Class Highlights & Further Comments

A forum for us to revisit our conversations and take them further.

30 Responses to Class Highlights & Further Comments

  1. What a fantastic and wide-ranging discussion!

    However, we failed to address perhaps the most compelling character/force in the novel: the ‘grand god’, Moby-Dick himself…

    To be honest I’m still processing my reactions to Melville’s stunning passages describing not just the titular whale himself, but also the other, meticulously documented species of cetaceans. These were the sublime, exciting, and downright stirring examples of prose I had in mind. As some initial thoughts, one could engage with the novel on the ground of ethics and human/non-human subjectivity; we have suggested that Moby-Dick and Ahab ‘need’ each other – the white whale becoming all that Ahab NEEDS him to be – and, pushing this point, could we read ‘Moby-Dick’ as a radical expansion of what it means to be a person, a ‘body that matters’, as opposed to an omnipotent deity? Is the whale distinct from the other, lesser specimens encountered by the Pequod – hence his whiteness – or is he the apotheosis of agency, power, destiny, as a living being?

    I’ll give this a final, mighty push – through the atmosphere and into the cold depths of space.

    Paralleling the idea of the agentless, ‘open space’ of the internet, of the afterlives of stories across digital platforms, Ray Bradbury’s novella ‘Leviathan ’99’ retells the story of ‘Moby Dick’ as a chase across the galaxy for a meteor. I heartily recommend it!

    Lastly, and more recently, the film-maker Lynne Ramsay (who most recently directed the film adaptation of ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’) is planning another science-fiction reimagining of the novel. I leave you with her words (and note the interesting assignation of the term ‘monster’):

    ‘The director revealed to the film world’s most bequiffed film critic that her sci-fi project is set to be a retelling of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” “This is really the first time I’ve spoken about, it’s been very under wraps,” she said, before spilling the beans. “It’s more or less inspired by ‘Moby Dick,’ which is a fantastic novel, an American classic, but funnily enough a lot of people haven’t read it. So I’m working on something loosely based on that. And it’s science-fiction, so we’re taking the premise into the galaxy. So we’re creating a whole new world, and a new alien. A very psychological piece, mainly taking place in the ship, a bit like ‘Das Boot,’ so it’s quite claustrophobic.”

    While this might sound like a big shift from ‘Kevin,’ Ramsay explains that there’s something of a link, as well as being an almost autobiographical idea. “It’s another monster movie, cos the monster’s Ahab. For a filmmaker, it’s really interesting, because it’s about this mad captain taking everyone on this crazy journey to their death, from his need to revenge. Making a film is like a crazy journey, and sometimes you go into dark waters, and you see some casualties along the way. It’s fascinating stuff, because there’s so much in it.”‘

    • Wai Chee says:

      Jan 23, 2013

      Moby-Dick through the lens of C. L. R. James and Edward Said

      We began with C. L. R. James’ argument that the workers ought to have been Melville’s true protagonists: “But the chief thing about Melville’s crew is that they work. They are not suffering workers, nor revolutionary workers… What matters to them primarily, as it does to all workers, and in fact to all people, is the work they do every day, nearly every day in the year.”

      What does it mean to put work at the center of Moby-Dick, and perhaps at the center of the humanities? Especially work done by people speaking a variety of ”indigenized” English, English bearing the input of many localities?

      Edward Said, linking Melville to Conrad, says that “to read them both is of course to read English, but rarely has English been forced into such self-conscious, shifting, and unpredictable accents.” As dramatized in Ch. 41, “Midnight, Forecastle,” Melville’s sailors are Dutch, French, Icelandic, Maltese, Azore, Chinese, Sicilian, Tahitian, Portuguese, Danish, English, and Spanish, and Lascar. It is not a fluke that Amitav Ghosh should see his own work as an extension of Melville’s, a tribute to the uncontrollable vitality of what Sheldon Pollock calls “vernacular cosmopolitanism.”

      It’s a transoceanic linguistic phenomenon. For Ghosh, the Indian Ocean is part of Atlantic history, part of Pacific history, geopolitically, linguistically, and experientially. His seaborne labor is sometimes indistinguishable from play. Melville, surprisingly, also mentions “the Indian Sea” one page into his Extracts, and mentions the Pacific Ocean a couple of pages later, while bringing together Oceania, Africa, and North America in his three harpooners, Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego. It would be interesting to do a digital humanities project looking at the recurrence of words such as “Egyptian,” “Turkish,” and “indigenous.”

      What we’ve also noticed, though, is that Melville’s “vernacular cosmopolitanism” is not in dialect, as Ghosh’s is, but rather in the accents of Shakespeare, accents especially powerful in Ahab. His exchanges with Stubb (Ch. 29, “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb”) and with Pip (Ch. 125, “The Log and Line”) point to opposing forms of human connectivity. Why is it that both are underwritten by Shakespeare’s English?

      Yet other forms of connectivity come from Ishmael and Queequeg, beginning with the homosocial twining in “A Bosom Friend” and “Nightgown” (“Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine”), and turning into the dangerous “elongated Siamese ligature” uniting the two in”The Monkey Rope.” Of course, it is Ahab who’s finally roped in, caught around the neck by the harpoon line attached to Moby-Dick that dispatches him as “voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim,” while Ishmael survives through the lifeline thrown to him by the gender-bending and “devious-cruising Rachel.”

      All of these unfolding through the inseparable seascapes of oceans.

  2. Lucy Caplan says:

    Thanks, Phoenix, for that very interesting post! Inspired by your mention of Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation, I wanted to direct our attention to another contemporary reimagining of the novel: a 2010 opera, with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by Gene Scheer.

    In light of our discussion about the novel’s oceanic scope, I was particularly intrigued by the global reach – in multiple senses – of this new production. On the level of geography, this work has already been staged around the world. It premiered in Dallas (perhaps an odd choice – not really a maritime location!), and has also been performed in Australia, Canada, and California; performances in Washington, DC begin next month. But it’s also been broadcast on national television and released on DVD, meaning that this Moby Dick is potentially available to audiences worldwide. Given that opera is often caricatured today as exclusive and elitist, this effort at immediate accessibility is especially compelling.

    Yet despite such potentially limiting cultural associations, the genre of opera functions as its own sort of global medium in that it collates textual, visual, theatrical, and aural forms into a single work of art (think of the composer Richard Wagner’s famous term Gesamtkunstwerk, which suggests the totalizing potential of the operatic genre). Interestingly, one review of this production focuses upon that very quality, noting the multiplicity of contributors who helped bring the opera into existence. ( In fact, I might suggest that the genre of opera is uniquely well suited to Melville’s novel. Edward Said posits that Melville requires a novel massive in scope and literary breadth in order to convey the enormity of Ahab’s quest; similarly, an operatic Moby Dick is able to encompass myriad musical, theatrical, visual, and literary traditions in its effort to tell Melville’s story. It offers the audience multiple simultaneous vantage points from which to experience the artistic work, inviting a variety of possible reactions.

    A brief preview video of this Moby Dick is available here – enjoy!

  3. Brandon Menke says:

    If it is agreeable with everyone, I will be bringing to class tomorrow Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, published in 2011 by Tin House Books, as well as the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick featuring illustrations by Rockwell Kent, so as to augment and amplify our consideration of the remediation of Melville’s novel within the visual arts. I’ve posted links to the Tin House site as well as some supplementary information on Kent (a fascinating artist, writer, and book designer who lived the last three decades of his life on a farmstead in the Adirondacks he called Asgaard after residing for periods of time in “untamed” parts of Maine, Minnesota, Newfoundland, Alaska, Vermont, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland, and Greenland), a video clip (via MASS MoCA) of Agha Shahid Ali’s appearance on All Things Considered before his death in 2001, and a handy primer on the ghazal from the Academy of American Poets.

    A footnote:

    In keeping with Said’s intertextual linkage of Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, Matt Kish has also produced for Tin House an illustrated version of Conrad’s novel, what Said calls in his introduction to Melville “that eerie novelistic echo of the great American whaling epic” (358).

    Matt Kish Links

    Rockwell Kent Links

    Agha Shahid Ali & Ghazal Links

  4. Lucy Caplan says:

    January 30, 2014

    Melville, Frank Stella, Agha Shahid Ali

    We wondered how to move beyond the category of the human in our discussion of Moby-Dick, Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals, and Frank Stella’s art. How might an examination of nonhuman elements and actors illuminate our understanding of these works?

    In Ali’s poetry, human beings are almost wholly absent; instead, elemental forces take primacy. Focusing on the ghazal “Of Fire,” we examined the converging presences of fire, water, and air. How might Ali’s attention to the elements reflect the fact that these ghazals were written as he fought brain cancer and faced his own mortality? We considered the idea that we, as human beings, are in effect temporarily animate matter, which will ultimately reintegrate with the elemental world. Interestingly, when human beings do emerge in Ali’s work, they are mainly poets whom he references through direct quotations from their work, indirect allusions, or dedications of particular poems. Resonances with Dickinson, Bishop and Merwin were especially notable.

    As we examined a variety of works from Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick series, we discussed the artist’s transition from abstraction back to figuration. Many of these works are bound together by the presence of Chinese lattice designs; we were also struck by the materiality of this art, as well as the integral presence of the printmaker in Pat Gilmour’s article on Stella. There’s an interesting comparison to be made with Melville’s description of the Pequod as a ship with a global material history: he writes, to give just a brief example, that the “masts – cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale – her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne.” (69) This cosmopolitan vision speaks to Melville’s larger embrace of oceanic spaces, and his particular focus on the Pacific, which “rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian ocean and Atlantic being but its arms.” (367) Yet strangely, Melville is relatively silent on the subject of water itself; water functions more as a space or theater of action than as an elemental force.

    Thinking about elements brings us back to Ali. Looking particularly at the ghazals “Of Snow” and “Arabic,” we considered the presence of the political in Ali’s poetry. His political references to Kashmiri history and Middle Eastern politics are clearly present but often oblique, and he doesn’t seem to take strict political stances on these contentious subjects. In “Arabic,” in particular, the language of Arabic is acknowledged to be at once a subjugating, colonizing language and, concomitantly, the language of victims. To what extent is Ali trying to politicize his work? What are the political implications of a poetic form centered upon the concept of autonomy?

    We closed our discussion with a quick examination of more recent multigeneric representations of Melville’s novel. Matt Kish’s drawings, inspired by Rockwell Kent’s illustrations of the novel, take on an artisanal quality that recalls the physical world of books and printing (we also think here of the presence of recycled industrial material in Stella’s work). And we looked briefly at photographs of the recent operatic adaptation of Moby-Dick, which uses digital projections to create powerful images of the sea.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Thanks, Lucy, great highlights! To add to your discussion of Jack Heggie’s Moby-Dick opera, I heard on NPR that Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” had now been made into opera from film, with Proulx herself writing the libretto. She used the occasion to add a couple more women writers. I wonder what Melville would have added to Heggie’s Moby-Dick? I hope he’d do more with Queequeg: it bothers me that there’s no mention of him at the end. Of all the characters, Queequeg’s the one who could have taught us about being reintegrated into the elements, and being at peace with that. Earlier, carving abstract and figurative shapes onto his coffin/lifebuoy, “it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer on his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth…” A non-human, oceanic, form of life and death?

  5. Courtney Sato says:

    Thanks for the summary post, Lucy! Since seminar I’ve been thinking further about the nonhuman element interwoven throughout Moby-Dick and Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals. I wanted to briefly add to our discussion on the global materiality of the Pequod. Maritime scholars are increasingly researching ships not only as complex cultural artifacts, but also as “living” entities that may maintain human-like presences (witnessed through the complex naming conventions of sea vessels, as well as through their national and gender-specific identities). Maritime archaeologist Hans Konrad Van Tilburg notes: “The question of identity provides a rich category for historical and cultural interpretation. What is the identity of a ship? Ships have a birth or launching, a life span, and a death or final disposition…As artifacts these ships are some of the most anthropomorphic items known, replete with a rich body of folklore and superstition” (Tilburg, “Vessels of Exchange: The Global Shipwright in the Pacific,” Seascapes 2007, 47-8). I am particularly interested in how we might think further about the array of sea vessels in Moby-Dick and Sea of Poppies. In describing the distinctive features of the Pequod, Ishmael references a gamut of other ships for comparison: “square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter box galliots” (69). Similarly, in Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh names vessels as different as schooners (Ghosh 11), “bumboats” (Ghosh 390), and “Cantonese kitchen-boats” (Ghosh 409). How might we compare the two primary ships (the Pequod and the Ibis)? Do the ships in Melville and Ghosh appear as mere backdrops or artifacts? Or are they granted deeper anthropomorphic or mythic capacities?

    To expand our discussion of Ali’s often oblique political references scattered throughout the ghazals, I wanted to return to “Of Fire” and look closely at the second couplet on page 35, which seems to reference the Kashmir conflict: “Soldier: ‘The enemy can see you and that’s how you die.’ / On the world’s roof, breathless, he defends a glacier of fire” (35). The first line (“The enemy can see you and that’s how you die”) appears to be a direct quotation from this 1999 article on Indian and Pakistani soldiers serving in the Siachen Glacier ( The frigid conditions atop the peaks of the Siachen Glacier become “the battleground on the roof of the world”—a line that Ali then recreates as: “on the world’s roof, breathless, he defends a glacier of fire” (35). As we noted in class, fire and ice symbiotically merge through Ali’s rendering of the elements. Kashmir thus figures in as a place simultaneously marked by extremes of fire (military interventions, protests, terroristic activities, and insurgency violence) and ice (bitter cold temperatures). The notion of “bearing fire” amid harsh temperatures and conflict, as well as the cease-fire lines that both partition and engender further violence within the region emerge as other potential readings. I also can’t help thinking about the central force of water in fueling the conflict as numerous waterways may be traced back to the Kashmiri region, contributing to the territory’s desirability. Although Ali eschews direct political commentary, as witnessed in the Ghosh article, Kashmir and its separatist violence continually haunted Ali throughout his life.

    Finally, I want to turn to Merwin’s spectral presence in “Of Fire.” As mentioned in class, it seems plausible that “the Pacific’s interior of fire” directly evokes W.S. Merwin’s Pacific given his home in Haiku, Maui (which lies atop a dormant volcano). Interestingly, the final couplet once more nods to Merwin: “‘on the last day of one September’‘one William was born’ / Native of Water, Shahid’s brought the Kashmir of fire” (35). Once again, there is the conflation of Kashmir with fire in the very last line of the poem (the “Kashmire of fire”). But, the composite nature of the first line is also intriguing. The quotation “on the last day of one September” appears to be a synthesis of two Merwin poems: “To the Light of September” and “Place.”

    “To the Light of September”:

    The well-known first two lines of “Place” read: “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree,” while his other widely read poem “Light of September” details the “glint / of bronze in the chill mornings / and the late yellow petals” of autumn foliage. Through a search for the exact quote “On the last day of one September,” I came across John R. Stilgoe’s preface to Thoreau’s The Journal, 1837-1861 (Stilgoe’s preface to The Journal). Stilgoe writes: “On the last day of one September, a musing about the color of leaves: ‘The white ash has got its autumnal mulberry hue’” (vii). If we turn to Thoreau’s corresponding entry on page 84, we find: “Sept. 30. The White ash has got its autumnal mulberry hue. What is the autumnal tint of the black ash? The former contrasts strongly with the other shade-trees on the village street—the elms and buttonwoods—at this season, looking almost black at the first glance. The different characters of the trees appear more clearly at this season, when their leaves as with fruits and woods, and animals and men; when they are mature their different characters appear” (84). Is the reference to white and black ash an additional exploration of the notion of fire? I’m not quite sure what to make of these sources. In a way, Merwin, Thoreau, and Ali are all concerned with nature (although on different scales as Ali’s treatment is largely elemental, while Merwin and Thoreau attend to particularities like tree species). In particular, Merwin’s poems chronicle his own environmental conservation efforts. His impulse to “plant a tree” on the last day of the world mirrors the establishment of his palm tree conservatory
    ( Might Thoreau’s entry on autumn’s fiery foliage and the onset of winter chill parallel Ali’s own reckoning with mortality? I’m also not sure if “one William was born” is a direct quotation from a poem or another text (I’d be curious to hear any thoughts on this). More broadly, given our focus on remediation, what do we make of Ali’s integration of quotes from poems, book titles, and news articles? What does this composite form achieve that might not otherwise be possible?

  6. cls96 says:

    February 5, 2014
    The Indian Ocean Revisited: Amitav Ghosh – The Sea of Poppies:

    Thanks to all for such a generative discussion on Wednesday. Below are some of the questions that we didn’t have time to address in class. I’d be interested to hear thoughts on any of these questions/themes. I’ve also included some links to prints from the Yale Center for British Art that Amitav Ghosh included in his 2012 lecture at Yale on River of Smoke (the second book in the Ibis trilogy). Ghosh worked not only with written sources, but images (like these) in writing Sea of Poppies, so these visual sources offer further insight into the maritime world under consideration.

    Samuel Davis, Boats on the Hooghly:
    Sir Charles D’Oyly, View of Calcutta and its Environs:
    William Daniell, The European Factories, Canton:
    Samuel Davis, River View with a Junk:

    1) Labor and Laborers – Coolies and Lascars:
    Adding to our discussion of work, how might we think further about the contrasts between the two central sets of laborers in Sea of Poppies: the lascars and the coolies? As with many of Ghosh’s novels, he is concerned with subaltern figures whose historical records are sparse or otherwise elided. Through detailed depictions of their daily work, Ghosh uncovers how Lascars occupied a highly technical niche within maritime labor. The novel also reveals how lascars and coolies both provided forms of (often exploitative labor) that upheld and sustained the East India Company’s trade in India and throughout Asia. What do we make of Wai Chee’s point that while Ghosh chose to highlight several of the coolies, the lascars (with perhaps the exception of Jodu) never occupy a central character position within the novel?

    2) Violence and Political Undercurrents
    What are the political critiques present in the novel? One potential answer may be traced through the recurrence of violence throughout the novel. Violence figures in through the overtly militarized British Empire, the brutality of the ships’ subedar and silahdars, the harsh conditions of opium factories, the famine, or the strident taxation and administrative policies. As we noted in class, the corporeality of bodies (especially through notions of the tactile) runs throughout the text. In the passage when Neel first arrives at the prison, I would argue that the blurring of humans with objects/commodities offers a larger critique of the way Western forces have swept across India and recalibrated the “value” and “use” of both the natural resources (poppy fields instead of crops) and “bodies” (through the exodus of indentured laborers).

    The passage depicting Neel’s physical examination reads: “The touch of the orderly’s fingers had a feel that Neel could never have imagined between two human beings—neither intimate nor angry, neither tender nor prurient—it was the disinterested touch of mastery, of purchase or conquest; it was as if his body had passed into the possession of a new owner, who was taking stock of it as a man might inspect a house he had recently acquired, searching for signs of disrepair or neglect, while mentally assigning each room to a new use” (282-3). I’m curious what others make of this passage and if they feel like there are other political currents that run throughout the novel.

    2) “Multiplicity of selves”:
    As discussed in class, there are a number of transformations throughout the novel (Baboo Nob Kissin, Neel, Ah Fatt, among others), but how might we also consider Paulette’s notion of a “multiplicity of selves” which appears on page 430: “She saw now how miraculously wrong she had been in some of her judgements of him: if here was anyone on the Ibis who could match her in the multiplicity of her selves, then it was none other than Zachary. It was as if some divine authority had sent a messenger to let her know that her soul was twinned with his” (430-1). In a similar vein, she later explains to Neel: “There is nothing untrue about the person who stands here. Is it forbidden for a human being to manifest themselves in many different aspects?” (483) Are the transformations throughout the novel unidirectional? Or are these transformations merely the renegotiation of preexisting multiple selves? For example, Mamdoo-tindal might make a strong case for Paulette’s “multiplicity of selves” given his other identity, Ghaseeti-begum (183).

    3) Alternative forms of kinship – jaházbhais and jaházbahens:
    While we briefly talked about the relations among the laborers, I also hoped to further discuss the alternative kinships that coalesce on the ship. The solidification of the jahz-collectivity is witnessed when Deeti declares: “From now on, and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings—jaházbhais and jaházbahens—to each other. There’ll be no differences between us” (348). In particular, there’s a special type of jaházbahen or sisterly kinship (“We’re all sisters now, aren’t we?” p. 230). As Anusha pointed out, there’s a particular emphasis on the reassuring tactile interchanges between the women: “In the glow of the moment, she did something she would never have done otherwise: she reached out to take the stranger’s hand in her own. Instantly, in emulation of her gesture, every other woman reached out too, to share in this communion of touch. Yes, said Deeti, from now on, there are no differences between us; we are jahaz-bhai and jahaz-bahen to each other; all of us children of the ship” (348). In what ways does the ship provide a realm where relations or forms of kinship may develop that otherwise might not be possible on land? Or does the ship merely reinforce the social and cultural stratifications of land while at sea (as with the controversy over Jodu and Munia’s relationship)?

    4) The ship:
    In light of our discussion of gender, we might also consider the gendered dimensions of the ship itself. While ships are conventionally feminine entities, “unlike sailors elsewhere, lascars often spoke of their ships in the masculine, referring to the vessels’ masts as their manhood” (181). However, the Ibis clearly has womanly associations, especially evident through the continual descriptions of the ship as a maternal figure with a “womb” (420) or their awareness that they travel “in the belly of a ship” (387). Deeti’s own pregnancy also evokes the image of a vessel in the sea: “How strange it was to feel the presence of a body inside her, lurching in time to her own movements: it was as if her belly were the sea, and the child a vessel, sailing towards its own destiny” (449). Despite the numerous references to the vessel’s maternal inclinations, what do we make of Deeti’s reference to the ship as both “the Mother-Father of her new family” in the following passage?

    “It was now that Deeti understood why the image of the vessel had been revealed to her that day, when she stood immersed in the Ganga: it was because her new self, her new life, had been gestating all this while in the belly of this creature, this vessel that was the Mother-Father of her new family, a great wooden mái-báp, an adoptive ancestor and parent of dynasties yet to come: here she was, the Ibis” (348, emphasis added).

    I also want to further consider the idea of the boat as a source of transformation with the ability to generate new life or new formations of kinship: “…the Ibis was not a ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, travelling through the mists of illusion towards he elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth” (411).

    5) Nature and elemental forces:
    Finally, I want to conclude by returning to our ongoing conversation on the nonhuman. In Sea of Poppies, nature is at once a powerfully destructive force like the wave, “the ban, or bore” (335), yet also vulnerable in the face of humans, as seen in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans (371). What do we make of the bird imagery or the reference to the cat that flees the ship? How about the two references to whales: Ah Fatt’s father tries to shape his son into “a Man who spouted Manliness like a whale exhales spray” (409) and Jodu clings to jib-boom “like a barnacle to the snout of a sounding whale” (415)? Animals clearly play an interesting role within the narrative with even the Ibis depicted as “an animal returning to its natural element” (413).

    Does opium figure in as an “elemental” force throughout the novel? At times, Ghosh describes the fields as a tidal wave of poppies. The captain also argues that opium is an elemental “gift” on par with water and fire: “‘It was a gift like none I’ve ever known. And like all the gifts that Nature gives us—fire, water and the rest—it demands to be used with the greatest care and caution’” (423). We might contrast the captain’s description of opium with Deeti’s depiction of the Benares Poppy seed: “She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this miniscule orb—at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn” (439).

    In what ways does water figure into the novel (through the monsoon rains, the rivers, and the Black Water)? The Black Water of the ocean is arguably the most compelling elemental force at work in the novel. The coolies’ passage across the water is a visceral and very real (not merely spiritual) experience: “Now the migrants began to absorb the finality of what was under way: yes, they were moving, they were afloat, heading towards the void of the Black Water; neither death nor birth was as fearsome a passage as this, neither being experienced in full consciousness” (363).

    • ama225 says:

      Class Highlights, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, 2/5/2014

      We began with the Moby Dick quote, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” and considered the genre of Sea of Poppies. It’s not quite an epic – but it is certainly expansive, and perhaps even encyclopedic. What’s at stake in creating such a “garrulous” novel, as Brandon put it?

      We then returned to CLR James’ essay on Moby Dick, in which he argues that the novel should have revolved more clearly around the ship’s workers and, interestingly, asserts that the more tedious scenes in the novel are valuable for their depictions of communal labor. Ghosh’s work might be understood as a response to James: he opens up nuanced interactions, hierarchies, and multiple sites of labor aboard the ship, and the lascar is central to his narrative. His emphasis that the ship workers have “nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean,” is equally important; in this context, his narrative of the ship is very much an examination of a transient community brought together only by labor.

      We looked to the Crestomathy as a mapping of words and their odysseys, and considered the particularly gendered word-play at work with the character Paulette. Her mishearings and refashionings are notable because they mark her many transgressions of white female gender and sexuality: for example, we looked to the passage in which she describes Mr. Burnham’s sexual escapades. Struggling to find the word “buttocks,” she seizes on the term “poop-deck,” from ship vocabulary. Throughout the novel we see that her innovative language marks an unusual upbringing and transgressive intimacies—in particular, her relationship with Jodu and his mother, Paulette’s “aunt-mother.”

      Discourses of gender and sexuality, as they intersect with imperialism, remained sites of inquiry throughout the rest of our discussion. We considered the project of male heterosexual imperial conquest that has so shaped the European novelistic tradition, beginning with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. What does it mean for Ghosh to so centrally locate women in a semi (at least…see the rest of this paragraph!)-historical narrative of Empire? We also looked at the character Baboo Nob Kissin, who undergoes a physical and emotional transformation from male to female in the course of the ship’s passage. He must be located within a spectrum of transformations that take place during the novel, including Zachary’s passing from Black to white; Ah Fatt’s transformation from wasted, beast-like addict to man and friend; and Neel, Deeti, and the other indentured laborers’ loss of caste and formation of new social worlds around their indentured status. But we took time to differentiate between these narratives of change: we reflected on the passing narrative and the religious mythology of reincarnation as differently historicized frameworks of transformation. First asking whether we might understand any of these transformations as ‘naturalistic,’ we then questioned the viability of the term. We wondered whether Ghosh’s trilogy attempts to take seriously the mythologies and transformations of the indentured, whose crossing of the Kala Pani meant the loss of caste, severing the indentured not only mythologically and emotionally but also materially from their former identities, their families, and their homes. Thinking about Ghosh’s melding of historical record and imaginative fiction, what would it mean to take the narratives of the indentured as ‘fact’?

      Returning to our discussion of the gendered imperial tradition, we considered Ghosh’s descriptions of the ship as pregnant mother, as well as Deeti’s own heavily symbolic pregnancy. Ghosh’s description of Baboo Nob Kissin as “queenly” resonates with Ahab’s monologue in Moby Dick: “while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights.” We wondered whether Ghosh’s gendered metaphors of maternal caring might be placed in conversation with other moments of caring in the text, such as the powerful scene in which Neel bathes Ah Fatt. We were hesitant to conflate them, and pushed back on Ghosh’s metaphorics of motherhood. The queenly metaphor seemed to indicate a certain investment in futurity, and (problematically) in futurity that took shape primarily through heterosexual reproduction. Deeti’s pregnancy certainly suggests this; heterosexual reproduction (also heralded by the wedding ceremony aboard the ship) inaugurates the life worlds of the indentured.

      However, we turned back to the intimacy between Neel and Ah Fatt to explore other types of caring and intimacy at work in the text. We considered CLR James’ notion of work, and in particular the importance of using one’s hands to perform work; but we questioned whether his description was appropriate for Neel’s labor of love. We compared the handling of Ah Fatt’s waste with scenes of labor at the Empire’s opium factory, in which the workers are enveloped in dark sludge. Does Neel’s intimate touch open up alternative and transgressive economies of caring? Of intimacy? Of value? His relationship with Ah Fatt certainly threatens the system of imperial indenture, as evidenced by Bhryo Singh’s furious attempts to destroy their bond: “strange to think,” Neel reflects, that he and Ah Fatt “already possessed something that could excite the envy of men whose power over them was absolute. Could it be that there was something genuinely rare in such a bond as theirs, something that could provoke others to exert their ingenuity in order to test its limits?”

      At the end of class we returned to our recurring conversation on the non-human. Phoenix suggested that we might think of the ship as a sort of ecosystem, for both Melville and Ghosh; we’ll continue to think about the gendering of the ship, as well as the possibilities of ocean as agent.

      • Wai Chee says:

        Thanks for these ongoing reflections, Anusha and Courtney! In light of what we talked about in class, I’m especially intrigued by Courtney’s “alternative kinship” as an experiential spectrum: sometimes based on a shared vernacular, such as Bhojpuri; sometimes based on the sense of touch, such as the sisterly jaházbahen; and sometimes extending unexpectedly between the human and the nonhuman, as between the ocean and the ship, the Ibis, used to navigate it and can potentially be destroyed by it. Poppies are “elemental” in that sense, deeply woven into human lives and potentially destroying those lives (interesting, not “field’ of poppies, but “sea” of poppies). I think that’s why Melville is so important to Ghosh: Moby-Dick, too, is a text centrally predicated on forms of kinship with joint annihilation as their enabling ground: between Ishmael and Queequeg, between Ahab and Pip.

        I’m also struck by the double function of the nonhuman in this context. Sometimes the nonhuman marks the end of kinship (when Neel is examined as an inanimate object in prison), and sometimes the nonhuman is itself a candidate for kinship (the ship either as straightforwardly maternal, or intriguingly Mother-Father). Ghosh sometimes seems to be using gender as a grammatical form (as in European languages), rather than simply as a male/ female dividing line…

        Finally, also along the lines of nonkinship, I’m struck by how different the YCBA paintings are from the actual text of Sea of Poppies. The contrast speaks not only to a divergence of media, but it also raises an intriguing question about archival research: are we looking for resemblance when we consult the visual sources for a literary text? If not always resemblance, what else might we be looking for?

  7. lmc66 says:

    February 12, 2014
    Whitman: Archives of War (1)

    We began today’s class at the Beinecke by looking at several items from their collection that relate to Whitman’s work: messily handwritten letters from Whitman to his family members, more neatly written entries from his journal, two early editions of Leaves of Grass, and a variety of Civil War-era newspapers, including one that contained an installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After reading about Whitman’s experience as a printer and active involvement with the printing of his own books, it was fascinating to see the various sources of print that he might have encountered in his daily life – from the letters he composed hurriedly on tiny squares of paper to the oversize pages of newspaper he might have rifled through.

    This excursion into the past was followed by a jump into the present. The Digital Humanities Roundtable engaged three speakers working in different capacities at Yale to discuss the role of the digital humanities. Trip Kirkpatrick, from Yale’s Instructional Technology Services, discussed the inherently networked and partial nature of knowledge, and highlighted the redundancy of digital systems – the fact that knowledge exists in multiple sites at once, allowing us to track down information in a wide variety of possible locations. He also discussed the ways in which the digital humanities, because they emphasize the human beings who are integral to the creation of digital projects and technology, might provide a way to refocus our attention on the humanity of this work. Peter Leonard, digital librarian at Sterling, provided a fascinating example of the digital humanities’ unique potential to bring transparency to the archives and, as he put it, unearth the “cultural material hiding within serial publications.” By creating a program that analyzes the contents of thousands upon thousands of issues of Vogue magazine, we can understand more fully the themes and discourses that were most vital to the magazine at different moments in its history. Digital techniques allow us look analytically at patterns in article topics, the conceptual changes made under different editors, variation in the color of magazine covers, and countless other facets of the publication’s history that would be unavailable through the use of more traditional research methods. Finally, Lauren Tilton, a graduate student in American Studies, introduced us to the Photogrammar project, which maps the FSA/OWI photographs and provides various ways of analyzing the endlessly rich data in the collection. Photogrammar employs creative visualizations of this data that allow us to trace the paths traveled by individual photographers, for instance, or to recreate individual photo strips by looking closely at classification numbers. Lauren emphasized the importance of teamwork in the digital humanities – the enormous potential that unfolds when a project brings together people with different areas of expertise, thus allowing for a richer variety of understanding and analysis.

    We concluded our session with a discussion of Walt Whitman’s poetry. We looked in particular detail at the poems “Reconciliation,” “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” “The Wound-Dresser,” and “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.” One thread of our discussion focused on the global and cosmopolitan aspects of Whitman’s work: his international subscribers included Tennyson, among others, and he was extremely well read (we have access to many of the books that he owned and the extensive notes he took on them). He also utilized sources of information such as foreign bookstores and lectures in Brooklyn on other parts of the world. We talked about tracing these influences in his poetry and thinking about the world of information to which he had access.

    We also talked about how Whitman’s witnessing of the havoc wreaked on individual bodies by the Civil War made it difficult for him to conceive of a unified body politic; his poetic quest to find coherence and cohesion in American society was profoundly disturbed by the sight of bodies dismembered and destroyed by war. His poems on care and forms of caring emphasize the need for spiritual and psychological as well as physical care, and he suggests that the restorative work he did by reaching out to wounded soldiers in war hospitals and spending time with them was equally important to the work of medical doctors who attempted to repair their bodies.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Thank you, Lucy! I’d worried that the combination of class/ digital roundtable might be a bit awkward, but your summary makes it clear that both are exploring the properties of the representational media: print in Whitman’s nineteenth century, and the digital medium in our own time: with its capacity for visualization, for bringing to light “latent knowledge,” as well as the importance of collaboration and structural “redundancies” to maximize access and input. Your own exciting discovery of the archival material in the Beinecke of Hindemith’s Requiem based on Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is definitely one of the highlights of the class — I look forward to seeing your work both in print and in digital formats!

      • lmc66 says:

        I found this short excerpt from a 1982 piece titled “Specimen Days” by the performance artist Meredith Monk – it’s strange and mesmerizing:

        The abstract nature of the music and action here, and the lack of a clear relationship to Whitman’s text, bring to mind the relationship we discussed between Melville and Frank Stella. I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts!

  8. Brandon says:

    Whitman, Archives of War (II): Specimen Days & Collect

    Given the autobiographical nature of Whitman’s project in both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days, the first half of my presentation was spent constructing a linear chronology of Whitman’s life, with close attention paid to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman’s influence on her son’s poesis and gender politics, Whitman’s work history, the evolution of Leaves of Grass in relation to several contemporaneous publication projects (particularly Drum-Taps and Specimen Days & Collect), Whitman’s time in and around Washington during the Civil War, and the romantic friendships the poet fashioned with figures such as Fred Vaughan, Peter Doyle, and Harry Stafford.

    To anchor our discussions of the texts central to the “Archives of War” thematic (Leaves of Grass, Drum-Taps, and Specimen Days & Collect), we also considered the “statements of intent” Whitman included in various letters, prefaces, and retrospective essays about his writings. For instance, in the preface to the 1855 Leaves, Whitman outlines the poetic program of an American bard “commensurate with [his] people” and “great lover” of the “known universe” who transmutes into words the “essences of the real things and past and present events,” including “the enormous diversity” of the Unites States, the “perpetual coming of immigrants,” “the unsurveyed interior,” “the noble character of…all free workmen and workwomen…the general ardor and friendliness and enterprise—the perfect equality of the female with the male…the large amativeness—the fluid movement of the population,” and “slavery and the tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposition to it which shall never cease till it ceases or the speaking of tongues and the moving of lips cease” (LG 618-619). These aspirations, symptomatic of their time, are revisited in “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” in which the poet writes of the centrally autographic aim of his oeuvre: “Given the Nineteenth Century, with the United States, and what they furnish as area and points of view, ‘Leaves of Grass’ is, or seeks to be, simply a faithful and doubtless self-will’d record. In the midst of all, it gives one man’s—the author’s—identity, ardors, observations, faiths, and thoughts.” These programmatic descriptions were apposed to those Whitman included in a January 17, 1863 letter to Emerson on Drum-Taps (in which he states that he “desire[s] and intend[s] to write a little book out of this phase of American, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed [him] to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth” (SL 45)) and an October 8, 1882 letter to Sylvester Baxter on Specimen Days (in which he refers to the book as “an autobiography after its sort” that “dwells long in its own peculiar way on the Secession War—gives glimpses of that event’s strange interiors, especially the Army Hospitals—in fact makes the resuscitating and putting on record the emotional aspect of the war of 1861-’65 one of its principal features” (SL 242)).

    After limning Whitman’s life trajectory—marked by crests of poetic productivity and reciprocated friendship as well as by troughs of personal loss and disenchantment, ill health, and the colossal dismemberment represented by the “Four Years War”—I read a poem of my own devising entitled “Calamus in Soho.” To introduce my own “ode of uncertainty” to the Good Gray Poet, the affective stakes of which hinge on the continued efficacy of the Whitmanian project across temporal bounds, I invoked Ezra Pound’s Patria Mia and its actually rather touching (almost despite Pound’s intentions) meditation on how when one—if one is an American—finds oneself apart from la mère Patrie, Whitman’s verse and its self-actualized vitality can be of great comfort; Pound writes, “Whitman established the national timbre. One may not need him at home. It is in the air, this tonic of his. But if one is abroad; if one is ever likely to forget one’s birth-right, to lose faith, being surrounded by disparagers, one can find, in Whitman, the reassurance” (64).

    After the poem, we moved on to the discussion questions I included at the end of my presentation handout (copies of which I can provide next class), which I reproduce here, in slightly shortened form, for those not present:

    • To what extent do we take Whitman at his word—that Specimen Days is the “exponent and finish of his poetic work” and the biographical project it evinces? What possibilities do these “wayward itemizings, memoranda, and personal notes”—that is, occasional prose—offer as an extension or amplification of the Whitmanian project?

    • How do the lyric speaker of Leaves of Grass and the prose anthologist of Specimen Days (if are they distinct personae) attempt to approximate the spontaneity (a much-valued quality in Whitmanian aesthetics) of letter writing?

    • For a poet—a national bard—whose poesis hinges on the direct absorption and acceptance of the American public such that his poetic corpus is imaginatively positioned as being coextensive and fully representative of that public, what role does privacy play?

    • Given the supreme importance of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman’s influence on her son and the primacy of the mother in Whitman’s national equation, do we see his ministrations—his offerings of care and intimacy to the sick and dying during the Civil War recorded extensively in Specimen Days and the “Drum-Taps” section of Leaves of Grass—in a maternal light? In what ways does his nurse-work confound normative models of gender and sexuality?

    • Finally, the culture/nature divide that lies at the heart of Melville’s Moby-Dick is frequently characterized by struggle. How is the disparity between culture and nature bridged in Leaves of Grass? Is this relationship ever troubled or reconfigured in Specimen Days? If so, how and why?

    For the remainder of the class, we discussed the gender dynamics of Whitman’s work as a nurse (likened to Ahab’s treatment of Pip in Melville’s Moby-Dick and Neel’s bathing of Ah Fatt in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies), the ethics of Whitman’s representing the “specimens” of young soldiers as both individuals as well as “typic cases” that stand as illustrations of the hundreds and thousands of Civil War dead who perished unrecorded, and the role of Abraham Lincoln within Leaves and Specimen Days as a salvific figure and how his role in Whitman’s “New Bible” differed from that of the poet himself. We concluded the class with an extended analysis of “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” from Drum-Taps, Henry Thacker Burleigh’s musical setting of the poem, and the slave auction scenes from “I Sing the Body Electric.”

    After class, many of us attended Paul Gilroy’s talk “The Black Atlantic and the Re-enchantment of Humanism: Suffering and Infrahumanity,” part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values; it would be interesting, as an extension of our class discussion, to see how Professor Gilroy’s lecture might have recast our thinking on some of the important facets of Whitman’s work that we explored in seminar.

    Thanks, everyone, for such an engaging discussion!

    • Wai Chee says:

      Whitman’s Specimen Days could also be said to be a re-enchantment of humanism through suffering. Even though the wounded soldiers are here as “specimens,” given no other details than the standard army information (place of birth, number of regiment etc), the inadequacy of this information is itself a haunting affirmation of Whitman’s claim that “the real history will never get written in books,” that humanity is never reducible to what purports to categorize it and describe it.

      • Brandon says:

        Before we make our transition to Hawthorne, I thought I would post these video adverts from Levi’s 2009 “Go Forth” campaign, created by Cary Fukunaga (whose films include 2009’s Sin Nombre and 2011’s Jane Eyre) and M. Blash (an emerging director, mostly of music videos, who has been championed by the doyens of New Queer Cinema, Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes), that I’d considered presenting in class. I think they serve as interesting examples of Whitman’s work (specifically “America” from the “Sands at Seventy” annex of Leaves and “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from “Drum-Taps”) being remediated in surprising ways. Regardless of their intended (commercial) purpose, I find the results actually rather beautiful and affecting, especially the “America” spot, which utilizes the famous wax cylinder recording of what is thought to be Whitman reciting four lines from the titular poem. On this sonic artifact, you can read Ed Folsom’s article, “The Whitman Recording,” here:

        It should be noted that Levi’s used passages from Byron in their UK adverts–an implicit comparison that would have undoubtedly pleased Whitman.

        * * *

        “America,” directed by Cary Fukunaga


        by Walt Whitman

        Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
        All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
        Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
        Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
        A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
        Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

        “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” directed by M. Blash

        Full text of the poem here:

        • Wai Chee says:

          “America” and “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” are not my favorite poems, but the Levis videos actually make me pay them more attention and notice more things — another example of literature benefiting from downward percolations, even the grossly commercial kind!

  9. Phoenix Alexander says:

    February 26, 2014

    Novelizing Poetry: Michael Cunningham, Specimen Days

    We had a wide-ranging discussion of Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, moving from the genre of science fiction, Walt Whitman’s poetry, Paul Gilroy and the concepts of planetary consciousness and re-enchanting humanism, to technology, spirituality, and the body.

    We began by looking at the linguistic theory of Sam Delany who, in his two volumes of criticism (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine), outlines the mechanics of science fiction prose itself (via close-reading of the sample sentence: ‘monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni’) and how it operates in contrast to ‘mundane’ literature. Critiquing the imaginative failure and the inability of ‘academic’ readerships to comprehend the genre, Delany’s argument indicts a truly ‘deconstructive’ approach to the science fiction text, lamenting the fact that ‘critics who actually explore textual plays of meaning from this point of view are rather rare.’ The academy – specifically, the English department! – falls far short of the methodological ability to fully appreciate the science fiction text.

    That said, Cunningham’s novel, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, uses a science fiction narrative alongside sections from other genres, e.g the ‘realist’ 19th-century(ish) ghost story and the police thriller. I suggested that this is a ‘gentrification’ of the genre for a ‘literary’ readership – although the class did identify the presence of several strong SF tropes/cliches, such as the high-speed flight from NYC, incorporating cyborgs, alien lizards, ‘hoverpods’ and a murderous, laser-firing drone. Indeed, the fusion of genres is a key aspect of the novel that reviewers touch upon; Laura Miller, in her review for, asserts that Cunningham aimed to ’embrace’ three genres ‘beneath his own’. We can certainly contest this hierarchical judgement!

    Genre considerations aside, the novel is a direct reference to Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, sharing both a title and indeed authorial figure. ‘Walt’, god-like, bearded, and amorphous, appears in changeling forms throughout the three stories. His poetry bursts, unbidden, perhaps unwanted, from three separate protagonists: Lukas, a disturbed child, Cat, a Columbia graduate and policewoman, and Simon, a ‘simulo’, a hybrid flesh-machine programmed with a regulatory ‘poetry chip’.

    The fusion of genres perhaps gestures towards a Whitmanian love of everything, a privileging of everything; our discussion constantly moved from content to meta-analysis, meditating on the nature of objects (which Courtney identified as being split into two categories, ‘debris’ and ‘things’), the love between infrahumans and ‘persons’, the biological and the machinic, the humanoid and the utterly alien subaltern, as well as the ‘unfinished’ yet all-encompassing reaches of the novelistic craft itself.

    The imaginative challenge posed by Cunningham in, say, the love between Simon and Catareen, the reptilian ‘Nadian’, resonated with both Bruno Latour’s idea of the expansion of the category of the anthropomorphic, elevated to the all-encompassing ‘weaver of morphisms’, as well as with his concept of the ‘Parliament of Things’: a fundamental break in the way we conceive of time, belonging, ethics, bodies. Furthermore, the imaginative capacities of SF (which Delany argues ‘prepare the imagination’ for future worlds) perhaps speaks to Paul Gilroy’s notion of the ‘re-enchantment of humanism’ which, from the Tanner lectures last week, suggests an element of mysticism, of seduction: of aesthetic pleasure that moves from the text, to the field of ethics, to the love of bodies that resonate so strongly from Whitman’s own autobiographical writing (e.g. his literary reconstituting, and memorialising, the bodies of the dead).

    Lastly, the seminar discussed the ethics of futurism: something Gilroy, at least, seemed to reject. The apparently mournful ending to Cunningham’s Specimen Days – Catareen’s dying, Simon’s being left behind – suggests a complicated relation to ‘the stars’, perhaps pleading for a return to the earthly or planetary, rendered ‘sufficient’ by Whitman’s poetry. Gilroy’s moving phrase ‘ecologies of belonging’ speaks movingly to the complex relationship between the planet (Gaya/Gaia), humanity, and non-human personhood. After all, how many New Worlds do we need? Is the concept tired; isn’t this world enough?

    • Wai Chee says:

      Yes, ecologies of belonging. Doris Lessing says that SF isn’t about the future but about the present, and not about other worlds but about this one, the planet earth, our one and only. (On an entirely different rhetorical register, I think Jameson would actually agree with her.) Speculative fiction (Lessing’s name for SF) isn’t so much a rejection of realist fiction as a restitching of some of its premises — in the case of Cunningham, the restitching is especially interesting because, far from being seamless, the jagged edges and mismatches of the different genres are so conspicuously in the foreground. Where does SF belong, in which part of the literary landscape? It could be that Cunningham is “gentrifying” the genre, or it could be that, in assuming and demanding a familiarity with Whitman’s poetry, he’s doing for SF something not unlike what A.S. Byatt, in Possession, is doing for detective fiction — making the high and the low part of the same continuum.

  10. ama225 says:

    March 5, 2014

    User-Friendly Classic: The Scarlet Letter

    We began with Laura Doyle’s article, “ ‘A’ for Atlantic: The Colonizing Force of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.” Whereas Doyle suggests that Hawthorne actively conceals the violence of colonial settlement and the slave trade, we wondered what might be revealed in attending to Hawthorne’s more openly expressed anxieties and ambivalences in the text. We were particularly interested in passages that detailed Hester and Pearl’s relationship to the surrounding forest, as well as the ways in which Hawthorne maps a transient geography of early Boston. A “moral wilderness,” mapped onto the forest, surrounds and threatens to overwhelm the small settlement; the forest is an ambivalent site of both possibility and threat. For example, we looked at the following passage, in which Hester beseeches Dimmesdale:

    Is the world so narrow? Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! (135)

    On one hand, Hawthorne clearly inscribes the colonial “terra nullus” philosophy, in which land is infinitely available and infinitely devoid of legitimately human (white) life. Native American presence goes unremarked and is, seemingly, unremarkable. But this passage is also fascinating in its visual geography: we see, almost from an aerial view, the very smallness of the settlement, its transience and the fragility of its boundaries.

    Hester and Pearl’s “wildness” and affiliations with the forest similarly naturalize colonial occupation, erase its violence against indigenous peoples and environments, and pose Hester as a proto-revolutionary spirit. Moreover, as Doyle points out, Hawthorne’s use of “Indianness”—descriptors that align Hester and Pearl with Native American dress and stereotypical characteristics—allows him to displace actual Native American histories, bodies, and lives from his text. Yet, simultaneously, Hawthorne appears to openly imagine the colonial project as fragile and in flux. Does his use of Indianness also reveal the threat of racial contagion by what Paul Gilroy might call the Native American “infrahuman”? In that sense, what can we make of Hester and Pearl’s transgressive relationships with nature, ghosts and other non-human beings? Do the contours of Hawthorne’s anxiety might reveal an important vulnerability within the colonial project? In emphasizing anxiety and ambivalence rather than concealment, perhaps we can read Hawthorne’s depiction of human and non-human relationships as not promoting the romance of American settler colonialism—the rebellious and restless desire to explore the great wild open—but also as something that clearly endangers white settlement.

    We considered the gendering of the settler-colonial’s relationship to the land, and compared Hester and Pearl with Roger Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale. We wondered whether, for Hawthorne, white women constitute a sort of border figure on which colonial anxiety is inscribed. We noted the extensive and aggressive labor that structures Dimmesdale’s relationship to the forest: “The pathway among the woods seemed wilder, more uncouth with its rude natural obstacles, and less trodden by the foot of man, than he remembered it on his outward journey. But he leaped across the plashy places, thrust himself through the clinging underbrush, climbed the ascent” (148). We were struck by Pearl’s early militancy: although she later finds her only playmates in the forest—”the mother forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child” (140-1)—Pearl initially imagines nature as the antagonistic Puritan community. Battling her environment with a vengeance, Pearl reenacts the violence of settler-colonialism, as well as the violence that’s been inflicted on her as a transgressive and therefore threatening body. And we wondered about the role Chillingworth plays, as an herbalist who is intimate with both the medicines and evil magic of the forest, and always marked as a vaguely foreign body because of his long captivity with Native Americans.

    For much of the class we considered the temporality of the novel. Turning back to Doyle, we pushed back on her arguments that the novel decontextualizes the moment of adultery, breaking with past and present violences of the English Civil War and settler colonialism. Such a break with the past would be crucial in imagining Hester as a proto-revolutionary. Yet the perpetual ghosting of Hawthorne’s text, the haunting of characters by texts, and Hawthorne’s own relationship to past texts—as depicted in the introductory piece, ‘The Custom-House”—suggest the inability of humans beings to ever fully break with the past. Undoubtedly, as Doyle argues, Hawthorne does not engage the past and present violences of colonialism and the slave trade. (Much as Native Americans are displaced from the text, always on the geographical margins of the settlement, out of sight and largely out of mind, the African enslaved are displaced by the mention of one European “slave,” a man who has entered a period of indenture. For further reading, Maryse Condé’s piece is an interesting engagement with the absence of the African slave.) However, Hawthorne’s sense of time—and particularly of nonhuman, natural time—suggest that human mastery will always be incomplete: we see this in Hester’s address to Dimmesdale, and also in this passage: “Here they sat down on a luxuriant heap of moss; which, at some epoch of the preceding century, had been a gigantic pine, with its roots and trunk in the darksome shade, and its head aloft in the upper atmosphere” (127). Nature’s temporal scale seems to overwhelm and eclipse any action of the human. Here we must heed Rob Nixon’s warning that such deep time thinking can further erase colonial and neocolonial violence. But we wondered what the implications of this would be for thinking about imperial historiography. How might we complicate Hawthorne’s historiographical project through his depictions of the human’s relationship with the past—relationships with non-human forms that occupy alternative temporal spaces, and thus serve as disruptive, rupturing forces as these characters attempt to break with the past and forge new histories? Ghosts in the text are of course crucial disruptions of the ‘present.’ We also considered ghostly texts: the scarlet letter; Pearl, who is repeatedly compared to the scarlet letter and described as another symbolic text; and the texts that Hawthorne encounters in the Custom House. Hester attempts to throw away the scarlet letter, and cries, “The past is gone! Wherefore should we linger upon it now? See! With this symbol, I undo it all, and make it as it had never been!” Yet she’s forced by Pearl to pin it back on her chest: “She had flung it into infinite space!—she had drawn an hour’s free breath!—and here again was the scarlet misery, glittering on the old spot!” (144-5). The past returns and ruptures via two ghostly texts—Pearl and the letter to which she’s become so attached—suggesting the inadequacy of an imperial historiography that might seek to hide the sins of the past. We saw Hawthorne asking: what counts as the boundaries of American history? Where is the prehistory of America?

    Thinking about the ways in which the temporal and spatial boundaries of the settlement are reconfigured even as Hester is pushed to the outskirts—since now the villagers create new routes, wandering to the edges of the settlement to get a glimpse of her in her home—we spent some time thinking about the shifting geographical boundaries of the settlement. We were interested in the telescoping of space via memory: as Hester stands on the scaffold, she mentally occupies both the Old and New Worlds. Memory and chains of association, we noted, create a larger circumference around the smaller boundary of the town.

    We also considered the temporal scale of the ocean (returning to earlier conversations in the semester) and how it figures into the novel as force similar to that of the forest. It is a wilderness that consumes the human. Chillingworth, for example, is thought to be possessed by it and lost in time; Hester imagines that the ocean can be the rupture with the past that she and Dimmesdale so desire, and although it fails in this respect for both of them it does offer Pearl a new life. It is their only means of escaping; the ocean is in cahoots with the wilderness of the mariners and promises some sort of alternative temporal and moral space. Interestingly, Hawthorne suggests that the mariners are wilder than the Indians, and notes their unhindered presence on land as a sign of “the incomplete morality of that age.” Once more, Hawthorne depicts the settlement as fragile and in flux, still attempting to establish its moral boundaries; yet this time it is the ocean that indicates a moral wilderness, one that threatens to erode these boundaries.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Another thought on the oceanic: Indianness does seem to be something of a “floating signifier” here, displaced from the Native Americans themselves, who are well-behaved, and lodged in other characters who are less so — especially Roger Chillingworth, who seems to personify the stereotypical “vengefulness” of Indians, and to some extent Pearl as well. It’s interesting to think about the ceaselessly redrawn boundaries between the sea and the settlement, and the settlement and the forest. I haven’t really thought about the settlement as fragile until our extended discussion of this point; it not only realigns colonial history with environmental history but also puts the non-human front and center as a key player.

  11. cls96 says:

    March 26, 2014

    Hawthorne in Mississippi, Part I –

    Our discussion began by looking at different modes and impulses of documenting the historical moment of the 1930s. As evident in As I Lay Dying and through Cheryl Lester’s article “As They Lay Dying: Rural Depopulation and Social Dislocation as a Structure of Feeling,” the 1930s was a period of significant economic upheaval and social dislocation. We considered As I Lay Dying (and the novelistic form) as one medium of “documentary” alongside journalism, maps, and photography. First, we discussed James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which originated from a 1936 journalistic assignment from Fortune magazine to report, in concert with photographer Walker Evans, on the recent upsurge of sharecroppers in Alabama. While their report was initially rejected by Fortune, it was eventually published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Through his reporting, Agee became interested in the question of how a society could produce such disposable bodies. The sheer vulnerability, not to mention disposability of the human body are issues that might be explored in relation to Faulkner’s own preoccupation with the limits of the corporeal. Throughout As I Lay Dying, bodies are continually placed under tremendous physical trauma, as in the case of Cash’s leg and Addie’s hole-bored corpse. While Evans was supposedly working “objectively” with his camera, Agee was “subjectively” reporting through written journalism. However, we have to question the extent that these photographs were objective “frozen snapshots” of this particular historical moment since a number of these photographs were staged or manipulated (as was common practice during this time). At the same time, the photographs are also reflexive and extend beyond the realm of representation and into a relation of participatory imagination.

    We then turned to the idea of maps and imagined spaces, particularly Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. This led us to ask: how can we read the map, which in its very nature, flattens and conflates the novel’s events (like the Bundren family’s journey) to a linear trajectory in comparison to the novel, which through its contrapuntal narration disrupts and distorts the temporal. At the same time, the map offers a visual tool for envisioning the space that Faulkner’s novels occupy. The issue of perception is another key theme that pervades the novel through the continual descriptions of eyes, Darl’s different way of seeing, and a fixation on looking and staring. More generally, we considered what it means to create an imagined geographical space during a period of so much social dislocation—where the very idea of the American landscape and in turn, the national imaginary was recast. Imagined landscapes have appeared in other novels we’ve considered this semester including Queequeg’s imaginary island of Kokovoko or Ganga-Sagar Island depicted as “a real place, but one surrounded by tales” (Ghosh 389) in Sea of Poppies. We also asked what it meant to conjure fictive spaces based on some elements of the real (as in the reference to the real locale named Yoknapatawpha).

    Yet another way of examining documentary impulses during this period is through the federal government’s extensive Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) photography project. During 1935-1944, the government enlisted a series of photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to take 170,000 photos across the country. This initiative captured some of the most iconic visual images of the era, while simultaneously shaping the American imaginary at this particular moment. One way of looking at this archive is through the site Photogrammar that Lauren Tilton recently presented at our first Digital Lab. The FSA as a government-sponsored initiative, allows us to consider the ways in which the government felt impelled to visually chronicle the limits and textures of the nation. In looking at the FSA photos from Mississippi, there were a number of images not only chronicling the impoverished population, but a number of images capturing the erosion of the natural landscape. We then examined a number of photographs that aligned with the novel: photographs of a family carrying a casket, a coffin loaded on a wagon, a pharmacy window, and an amalgam of hardware tools.

    The notion of boundaries emerges both in the FSA images and throughout the novel. In terms of boundaries, we might think of geographic boundaries: the tenuous relations between country and town, the racialization of the town’s perimeter, or as Cheryl Lester argues, the symbolic demarcation of the river. We might also consider the boundaries of embodiment: how physicality and gender inflect mobility and the womb as a type of boundary. Finally, there are material boundaries that appear through doors, windows, boxes, and coffins—objects that both enclose and widen space, and thus offer potential readings of subjectivity, domesticity, and interiority. There are a number of examples of FSA photos featuring windows.

    In both the FSA photographs and As I Lay Dying, windows frequently frame women. Additionally, windows often demarcate desire from spaces of consumption (as in the case of Dewey Dell at the pharmacy window and Vardaman at the window of the toy store). We observed the dialectic at work between the emerging and not emerging. In particular, we wondered how Addie feels about the coffin as her permanent resting “box” (48). Are the coffin’s holes letting in air or are they further damaging the integrity of her body? When Addie is first pictured beside the window, the scene is depicted as a “composite picture” (48)—which not only points to the ontological connection between still life and the photograph as mechanized, but also signals the ways in which composite photographs are doctored. Addie’s “gaunt face” may similarly be read as a type of mask, as though her very body is floating free from gravity. We looked at parallels between Addie’s spectral presence and
    Francesca Woodman’s photography. In the novel, what counts as alive? Who is “truly dead”? These questions can be considered in relation to Addie’s monologue on Anse:

    “He did not know that he was dead, then. Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar” (Addie, 173).

    What kind of life do we want to have while alive? What kind of life do we wish to have in death? This section also offers an interesting theory on language where each word is visualized as provisional shapes. The idea of “liquefied” forms contrasts with the photographic medium as an arrested, frozen form. One could argue that the very moment when Addie agreed to marry Anse was the moment the doors of the world sealed shut on life.

    We also discussed music and the aural dimensions of the novel. The graphophone (yet another box) appears at the end of the novel. Lucy also suggested the very magnitude that music takes on throughout the narrative, evident in the scene when Whitfield’s “voice is bigger than him” (91). Faulkner was very interested in jazz and also produced jazz-inspired illustrations. In light of jazz, we noted that the attention to improvisation and syncopation could also be related to the spatial and visual dynamics of As I Lay Dying. Therefore, we considered how the visual and aural interact throughout the novel. We also asked: how does jazz travel or remediate across a number of spaces? Finally, we concluded by discussing Faulkner’s lyricization of the novel, which invites larger issues of how the epic and lyric might be linked.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Faulkner said he wrote As I Lay Dying in a matter of weeks, an astonishing claim, given how composed and compositional the novel is: the interplay of the various boxes, various spaces of confinement, and the persistent counterpoint between the visual and the aural. It’s almost not surprising that painters such as Willem de Kooning should be fascinated by Faulkner (although de Kooning’s Light in August seems to me a different composition altogether).

  12. Brandon says:

    Hawthorne in Mississippi, Part 2: Light in August

    It’s exciting to be posting the 25th (silver!) response to the blog.

    Our discussion began, in some ways, where the preceding week’s left off: considering the various media and ethical approaches employed to represent the American South, moving from the documentary or ethnographic ethos of the Farm Security Administration’s rural poverty photography program to the socially conscious lyricism that characterized the creative output of the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Art Project and its associated artists.

    As Courtney noted in her highlights from March 26, we touched briefly on the importance jazz had on the model of temporality Faulkner employs in As I Lay Dying. To foreground our discussion this time, I reintroduced the illustrations Faulkner produced for The Mississippian into our conversation as well as his early attempts at versification (both of which were collected in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (1962)). Like many novelists of his era, Faulkner was, to some degree, a failed poet; indeed, by the time he published his first novel Soldiers’ Pay in 1926, he had published two little-regarded poetry collections, Vision in Spring (1921) and The Marble Faun (1924). He would go on to publish four additional collections of poetry in his lifetime. From this body of work, we briefly considered “Nocturne,” whose commedia dell’arte pretensions are characteristic of the soigné and cosmopolitan persona that Faulkner adopted during his college days. Also notable from this era is Faulkner’s “imitation” of Verlaine’s “Fantoches,” which the magazine misprinted (likely on purpose) as “Fantouches”:


    à Paul Verlaine.

    Scaramouches and Pucinella
    Cast one shadow on the mellow
    Night, and kiss against the sky

    And the doctor of Bogona
    In his skull cap and kimono
    Seeks for simples with pale avid eye

    While his daughter half naked
    Glides trembling from her narrow bed
    To meet her lover waiting in the moon

    Her lover from the Spanish Main
    Whose passion thrills her with a strain
    La lune ne garde aucune rancune


    In “Faulkner at the University of Mississippi,” Carvel Collins writes, “Most of [his poems] were more sophisticated than the verse other students wrote for the newspaper, and the discrepancy created opposition to Faulkner’s work. […] As an artist partly apprenticed to the Symbolists, Faulkner already must have learned from them to expect hostility of this sort [(misprintings and parodic rejoinders)]; and one would like to imagine that, while he was learning to adapt to his own circumstances and skills some of the aesthetic practice and theory of [Debussy and Verlaine], Faulkner was also learning from les poètes maudits to cherish more and more the natural independence and self-containment within which he has recorded his aesthetic perceptions with remarkable indifference to much neglect and hostility during long early years, great adulation during recent years, and considerable misunderstanding throughout” (7-8). Such a lesson on the necessity of greater autonomy further connects Faulkner to the artists that featured in the rest of the presentation.

    After shuttling between media, we telescoped outward from the local to the global, taking our cue from Faulkner’s Nobel win in 1949, the interest his work holds for Afro-Caribbean writers such as Édouard Glissant (who published the fascinating memoir/monograph Faulkner, Mississippi in 1998), and, as Pascale Casanova discusses in The World Republic of Letters, the literary revolutions Faulkner’s work sparked in the Latin American world. Of particular interest, vis-à-vis Light in August and James Snead’s “Light in August and the Rhetorics of Racial Division” (which we read alongside the novel), is what Glissant writes in “The Road to Rowan Oak”: “Whatever attitude he adopts in his rapport with the Other and whatever global vision of the Other he has formed, the writer has no choice but to disturb this vision through his work, even after expressing it in the work. Because finally he must renounce indivisibility and terrifying unicity. [Faulkner’s] way of plumbing the universe is the mark of his relevance, no matter what anguish, doubts, regrets, and remorse he suffers ‘in private’” (5). What I’m still curious to discuss is this: what about this idea of unicity terrifies? How does it register as an anxiety within Light in August?

    After gesturing toward Nella Larson’s Passing and Quicksand, we talked about the implications of a racial identity wrought via rumor, how Joe Christmas is treated from the start as a foreign Other, how Joanna Bundren’s Northern roots (haunted by the figure of the carpetbagger) mark her as an outsider, and how the black/white binary by which, Snead argues, “Yoknapatawpha society finds the chief proof of its authority, integrity, and communal identity” (152) is rendered inadequate by this discourse. Spiraling outward from Joe Brown’s declaration on p. 426, “I’m a American citizen […] I reckon I got my rights, even if I dont wear no tin star on my galluses,” we also considered the question of citizenship in relation to justice as well as the orientation of the narrative in relation to Mexico and Canada, to Oxford, Mississippi, and New England (zones of linguistic and national differentiation). We also discussed the multiple trajectories of the characters as well as the variable deployment of modernist narrative techniques and industrial innovations (particularly the class dimensions of mule vs. horse vs. car ownership).

    We then analyzed the placement of Memphis as a regional center and the scene of Rev. Hightower being photographed by newspaper cameramen, how he attempts to, as Erving Goffman puts it, “save face”: “One of the cameramen had his machine set up to one side, and the minister did not see that one at all, or until too late. He was keeping his face concealed from the one in front, and next day when the picture came out in the paper it had been taken from the side, with the minister in the middle of a step, holding the hymn book before his face. And behind the book his lips were drawn back as though he were smiling. But his teeth were tight together and his face looked like the face of Satan in the old prints” (68-69). This connected back to our discussion of the “composite picture of all time” in As I Lay Dying and the mystique that surrounded early photographic processes. The “Satanic” transformation of Hightower also brought us to The Scarlet Letter and Faulkner’s interest, like that of Hawthorne, in the moral crisis facing the unwed mother. We ended our discussion with a meditation on the importance of Faulkner’s thematization of the mask and how it might relate to the novel’s depiction of violence, the consequences of which are wrought by a seemingly external force operating through the citizens of Yoknapatawpha county. Rather than the aftereffects of fully cognizant human actors, we receive a record of partly disembodied actions: “And when, staring at the face, he walked steadily toward it with his hand still raised, very likely he walked toward it in the furious and dreamlike exaltation of a martyr who has already been absolved, into the descending chair which Joe swung at his head, and into nothingness. Perhaps the nothingness astonished him a little, but not much, and not for long” (205).

    Thanks, everyone, for a fascinating discussion!

    • Wai Chee says:

      Thanks Brandon, for a great presentation! The regionalist works by Thomas Hart Benson that you brought to class are eye-opening, and suggest an entirely set of cross-media relations between Faulkner’s fiction and the visual archives, very different from the more familiar focus on Cubism, or Candace Waid’s fascinating new book, The Signifying Eye, on Faulkner and de Kooning. I just found this regionalist collection at the Sioux City Art Center:

      It seems that, for art historians, the relation between regionalism and modernism is a live debate. I’m so glad we’re having it in our class!

  13. lmc66 says:

    Suzan-Lori Parks: Fiction to Theater

    April 9, 2014

    Don’t ask playwrights what their plays mean; rather, tell them what you think and have an exchange of ideas.

    Suzan-Lori Parks, “Elements of Style”

    “Repetition and Revision” is a concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc. – with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised. “Rep & Rev” as I call it is a central element in my work; through it’s use I’m working to create a dramatic text that departs from the traditional linear narrative style to look and sound more like a musical score.

    Suzan-Lori Parks, “Elements of Style”

    Yes we are revising a classic. It’s along the same lines – not the same thing, but along the same lines – as doing a riff on The Scarlet Letter, as I did in my plays Fucking A and In the Blood…Repetition and Revision. Yes. As I work on Porgy and Bess, I work along these lines. And that’s problem why I was attracted to this project, too, because it really is like working on a historical artifact.

    program notes for Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA

    Ideas of exchange, repetition and revision, which are central to Suzan-Lori Parks’s creative process, formed the basis for our discussion on Wednesday.

    In my presentation, I suggested that her concept of jazz-inspired “Rep & Rev” resonated especially powerfully with Ralph Ellison’s work: Ellison once noted, for instance, that as a writer, he “improvise[d] upon [his] materials in the manner of a jazz musician putting a musical theme through a wild star-burst of metamorphosis.”(Introduction to the Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition of Invisible Man, 1982) Like Ellison, Parks engages with ideas of repetition from both creative and critical perspectives, and across multiple scales. “Rep & Rev” comes into play on the level of the individual word (Jabber’s incessant and ultimately deadly repetition of the word “slut”) and the individual character (Parks specifies that the adult actors in In the Blood are each to play two specified roles — one adult and one of Hester’s children). The concept also extends to the way in which Parks reinvents Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and, finally, to Parks’s oeuvre itself, in which multiple plays make use of the same characters and thematic material. As we discussed the inherent complexity and instability that arises through Parks’s use of these techniques, Brandon made a useful comparison to an essay on Shakespeare by Peter Stallybrass, which argues that textual inconsistency was not an anomaly, but rather an expectation within Shakespeare’s work. We also made comparisons to Faulkner, whose characters similarly populate multiple novels. In addition, we noted Parks’s allusions to and revisions of a variety of other writers and genres, from her evocation of Frederick Douglass’s phrase “slave for life” to her re-imagining of the genre of the fairy tale.

    How might we extend the ideas of “Rep & Rev” even further? I suggested that we consider the interpretive role of the audience as a way of pushing our thinking about revision and adaptation, which typically focuses exclusively upon choices made by a work’s creator. How might his acknowledgement of the centrality of audiences in the process of artistic creation alter our understanding of adaptation as the sole province of the author? What role do audiences play in the processes of revision, repetition, and adaptation?

    Thinking about audiences helped us transition to a discussion of Parks’s more recent work on a 2011 production of Porgy and Bess. Working in collaboration with director Diane Paulus and musician Dierdre Murray, Parks wrote a new script for a production that was called the “most controversial musical revival in recent memory.” (Charles Isherwood, New York Times, January 21, 2011). Parks, Paulus and Murray were accused of treating the original work with disrespect and even “disdain” (Stephen Sondheim) in their attempts to reshape it for 21st-century audiences.

    Some useful commentary on the controversy is available here:

    Suzan-Lori Parks discusses the work in the following video:

    Why, we asked, did this particular adaptation provoke so much backlash and discomfort? Audiences and critics criticized the project on two counts. First was the mere fact that it attempted to rewrite a “classic” opera as musical theater – a generic shift which many saw as a commercialization of the work that pandered to less sophisticated audiences. Also of concern were the patently racist and sexist characteristics of the original opera, which the revision dealt with by adding depth and explanatory complexity to the opera’s portrayal of African American characters. What are the implications of this project? Is it simply an attempt to sanitize problematic elements in the interest of political correctness, or is it a creative and artistic gesture that ensures the work’s continued relevance?

    In the final moments of class we brought our discussion of Parks quite literally up to the present by tuning in to her weekly performance piece, “Watch Me Work.” Held at the Public Theater in New York every Wednesday at 5 pm, “Watch Me Work” is a “meta-theaterical” production that Parks describes as follows:

    Are you an artist, writer, sculptor, painter, “art critic,” dancer, or actor or musician?
    You got some work that needs 2 get done?
    Maybe you always wanted to sit in the audience of a show and tweet and text and surf and stuff?
    You into meta-theatre?
    You wanna come watch a show for free?
    You wanna get some of yr own work done while you watch?
    You wanna get feedback about yr own work at the end of the show?
    If u answered yes to any of these questions, come see WATCH ME WORK.
    It is so right on. So show up. Represent.
    Come on down and hang out with me and get some of your own work done.
    “Watch Me Work” – where the “me” in the title is YOU!

    The livestream of this production allowed us to watch Parks at work on her newest play. Despite our collective inexperience with Twitter, we managed to tweet a question from @AmLitintheWorld to @WatchMeWorkSLP: “Would you ever write a play entirely in TALK? And why do you like to have actors play double role? #newplay”

    Next week, we’ll hope to find out her response!

    • Wai Chee says:

      Thanks so much, Lucy, for bringing Porgy and Bess into our conversation, and for alerting us to the Live Stream from the Public Theater! It’s so interesting to think of Suzan-Lori Parks’ relation to Hawthorne and Gershwin — and to the new media — as a series of reciprocal recontextualiization. As you point out, many of the critics of the Parks/Paulin/Murray Porgy and Bess would have learned a thing or two looking at Parks’ earlier rewriting of Hawthorne — just as we’ve learned a thing or two from Porgy and Bess, and from the Live Stream, that makes the literalization of the scarlet A into an unachievable literacy an especially powerful synthesis of the 19th and 20th centuries.

  14. Alexia Williams says:

    Susan-Lori Parks Part II: Getting Mother’s Body

    April 16, 2014

    “Don’t do whatcha see me do
    Don’t walk nowhere I lead
    My middle name is Trouble
    First is Sin and last is Greed
    Wise up, child, turn yrself around.

    Can’t tell you right from wrong
    Cause wrong looks right to me.
    The game yr Mamma’s playing
    Keeps her full of misery.
    Wise up, child, turn yrself around.

    “Once, when me and Billy went to Galveston, we had our shoes off and was walking in the wet sand. Billy walked behind me putting her feet prints where my feets had already made a mark. Good Lord, I thought, my child’s following in my footsteps.”

    -Willa Mae Beede, Getting Mother’s Body (E-text 391-392/Chapter 67)

    This seems a fitting passage to help frame this week’s conversation. Willa Mae Beede, speaking from the grave, expresses deep concern that her daughter might repeat her life’s mistakes. Using her own improvised lyrics, Willa Mae evokes the repetition that is central to blues and jazz aesthetics as she implores that Billy “Don’t do whatcha see me do / Don’t walk nowhere I lead.” We began our discussion by reflecting on the topics of conversation from the previous week, namely, the role of repetition and revision in Park’s plays and the responsibility of the audience in helping to produce meaning. Sampling from a previous musician’s work might serve as testament to the depth of an artist’s jazz repertoire as well as his or her skill at reinterpreting old songs to make them new again. However, in light of the reader criticism from Amazon and GoodReads that resists Parks’ reinterpretation of Faulkner’s classic novel As I Lay Dying, what might be at stake for an author who embarks on a repetition, reinterpretation or revision of well-known or beloved works of literature?

    As a literary aesthetic, readers cannot hear the song that Willa Mae sings in this riff on blues music. Rather, readers must imagine the music as they reflect on Willa Mae’s lyrics. It seems that Parks expects quite a bit of reader participation in the making of this story. During the online “Watch Me Work” session with Parks, we tweeted: “How much knowledge of Faulkner do you expect from readers?” In light of Parks’ rendering of Hester Prynne and Dewey Dell Bundren onto black women’s bodies, how much canonical knowledge does Parks assume of her readers who must participate in the process of meaning making? Also, to what extent does Getting Mother’s Body gesture to the work of other authors? While the allusions to Faulkner are obvious, might the novel also refer to work by Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker?

    The transmediation of aesthetic forms becomes an important topic for discussion when we think about Park’s transition from writing plays to writing novels. In seminar, we tweeted, “How have your years working as a playwright shaped your novels?” However, as Brandon suggested, how might the temporal structure of Twitter also help us to reflect on the linearity of the novel form and the construction of the novel as a public document? In the description of “Rep & Rev” that Lucy quoted in her presentation, Parks indicates that she aims “to create a dramatic text that departs from the traditional linear narrative style to look and sound more like a musical score.” The constant exchange between tweeting, composing music, writing novels and producing plays seems to create a platform for understanding the relationships between these aesthetics.

    Parks has a talent for capturing natural speech in her dialogue, but it seems that the lack of description in the text might prove disorienting for readers who are accustomed to reading novels with a more clearly defined spatiotemporal structure. Though the novel takes place in 1963 Texas, Parks provides little additional information to add detail to the significance of the time period. Readers must supply for themselves information regarding President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and the March on Washington DC. In class, we discussed how Twitter privileges a linear progression of information by presenting (possibly simultaneous) tweets chronologically. In a similar way, the novel form is typically structured as a sequential narrative (though Parks works to interrupt this linearity through her use of the blues and repetition). Just as Twitter is an interface for the collective production of information, As I Lay Dying becomes an interface for user input and collective meaning making when writers such as Parks produce new work inspired by the classic novel. It seems that Parks sets the novel up in the ambiguity of the setting and yet the precision of the more general state and time period to transition the work from a linear narrative to a public document whose meaning might constantly be in a state of flux as readers continue to interpret and reinterpret the significance of the text.

    The fantasy coffins of Ghanaian artists such as Kane Quaye speak to the customized coffins designed by Snipes to represent the essence of the deceased person. Lucy brought up the important point of how these coffins represent the practice of self-fashioning, which we have been discussing the last few weeks. The novel contains various scenes of self-fashioning (the bridal boutique, the beauty salon); however, Snipes coffins seem to allude to Queequeg’s coffin as described in Moby Dick. As Queequeg’s coffin becomes the vessel that preserves Ishmael’s life and the story of the whale, Willa Mae’s insistence that she be buried with her jewels allows her to live on as she motivates the actions of her fellow characters. Why would Willa Mae rather be buried with her jewels than leave them to her daughter as a part of the family legacy? Might Willa Mae’s dying request speak to concerns regarding self-fashioning after one’s life is past? How might this preoccupation with self-fashioning in death represent the desire to have one’s story live on, to exist as a legend even in death?

    We concluded our conversation by contemplating whether Getting Mother’s Body should be considered a Southern novel or a Western fantasy. Though Parks consistently gestures to other places in the South (Tennessee, Georgia), the novel is rife with the symbolism of the West: cars, dry heat, road trips, etc. Perhaps we might consider these characters homesteaders who move West in search of economic opportunity. How might the novel’s framing as a Western story change the way blackness is represented in the text? How might the application of Faulkner’s Southern themes to this Western locale transform the narrative?

  15. Wai Chee says:

    April 23, 2104

    Ishmael Reed, Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg

    Our last class for the semester! Beginning with the Civil War as a trans-media phenomenon — shared by historians, fiction writers, filmmakers — we discussed the recent historical scholarship, especially Doris Kearns Goodwin”s Team of Rivals (the source for Tony Kushner’s screenplay), and Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Fiery Trial (2010), published too late to be consulted for the movie.

    As indicated by their subtitles — Goodwin’s, “The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”; Foner’s, “Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” — one zeroes in on Lincoln the consummate politician, a strategist able to turn competitors into allies, while the other dwells on the centrality of slavery in the evolution of an Illinois legislator into the most important president of the United States. We talked about the consequences of having Goodwin rather than Foner as the reference in the Spielberg production. While the time frame for the film is shortened to a four-month period, leaving out much of Goodwin’s book, her emphasis on political strategizing rather than slavery as the shaping force remains crucial. This film is very much not Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave.” We talked about the two black soldiers conspicuously present in the opening of the film, both intelligent and well-informed, and one (Ira Clark) noticeably assertive. We also talked about the relative passivity of Lincoln’s black servants, against their historical and well-documented activism: rather than being fixtures in the White House, William Slade, the butler, and Elizabeth Keckley, the seamtress, were both prominent African-American figures in Washington, actively recruiting black soldiers and later pushing for voting rights.

    We also talked about the film’s almost exclusive focus on the passage of the 14th Amendment — a congressional triumph unthinkable till the very end, the ultimate challenge for Lincoln the political strategist. The Emancipation Proclamation, by contrast, is barely mentioned. We then turned to Ishmael Reed and The Flight to Canada, which never mentions the 14th Amendment at all, but does give the slaves maximum play, while half making fun of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    What to make of a Lincoln borrowing money from the slave-owning Arthur Swille to pay other slave-owners to free their slaves? It’s called “Compensatory Emancipation.” Only in the course of talking to Swille does the idea of the “Emancipation Proclamation” come up — freeing the slaves as a war measure, without any compensation to the owners. But even then Lincoln seems mostly interested in the big news as a photo op. Ishmael Reed’s nineteenth century features not only that, and not only a “Gary-Cooper awkward” Lincoln, but also the subsequent assassination of that President seen live on TV.

    We talked about this upfront anachronism as a novelist’s attempt to write history outside the norm of historical scholarship. We also talked at it in light of Frederic Jameson’s definition of postmodernism — Ishmael Reed, after all, appears in the opening paragraph of that classic. Jameson defines postmodernism as systemic rather than stylistic: a corporate expression of transnational capital permeating every sphere of life. Flight to Canada, meanwhile, features Arthur Swille, a self-declared “transnational,” as well as his runaway slave traveling on jumbo jets and signing up anti-slavery lectures en route. The nineteenth century “remediated” by the twentieth and twenty-first? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln came out in 2012. Flight to Canada came out in 1976. Those are the actual dates, but the novel came “after” the movie both in our actual discussion, and in our sense of who’s doing the remediating, and who’s being remediated. Ishmael Reed would have been thrilled.

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