2012 Book 134: Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 9/14/2012
Reason for Reading: Fantasy and science fiction Coursera
On an exploratory trip in “savage” lands, three young American men find a country composed entirely of women. As these men learn about the history and culture of Herland, they are at first dismayed but later impressed at the asexuality and absolute social perfection of these women. For the first time, they notice the flaws in their own society and feel ashamed.
2012 Book 131: A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (9/8/2012)
Reason for Reading: Coursera Science Fiction and Fantasy course. 🙂
In the post-Civil War era, John Carter enters an Arizona cave and is unexpectedly whisked away to Mars. There, he witnesses the depravity of a “highly developed” race of people who, because medicine helps them to live long lives, they perform population control by warring with each other. In some ways, though, they’re happier than people on Earth, because they have no lawyers. John Carter takes Mars (and a Princess’s heart) by storm. I’m not a huge fan of pulp fiction, so I expected very little out of this book. Because of that, I was impressed at how “not bad” it was. Actually, it was sort of interesting in a history-of-science-fiction sort of way. It did have some rather racist comments about Native Americans (an artifact of when it was written), and the Princess was a weak annoying little thing whose only virtues were rare beauty and a penchant for getting into trouble so that we could witness the excitement of her rescue (this is an artifact of being pulp). Overall, not too shabby. But not literature, either. I DID wonder whether John Carter was meant to be some sort of pulpy Christ figure. He was very good at saving people. And he had the right initials. 😉
SPOILERS OF THEMATIC RATHER THAN PLOT-SPECIFIC NATURE
As another Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction assignment, I’ve finished reading H. G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind,” first published in 1911. In this story, a mountaineer has an accident and falls into a valley inhabited by blind people who have been separated from humanity for fourteen generations. They do not believe that there is a sense called “sight.” Likewise, the mountaineer discovers that the blind people have strengthened hearing and smell which make them much less helpless than he’d imagined.
This story is deeply meaningful on many levels, and I had difficulty grasping exactly what to say about it. I could see that it was an allegory in perception…but what was he REALLY trying to say? One student on the class forum suggested a novel with a similar theme of questionable perception: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A Abbott, first published in 1884. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it, too, introduces the concept that what we perceive might only be shadows of reality–there may be more dimensions out there that we are blind to.
A few other students noticed the similarity of Wells’ story to the “Allegory of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic. I should have seen this myself, but apparently I am blind. 😉 This metaphor pops up often. The best-known reference in today’s popular culture is probably The Matrix–which I suppose can be considered cyberpunk Plato with a Christ figure. 🙂
The allegory is a conversation that Plato attributed to Socrates with Plato’s brother Glaucon. The idea is this: People are chained to chairs in a cave and cannot even turn their heads. Their whole lives, they’ve been watching shadows of the real world which are cast on the cave wall by the light of a fire behind them. To them, these shadows ARE the real world. But imagine the confusion of someone who is untied from his chair and introduced into the real “real world.” After suffering from shock of seeing direct light for the first time in his life, he grows accustomed to the light. Then he is amazed by all that he learns. He wants to share his new knowledge with those in the cave, but when he returns he is blinded by darkness. This blindness is true of the mind’s eye, as well. Both upon walking into and walking out of the light, a person is confused and blinded. I believe Plato meant for the light to be goodness of spirit or divine contemplation.
Like the people in the cave, the blind people have lived their entire lives without the sense of sight…indeed, without knowing that sight existed. They can’t even imagine what sight is when the mountaineer describes it to them. The mountaineer sees them as blind (literally and figuratively) to the “real world.” Thus far, the allegory fits with Plato’s. However, because the blind people had heightened smell and hearing, I don’t feel that they were in “darkness” and the mountaineer in “light.” I think they were all equally in the dark because they assumed that their OWN world view was the correct one.
That was the reason I thought this story might be an allegory about the evils of colonization. The mountaineer is like the white man who tries to “enlighten the savages” by forcing “civilized” customs and religions on them. Finally, the mountaineer realized that “you cannot even fight happily with creatures who stand upon a different mental basis to yourself. ” He couldn’t convince them of something that their own senses told them was impossible. In order to fight, you have to be in the same plane of reality.
Spoilers start here:
While I was reading “The Star” I was distracted by the detachment of it all. We seemed to be observing it from afar rather than experiencing it through the eyes of tortured souls. At the last sentence, I realized WHY he made the story so detached. He was writing with the detachment of a far-away observer. Of someone who’s just reading about the events in a newspaper. We see the murders, the famines, the plagues; but we don’t FEEL them. This reminded me of a touching novel about the Biafra / Nigeria civil war: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In this gut-wrenching, but beautiful book Adichie asks the question “were you silent when we died?”
Spoiler-free zone commences:
I think it’s horrible how we can watch news of horror and tragedy from afar and simply shake our heads and say “that’s too bad….” and not worry about it any more. The idea of such uncaring thoughts (literally) brings tears to my eyes. And then the biologist in me rears her ugly head and says: this detachment is necessary for our own individual sanity. We have to, at some level, separate personal tragedy from the tragedy of people who have no impact on ourselves. If we didn’t, we would be constantly overwhelmed by emotions that distract us from our own lives and do not provide any personal advantage. I suppose if I were constantly overwhelmed with emotion about distant tragedies, I’d be on the far-opposite end of the autism spectrum. 🙂 I think we should honestly consider the pain of other people and, if we can, do something about it. But where do we draw the line for emotional involvement? I suppose this is something that each individual must answer for him or herself.
In his 1897 novel The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells portrayed a tragic anti-hero, a trend which had become popular among romantic writers following in the footsteps of Milton. Well’s character Griffin isolated himself from humanity at first because he wanted all the glory of his discoveries. Later, he was driven to isolation by a fear of discovery. Finally, he was driven mad by the effects of his self-imposed isolation.
I just finished reading “The Philosophy of Composition,” by Edgar Allan Poe, which is an essay published in 1846 in response to nasty critiques and parodies of his poem “The Raven.” Keep in mind, Poe was himself a rather feisty critic, so he probably needed to take a little of what he’d been dishing out. The purpose of the essay was to show the modus operandi by which he assembled his poem.
It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition–that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem .
- Consider length: “there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art–the limit of a single sitting…can never properly be overpassed in a poem”  (Here, he inserts an aside suggesting that Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is half-poetry/half-prose, since it is too long for one sitting.) However, “a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.” Thus, approximately 100 lines was chosen for his new poem.
- Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem.”
- Consider tone: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.”
- Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
- Refrain choice: Limited to lyric verse. Depends on the force of repetition for its effect. Decides to diversify by changing the context, but leaving the answer the same. Refrain must be brief. Must form the end of each stanza. Must be “sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis.” The long “o” is the most sonorous vowel, and “r” is the most producible consonant. Hmmm, what word has a long “o” and an “r” in it, but keeps the tone of the poem? Oh, of course! “Nevermore!”
- Pretext for refrain: A human being wouldn’t say “nevermore” over and over again, but an unthinking being might. Like a talking parrot, or better, a raven (for they talk too, and ravens are fitting for the tone).
- Subject: “I asked myself–‘Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death–was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?'” This was also obvious: “death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world–and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
- He then wrote the denouement because “nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.
 The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe. Reprinted in: The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp675-684.
 The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.