standards, but found later that beat culture “placed too much emphasis on youth, including the eternal variety” as he stated in his introduction to “Slow Learner.” While “Slow Learner” was published in 1984, many of the stories found within it were published sometime earlier, including “Entropy” of 1960, in which Pynchon’s inclinations towards freedom contrast with the institutions of technological society. “Entropy” introduces the concept with which Pynchon’s name has come to be associated as it is the law of nature in which everything slowly goes to disorder. As the world endures more irreversible processes of science, more free energy is lost. Thus, Pynchon compares this loss to the losses incurred through modernization and the increasing disorder of the society. “Entropy” preceded Pynchon’s first novel, V. of 1963, a book that is as hard to read as a labyrinth is to navigate. However, while a maze is complicated and irregular, requiring a choice between passages, a labyrinth has only a single path leading to the center. Similarly, each of the characters exuberant “individual paranoias,” in Pynchon’s stories, while absurd, return the reader right back to the central idea Pynchon is parodying, questioning and exploring. “In Pynchon’s world everything serious has its silly aspects, while bits of trivia and foolery are suddenly elevated, through the style, into objects of sublime contemplation…” (Norton 1483).

Pynchon received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988 and is frequently cited by Americans as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Influenced by such an eclectic group, it’s not worth naming any specific names that influenced Pynchon’s style that is wholly his own in the fiction of his time period. However, James Wood sometimes associates him with the genre of “hysterical realism” along with Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Salman Rushdie, writing the “big, ambitious novel” that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” and attempt to tell us “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.”

It is true that little else is known about Pynchon’s private life other than his time at Cornell University. Very little photos of him are in circulation; he is often called a recluse by the media. An article published in the Soho Weekly News actually claimed that Pynchon was in fact J. D. Salinger, to which Pynchon’s written response was “Not bad. Keep trying.” It is said that he moved to California after living in New York and married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson, descendant of Theodore Roosevelt and granddaughter of a Supreme Court Justice, where he fathered his son, Jackson, in 1991. Pynchon’s remaining novels, the last one dating 2013, are almost as dense, complex, and esoteric as the first couple, despite reaching towards the more conventional subjects of family drama and crime. I’ll leave you with his identifying words: “every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”

Revised: A CLOSE READING ON FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S CRITICISM IN “GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE”

Before Flannery O’Connor was a writer, she desired to become a political cartoonist, a person who emphasizes a character flaw of a politician or the stupidity of a political event by drawing it larger. But this mockery of politicians and events is not without purpose; it draws attention, literally, to areas of politics where change is required or might be made. In “Good Country People,” published in O’Conner’s 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, she emphasizes stereotypical human clichés or the flaws of her characters in the same way that she would expose those of a politician. Despite O’Connor’s southern roots and Roman Catholic faith, she criticizes every character within “Good Country People” from the bible-lovers to the highfalutin intellectual atheists. She does not seek likeability for her characters or offer resolutions in her story where resolutions do not exist, as the moral ambiguity of all her characters is meant to demonstrate the moral ambiguity of all human beings. In this way, O’Connor’s use of criticism exposes the reality of her character’s conceptions of what is good and meaningful as opposed to evil, whether it be religion, freedom, philosophy, etc., in hopes of improving those conceptions as well as any previous conceptions held by the reader.

The one-dimensional names O’Connor gives to her characters are immediately significant in that they assign a stereotypical function to each character, serving to interconnect them through collective criticism and point to numerous flawed conceptions of religion and freedom. Mrs. Hopewell literally hopes well, when she spews out clichés like “Nothing is perfect… that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too” (1341). She shuts her eyes to any form of negativity or pessimism, especially the discourse of her daughter Joy (1346). Mrs. Freeman, whom she hires to take care of things around the house, is the foil to Mrs. Hopewell because she sees to everything. Her “steel-pointed eyes” look down on Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter as they eat their breakfast every morning (1343). Yet, Mrs. Freeman is not a free man like her name suggests because she is the servant of Mrs. Hopewell, and her degree of interest in everyone’s affairs but her own leaves her little freedom to do anything for herself. Mrs. Hopewell labels her help or the Freeman family, “good country people” (1341) instead of trash, but the phrase “good country people” is later repeated throughout the story to refer ironically to Manly Pointer, who appears as a bible salesman at the beginning but turns out to be a thief of “interesting things” by the end (1353). It seems Mrs. Hopewell’s faith in God and in all humans to an almost comical degree led to her oversimplified impressions of both Mrs. Freeman and Manly Pointer. In Mrs. Hopewell’s last dialogue of the story upon seeing Manly Pointer run out of the woods, she preaches the words, “He was so simple… but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple,” misperceiving the evil con artist that is Manly Pointer. However, Mrs. Freeman states frankly that not everyone can be that simple (1353). She does not close her eyes to the world around her like Mrs. Hopewell because not all free men can be oversimplified as do-gooders with so many existing liberties to do evil. Thus, Manly Pointer’s role points to the reoccurring misconception of blind faith in the story.

The divergence between blind faith and philosophy is introduced to the story through the comparison of Mrs. Hopewell to her daughter. While the interesting thing Manly Pointer stole was in fact the prosthetic leg belonging to Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, he also points to the flaws of Joy, later turned Hulga. Although Hulga is thirty-two in the story and has already a Ph.D., Mrs. Hopewell still sees her as a child: “Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it… She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense” (1343). The childlike clothing choice and occasional mannerisms of Hulga throughout the story shows that one can have great intellect but be void of sense. It also demonstrates Hulga’s naivety or lack of real world experience. Mrs. Hopewell finds her reading books that denounce science on the basis that science is concerned only with “what-is” (1344). Since no phenomenon can ever fully be proved, science becomes the study of nothing. Hence, Hulga believes herself to be the embodiment of “what should be.” But if one’s world consists only of reading philosophical books with statements such as these and no confrontation with true hardship, it is very normal that religious faith would be seen as unnecessary. On the other hand, if one is not a college graduate but has experienced much over a lifetime, it is very normal that religious practice would be seen as a dominant part of life. Imagine the mixing of the two and they won’t see eye to eye. For example, Hulga once said to her mother, “Woman! Do you every look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!… Malebranche was right: we are not our own light!” (1344). While Hulga might have exclaimed “God!” out of frustration, it also seems that she is telling her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, that she cannot and will never be God or his preacher. Yet, in citing Malebranche, the philosopher, Hulga makes a mistake. He believed “we are not our own light” because God is our light, where as Hulga is trying to make the point that there is no light at all because there is no God in which to believe. It seems that O’Connor purposely employs this misquote so as to criticize both Mrs. Hopewell for her full reliance on God and Hulga for her full reliance on intellect at one time, creating opposing personas and a seemingly irremediable relationship. Malebranche was at once a philosopher and a man of faith; cannot Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga follow his lead?

The dichotomy or the line between religion and philosophy becomes even blurrier once O’Connor’s full criticism of Hulga’s reasoning is realized. Hulga prosthetic leg, an artificiality or deformity so to speak, exiles her from the rest of society (at least she believes it to). “She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” (1351). She obsesses over the grotesqueness of the leg and projects that obsession onto others like Mrs. Freeman because she believes herself to be devoid of all feeling. Her name too is significant in that it is a mirror image of her ugly leg, having “arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound” (1342). She also chose Hulga because it would allow her to detach herself from her mother. No longer Joy, she would deny Mrs. Hopewell any joy from her person. Thus, she changes her name to something stronger and removes everything from her life in the same way she does her mother so as to become less vulnerable, except for her leg of course. But in reality, she can’t remove herself from society entirely like she could her leg because all people seek some sort of attention, acceptance, or companionship. Hulga’s interaction with Manly Pointer becomes proof of her desire for something of the sort as she believes she is seducing a childlike bible salesman, when really, he is seducing her naïve self. “She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence… it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (1352). This seduction scene mirrors the image of Christ as someone decides to put all faith in him, which is ironic because Hulga is a proclaimed atheist and also because “innocence” is not normally associated with any form of seduction. Once Manly Pointer pulls out alcohol and playing cards from the inside of one of his Bibles, Hulga finally realizes his deception; he is not a “perfect Christian” (1353). The third and final irony is that Hulga attached herself to the only thing in her life that could literally be fully detached, her prosthetic leg, and Manly Pointer takes that leg upon leaving her. Pointer affirms at once that there exists both the idea of believing in absolutely nothing, as he turns out to be a nihilistic atheist himself, and having faith to contradict the evils of the world like theft. Hulga for example might need some kind of faith in her life after that experience. In conclusion, the reader is left not knowing which character to like or whether to side with religion, philosophy, or any other conception of good as O’Connor’s criticism has left no one and nothing unblemished.

O’Connor’s criticism seems to say that every human being is a composition of both good and evil parts. However, she does not attempt to preach or sermonize naively about how to become purely good or achieve perfection as a human being. With this quote, “…The good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969), Flannery O’Connor directs the reader to her ultimate goal. All of her characters from the faithful to the non-believers are criticized because none are fully developed in their conceptions of what is good and what is meaningful. Their character development is a forever-ongoing process as is the relationship between religion, philosophy, science, etc., in the real world. While Malebranche and Manly Pointer’s role seem to point to a form of coexistence between faith and philosophy as well as good and evil, we will never know the perfect combination. And while evil is easily recognizable, good cannot be recognized without evil; good requires the unmasking of clichés and evils to be realized. O’Connor’s use of criticism simply allows the reader to come closer to what is meaningful and good by unmasking what is not.

A deformation of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original (Pg. 533): “As philosophers have often pointed out, at least

This thing, the mute, undivided present,

Has the justification of logic, which

In this instance isn’t a bad thing

Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling

Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result

Into a caricature of itself. This always

Happens, as in the game where

A whispered phrase passed around the room

Ends up as something completely different.”

Deformation: At least as philosophers have often pointed out

This undivided present, the mute thing,

Which has the justification of logic,

Isn’t a bad thing in this instance

If the way of telling wouldn’t be

Twisting the end result didn’t somehow intrude

This always into a caricature of itself

As in the game where happens

Passed around the room a whispered phrase

As something completely different ends up.

 

The first five verses in the original quote of John Ashbery’s long poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror refer to “this thing,” which seems to point to the repeating image of time throughout the story. The time is “mute” because at present, it can no longer speak of the past. The present is “undivided” because every moment in time was at once the present; the past was present to those in the generation before us. The time, or the present moment, “has the justification of logic,” because time is measured in math, in number of hours and minutes past midnight or noon, designated by the position of the sun and the moon in the sky. However, the author conveys the message that the “telling” of time at any present in this logical manner actually twists proportions in trying to define them. Time can be conceived as an indefinite continued progress of existence or the events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. In this way, the present time is not something that can ever be told because it is never solidified. Time is a never-ending cycle of presents. In my “deformation” of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, I have attempted to reverse every verse in its phrasing by switching what comes before the caesura (the comma or logical breaking point) with what comes after. The first five verses of the deformation mirror the message of the first five verses of the original quote despite the switch in phrasing. The message is almost more clear in the deformation than in the original: “At least as philosophers have often pointed out this undivided present, the mute thing, which has the justification of logic…”.

The last five verses of the original quote state that in trying to define present time on a line, it becomes “a caricature of itself,” or a picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Then the author alludes to the game telephone in the last two verses, where someone starts with a word or a phrase and whispers it into the ear of another while that person then whispers it into the ear of another upon deciphering it. At the end of the game, normally played in a circle, the last person says what he has heard, and if all goes well (or terribly wrong), the word or phrase is not at all what it was at the beginning. The game is comical because everyone who plays laughs at what the word or phrase has become, as it is often very strange. Thus present time, happening too in a circle, becomes something that it once was not and the word “caricature” represents the comedy of this affair and others like it.

John Ashbery’s poem is an ode to the painting by the Italian Mannerist artist Parmigianino. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its exaggerated and artificial qualities. In Parmigianino’s painting, the hand of the man in the convex mirror appears much larger than the head. To Ashbery, this signifies that the artist of work does not intend his result; rather he is surprised by it because its present state doesn’t mirror what he had planned in the time of which he began. Hence, as Ashbery showed the caricature of the idea of present time, Parmiganio’s painting became a literal caricature instead of a self-portrait. The last five verses of my deformation shown in bold become completely illogical, for example, “As in the game where happens passed around the room a whispered phrase as something completely different ends up.” While it could be said that the deformation of these last five verses is not at all what the author intended in his original quote, the discombobulated art of them (“the end result”) actually conveys Ashbery’s overall message: the work becomes “a caricature of itself,” in trying to repeat itself. His message thus translates from the idea of present time to the intentions of an artist (Parmigianino) to the intentions of an author (Ashbery and myself) and the result is a kind of beauty.

A Close Reading on Flannery O’Connor’s Criticism in “Good Country People”

Flannery O’Connor, a devout Roman Catholic of southern roots, writes in a radically different fashion than her counterparts of the time, focusing on issues of morality rather than racial relations or discrimination.  “Good Country People,” published in her 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, explores the moral ambiguity of every character presented within the story, and in doing so, demonstrates the moral ambiguity of all human beings. O’Connor seems to say that every human being is a composition of both good and evil parts. However, she does not attempt to preach any messages related to her faith or sermonize about how to ultimately achieve pure good or perfection. In fact, she criticizes every character from the bible-lovers to the highfalutin intellectual atheists throughout her story without offering any clear message at all. But how are readers supposed to enjoy a story that doesn’t allow likeability of any of its characters or that offers no positive resolution?

Before O’Conner was a writer, she desired to become a political cartoonist, a person who emphasizes a character flaw of a politician or the stupidity of a political event by drawing it larger. But this mockery of politicians and events is not without purpose; it draws attention, literally, to areas of politics where change is required or might be made. In “Good Country People,” O’Conner emphasizes stereotypical human clichés or the flaws of her characters in the same way that she would expose those of a politician. Likability isn’t the intention and in realizing that nothing and no one is perfect, she does not seek to offer resolutions in her story where resolutions do not exist. Her criticism is meant to expose the reality of her character’s conceptions of good, whether it be religion, philosophy, etc., in hopes of improving those conceptions as well as any conceptions held by the reader. Once perceived, this ultimate goal of O’Connor’s short story transcends her surface-level cynicism.

The one-dimensional names O’Connor gives to her characters are immediately significant in that they assign a stereotypical function to each character, serving to distinguish them from one another but also to criticize them all straightforwardly. Mrs. Hopewell literally “hopes well,” when she spews out clichés like “Nothing is perfect… that is life! And… other people have their opinions too” (1341). She has faith in God and in all humans to an almost comical degree, but while she oversimplifies, she also shuts her eyes to any form of pessimism: “Mrs. Hopewell could not understand deliberate rudeness, although she lived with it…” (1346). Mrs. Freeman, whom she hires to take care of things around the house, is the foil to Mrs. Hopewell because she sees to everything. Her “steel-pointed eyes” look down on Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter as they eat their breakfast every morning (1343). She does not close her eyes to the world around her like Mrs. Hopewell because not all “free men” can be simplified as do-gooders with so many existing options to do evil. Yet, Mrs. Freeman is not a “free man” because her degree of interest in everyone’s affairs but her own leaves her little freedom to do anything for herself. Mrs. Hopewell labels Mrs. Freeman “good country people” (1341), rather than trash, but the phrase “good country people” is later repeated throughout the story to refer ironically to Manly Pointer. Manly Pointer appears as a bible salesman to Mrs. Hopewell at the beginning of the story, but turns out to be a thief of “interesting things” by the end (1353). In Mrs. Hopewell’s last dialogue of the story, she preaches the words, “He was so simple… but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple,” not knowing that he is actually this evil con artist (1353). Manly Pointer “points” to her faith in God and the good of humanity that leads to her oversimplified impressions of people as a flaw. While the interesting thing he stole was in fact the prosthetic leg belonging to Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, he also “points” to the flaws of Joy, later turned Hulga.

The divergence between different conceptions of what is right or good for society, between faith and philosophy, is introduced to the story through the comparison of Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter. Although Hulga is thirty-two in the story and has already a Ph.D., Mrs. Hopewell still sees her as a child: “Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it… She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense” (1343). The childlike clothing choice and occasional mannerisms of Hulga throughout the story shows that one can have great intellect but be void altogether of sense. It also demonstrates Hulga’s naivety or lack of real world experience. Mrs. Hopewell finds her reading books that denounce science on the basis that science is concerned only with “what-is” (1344), and since no phenomenon can ever fully be proved, science becomes the study of nothing. If one’s world consists only of reading books with statements such as these and no confrontation with true hardship, it is very normal that faith would be seen as unnecessary. On the other had, it is very normal that if one is not a student fresh out of college or has never attended college but has experienced much over their lifetime, that faith would be dominant in their life. Imagine the mixing of the two and they won’t see eye to eye. For example, Hulga once said to her mother, “Woman! Do you every look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!… Malebranche was right: we are not our own light!” (1344). While Hulga might have exclaimed “God!” out of frustration, it also seems that she is telling her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, that she is not God or his preacher. Yet, in citing Malebranche, the philosopher, Hulga makes a mistake. He believed “we are not our own light” because God is our light, where as Hulga is trying to make the point that there is no light at all because there is no God in which to believe. Malebranche was at once a philosopher and a man of faith. It seems that O’Connor purposely employs this misquote so as to criticize both Mrs. Hopewell for her full reliance on God and Hulga for her full reliance on intellect at one time, leaving no character in the story without criticism.

However, Hulga’s full criticism is not realized until the end of the story. Hulga wears a prosthetic leg as her real leg was shot off in a hunting accident when she was young, and this artificiality or deformity so to speak, exiles her from the rest of society (at least she believes it to). She obsesses over the grotesqueness of the leg and projects that obsession onto others like Mrs. Freeman because she believes herself to be devoid of all feeling. Yet, “she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Her name too is significant like those of the other character’s, having “arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound” (1342), a mirror image of her ugly leg, and secondly, because she would no longer be attached to her mother. No longer “Joy,” she would deny Mrs. Hopewell any “joy” from her person. Thus, she changes her name to something stronger and removes everything from her life in the same way she did her mother so as to become less vulnerable, except of course for the leg. She is deeply afraid of vulnerability. But in reality, she can’t remove herself from society entirely like she can her leg because all people seek some sort of attention, acceptance, or companionship. Hulga’s interaction with Manly Pointer becomes proof of her desire for something of the sort as she believes she is seducing a childlike bible salesman, when really, he is seducing her naïve self. “She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence… it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (1352). This seduction scene mirrors the image of Christ as someone decides to put all faith in him, which is ironic because Hulga is a self-proclaimed atheist and also because the word “innocence” is not normally associated with any form of seduction. Once Manly Pointer pulls out alcohol and playing cards from the inside of one of his Bibles, Hulga finally realizes his deception; he is not a “perfect Christian” (1353). The third and final irony is that Hulga attaches herself to the only thing in her life that is literally fully detachable, her prosthetic leg, and Manly Pointer takes that leg upon leaving her. In conclusion, the reader is left not knowing which character to like or even to relate wholly to while Pointer affirms at once that there exists both the idea of believing in absolutely nothing, as he is a nihilistic atheist himself, and having faith to contradict the evils of the world like his own.

With this quote, “…The good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969), Flannery O’Connor directs readers to her ultimate goal. All of her characters from the faithful to the non-believers are criticized because none are fully developed in their conceptions of what is good and what is meaningful. Their character development is a forever-ongoing process as is the relationship between religion, philosophy, science, etc., in the real world. While Malebranche and Manly Pointer’s roles in the story seem to “point” to a form of coexistence between faith and philosophy as well as good and evil, we will never know the perfect combination; and while evil is easily recognizable, good requires the unmasking of clichés and evils to be realized. O’Connor’s use of criticism simply allows the reader to come closer to what is meaningful and good by unmasking what is not.

Comparison of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman

Ginsberg (p. 1356)- “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,…

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,”

Whitman (p. 40)- “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son. Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,

No sentimentalist, no stander above mean and women or apart from them, No more modest than immodest.

Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs!”

 

Stylistically, Allen Ginsberg commences “Howl,” in the same way that Walt Whitman commences Part 24 of “Song of Myself.” Ginsberg repeats the term “who” as he opens part I of “Howl” while Whitman repeats “no” and “unscrew” in his successive opening statements. In doing so, the authors have appealed to litany as it is used by the Church, consisting of a series of petitions recited by a leader and alternating with fixed responses by a congregation. As a congregation or the members of a Christian church have recited repetitively, “God, the Father of heaven, Have mercy on us… God, the Holy Spirit, Have mercy on us,” for example, Ginsberg and Whitman ask their readers to recite “who” and “unscrew,” words that serve as focal points of rhythm. Parts II, III, and the footnote of Ginsberg’s Howl, repeating the terms “Moloch,” “Rockland,” and “Holy,” beg the same purpose: to emotionally charge readers to join the cause of the authors. Ironically, the “litanic” language is used to ask Ginsberg and Whitman’s readers to join in the chant or “howl” for the rejection of traditional standards and the embrace of new standards.

Repetition is not the only style of language common to both Ginsberg and Whitman. It seems that Ginsberg has also derived his use of free verse with no need for rhyme or fixed meter from that of Whitman. “Madness, starving hysterical naked,” is strikingly similar to the phrase, “Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.” The incomplete sentences and the sporadic use and sometimes disuse of punctuation serve to point to Ginsberg and Whitman’s rejection of traditional rules of language. This rejection of traditional language is reflected by Ginsberg and Whitman’s historical rejection of traditional institutions. Whitman believed in transcendentalism where institutions such as religion and political parties corrupt the purity of the individual and only fully independent individuals can comprise a community. Similarly, Ginsberg was an integral part of the “Beat” culture that involved experimentation with drugs, homosexuality, an interest in Eastern religions, etc. This is evident in the quote above where Ginsberg confronts drugs through “smoking,” worldly religion with “El and… Mohammedan angels,” and “poverty.” His readers will come to accept the obscene.

However, while Whitman too confronted the “sensual, eating, drinking and breeding” taboos oh his time, he did so by asking the individual to “unscrew the lock from the doors!” “Song of Myself” asks the individual to become independent before joining any community through Whitman’s own self-realization. On the contrary, Ginsberg uses the word “who” in reference to “the best minds of [his] generation” to ask an entire community or collective to reject traditional standards altogether. It seems that Ginsberg extended upon Whitman’s free verse of the 1850s to create a larger counterculture more relevant to the 1950s.

“No I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” (941)

Zora Neale Hurston tells her story “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in the first person. She also starts most of her sentences with “I” or “The.” While this practice would be extremely bothersome in an essay handed in by a college student, Hurston’s first person, simple dialect parallels the story she tells of her childhood. She doesn’t use large confuscating words like “confusticating,” which may or may not even be an actual word; I’m not quite sure. She uses language that can be understood by all. She does not shorten her vocabulary to dumb down the work per se, but to show that she will always be true to herself. She is clever and her position on struggles of race is unambiguous as is the form her writing takes.

The quote I chose demonstrates this unambiguity in both her writing and her beliefs. Hurston is not sad that discrimination is rampant. She is not prone to dwell on the slave histories of the past and her descent from such misery. She does not see a reason to “weep.” The alliteration “weep at the world” is somewhat “sing-songy” or musical as in the poetry of Langston Hughes, which spoke more of the blues and less of the future. The dash shows that Hurston will break away from this mournful tradition. She tells us instead that she is “sharpening” her knife. While this could be misconstrued as violent terminology, associated with radical activist movements against racism and discrimination, her optimistic writing style points to other conclusions. Hurston acknowledges that divisions in color still exist, but she seems to long for a future of collectivism rather than anything “separate but equal.” The significance of the “oyster knife” could be that an oyster itself has a hard shell, something someone could see from the outside and disfavor, but inside may present a pearl. Similarly, she talks about brown paper bags at the end of her story that spill out contents alike. White, black, yellow, or red, inside a person may be a pearl of a personality and inside two or more people may be common ground. Hurston’s writing style and form embrace a future progress of integration.

“Contagious” (781)

William Carlos Williams opens his poem “Spring and All” with the line: “By the road to the contagious hospital.” Instantly, the audience imagines someone in trouble, someone hurt, or someone in need of help on the road to a hospital seeking care. Yet, the hospital is painted grimly with the adjective “contagious,” meaning something spread from one person or organism to another by direct or indirect contact. Thus, we imagine this person on the road is sick or diseased. While hospitals save lives and keep the sickly housed and fed, the white walls, the small of disinfectant, and the idea of being surrounded by impending death and the “contagious,” coughing patients often create a very bleak picture of the institution. However, the word “contagious” does not necessarily refer to the spread of disease; the spread of ideas is “contagious.” Humans are capable of thought and communication. Overtime we have developed science and the instructing of recurrent ideas through education. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries was a contagious disease of sorts as people caught the idea of individualism from one another. The Renaissance before that spread ideas of humanism and secularism with some stray from religion and the Protestant Reformation diverging from Catholicism.

The word “renaissance” literally means rebirth. Similarly, “Spring and All,” personifies the season of spring, which is a symbol for rebirth, life and growth. The “profound change” of spring’s arrival at the end of William Carlos Williams’ poem is a metaphor for the changes that were occurring in the early twentieth century. World War I had ended and people were producing new technology and becoming MODERN. Poets like William Carlos Williams were writing modernist manifestos to encourage departure form traditionalism. “Spring and All” is actually the title of a volume of Williams Carlos Williams that includes a modernist manifesto professing these radical modernist ideas hoping to catch or convince the audience (contagiously). He encourages the evolution of our ideas, which involves a “plagiarism” of past ideas, but also an “imagination” to expand on those ideas (Norton 804). While these “contagious” modern ideas may cause some disagreement or some chaos in their spread, they are necessary for growth. Returning to the image of the hospital, some will go to die while others will go for contagion, rebirth, and further development. Hence, at the beginning of the poem, mankind is only “by the road to the contagious hospital,” while at the end, mankind is along it.