CFP: Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Hi readers! I’m organizing/chairing a session at the MLA conference in New York City in January 2018. This is a non-guaranteed session that is sponsored by the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum. The call for papers is posted is below. Feel free to share this CFP widely to kidlit and queer studies scholars! ¡Gracias!

Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Although we have recently seen the implementation of institutional changes that have altered the legal and socioeconomic status of queer people in the United States (i.e. United States v. Windsor in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015), queer individuals continue to encounter discrimination, violence, and death based on their gender and/or sexual orientation. The stark rise in murders of trans people of color and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting are just a few of the events that have disrupted the misguided sense of utopia instilled by institutional change, and have brought into question whether it is possible for queerness to link to notions of futurity.

Considering this climate of violence and prejudice, what is the role of queer futurity in contemporary children’s and young adult literature, especially since many texts in these genres are written with a utopic, future-oriented sensibility? How does youth literature with queer themes frame and enable readings of the future? Are these future-oriented texts politically and affectively viable, or are they normative and misguided in their approach? I seek papers that examine how recent children’s and young adult texts approach, problematize, or justify the link between queerness and futurity.

Proposed papers may approach this linkage through various approaches, including but not limited to: queer, narrative, temporal, and affective methodologies. This panel seeks to both nuance and complicate how queer children’s and young adult texts present different stakes in terms of their alignment towards or against futurity. Furthermore, papers should ideally think through the ways in which children’s and young adult literature either sustain or complicate approaches to queer futurities and temporalities prominent in the field of queer theory/studies (i.e. Muñoz, Ahmed, Edelman, Freeman, Halberstam, etc.). Submissions that include intersectional approaches towards queerness and futurity in youth literature are particularly welcome.

This is a non-guaranteed session for the 2018 MLA Convention in New York City sponsored by the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum. Please send 500-word proposals (including a working bibliography) to Angel Matos at amatos@bowdoin.edu by Wednesday, March 1. Session participants must be current members of MLA as of April 7, 2017.

Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Connection Failed: An Analysis of Christopher Isherwood’s [A Single Man]

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964)

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964)

Failure is found at the heart of many great works of fiction. It is a common motif used to spark an emotional connection, sympathy, and at times, anger. Failure is not only the heart of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man–is also the blood, the flesh, and the soul of this novel. Centered on a single day in the life of George Falconer–a gay professor from England who teaches literature at a University in Los Angeles–A Single Man traces the protagonist’s psyche as he tries to cope with the stagnant nature of living, and his inability to feel a sense of belonging or connection with those who surround him. Suffering from a chronic depression triggered by the death of his lover (Jim), George desperately struggles to find solace through unsuccessful attempts at forging meaningful interactions and relationships with other people.

The opening event of the novel focuses on George as he wakes up in the morning. Here, we are offered a very detailed and biological account of the processes that take place as a sleeping body is galvanized into a state of alertness. This opening scene creates a split between George’s body and George’s being–a motif that becomes quite prominent within the novel. Throughout the day the novel takes place, George undergoes experiences that separate his thoughts from the actions that his body partakes in–almost as if his body were engaging in auto-pilot mode, leaving the pilot of his consciousness free to do and think whatever he pleases. This auto-pilot mode is activated in many occasions:

  • When George drives to his university, his thoughts wander away as his body automatically drives to its destination: “And George, like a master who has entrusted the driving of a car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere” (36).
  • When he teaches, he enters a mode where he begins to spew theory, facts, and jargon without being completely cognizant of what he is saying to his students.
  • When he drinks, he engages in reckless behavior, such as swimming in a rough sea during the night, even though his mind is aware of the dangers of doing so.

The novel’s tendency of splitting George’s mind away from his body fosters an effect in which the reader perceives him as a composition of many selves and not as a single individual–thus emphasizing the novel’s central characteristic of approach life, time, and space as fragmented phenomena. This fragmentation, while very postmodern in effect, serves to illustrate the sense of disconnection and the lack of wholeness that George feels towards his surroundings. Even when looking himself in the mirror, George is unable to see himself as an individualized unit:

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face–the face of a child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man–all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us–we have died–what is there to be afraid of? (11)

While staring at his reflection, George sees the phantoms of his past lives–lives that he considers present but dead; relics of a life that he used to have but that is no longer present. George recognizes this fragmentation, and he struggles to defy it so that others perceive him as ‘the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognize” (11). George is characterized by being overly concerned about what other people think about him. When other characters are talking to him, George’s mind engages in a frantic interpretive mode in which he tries to determine what is going through the other speaker’s mind. However, the inability to know exactly what others are thinking of him leads George to think obsessively about the failure of language to convey ideas in an accurate or precise fashion. Language, therefore, is a contributing factor that adds to George’s notions on fragmentation and the lack of wholeness in his life.

George’s nationality and his sexuality are other elements that fuel his sense of self-fragmentation and his inability to fully connect with others. He constantly claims how his British identity converts him into an Other within academic and non-academic contexts. His sexuality pushes him to feel a desire that is nearly impossible to quench–thus forcing George to live vicariously through small interactions, touches, and brief exchanges that he has with other men. One of these moments takes place when he accompanies one of his students, Kenny, to a book store. Kenny offers to buy George a pencil sharpener, which causes George to blush “as if he has been offered a rose” (81). What is clear here is that George is a man who is starving for connection. He craves to feel part of whole, even if this connection with the whole is momentary. He makes it overtly clear that his nationality, his way of thinking, his sexuality, and even his age puts him in a position in which he is minority. This sense of dissatisfaction with not belonging to a majority leads him to deliver a “sermon” in class, in which he attacks people’s conceptions of minority communities:

A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! They why should it make them nice to be loathed? (72)

His passionate tirade against minority cultures is longer than the fragment I’ve included above, but I hope this passage emphasizes the degree of self-loathing and confusion that George feels towards himself for being unable to become part of a greater collective. He always has been and always will be a minority. His efforts to be part of something greater than the self always fail–even the connection that he had with Jim is severed with the latter dies in a tragic car accident. George even admits that he is living makes him part of a minority, while those who have joined the rank of the dead are part of a majority:

George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures. They may be crude and mercenary and dull and low, but he is proud, is glad, is almost indecently gleeful to be able to stand up and be counted in their ranks–the ranks of that marvelous minority, The Living. They don’t know their luck, these people on the sidewalk, but George knows his–for a little while at least–because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority, which [his dying friend] is about to join. (103-4)

This passage is an eerie foreshadowing to the events that culminate the novel. As George is drunkenly walking towards his usual bar after leaving his friend’s house, he encounters Kenny alone at said bar. The two get really drunk, and they end up swimming together naked in the salty rough waves of the sea in the middle of the night. It is here that George feels a brief connection with Kenny that “transcends” the symbolic. Kenny returns home with George, leading into a scene that seems like an obvious exchange of flirtation between the two. However, despite the fact that George desires to sleep with Kenny, he ends up passing out, awakening alone in his bed–where he decides to masturbate as a way of compensating for his failure to connect with Kenny, sexually speaking.

As the novel comes to a close, George ends up in his bed once again. In a circuitous fashion, the novel ends with George’s mind disconnecting from his body, returning once again to the description of the biological processes that his body is going through as it begins to fall asleep. Unexpectedly, George dies of a heart attack during his sleep. George’s life is characterized not only by a failure to connect with others, but also by a failure to be part of a whole during his life. It’s thus heart-wrenching to realize that the only instance in which he becomes part of a majority is through his death.

This novel is simply beautiful, rich, and complex. There is much more than can be said about this novel, especially in terms of its approaches to time and temporality, especially when contrasting the importance of the past, the present, and the future. This is definitely a novel that I want to revisit once again after I’ve had time to process it a little more.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? As always, please feel free to add to the conversation!

Work Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964. Print (Hardcover edition).

Time and Cycles in Michael Cunningham’s [The Hours]

Front paperback cover of Cunningham's The Hours

Front paperback cover of Cunningham’s The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours barely needs an introduction. Not only was it the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it is also the source of the Oscar-winning 2002 movie of the same name. Fortunately, I had not seen the movie and I knew very little of the novel’s plot, so I was able to enjoy the narrative in its purest, with no spoilers or outlandish expectations (with the exception of the ideas discussed by Jim Collins in his discussion of the movie adaptation).

I have described many other books as haunting, but that adjective as applied to other books seems to pale in comparison to The Hours. I could praise this book in many ways, including its masterful use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, the depth of its descriptions, or the lavish beauty of its prose, but these merits have been highlighted by many other readers before me.  Similar to the narrative technique employed in Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World, each chapter in The Hours focuses on an alternating cycle of major characters, and their perspectives weave together in order to provide cohesion to the text. This disruption of linearity not only adds to the challenge of reading the book, but it also adds an element of surprise and discovery that is more than welcome in the literary world.

In the case of The Hours, the chapters focus on subjects who are either directly or indirectly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway during its creation and distribution after Woolf’s suicide. The main characters of the story are Virginia Woolf, the writer of Mrs. Dalloway and an eminent figure within British modernist fiction; Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife in the 50’s who is a self-proclaimed bookworm, and who is deeply unhappy with her ordinary life; and Clarissa Vaughn (also referred to as Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. D), who is a contemporary interpretation of the main character in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who resides in New York City with her wife Sally and her daughter Julia (you can read a concise summary of the novel along with reader comments here). The novel is told through an omniscient third-person perspective, so the reader is aware of the thoughts of major, secondary, and minor characters.

The gender politics of this novel are very interesting, in my opinion, precisely because they exemplify a wide range of sexual orientations, which include lesbian mothers who embrace traditional characteristics of femininity, lesbian queer theorists, gay men, and bisexual women. The sexuality of most characters within this novel is in no way static; at times there are characters who feel intense desire and passion towards both sexes even though they can typically be categorized as either straight or gay. Similar to A Home at the End of the World, AIDS plays a prominent role within The Hours, which seems appropriate given the novel’s aim of challenging and illuminating topics such as gender, death, life, and most of all: time/temporality.

Time, as suggested by the novel’s title, is indeed the central issue within the narrative, and it is a motif that not only inflects the content of the novel, but also its structure. The three main characters of the text all share a similar story and face similar struggles, however, the nature of this struggle changes according to the social conventions of the time in which they manifest. Woolf, who is trying to cope with mental illness, depression, and suicidal tendencies in the 1920’s, mirrors the character of Laura Brown, who feels trapped by the pressures and expectations of most 50’s housewives. Both characters express a desire to escape from their world, but are unable to do so because of the people who surround them. Cunningham’s depiction of Laura Brown was particularly captivating, mostly because he effectively illustrates her failure to achieve the perfection that others expect from her, and that she expects for herself. For instance, her inability to bake and decorate a flawless and pristine cake for her husband’s birthday clearly denotes her inability to comply with the unrealistic expectations that she sets for herself as a wife and a mother.

Time also plays a role in terms of how the characters cope with their sexual urges and romantic desires. Both Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown express some degree of desire for the same sex through a kiss: Woolf through a kiss she gave to her sister, and Laura through a kiss to her neighbor who ostensibly is showing signs of imminent illness. These kisses haunt the characters, mostly because they represent a desire that could not possibly be expressed without the expected social consequences. Whereas Woolf has writing as an outlet for this desire, Laura Brown has little to no way of expressing it, thus fueling her desire to escape from her current condition.

The third main character, Clarissa, has created a home with her partner, Sally, but she is shown to oscillate between happiness towards her current condition and the anguish caused by the certainties and uncertainties of life.  What makes Clarissa so appealing as a character is her paradoxical and indecisive nature. One moment, she seems to lament the follies of materiality, the fabricated nature of her home, the investment of money in superficial and useless items. Nonetheless, she invests a lot of time and money in a party to show how much she cares about her friend Richard, who is dying of AIDS. She embraces and rejects the comforts of materiality. She struggles with her need to please others while sacrificing her own pleasures and needs. She worries about the extent to which others enjoy the gifts she gives without thinking about her own appreciation to the gifts she is given. This sense of hesitation, which involves the struggle of the self with the demands of the outside world, is something that Clarissa shares with both Woolf and Laura. This, in due course, it what I liked most about the novel: it forced me to struggle in terms of interpreting the world through the lens of solipsism or interpreting it as a space where knowledge exists beyond the self. Do we define ourselves by the roles that other people assign to us? Are the people around us merely projections of our own thoughts and desires? What agency do we really have as individuals?

I’ve decided to end this post with the most haunting paragraph in this novel, which provides the comforting yet strangely bleak idea of enjoying the hours that provide us with comfort, happiness, and glory, simply because these hours are always followed by darker ones:

We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so. (Cunningham 225-226)

 I can’t help but question if this novel is ultimately presenting life as an endurance test. What I am certain of is that the novel approaches life as ever-shifting and ever-changing, and any intent to make the self stable through the passage of time is indeed a futile effort. Life is presented as a series of cycles and repetitions. The cyclic nature of time and history is best represented with the suicides that occur within the novel in that both Woolf and Richard depart the world by affirming virtually the exact same statement to their loved-ones before killing themselves:  “I dont’ think two people could have been happier than we’ve been” (Cunningham 200). Whether or not Richard was familiar with this exact statement made by Woolf in her suicide note is unclear, but the repetition of this phrase by two different people in two different time periods is indeed an eerie thought. I guess some people are better at coping with cycles. Others desperately try to change the direction of these cycles, or halt them altogether. Others willingly or unwillingly embrace them fully. And as Cunningham firmly put it, only heaven knows why.

Source:

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print (Hardcover Edition).

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

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