oranges

Gender and Non-Normativity in Jeanette Winterson’s [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit]

Front cover of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Front cover of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (henceforth OANOF) is a 1985 Bildungsroman (novel of development) centered on the life of Jeanette, a girl who is adopted and raised by a woman who happens to be a fundamentalist Christian. Jeanette’s mother believes in literal translations of the Bible, and she freely uses religious rhetoric to accommodate her black and white fashion of viewing the world. As Jeanette, the narrator, mentions early on in the novel, her mother “had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies” (3). Although Jeanette happens to feel greatly connected to her church and her church’s teachings, this fidelity towards the supposed perfection of the church becomes challenged as she realizes that she is sexually and romantically drawn towards women. OANOF focuses most of its attention on the tensions and frictions that spark when Jeanette’s sexual life clashes with her religious life, and on the drastic measures that her church takes to drive the “demon” of “unnatural passions” away from her.

Although Jeanette’s development and moral growth is most certainly the focus of this novel, a lot of the content is focused on her strange relationship with her mother, and even more so, on the mother’s blind and ritualistic devotion to her church. The mother desperately tries to shield Jeanette from evils, especially those associated with gender and sexuality. For instance, when Jeanette develops a friendship with an ostensibly lesbian couple that runs a paper shop, the mother soon forbids Jeanette from going to that store because there was a rumor that “they dealt in unnatural passions” (7). Seeing as the mother doesn’t speak to her daughter about matters of gender, sexuality, and the body, Jeanette naively believes that “unnatural passions” are referring to the fact that the couple puts chemicals in their sweets.

This desire to protect Jeanette from evil, in addition to the mother’s penchant for explaining phenomena using religious rhetoric, makes it increasingly difficult for Jeanette to adjust to the outer world. For instance, Jeanette goes deaf for three months in the novel. Rather than taking Jeanette to the hospital, the mother begins to inform everyone that Jeanette is “in a state of rapture” (23), and she prevents people from speaking to her. It is Miss Jewsbury, a closeted lesbian, who brings Jeanette to the hospital to be treated for her condition. Jeanette realizes that her condition is due to biological processes rather than spiritual rapture, and it is in this moment that she begins to question the perfection and infallibility of her church:

Since I was born I had assumed that the world ran on very simple lines, like a larger version of our church. Now I was finding that even the church was sometimes confused. This was a problem. But not one I chose to deal with for many years more. (27)

It is in this moment that Jeanette begins her process of development and maturation: it is the moment in which she realizes that her mother doesn’t have all of the right answers, and neither does the church. Thus, rather than resorting to donning the mother’s ideological perspective of the world, which consists of viewing things as either good or bad, Jeanette must learn to challenge herself to explore areas of contradiction and ambiguity that do not necessarily conform with the notions of right or wrong.

It is  during Jeanette’s time time at the hospital that that the motif of oranges becomes heavily introduced into the narrative, for her mother constantly sends her oranges along with some “get better soon” letters when she doesn’t have the time to visit Jeanette. Throughout the novel, the only fruit that Jeanette’s mother will give to her is the orange, for it is “The only fruit” (29). Little is said as to why oranges are deemed to be the only fruit worthy of consumption. However, the meaning behind the orange is not necessarily based on the fruit itself, but rather, on how the fruit is used. First and foremost, oranges become a way of further characterizing Jeanette’s mother, showing how she perceives the world categorically, and showing how she desires to limit the options that Jeanette can have. Furthermore, since oranges are the only fruit that are validated from the mother’s perspective, all of other fruit go on to lack legitimacy. Much later on in the novel, when Jeanette gets slightly ill, her mother brings her a bowl of oranges, and the following scenario takes place:

I took out the largest and tried to peel it. The skin hung stubborn, and soon I lay panting, angry and defeated. What about grapes or bananas? I did finally pull away the other shell, and, cupping both hands round, tore open the fruit. (113)

In this context, it becomes a little more clear that oranges are representing either gender or heterosexuality. By questioning why she can’t have other fruit, Jeanette puts into question the limitations that are imposed on her in terms of her choices and preferences. Notice that she has trouble accessing the orange’s pulp, which can symbolize the difficulty that Jeanette has towards complying with a simplistic, limited, heteronormative view of the world. It would be much easier for her to eat grapes or bananas, however, we observe that Jeanette’s mother is still coercing her to struggle with oranges.

The entire spectrum of fruit, in this interpretive view, would go on to represent the entire spectrum of gender–the mother’s efforts to impose oranges as the only good fruit go on to represent efforts to approach a single gender or sexual orientation has valid and legitimate. As can be expected, the mother’s views toward fruit also apply towards her views on gender and sexuality: “I remembered the famous incident of the man who’d come to our church with his boyfriend. At least, they were holding hands. ‘Should have been a woman that one,’ my mother had remarked” (127). This leads Jeanette to one of her many philosophical musings, in which she recognizes the fact that her mother is unable to interpret the world without resorting to the use of binaristic thinking. Instead of accepting the fact that these two men are, in due course, simply men, she resorts to approaching one of the men as a woman. But, as Jeanette remarks:

This was clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it. (128)

The desire to steer away from convention and normativity is a staple of this novel. Just as Jeanette desires another fruit besides an orange, she also desires to be romantically involved with someone besides a man. Jeanette’s penchant for non-normativity is even expressed in her artistic inclinations and projects. While Jeanette is in school, she truly strives to win a prize in the school’s various artistic competitions. While at first she loses these competitions because of her adherence to religious doctrine, she notices that she still continues to lose competitions even when she presents projects that are non-religious in their themes. For instance, in an Easter Egg painting competition, Jeanette creates an elaborate diorama that recreates a scene from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des NibelungenHowever, she loses to a a student who covers eggs in cotton in order with the title of “Easter Bunnies” (48). Jeanette realizes that even though her masterpiece was definitely the best project submitted to the competition, she loses simply because she steers away from convention. Rather than creating a habitual Easter-themed project for the competition, she strives to be different and creative, which essentially makes Jeanette a queer character in many other aspects besides her sexuality.

As I mentioned previously, Jeanette’s queerness certainly causes her a lot of pain and heartache, which is perhaps epitomized when she is publicly accused for being a lesbian while in church. The church members deem that Jeanette and her girlfriend, Melanie, have engaged in homosexual activity because they are possessed by demons. This accusation sparks a lot of commotion in the church, and thus, one of the most confusing and convoluted sections of this novel takes place. After the accusation, Jeanette escapes the church and goes to Miss Jewbury’s home. Miss Jewbury does her best to comfort Jeanette, and out of the blue, the two have sex: “We made love and I hated it and hated it, but would not stop” (106). When Jeanette returns home after her encounter with Jewbury, the tension of the novel escalates to an unprecedented degree as members of her church congregation perform an intense exorcism on her. The members stay from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. “praying over [her], laying hands on [her], urging [her] to repent [her] sins before the Lord” (107). The exorcism ultimately culminates with Jeanette being locked up in a room for 36 hours without food, and she only claims to be repentant in order to get access to food.

The resolution and “conclusion” of the novel focus on Jeanette becoming closely involved with the church as she also begins a relationship with a new church member named Katy. Contrary to the beliefs of her congregation, Jeanette firmly believes that her spiritual and sexual life are able to coexist. She is soon caught in a compromising situation with Katy, and her mother proceeds to kick her out of their home. This so-called failure pushes Jeanette to move to a city and start a new life–while unfortunately being deprived of her family and her history. She eventually returns to her old home to visit her mother, who seems to express a degree of ambivalence towards Jeanette–they do talk, but they never discuss Jeanette’s love life. The conclusion, however, shows a surprising revelation: Jeanette’s mother starts its first mission with black people–and she serves them pineapple because “she thought that’s what they ate” (172). Because of this, Jeanette’s mother ends up eating many dishes with pineapple in it, while claiming, philosophically, that “oranges are not the only fruit” (172). Thus, while the novel certainly ends in a sad note, indicating that many people still believe that Jeanette is possessed, the mother’s acceptance of other fruit leads the reader to believe that perhaps the mother is not viewing the world in the conceptually simplistic fashion that she used to. Just like white and black communities are starting to coexist in the mother’s church, the mother’s black and white conceptual distinctions start to blur.

On a personal note, this novel is fabulous. It is touching, shocking, and even funny at times. This novel is definitely a cornerstone of LGBTQ lit, even though the author does not necessarily consider OANOF to be a lesbian novel.  While I do recognize the universality of the themes present in the novel, I can particularly see how LGBTQ readers would appreciate and love this masterpiece.

You can purchase a copy of Winterson’s novel here.

Thoughts? Comments? Opinions? Please feel free to engage in this conversation using the comments section below!

Work Cited

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London: Pandora, 1989. Print (paperback edition).

Chocolate War Header

Masculinity in Robert Cormier’s [The Chocolate War]

Front cover of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War

Front cover of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War

It’s 1:53 a.m. and I currently can’t sleep because of this book. I was going to wait and write about it in the morning, but I really need to engage in the cathartic process of writing in order to make sense of all of the thoughts that are fireworking in my head. I was expecting a tale that discusses the triumph of good over evil–a tale of empowerment for individualistic resistance over systematic injustice. I received the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Chocolate War has earned a place in my top-ten list of favorite YA novels, but I will warn you that the book is ultimately very bleak and depressing. If your positive judgment of a book depends on a happy ending, then I suggest that you skip this novel.

The Chocolate War is a book that is told from a subjective third person point-of-view, but this perspective carousels through the thoughts and emotions of particular students at Trinity School: a private, religiously-affiliated high school in the New England area. Although the story centers on the thoughts of various students in the school, it can be said that Jerry Renault is the novel’s protagonist, and he is also the source of the novel’s main tension. Although the Trinity School is technically run by the Brethren that teach and administer the educational system, the thoughts and actions of students are also dictated by a secret school society known as The Vigils, who use scare tactics and intimidation in order to secure their influence.

Students are often given “assignments” by The Vigils, which can be approached as a type of hazing that the secret society uses to assure that it is perceived as a force to be reckoned with. Assignments can include mundane things such as forcing students to get up from their seats every time a teacher mentions the word “environment,” to more serious matters, such as destabilizing all of the desks and chairs in a classroom. During the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser, Jerry Renault is given the assignment to deny selling chocolates for ten days–a problem, seeing as every student besides Renault decides to sell chocolate. The main issue in the novel arises when Jerry continues to resist selling chocolates after the ten day period in an act of defiance towards The Vigils and the school administration. The bulk of the novel focuses on the ostracism that Jerry faces when trying to defy The Vigils, and the measures that they take to assure their power and dominance in Trinity School. By taking a stand, Jerry tries to follow and understand the words of T.S. Eliot by asking himself whether he dares to “disturb the universe,” (see Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“) a quote found on a poster that Jerry has in his locker.

The Chocolate War is a very gendered novel, which is partly unsurprising given the fact that Trinity School focuses on single-sex male education. Various elements within the novel emphasize maleness and the traits that are usually (and stereotypically) associated with it, such as power, dominance, and violence. Sports such as boxing and football are the most popular and revered activities that take place within the school; their practice often demonstrates how physical prowess often trumps intelligence and creativity in this environment. All teachers within the school are religiously affiliated men, and they are addressed as Brother by students. As a matter of fact, there is little to no feminine or maternal presence in the novel. When girls are mentioned by students, they are usually presented as objects of sexual attraction. Even Jerry is known for his lack of a maternal figure, since early in the novel it is established that his mother passed away during the spring before his freshman year (the time period in which the novel takes place). This lack of a feminine presence is in no way a mishap, and it actually serves as a motif to foreground the power struggles and dynamics that are in the heart of The Chocolate War. 

The characters’ efforts to uphold a visage of traditional masculinity is overwhelming. Whenever certain characters, such as Archie (the novel’s twisted and manipulative villain), encounter another figure that is trumping them in terms of authority, they automatically regress into an irrational inner struggle of Patrick Bateman-esque proportions. Take for instance, Archie’s reaction when The Vigils’ president threatens him:

Blood stung Archie’s cheeks and a pulse throbbed dangerously in his temple. No one had ever talked to him that way before, not in front of everyone like this. With an effort he made himself stay loose, kept that smile on his lips like a label on a bottle, hiding his humiliation. (187)

Many other characters in the novel are unable to contain their fits of tears and frustration when encountering the many injustices triggered by the rule of The Vigils. However, the most salient trait that is exemplified through this constructed masculine space would be violence–not only subjective violence, as in fist-fights, bullying, and physiological reactions, but also objective violence as represented through hate speech and through the manipulation and control enforced by the secret society and the school administration (please see Zizek’s Violence for more information on these types of violence). At first, Jerry’s decision to refuse selling chocolates can be considered an act of resistance towards the objective violence that is systematically imposed upon all students at Trinity High. The downward spiral for Jerry, however, occurs when this objective violence flourishes into downright brutal and subjective violence. The moment of this transition is seen quite literally in the novel, when a bully by the name of Janza is blackmailed into harassing Jerry to the point that he reciprocates violence with more violence (rather than resistance). As can be seen in the following exchange between Jerry and Janza:

“Hiding what? Hiding from who?” [Jerry]

“From everybody. From yourself, even. Hiding that deep dark secret.”

“What secret?” Confused now.

“That you’re a fairy. A queer. Living in the closet, hiding away.”

Vomit threatened Jerry’s throat, a nauseous geyser he could barely hold down.

“Hey, you’re blushing,” Janza said. “The fairy’s blushing . . .”

“Listen . . .” Jerry began but not knowing, really, how to begin or where. The worst thing in the world–to be called queer. (211-212)

After this exchange, Jerry retorts by calling Janza a “son of a bitch,” which leads Janza to summon a group of kids that brutally bash Jerry. Note here that what fuels Jerry’s wrath is the fact that he is called queer. Up to that point, he had done a decent job of resisting the taunts and threats of his peers due to his refusal to sell chocolates. What I find interesting in this chapter is that in essence, Jerry can be approached as a queer (or non-normative) character due to the fact that he denies engaging in the activity that will make him normal or orthodox–if he didn’t want to set himself apart, all he had to do was sell chocolates. His resistance, however, can be approached as queer resistance because he wanted to break away from the norm: “Mainly, he didn’t want to fight for the same reason he wasn’t selling the chocolates–he wanted to make his own decisions, do his own thing, like they said” (211).

Despite his penchant for non-normativity, being called a queer was too offensive and disruptive given the masculine attitudes that permeate his surroundings. Thus, Jerry’s hatred towards Janza for calling him queer even pushes him to engage in the boxing match at the end, a boxing match that leads to his demise. The final chapters of the novel end with Jerry proclaiming his regret towards being non-normative, he proceeds to think about how one must ultimately comply with the will of “superior powers” and authority figures if one desires to have a livable life. He thinks about the new “knowledge” he has obtained as he lies bloodied and broken in the arms of his friend, Goober:

He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say. (p. 259)

The ending may be bleak and downright depressing, but I don’t necessarily think that the novel is designed to perpetuate a dislike of rebellion, nor do I think that it presents all resistance movements as futile. I think that Jerry’s loss of faith in himself and in his ability to disturb the universe rests not on his failure, but on the fact that he was left alone in his pursuit of non-normativity. What I found deeply disturbing is that nobody takes a stand for Jerry during the boxing match that leads to his demise, not even his close friend, Goober, who just sits and watches Jerry be beaten to a pulp with the rest of the students from Trinity High. Without a doubt, Jerry is presented as a scapegoat figure, meant to absorb all of the negativity, the tensions, and the evils of his community that are perpetuated through masculinity and through corrupt power.

The novel is ambiguous in terms of its stance on disturbing the universe. On one hand, we can accept Jerry’s defeat as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, we can accept it as a challenge to ourselves–a challenge that pushes us to question the extent to which we can or should disturb the universe ourselves.

Do yourself a favor, and read the book! And as always, please feel free to add to this conversation or to challenge anything discussed in this post!

You can purchase a copy of Cormier’s novel here.

Work Cited

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1974. Print.

the-triumph-of-death

Logan Kain’s [The Dead Will Rise First]

Front cover of Logan Kain's The Dead Will Rise First

Front cover of Logan Kain’s The Dead Will Rise First

Lately, I’ve been on a quest to read self-published young adult fiction, mostly because I’ve noticed that self-published authors tend to take more risks when crafting their stories. The reasons for this are obvious: there is no middle-man, no editor, and even more importantly, self-published authors do not face issues such as censorship and the de-gaying of characters. During the winter break, one of the most interesting self-published gay YA novels that I read would have to be Logan Kain’s The Dead Will Rise First: A Manuscript Found in What Was Known as Texas. 

I thought the book’s cover and the title were intriguing, but what ultimately captivated my attention was the novel’s unique premise: during the rapture, the souls of Christian believers are whisked away to heaven, leaving behind the mortal bodies that these souls inhabited. Given that these bodies (known as the “freed” or “the neighbors” in the novel) no longer possess a soul, they don’t have a consciousness that allows them to deliberate between right and wrong. The “freed” still possess memories of their past lives, they can think, they can organize, and they can feel certain emotions, but they do not fear death, and more importantly, they give in to any carnal or primal desire that they feel. Thus, they eat human flesh, they rape anyone that arouses them even in the slightest, and they burn houses in a demonic and celebratory fashion. The freed are like a more evolved and perverse type of zombie, capable of thinking and of dying, and cursed with the insatiable urgency to unleash their id (in a Freudian sense).

In the midst of these events, the novel focuses on a group of “survivors” who are not transported into heaven during the rapture due to their lack of faith or belief in God. The protagonist of the story, TJ, is one of these survivors. Early on in the novel, TJ reveals that he is gay, and when I first read the novel, I thought that the narrative was insinuating that TJ wasn’t raptured by God because of his sexual orientation. However, the reason TJ was not “rescued” has more to do with the tumultuous relationship that he develops with God because of the tension that exists between his sexual orientation and the unwavering demands of religion. The novel hints that TJ’s parents and religious figures within his community try to coerce him into living a celibate life in order to assure that his soul would be free from damnation, but TJ finds it difficult to suppress and ignore feelings that come so naturally to him. Because of the contradictions that arise between his feelings and the teachings of the church, TJ proclaims his hatred to God–which thus prevents his soul from joining the ranks of heaven.  TJ ultimately rejects the possibility that God has good intentions, and this rejection is fueled by the repercussions produced by the rapture itself. Not only is he unable to be saved, but now he must struggle to survive in a world in which the “freed” have become morally corrupt rapists and flesh eaters:

“God, I don’t get you. First, you say in the Bible being gay is wrong, and then you make me gay. I pray and pray and beg to be straight and you don’t let that happen. If that wasn’t already enough, you let everyone turn into monsters, and now, now that everything has gone to Hell around me, you put Ryan right next to me. Well God, I’m done playing by your rules. Do your worst.” (location 822)

The Dead Will Rise First explores the extent to which our lives are predestined to end up in a certain way, and even more so, it explores how social constructs such as culture and religion regulate bodies to the extent that non-normative individuals aren’t able to thrive or live a comfortable life. TJ’s story illustrates this tension: because religion tries to regulate his sexuality, TJ ends up hating God and religion. Because he hates God and religion, he is unable to be saved and must now live in a world ridden with flesh-eating rapists.

Kain’s  novel beautifully discusses the notion of survival and livability, and this is perhaps one of the text’s greatest assets. Naturally, livability and survival are prominent themes within most (post)apocalyptic fiction, especially when it comes to texts with zombie-like creatures. This novel possesses many of the elements and rituals found in most, if not all, “zombie” fiction–such as the search for food and weapons, the creation of shelter, and the struggles of power and sanity that manifest in small communities. However, behind these orthodox struggles found within the genre, we witness how TJ contemplates the woes of not being able to live the way he wants to due to the restrictions imposed on him by religion and society. Before the events of the rapture, it can be argued that TJ’s queer self was struggling to live and to survive, and even before the advent of the “freed,” TJ often confronts mindless and insensitive subjects who threaten to eradicate TJ’s queerness with no solid rhyme or reason. It is thus slightly ironic that the end of the world is approached as an event that allows TJ to fully embrace his sexuality and put it into practice–although after the rapture, he struggles to survive in a physical sense, his sexuality is given a space to thrive due to the obliteration of socio-cultural and religious restraints. With the end of society comes the end of regulation. Does this imply that an apocalypse is necessary for queerness to thrive? Maybe not an apocalypse, but definitely a dramatic reconfiguration of norms and regulations as we currently know and live them.

This novel offers wonderful food for thought, and overall, I thought it was a clever satire with great moments of suspense and thrill. I did think that certain elements within the novel were rushed, particularly the central romance that takes place within the novel–but after careful thought and consideration, I’ve come to appreciate this rushed nature. After all, given that the characters are put into a hopeless and precarious situation, I understand that they have little time to overthink and to overanalyze their feelings. The end of the world forces the characters to think and act quickly, and given that death always seems to be lurking around the corner, they must deal with their troubles with more immediacy and urgency.

Another element that sets this novel aside is its tone, its directness, and its harshness. If you are a fan of happy outcomes and happy endings, this is not a novel that I’d recommend to you. However, if you appreciate unhappy endings and outcomes as a method of delivering an important, thought-provoking message, then you should give this novel a shot. Rather than focusing on the novel’s lugubrious and somber events and consequences, why not trying focusing on the reasons the novel demands its particular ending and its gloomy outcomes?

You can purchase a copy of Kain’s novel here.

Work Cited

Kain, Logan. The Dead Will Rise First: A Manuscript Found in What Was Known as Texas. Smashwords, 2013. Amazon Kindle E-book.

Mechanical.Heart

J.C. Lillis’ [How to Repair a Mechanical Heart]: A Gay YA Novel on Fandom, Religion, and Canonicity

Front cover of J.C. Lillis' How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

Front cover of J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

If there is one thing that gay young adult fiction should be thankful for, that thing would be the internet. Because of the advent of the web, we have witnessed the increase of self-published e-novels distributed through online stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Self-publishing, in my opinion, greatly expands the possibilities of gay young adult fiction, not only because authors are free to be more experimental and explicit when it comes to the novel’s content and structure, but also because they do not have to comply with the expectations and demands of a publishing house or an editor. J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012) is definitely one of the most unique gay YA novels that I have read this year, not only in terms of its content, but also in terms of its narrative techniques and devices. Although, on the surface level, the novel is centered on the blossoming relationship between two teenage boys, How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, offers readers a fresh take on the uneasy tension that exists between religion and homosexuality.

Now, religion is a topic that is found in many YA books dealing with homosexuality. Some of these novels, such as Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, take a more didactic and realistic approach to the issue, going as far as to present characters that discuss homosexuality by directly citing a barrage of Biblical rhetoric. Other novels, such as Timothy Carter’s Evil?, take a more fantastical and satirical (and hilarious) approach to the tension between religion and homosexuality through the incorporation of characters such as demons and fallen angels. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart tackles the issue of religion and homosexuality through a realistic approach, however, the exploration of this issue is framed through an exploration of fandom subculture. Although at first I was skeptical about whether a gay YA novel could pull off discussing tough issues through fan culture (which includes Comic Con-esque events, the reading and creation of fan fiction, and even the critique of television shows via vlogs), by the end, I thought that Lillis managed to pull it off beautifully. This novel turned out to be an entertaining, complex, and funny read in spite of its often heavy-handed themes and events.

The novel focuses on Brandon and Abel, two fans of a science fiction show entitled Castaway Planet. This show centers on the space adventures of two main characters: Cadmus, a hot-headed, impulsive, and unpredictable explorer; and Sim, an android who is intelligent, calculating, and incapable of feeling human emotion. Brandon and Abel are the hosts of a Castaway Planet vlog, where they deconstruct episodes of the television series, and where they offer critiques of Castaway Planet fan fiction that they dislike. The fan fiction that really grind their gears, however, would be those that ship Cadmus and Sim, for they deem that this relationship is absolutely implausible and disjointed from the themes and reality of the show. Their dislike for this type of fan fiction leads them to partake on a road trip across the country with their friend, Bec, in order to interview the show’s actors in hopes of discrediting any fanfic author who ships Cadmus and Sim. Their anger toward this shipping arises from the fact that Brandon and Abel believe that it demonstrates “zero respect for canon or for Cadmus or Sim as characters” (Lillis).

Throughout this road trip, Brandon and Abel not only develop an increasing appreciation towards the shipping of the Castaway Planet characters, but they also discover their true feelings towards each other. However, these feelings are complicated by the fact that Brandon is still unable to let go of the Catholic doctrine that has shaped his views and understanding of amorous relationships. Brandon is ultimately constructed as a dualistic character in that his mind has come to terms with his sexual orientation, but his heart has not. Brandon’s struggles are intensified not only because his childhood priest approaches celibacy as the only viable life choice for a Catholic gay man, but also because Abel previously has had his heart broken by Jonathan, a boy who decided to end their relationship due to the tension that it caused with his religion. Whenever Brandon is engaging in behavior that may be deemed “gay,” Catholic guilt manifests within his consciousness in the form of his childhood priest, who often reprimands him for his poor decisions that supposedly contradict the teachings of the Catholic church.

Lillis’ novel does an excellent job of creating a multi-layered text in which all the layers are not only interconnected but also capable of illuminating important tensions and resolutions in the novel. While at first fandom, fan fiction, Catholism, and homosexuality seem to have little to no relation to one another, Lillis combines them in a unique way that sheds light not only on the construction of identity, but also the personal negotiations that individuals must undergo when facing cultural demands and when fabricating narratives. For instance, discussions of Cadmus and Sim obviously reflect the tensions that exist between Brandon and Abel. Brandon considers that religion has made his heart mechanical in that it runs in an automated fashion that cannot be fixed or controlled. This motif is central in the novel, for religion is approached as the element mechanizes Brandon’s heart and prevents him from fully loving Abel with no regrets or qualms. Abel, on the other hand, resembles Cadmus, for he is approached as an impulsive character who carelessly disregards the difficulties that Brandon faces when trying to repair his mechanical heart.

Surprisingly, fandom and fan fiction were also very useful and illuminating motifs that Lillis incorporates into the novel in order to offer a unique spin on the treatment of homosexuality within the gay YA novel. Fan fiction, most of the times, disregards realism and canonicity in favor of crafting a narrative that goes in accordance with the tastes, expectations, and desires of the fan fiction writer. Fan fiction is a particularly noteworthy genre of writing because it becomes a venue that allows viewers to assume an active role within the fictional universe created by a show, a book, or a movie. Furthermore, fan fiction allows the recipients of a cultural artifact to explore alternative narratives, outcomes, and possibilities that are not restricted to canonical norms. For instance, if I’m upset that Ross and Rachel end up together in the series finale of Friends, I can write a fanfic in which Rachel ends up going to Paris and begins a life without Ross.

The creation of fan fiction can be approached as a very queer process, especially when it comes to its focus on alternative outcomes, non-normativity, and a mode driven purely by individualistic desire. In How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, the act of participating within the fan fiction universe is linked to the process of embracing a gay identity, for it involves a refutation of rules and so-called truths in order to seek life alternatives that invoke comfort and livability. Fan fiction and queerness entail a refusal of a normative entity (the canon or heteronormativity) that seeks to regulate “sub par” existences and fictions. This notion becomes particularly apparent near the novel’s conclusion, when Brandon meets the creator of Castaway Planet. When Brandon seems to approach fan fiction with slight “disgust,” and when he approaches the creator of the show as the sole bearer of the show’s truth, the creator reacts very harshly to Brandon’s assumptions:

“Listen, you runt. I saw that self-righteous eyeroll when you said fanfiction. Let me tell you something: I fucking love fanfiction. Why do you think I made up these characters? So I could play with dolls in public and tell everyone else ‘hands off’? So I could spoon-feed you stories from on high about the mysteries of love and free will and giant alien spiders?” He shows me his palms, then the backs of his hands. “I am one man with a laptop. When I give the world my characters, it’s because I don’t want to keep them for myself. You don’t like what I made them do? Fucking tell me I’m wrong! Rewrite the story. Throw in a new plot twist. Make up your own ending. Castaway Planet is supposed to be a living piece of art! (Lillis, location 3278)

The show’s creator overtly refutes any desire to regulate how his characters are used or appropriated. He expresses how people should feel free to take the “truth” depicted by the canon and transform it in ways that go in accordance with their individual wants and desires. The canon is not mechanical in that it requires preciseness and exactness to function, but rather, it is approached as a living entity capable of transformation. In due course, Brandon begins to approach religion in a similar fashion, realizing that he can grow comfortable with belief in a God if he accepts that certain elements within the doctrine are not only open to interpretation, but can also be rewritten to go in accordance with an alternative truth.

Although How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, at times, seems slightly moralizing and repetitive in its treatment of religion, it presents one of the freshest approaches towards spirituality and belief within the confines of a gay YA novel. I think that this novel is very innovative in terms of framing its central issues through fandom subculture, and I especially enjoyed the novel’s overt and explicit decoupage of narrative conventions. While the structure of this text generally follows the linear conventions found within most gay coming-of-age fiction, it consciously employs the style and conventions of the fan fiction genre to add some much needed flair and whimsy to the often stale and dry treatment of religion and homosexuality in YA fiction. I highly recommend this novel for its likable characters, its queer potentiality, and its unique structure and motifs.

You can purchase a copy of Lillis’ novel here, and you can read more about it by clicking here

Work Cited

Lillis, J.C. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart. Amazon Digital Services, 2012. Kindle text.

Angels in America

On Stasis, Mobility, and Postmodernism: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Front cover of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Front cover of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. (Kushner 228)

The quote above depicts the moment in which Belize, one of the central characters of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, challenges the optimistic view of American freedom, and he ultimately challenges idealism and “Big Ideas.” Belize, a black, gay, ex-drag queen and nurse, is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of queerdom in the play in terms of his anti-normative positionality in a mid-1980s America. This liminal position not only allows Belize to notice and question the limits and destructiveness of idealism, but it also allows him to reject it all together: “I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that” (Kushner 228). Belize complies with the overall aim and objective of the play, which is the importance of questioning everything in light of the inevitable unsustainability and paradoxical nature of (American) life. In a world full of hate, sickness, global warming, religious and spiritual incongruity, corruption, greed, and inequality, how is it even possible to find stability and meaning? What does it mean to be sexual, spiritual, healthy, or successful in a world where these concepts are approached discordantly by different people?

Kushner’s Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-wining play which takes place within the peak of the AIDS crisis, attempts to address all of the questions above through the lives of characters who are in one way or another affected by the syndrome. It is through the play’s exploration of AIDS that the goal of postmodernism, which is to question everythingis put into practice. Naturally, the juxtaposition of AIDS and postmodernism is absolutely feasible given their similarities of structure and meaning. In Spaces of Belonging, for instance, Elizabeth H. Jones alludes to Lee Edelman’s views to argue that AIDS and postmodernism are similar in their “disrespect for the laws of orderly representation and hierarchy” (263) and their linkage to contemporary issues such as the “decline of faith in rational, transparent representation” (263). Thus, Belize’s confrontation with Louis, as illustrated above, mocks the view of America as a stable entity, and more importantly, it ridicules Louis’s belief in his knowledge–despite Louis’s assertions, he understands little about his Mormon/closeted/Republican boyfriend Joe, he knows nothing about America, and he is oblivious about how the society he idealizes is crumbling beneath his feet.

A similar obliviousness can be seen through the character of Roy Cohn, the cartoonishly evil lawyer and powerbroker that we can’t help but pity (to some extent) towards the end of the play. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, Roy takes it as a personal offence because he deems that his doctor is labeling him as a homosexual. The doctor tries to state the facts of Roy’s condition and its causes, ultimately affirming that Roy has “had sex with men, many many times” (Kushner 51). Roy proceeds to make the claim that who he sleeps with does not define who he is:

Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. (Kushner 51)

Here, we observe Elizabeth H. Jones’ views on AIDS and postmodernity manifesting within the play. Roy not only argues that labels place one within a social hierarchy, but he also points out that they serve to represent and restrict an individual to certain forms of being. He then proceeds to establish that labels  ultimately indicate how much power (“clout”) an individual possesses. Given that Roy views the label of homosexuality as a label for individuals with no power, and seeing as he repeatedly affirms “I have clout. A lot” (Kushner 51), he challenges the extent to which homosexuality is able to transparently represent him. Though his rejection of homosexuality may seem to be an attempt to disrupt stable representation, he does so by embracing another hierarchical binary: the powerful versus the powerless. It is here that AIDS works as a postmodern agent in the play. Despite the fact that Roy declares himself to be on the top of the food chain, and despite the fact that he declares himself as a man with a lot of clout, AIDS renders him powerless, while simultaneously putting him on the same level as everyone else who dies with AIDS. Despite the fact that he views his power as stable, AIDS destabilizes it. Now, we run the risk of viewing AIDS as a karmic agent in the play, out to feed on the evil and the power-hungry, but this changes when we realize that AIDS is not controlled by power or hierarchy, and there are relatively good and sympathetic characters (such as Prior) who are affected by the syndrome as well.

Stability is also challenged through the character of Prior Walter, who can in many ways be approached as the protagonist of the play. In the climax of Angels in America, Prior is approached (in a dream) by an Angel (also known as the Continental Principality of America). The Angel declares that Prior is a prophet who must disperse the ideas present within the sacred implements, which turn out to be “The Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation” (Kushner 265). This Tome is meant to aid Prior in bringing a halt to the instability caused by humanity’s upward mobility: “As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued” (Kushner 176). Thus, stasis, finality, and ultimately, death are seen as a solution to the world’s postmodern state–a way of bringing order to chaos. Prior ultimately rejects his role as a prophet, simply because he views life as dynamic rather than stable. He finds stasis to be a paradoxical mode of being, because to achieve stillness in an active environment requires exertion and yearning:

It just. . . . It just. . . . We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks–progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animateit’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. (Kushner 264)

In this case, progress is not viewed as linear, but it is viewed as motion. Progress involves desire, a denial of stasis, and a refusal of order and permanence. Rather than embracing death, Prior desires to embrace life and the ability to keep on moving: “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (266). Immobility, stability, and transparency are impossible in a postmodern world. But as Belize would say, just because we live in it, it doesn’t mean we have to love it. Being, according to Kushner’s play, is not a teleological movement, but rather, a movement with no fixed endpoint.

– – –

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Leanne MacDonald, Evan Scott Bryson, and Lindsay Haney for their insightful comments on this play. They really helped me to sort out my own thoughts in this analysis.

Works Cited

Jones, Elizabeth H. Spaces of Belonging. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Web.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

John Corey Whaley’s “Where Things Come Back” – A Haunting and Truly Thought-Provoking Read

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back

It is difficult to find quality young adult novels with a sensitive male teenager as the protagonist. While this has to do with the stereotypes generally tied to readers of the genre, the rarity of this character also has a lot to do with issues and perceptions of gender in contemporary society. There is something about the male teenager (who openly expresses his emotions) that tends to irk some people; in tandem, this lack says a lot about the social expectations of masculinity, in which it is deemed that men should be stoic drones incapable of feeling. Nonetheless, some of the greatest young adult classics are written through this rare perspective, including but not limited to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

John Corey Whaley‘s Where Things Come Back (you can read a summary of the novel’s plot here) can genealogically be traced to these aforementioned novels, not only because it delves deeply into the psyche of a male teenager, but also because it is beautifully written, honest, and challenging. By challenging, I am not referring to the complexity of the prose, but rather the complexity of the ideas that are philosophized in the narrative. Rather than complying with the linearity and predictability found in most coming-of-age plots, Whaley offers the reader a challenging puzzle without giving the reader all of the necessary pieces to form a complete picture. This is truly where the novel shines: rather than providing the reader with all of the answers, it is deliberately ambiguous, thus forcing readers to come up with their own meanings. As one of the characters of the novel posits towards its conclusion, “life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life” (227).

Structurally speaking, the novel is one of the most experimental that I have encountered within the young adult genre. First and foremost, it offers what at first seems to be two entirely different stories, yet these bifurcated narrative paths begin to merge in unexpected (and heartbreaking) ways. Secondly, the protagonist of the novel, Cullen Witter, tells the narrative mostly from a first-person perspective, except in instances where he is (day)dreaming, reflecting, or analyzing his own thoughts. During these latter moments, the perspective shifts into a self-referential third-person point-of-view, as can be seen in the following passage:

When one’s parents storm out of the house followed by a psychic who is still holding his missing brother’s T-shirt and book, he stands up, looks into his mother’s eyes, and wonders where they are headed. (108)

This not only creates the illusion of the character trying to create a split between the real and the imaginary, but it also illustrates the protagonist’s attempt to actively live life while simultaneously trying to escape from it. The narrative shifts entirely to a third-person perspective when focusing on the plots of other characters.

It is very difficult for me to categorize this novel thematically due to the presence of many issues and tensions within the plot (something characteristic of most coming-of-age novels), which includes religion, violence, love, sex, death, and uncertainty. To further add to the novel’s sense of ambiguity, it is at times difficult to determine whether these issues are approached cynically or optimistically, especially when it comes to the ending. The novel embraces postmodernity (intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly destabilizing meanings and offering multiple perspectives to complex issues. The most intriguing of these destabilizations, in my opinion, was the novel’s treatment of religion, especially as distilled from the perspective of a Christian missionary, a delusional religious fanatic, and the everyday practitioner of religion. The novel also deliberates the issue of fate, pushing one to question the extent to which events are connected and to which our actions and thoughts are predetermined.

The main character of the novel is certainly memorable, but the most intriguing character for me was the Christian missionary, Benton Sage, who at first is the focus of the novel’s secondary narrative (warning: major spoilers ahead!). Benton Sage is a Christian (I assume he’s Mormon, even though this is never explicitly mentioned in the novel) who disrupts his evangelical mission in Africa because he feels that he is not doing much to provide salvation to the country’s residents; his appointed tasks are focused more on charity rather than on preaching. This character is fully immersed in his religion, to the point where he admits that he has few other interests in life, such as music or the arts, because these are not creations of God: “Well, I’ve always sort of thought that if the Lord didn’t make it, then it doesn’t need to be made. So I kind of just stick to the scriptures” (42).

Benton is not only shunned by his family because of his inability to carry on with his mission in Africa, but his future college roommate even goes as far as to speculate that Benton is gay… an interesting claim, seeing as Benton’s roommate is described in a very suggestive and provocative fashion: “Before him stood a tall, lean, and muscular boy around his age with neatly combed brown hair, piercing eyes, and a serious look about him” (78). Alas, the reader is unable to delve too deeply into Benton’s psyche because he eventually commits suicide relatively early on in the narrative–and an explanation for this suicide is implied, although never explicitly stated. Benton’s insecurities, obsessions, and religious fixations transfer to his roommate, Cabot Searcy, who will later be the source of most of the tensions found in the novel.

Where Things Come Back, as the title of this post suggests, has been one of the most haunting reads that I’ve encountered in a long time, and it will definitely be a text that will linger in my mind as I continue to explore issues of personal development, gender, and growth in young adult fiction. It exudes quiet passion and heartbreak, invoking the desperation and the helplessness that is felt when trying to make sense of the ups and downs of life. The book is greatly reminiscent of the other great works of young adult fiction, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it also adds an original twist to the implications of growing-up and facing the harsh realities of life. I recommend this read if you are looking for something that is simultaneously puzzling, meaningful, and beautiful. I am definitely looking forward to reading Whaley’s future work.

Primary Source:

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2011. Print.

Earth

I Want to Believe: The Perpetual Circularity of Truth and Power

We are told that everything has a beginning and an end. This, of course, is due to the fact that the human mind is constructed to perceive the world through temporality and linearity. However, as Emerson posits, perhaps the reason why the human mind is unable to pinpoint the beginning and the end of the cosmos, or nature, is precisely because these entities refuse to fit within the conceptual framework of human time: “This knot of nature is so well tied, that nobody was ever cunning enough to find the two ends. Nature is intricate, overlapped, interweaved, and endless” (“Fate” 273). Within the concept of nature, everything and nothing is knotted into this “object.”

Everything is connected. Everything is infinite. What a beautifully tantalizing thought. Humans are nothing but a twisted node amassed within the universal rhizome (a la Deleuze and Guattari), which has no beginning and no end. The notion of the cosmos having no end may seem extremely questionable, especially since it is surprisingly easy for humans to envision the end of our contemporary world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, doomsday predictions for December 2012—needless to say, we are obsessed with identifying the conclusion to anything that is introduced. But even if a doomsday were to arrive, and most of or all living creatures were wiped out from the face of the earth, “time” would continue to move on, and the factory of the world will continue its production: “Our Copernican globe is a great factory or shop of power, with its rotating constellations, times, and tides, bringing now the day of planting, then of reaping, then of curing and storing; bringing now water-force, then wind, then caloric, and such magazine of chemicals in its laboratory” (Emerson, “Perpetual Forces” 289).

Earth is a flawless machine and generator, capable of efficiently and effectively maintaining order, balance, and regeneration in the cosmos. And humans, although nothing but a node within this rhizome, have the power and the will to shift and readjust the roots within this metaphorical entanglement. Think about it. Every day, there is something threatening us. The world, although self-sufficient, is definitely not our friend—the elements of nature our constantly against us, and as seen with recent events such as hurricane Sandy, even the greatest of human powers, such as the social nexus of New York city, are impotent against the will of the world. But as Emerson posits, the will of humanity can be considered even stronger than the cold-hearted power of nature:

Now it is curious to see how a creature so feeble and vulnerable as a man, who unarmed, is no match for the wild beasts, crocodile or tiger—none for the frost, none for the sea, none for the fire, none for a fog, or a damp air, or the feeble fork of a poor worm […]—and yet this delicate frame is able to subdue to his will these terrific forces, and more than these. (“Perpetual Forces” 293)

Despite adversity, despite heartache, despite disaster, humanity continues to find a way to thrive in a universe that is designed to clash against us. The will of humanity is as infinite as the perpetual forces that shape and provide balance to this world.

These were the ideas that resonated within my mind when delving into Emerson’s essay titled “Fate” (from The Conduct of Life), his 1862 lecture “Perpetual Forces,” and a brief snippet of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s discussion of “The Sympathy of Religions.” And to be honest, these discussions not only resonated within my own belief system, but they ultimately shifted my original views towards Emerson; better said, they absolutely saved Emerson. Within these two Emerson readings, we are able to appreciate the transformation of a man who believed in God and traditional religion as the center of the moral universe, into a being capable of practicing his own “true” religion based on the triumvirate of a self-sufficient cosmos (i.e. nature), the transformative power of human beings (i.e. will), and perpetual forces (i.e. God, or a supreme overseeing force). But even more so, we see the emergence of a man who bases his beliefs and morality on the virtues of optimism, righteousness, evidence, and circularity.

Emerson’s view of power as a circulatory force is what made his own transformation so impressionable. No longer is humanity portrayed as a powerless and indefensible entity that is completely subdued to higher forces, but rather, the collective human will is viewed as a perpetual force of its own, equal, if not superior, to the forces of nature itself: “No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these” (Emerson, “Fate” 269). However, we must keep in mind that Emerson is not naïve when approaching the power of will, for although it possesses the ability to perpetuate the survival of mankind, it also has the power to ultimately destroy us if contained. As he points out with his discussion of the human genius, true intellect “must not only receive all, but it must render all. And the health of man is an equality of inlet and outlet, gathering and giving. Any hoarding is tumor and disease” (“Perpetual Forces” 295).

Human will and virtue may be considered perpetual forces as long as they engage with the circuitous flow that nature itself follows. If knowledge and will is self-contained within the individual, then this knowledge will fade from the face of the earth with death. Indeed, water is “infinite,” but that’s because it aims at self-purification and it follows a cyclical process. If water refused to evaporate or precipitate, the world would in no way be as perpetual as we deem it to be. Circularity is necessary for survival and existence. An avoidance of circularity is simply an imposition of the linear ideologies that haunt the human mind.

When it comes down to it, the notion of earth, the cosmos, and humanity being endless is indeed ideological, and it may be a completely misconstrued set of ideas. Our ideas are based on what we feel and experience. David Hume once posited that just because the sun rises every day, it does not imply that it will rise tomorrow. However, based on Emerson’s musings, I would like to posit the following: is there any harm in believing that the sun will always rise? Is there any harm in believing in the infinite power of human will or the perpetual forces of the cosmos, even if one day they may fail?

As idealistic as it may sound, we need these beliefs. We need something to rely on, even if it may not be true. I need to believe in the circularity of human knowledge, and the naïve notion that human power has no end. I need to believe that there will be a tomorrow, even when I am not around, and even if there is no life left on earth. I need to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Yes, these notions are quite idealistic and almost Utopian, which gives reason enough to doubt them and ultimately discredit them. Despite their idealistic appeal, however, there is something completely comforting about the idea of a self-sustaining cosmos with meaning and purpose that can be transformed and metamorphosed with the enduring will of humanity.

True, this alludes to the false illusion that humans are in complete control of their destiny or their fate, while in turn eliminating the possibility for total predetermination. And although I can’t fully substantiate the reasons why these seemingly unsettling ideas provide comfort, and although I can’t offer evidence to back up these claims, I feel it to be true. Is this faith? Yes. It is belief without concrete evidence. Is this religion? Arguably so… it is a set of abstract principles based on my intuition of powers beyond my control. Perhaps, I am finding religion… a true religion, as Higginson would posit, unhinged from tradition or fact.

I want to believe. I need to believe.

– – –

Sources:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson – Volume 2

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings

Image courtesy of xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

chart (4)

Decoding the American Scholar: Towards a Distant Computational Reading of Emerson’s Prose

The following entry discusses some ideas that I plan to explore in a research paper that I will write for a course titled “Knowledge, Belief, and Science in Melville’s America,” which is being offered by Dr. Laura Dassow Walls at the University of Notre Dame during the fall semester of 2012.

During my last semester of school work, I became fascinated with the concept of hybridity. Something that became extremely apparent during my readings was the fact that the humanities and sciences are not as opposing as we may initially deem. Also, I became aware of the tantalizing possibilities of approaching humanistic studies in a scientific/quantitative fashion (and the extent of these possibilities is increasing tenfold with a course I am taking in Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing). This research project will be my first attempt to approach a collection of literary texts from a scientific and quantitative perspective using the tools that I’ve encountered in the area of humanities computing. My hope is that this approach will help me to understand the ever-elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson  and the overall patterns and systems that are implemented in his prose.

As readers of my website are well aware by now, Emerson has been an extremely difficult scholar to understand (at least in my opinion). I tend to develop a strange sense of fascination and utter confusion when I read his prose. I also find it tedious to delve into close readings of his essays mainly because he seems to posit ideas that are at times contradictory and difficult to conciliate (check out my past posts that discuss Emerson in order to understand this point). Of course, this is arguably because Emerson wrote in an extremely subjective point of view, but even more so, it is due to the fact that he was trying his best to grapple with notions that are both abstract and elusive: god, nature, humanity, science, religion, and methods. It can also be argued that Emerson had difficulties in terms of separating the objectivity of his idea(l)s from the subjectivity of his personal experiences. This notion is evidenced in essays such as “Experience,” in which he argues that grief is pointless and futile in the vast scope of the universe, yet it is blatantly obvious that the death of his child created an existential chasm within his life (check out his collection of letters that he sent after the death of his child if you don’t believe me).

How do we even begin to understand such a complex and obviously tormented individual? In order to hypothesize answers to these questions, I am going to suggest a rather Thoreauvian move: rather than trying to integrate myself with the text, and rather than trying to figure out Emerson through close readings, I am going to suggest that we should take a step back and try to piece together the mystery of Emerson through a distant reading.

What is distant reading? Franco Moretti greatly pushed forward this practice when he posited that the issue of close reading is that scholars only able to study a very select amount of texts, while virtually ignoring the influence of other texts within a collection or canon. Thus, textual readings are ignored, and instead, the scholar focuses on determining systems, patterns, themes, and tropes that exist within a collection of texts in order to understand a system in its entirety. Now, Moretti is quite aware that when conducting a distant reading, there are definitely particularities and ideas that are lost. This is an extremely pressing issue, especially when dealing with authors such as Emerson, whose prose and poetry were injected with countless political, religious, and social ideologies that are ostensibly lost when approaching the text from a distance. However, Moretti argues that this is perhaps the only way to make the unmanageable and invisible forces behind literature visible:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (Conjectures…)

How will this notion of distant reading take place within my research? Simple. I created a database of Emerson’s major prose works in digitalized format (using an archive of Emerson’s texts in HTML format), including a selection of his early addresses and lectures, his first series of essays, and his second series of essays. This database of works, adapted from the prose readings available in the Norton Critical edition of Emerson’s prose and poetry, was organized in chronological order and saved within the same archive.

I then used a series of online textual analysis applications known as “Voyant Tools” (which I discuss in length in this post), which use a series of algorithms that will allow me to approach Emerson’s works from a distant quantitative fashion: the program indicates the frequency and distribution of all of the words used within the inputted database, and it is even able to graphically illustrate the trend of each word within the entire scope of texts that I uploaded. Since the database contains the texts in chronological order, this will allow me to observe patterns of word usage from Emerson’s earlier works to his later ones.

I have already tested the program using a tentative collection of Emerson’s most famous prose works, and the results have indeed been interesting. I programmed Voyant Tools to remove stopwords from the database, meaning that all grammatical and non-content words were removed from the data that was provided. The application then produced a frequency list of the words available in the entire corpus. The most frequent words found within all of the words inputted into the database were as follows (keep in mind that this list was generated using Emerson’s early addresses and lectures, his first and second series of essays, and his essay on Nature):

WORD/UNIT

Frequency

MAN

966

NATURE

710

MEN

537

WORLD

402

LIFE

390

NEW

338

SOUL

316

THOUGHT

312

THINGS

306

GOOD

300

GREAT

297

MIND

275

LOVE

262

POWER

237

TIME

230

KNOW

224

TRUTH

217

GOD

198

BEAUTY

194

I think it is unsurprising to see that ‘man’ and ‘nature’ are the most common words found within Emerson’s prose, but something that did provoke a vast sense of curiosity was the abstract and conceptual nature of the words on this list. Not only does this provide evidence that Emerson was indeed an abstract writer, but it also highlights an important issue: most, if not all of these words, have various shades of meaning can alter immensely according to the context the word is being used in, and are extremely linked to subjective ideological views of the word. Also, note that most of the words in this list are concepts that tend to be associated with positive feelings and optimistic attitudes (god, truth, love, mind, great, good, new, life, world, nature, men, etc.). I think this says an awful lot about the rhetorical nature of Emerson’s prose, and how it is expected that the overabundance of these positive terms will serve as effective emotional rapport for an audience.

What was even more fascinating was the trend graphs that I was able to generate, which indicate the usage of words across Emerson’s texts in a chronological fashion. Here are a slideshow of the graphs that I generated:

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I think that the graphs tend to demonstrate some very insightful trends. For instance, Emerson’s use of the word ‘soul’ is particularly frequent during his earlier addresses and lectures (with the usually appearing on an average of over 50 times), whereas the use of the term begins to drop noticeably after the publication of his “Over-Soul” essay. Usage of the term ‘god’ starts off particularly strong in his earlier prose works, it drops continuously as he continues to publish essays, and suddenly, towards the publication of his essay on “Nature,” the use of the term sky-rockets. What promoted this sudden interest in god? What led to this dramatic spike in the data?

I thought the graph that illustrated the trend of the words ‘new’ and ‘old’ was very intriguing, for not only is the term ‘new’ being used much more frequently than the term ‘old,’ but both concepts tend to follow the same rises and falls throughout Emerson’s work, indicating that the concepts are frequently contrasted and are perhaps presented in a binary fashion. Notice how these words are consistently used throughout the entirety of the prose works inputted in the collection of Emerson’s prose. I never realized how consistent “newness” and “oldness” were in Emerson’s prose!

The graph that compares the use of ‘man’ versus ‘men’ is also intriguing to me, for not only do both terms tend to demonstrate the same degree of fluctuation throughout Emerson’s works, but there is a noticeable divergence between the lines when they approximate Emerson’s latter works: whereas the plural ‘men’ is being used around 40 times when approaching his essay on nature, the singular ‘man’ is used nearly 150 times (it surpasses the use of ‘men’ by a margin of nearly 300%). Perhaps this is in some way reflective of his increasing belief in the self-reliance of human beings, and his increasing concern with the perils of subjectivity.

I think there is something worthwhile to be studied here. The graphs have definitely opened up questions, but now the issue is to come up with some concrete answers and interpretations. I wonder how these graphs will change when I input more of Emerson’s prose work into the database. I am also concerned with whether or not I’ll be able to develop a full-fledged research project based on this quantitative data. My guess is that I will ultimately resort to close readings in order to better understand the trends and word frequencies produced by the program, but that in and of itself is an issue: I simply do not have the time to conduct close readings of every single one of the essays available in the database (especially considering that I am currently teaching, taking graduate courses, and working on annotations for a book series).

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this project? Does it seem somewhat feasible and worthwhile? Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Tomato

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.

References:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mind

On Fables of the Mind

Back in the day when I was an ESL instructor at the University of Puerto Rico, I was assigned to teach a writing and rhetoric course centered on controversial and contemporary issues. Before I began to lesson plan, I encountered a wonderful editorial in the New York Times titled “Mystery and Evidence,” written by Tim Crane, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge. The piece discussed the inability of science and religion to mesh simply because they are based on entirely different kinds of “evidence” and practices. I thought that it would be interesting to discuss this essay in class, not only because it would be a way to discuss the importance of secularization in academic writing (particularly in a deeply religious country such as Puerto Rico), but also because many of the claims were debatable. The class seemed to stomach the essay and digest it effectively, until I absentmindedly referred to Christianity as a myth.

I could tell that the use of this world deeply upset my students. One student in particular raised her hand, and asked if I was implying that the story of Christ is no different than the legend of Hercules. In my mind, I was thinking “absolutely.” But rather than concretizing my beliefs in front of the class, I simply mentioned that we were in that class to learn about writing and rhetoric, not to discuss religious beliefs. I always wonder what would’ve happened if I affirmed my lack of belief to my students, and if I argued that yes, I believe that in terms of realness, there is little difference between Christ and Hercules in my mind. But I didn’t do it, first and foremost because I didn’t deem it to be appropriate at the time, and secondly, because I am not there to force feed my beliefs down someone’s throat. After all, my distancing from Christianity was a long and arduous process based on my immersion into the realm of knowledge and academia, and personal issues I had with the church due to my stances on sexual orientation and the body. Meaningful changes take time… even though Emerson would argue that time is simply a bodily construct that our soul does not respond to.

Speaking of Emerson, I definitely feel at times as if I am being forced fed a set of ideas that I am unwilling to tolerate. His views on God, morality, and the soul definitely don’t mesh well with my ideological perspective, and at times I found myself grunting or rolling my eyes as I read his prose. Part of it has to do with his views towards science, empirical “world” knowledge, and philosophy: “The philosophy of six thousand year has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve” (Emerson 163). Another part has to do with his depiction of knowledge as a spiritually bound phenomenon that is inevitably linked to god himself; a claim that is asserted but not backed up by any logical evidence whatsoever, but rather, by a sense of aesthetic judgment (the world is too perfect, too beautiful, and too organized; thus, there must be a god). However, the more I immerse myself in Emerson’s prose, the more I begin to question. First and foremost, I do have to recall that Emerson is very much a product of his time in many aspects, a time in which religion had a firmer grasp on society’s cognizance. Although it is not entirely easy to be a person of science—with no religious beliefs—during this day and age, imagine how difficult it was during Emerson’s time?

The more I read Emerson’s words, the more it becomes apparent that he was not entirely bound by faith, and he not only questioned religion, but he openly challenges it (especially when concerning ritualistic practices). Emerson was overly aware of the fact that knowledge eliminates the “magic” of the world, thus reinforcing the notion that immersion into the exchange of knowledge and fact can lead to a weakening of faith based ideas and premises:

But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make thing what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of the mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. (Emerson 70)

It’s ironic that through his addresses, sermons, and lectures, Emerson deeply strives to open our minds to the so-called reality that he has affiliated with, which at times seems deeply Christian and at other times seems like a Christian-tinged version of pantheism (god, the over-soul is in everything). And through his notions, the world is also reduced to a myth, a fable, a one-shot explanation for everything and anything… and to be frank, I’m not entirely sure that Emerson himself is always convinced with his beliefs.

First and foremost, although he indeed believes in a religious doctrine, his particular belief system consists of the rejection of practices and beliefs based on human ideological constructions. He rejects the notion of revering Christ as if he were god himself, and he goes as far as to call Christ a demigod, linking him to other mythical figures such as Apollo and Osiris (Emerson 73). At other times, especially within his poetry, Emerson seems to contradict notions that he himself posits, such as the fact that the over-soul resides in Nature and in humans. This is particularly noticeable in his poem “Hamatreya,” in which he clefts the supposed unity that exists between earth and humans: “Mine and yours; Mine, not yours” (Emerson, lines 28-29). Note that the first line of Earth’s song reinforces the notion that although it is believed that earth is shared or connected with humans, it is erroneous to believe so. This realization that the earth is not as connected or submissive to human will ultimately eliminates any sense of bravery that the speaker has, which implies that the “chill of the grave,” death itself, is the ultimate law of the universe that shatters the illusion of life. These ideas may seem slightly scrambled and nonsensical, but the point I’m trying to make here is that perhaps Emerson was more lost and confused than we may initially deem him to be.

Regardless of the view of religion of mythical belief, or the view of science as a “mere illustration and fable of the mind,” aren’t both aiming to describe and understand the world in one sense or another? Aren’t both perspectives limited, unable to cover the entire scope of our cosmos? I may have my own inclinations, but even then I must admit that there is only so much that science can explain at this point and time. But, as Thoreau posits in the third chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “In the mythus a superhuman intelligence uses the unconscious thoughts and dreams of men as its hieroglyphics to address men unborn. In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men, as Aurora the sun’s rays” (49). Religion and science, in their own particular ways, use supposition and creativity to come up with a logical set of ideas and tools that future generations can use on their own terms to understand and interpret the world. As Tim Crane posited, they are different practices that exist to achieve the same goal, only on different terms… both provide a sense of satisfaction, but both also leave you with a thirst (albeit not necessarily unquenchable). But as Crane ultimately posits, whereas science tries to understand the world via the elimination of mystery, religion approaches mystery as a necessary given. I for one, like mysteries to be reduced, if not solved.

Sources:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/mystery-and-evidence/

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393967921/

http://www.amazon.com/Concord-Merrimack-Rivers-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140434429/

 

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net