Category Archives: Writing

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe

“I nam but a lewd compilatour of the labour of olde Astrologiens, and haue hit translated in myn englissh only for thi doctrine.”

(to his son “Lowys,” on why he wrote in English)

 

 

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Guest Post: “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

The following is a brief reflection from a student I recently worked with at the Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport. She chose the following poem as her source:

Dreams

 
by Langston Hughes
 
Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16075
 
Dreams
Kalala Mangabu
 
I just want to focus on the part “barren field frozen with snow.” First of all, dreams are like a mirror image of  their dreamer and are symbolic, they contain information about the unconscious mind. so when dreams die, it’s like there is nothing to life. I mean life becomes meaningless just like a barren field. What’s a field? A field is an open area, where you can plant something and expect it to grow. It’s always somewhere productive, and what happens if it becomes barren? It then becomes useless and loses its purpose.
 
Dreams in the author’s opinion, provide us with something to look out for and if one doesn’t hold fast to them, life will never reach its potential of becoming fruitful or turn into a beautiful thing just like a field. Its purpose is to be fruitful and produce something but when it is frozen with snow, it loses its value and purpose. I guess what the author is trying to say is that we are nothing without dreams and that is why he uses metaphors to show how serious his statement is.
 
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Detecting Gender: Inspector Morse and Feminist Theory

morse

image credit: http://www.vpt.org/show/17619/404

In the Inspector Morse episode Day of the Devil, Morse periodically visits the psychiatrist of a serial rapist and murderer who has escaped prison. The psychiatrist, Dr. Esther Martin, is stationed at an Oxford hotel per the request of the killer. Morse periodically visits the doctor in order to gather more insight on the criminal, and to see if she is safe. A female police officer, W.P.C. Nora Curtis, accompanies Dr. Martin. During one of Morse’ s visits, he joins both women for a drink in the hotel cafe. They begin a conversation after Morse suggests that Constable Curtis may need a break to attend to her “living arrangement,” or her boyfriend, with whom she lives. The conversation begins as follows:

W.P.C. Curtis: I live with someone. He divides his time between me and the motorbike, but he’s alright.

Dr. Martin: (smiling) He’s got a motorbike?

W.P.C. Curtis: Yeah.

Dr. Martin: I had a motorbike once.

W.P.C. Curtis: (astonished) You? What was it?

Dr. Martin: A harley, actually. It belonged to my eldest brother, and the supposition was that it would pass on to the next male in the line.

Morse looks down as if ashamed or embarrassed.

Dr. Martin: But I challenged my other brothers to a speed trial, saw them both off and got to keep the bike.

W.P .C Curtis: (smiling, in awe) That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic, doctor.

Morse: Why should Dr. Martin’s success cause you such unbounded joy, Constable?

W.P.C. Curtis: Oh, no reason, sir.

Morse: Come on, you can barely contain yourself.

W.P.C. Curtis: (slowly) I was pleased because she’d beat them at what’s considered their own game. She pauses. That’s never easy for a woman as we don’t get to make the rules. Or, don’t you agree sir?

Morse: Yes, I do. But, in beating them at their own games, aren’t you in danger of losing something essential?

W.P .C. Curtis: (mockingly) Our cuddly qualities, sir?

Dr. Martin looks at her, sighs, and smiles gently.

Morse: If you mean a disinclination to violence, a greater capacity for fair-mindedness and compassion, then yes, your cuddly qualities.

W.P.C. Curtis’s eyes burn into him.

Morse: I’ve always seen femininity as a guarantor of civilization.

W.P.C. Curtis: You’ve rather an idealized view of us.

Morse: That may be, but, it is my view.

W.P.C. Curtis: I can sum up your idea of feminine qualities in one word: weakness. And it’s that weakness that sustains discrimination, inequality, and violence in all its forms, from the Saturday night slap in the mouth to the kind of things we get from this bastard we’re all chasing.

Dr. Martin: Are you sure you don’t want any coffee, chief inspector?

Morse: No thank you doctor, I appear to have upset Constable Curtis. That was inexcusable, even if it was unintentional.

Constable W.P.C. Curtis: Sir.

When Morse asks Constable Curtis if she (as a member of the female community, who identifies with Esther Martin’ s story of beating her brothers in a race), is “in danger of losing something essential,” he uses a word that both refers to something crucial and to what may be considered the essence or necessary quality of all women. The conversation that follows brings up a critical question for feminist thought: Is there always something wrong with saying there is an essence of women, or that this essence is femininity? What if that essence is a set of positive qualities such as those listed by Morse: an aversion to violence, a propensity toward fairness, compassion? If we accept the idealized view of women espoused by Morse (1), what happens to masculine women? In other words, what are the dangers of holding such a romantic view of all women?

In this case, it is, at least in part, Dr. Esther Martin’ s trust in women that leads her to danger. When Morse and Lewis interview her about how and why she had purposely assisted Barrie’s escape from prison, she described the first time she had met him: “I’d broken down on my motorbike. I thought they’d stopped to help. I could see the woman in the van, and thought I was safe (crying). ” The woman in the van was the wife of a second rapist, herself battered, and had joined the men rather than risk further endangerment. Dr. Martin, who sits between Morse and W.P.C. Curtis in the conversation described above, is accurately placed, for she believes not only in the ideal view of women, but in their ability to take on the masculine role as well. When Morse ends the conversation with an apology, it seems to be precisely because he understands the complex position of women, especially those who choose to move beyond traditionally feminine roles (2). Ride on her Harley as she might, she was reminded in the worst of ways which sex she was.

But is it the behavior of women that matters most in the case of crimes against them? According to W.P.C. Curtis’s impassioned speech, the woman’s behavior, especially if it is weak, actually allows the crime to occur. Her response to patriarchal norms, as a woman who joins the police force, is indeed to “beat them at their own game,” to carry and cock a gun. This view leaves in tact masculine dominance, whether its representatives be male or female.

Morse, on the other hand, describes femininity as a “guarantor” of civilization. He implies that women embody this femininity, but he never says so outright. In his daily life, he is no chief member of the masculine crew. Rather, he spends his idle time drinking wine and listening to female opera singers. He reads to such an extent that it endangers his reputation as a “copper” (3). If femininity is to guarantee civility, it must not be something that only women can access. In addition to taking on relatively humane hobbies, Morse consistently identifies with women. In Day of the Devil, for example, he makes no move to announce that Dr. Martin let Barrie out of prison, or that she intended to kill him. Both Morse and Dr. Martin, a man and a woman, identify with women in the end. At the end of the final interview with Dr. Martin, Morse asks her if she could have gone through with the murder. She picks up a ring from the examination table, which had belonged to another one of Barrie’s victims, and tells Morse that when he finds the owner of the ring, he is to look into the woman’ s eyes. Here, she says, he will find the answer to his question.

In seeking revenge against her rapist, Dr. Martin moves beyond an individualist quest to “beat men at their own game,” to an action that she sees as an act of solidarity with other women. It is precisely this identification with the other, whether male or female, that is the true “guarantor of civilization.” If women have traditionally been more able to identify with others, it is because, in order to become human agents themselves, they had to identify with that which is other from themselves – the masculine norm. If only men were human, it was the prerogative of women to show their likeness to men.

Inspector Morse’s brief speech on gender, along with the circumstances within which the speech takes place, reminds us of this basic quest for humanity. The turning of tables with regard to gender requires not the female assumption of male roles, but men’s capacity to see in themselves that which has thus far been considered “feminine. ”

 

 

 

 

1 Although the “peacefulness” of women is a widespread view that has existed and continues to exist, I would like to maintain the words used in this show in particular. It seems that while a general form of essentialist belief about women is consistent with sexist views of women as homemakers and mothers only, Morse expresses something very different.

2 This is one of many examples of Morse treating women more gently than he might a male colleague. Some might see this as condescending, but this behavior may also be read as that which results from empathy toward women in patriarchal society.

3 See Happy Families.

Stacie Vos, 2010

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Claire Denis’s Melville

I just posted a high school lesson I taught on “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I showed the film by Jonathan Parker after reading the story, in part because the students were not accustomed to reading texts from before the 20th century, and partly because they were weeks away from graduation and thus miles away from me at times.

Another film adaptation of Melville’s work (this one, Billy Budd) is Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. In the incredible last scene, Denis Lavant delivers a beautiful dance in fits and starts:

http://vimeo.com/40552113 .

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KAFKA IN BRIDGEPORT

One of my favorite student responses to Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” which I recently read with a group of women at a literacy center in Bridgeport:

“Plus he was always depending on someone else.”

June 2013

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Writing and Immobility: Reflections on Lydia Davis’s “Sketches for a Life of Wassilly”

wassily radar puzzleStacie Vos

My writing process consists mostly of looking at people who seem out of place. The woman who spends the day at the coffee shop with a science experiment in front of her. The man who is hiding from his employer at the back of a cafe, holding a to-go cup that he emptied an hour ago. There is something naive about my process, and daring at the same time. Because watching, paying attention to strangers, is an act only acceptable for small children, the people who are still allowed to approach each excursion with a sense of wonder. As I build my pieces around observations of the people I encounter, I have to determine limits. How long can I really spend in the aisles of the health food store only to see how long it takes the eccentric woman to finish gathering her honey from the tub?

I choose characters for my short stories who seem to represent an extreme of human behavior, who put their idiosyncrasies on public display. In a sense, the actions that attract me to these “characters” aren’t so far from actions of my own. Only, I apologize often. And there isn’t a single person I have written about who would apologize for themselves, for not complying with social norms, for keeping someone too long at the counter, the cashier who wants to proselytize or who wants to share her latest discovery from watching Animal Planet while she folds clothing at the coin-op.

In fiction we hope to find people who say and do precisely what we won’t allow ourselves to do, or admit to doing. Many of us try to find the author’s life in the stories we read. Perhaps this is out of a concern for the author (and, by extension, ourselves): We wonder if this sad life is part of the writer’s life. Take Lydia Davis’s early piece “Sketches for a Life of Wassilly.”

The story opens with a description of a man who is of “many parts,” fickle, but desperate to find a routine for himself: “Not a man of habit, though he wished to be, tried to cultivate habits, was overjoyed when he found something that truly, for a time, seemed necessary to him and that had possibilities of becoming a habit.” He tries smoking a pipe after dinner, and then switches to taking a stroll. But this, he finds, only gives him a stomach ache. He stages a game around doing crosswords. This leads him to a kind of habit: keeping a notebook of new words: “In this way he persuaded himself that he was learning something even from the puzzles, and for a few wonderful hours he saw the conjunctions of his baser inclinations and his higher ambitions.” This brief chapter ends: “His effect on the world was potentially astonishing.” In Chapter Two we learn that in fact what Wassily really does for a living is write. This does not bring about the habits he seeks, however. Instead of finishing a project with a sense of hope for the next, “He felt only a frightening emptiness ahead of him, a vacancy where there should have been plans, and all his work grew out of impulses.”

Wassily’s lack of self confidence leads, unsurprisingly, to a set of severe social problems. Davis writes that “even the soft eyes of this dog made him blush with embarrassment…” His feeling of inadequacy with regard to his writing spills over into his basic speech patterns so that, for instance, when attending a dinner party, he thanks the hostess over and over again, hoping “to achieve through the effect of accumulation what one speech alone could not accomplish.” He becomes so starved for social interaction that he harbors anger for the woman at the grocery: “At home, he sometimes worked himself into a rage against her and made cutting remarks to her out loud.”

Chapter Five returns to the topic of Wassily’s writing. Why does he do it if he gains nothing from it and, as we learn early on in the story, if he lives off an allowance from his father? Davis writes, “Wassilly sometimes suspected that he worked on his articles only because he enjoyed writing with a fountain pen and black ink.” He certainly couldn’t write with a ballpoint pen, she adds. What Wassilly likes to do is to make lists, to keep score, to study languages. He likes to make plans (even if they are not plans to write). When his pursuit of perfection becomes so paralyzing that he can only watch the sunlight move across the wall, he shifts his focus to his health and his own intake of sunlight, a way to fill time neutrally, with little at stake, since “The key to everything, he decided, was to relax.” In a story that is all about immobility, Davis adds a curious parenthetical introduction to the ninth chapter: “(Wassilly’s immobility):” Perhaps this last immobility matters more because his task is to clean up the apartment of his dead brother. He tries more than once, gathering some medicine and a picture of his grandfather, only to delegate the job to his sister. The story ends with not one job unfinished, but two, as Wassilly’s dog finishes his meal after he dozes off to sleep.

Wassilly is a sad but lovable character, another writer who, like many others, struggles to find a habit, to go on. It is not the act of writing that troubles Wassily, but the act of publishing. For at this stage, Davis writes, “Once he had done it, it was out of his hands: it lay in a no-man’s land. It was neutral.” Yet, it seems that this level of detachment from one’s creative work is precisely what is needed to avoid immobility, to let go one’s words.