"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Prince Caspian

Trying to keep in mind that this is book blog, I will limit myself to just a few desultory comments on Prince Caspian the movie to begin with, while otherwise attempting to keep Lewis’s incomparable original at the center of attention.

  • Susan is pretty cool with her Legolesqe archery showdown in the woods but Lucy is cooler facing the entire Telmarine army on the bridge with her little dagger.
  • I can hardly wait till Reepicheep takes the stage in Dawn Treader.
  • Was the Bulgy Bear sucking his thumb during the dual or not?

I felt that the movie tried too had to be serious; to “talk like a grown up.” There is nothing wrong, in general, with trying to make a plot more plausible by, say, developing themes of Hamlet like revenge on an evil uncle, or a tense exploration of pride and its consequences in Peter, but these elements are simply not in Lewis’s original. And it was a conscious choice, not the deficiency of a shallow author writing for children because he could not delineate character or make a solid plot. In Lewis’s essay entitled: “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” he describes the creation of the Chronicles of Narnia and why they were written as Fairy Tales (not “children’s stories” by the way):

“As these images sorted themselves out (i.e. became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology. But the Form which excludes these things is the Fairy Tale. And the moment I thought of that I fell in love with the form itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and “gas.” I was now enamoured of it. Its very limitations of vocabulary became an attraction; as the hardness of the stone pleases the sculptor, or the difficulty of the sonnet delights the sonneteer” (On Stories 46-47).

Fairy Tales then, by their nature, avoid much of the dullness and description of the novel form and can focus on, in Lewis’s words, “the stuff I had to say” (On Stories 47).

One of these focal points in Prince Caspian is the importance of obedience. I was gratified to see this theme carried over into the movie, although it takes Peter much longer to learn his lesson (Potentially reinforcing the point by showing the consequences of trying to take charge, or, on the other hand, sullying a noble character from the book).

For me, the central image in the book is of Lucy wandering through the half-waking woods to find Aslan. This is one of my favorite passages in all literature and the movie (or any movie, I fear) could not do justice to the beauty of Lewis’s portrayal. When Lucy finally does reach Aslan, the image is vivid to the imagination and powerful by showing Aslan’s fatherly, playful, commanding love.

“The lion looked straight into her eyes.”

“‘Oh, Aslan,’” said Lucy. “‘You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that…oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it would not have been alone, I know, not if I was with you”(Caspian 137).

On an Allegorical level this scene is about more than just obedience. Two that immediately struck me (well, they didn’t actually try to assault me) were the nature of God (in Aslan) and evangelism (“Go wake the others and tell them to follow”). Undoubtedly there are more just as there are more throughout the book.

I have to record one exchange in the movie that I don’t recall in the book. It too can be taken as an allegory by those (we’re all in need of it from time to time) who are overly caught up in plans, programs, and pride. When the voice of faith interrupts our grand plans and we frustrated say: “haven’t you been listening, Lucy?” She answers back: “No, you haven’t been listening! Have you forgotten who it was that really defeated the White Witch?” The answer is, of course, Aslan. It is as if Lucy had repeated: “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, sayeth the Lord.”

Lewis, C.S. On Stories: and Other Essay On Literature. Harcourt, Inc. 1982.

Lewis, C.S. Prince Caspian. Collier books, New York, twenty first printing, 1978.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Konkans

You might ask why I picked a book with a 2008 publication date to read when there are so many from 100 or even 500 years ago to choose from. The answer is I didn’t pick it: my English teacher assigned it.

The Konkans opens with the first person narrator describing his American mother and Indian father in their new home together. As the story progresses, frequent flashbacks reveal how his mother went to India in the Peace Corps and met his father and their subsequent move to America. These elements of the story parallel the author, Tony D’Sousa’s own life and heritage in many ways.

D’Sousa talked of this autobiographical element at his reading and book signing at Shasta College. While the book is fiction and should be considered as such, things like his Peace Corps mother, Konkan father, two uncles emigrating to America, and the pig incident are all true to the history of his family (although the squad cars and helicopter at the supermarket to investigate the squealing from the trunk must be artistic license, or what D’Sousa called family legend). How far this personal history could be compared to the incidents in the book is hard to tell and, really, irrelevant to the artistry of the book.

The repetition of certain stories and frequent flashbacks lend an interesting structure to the book. When a story is repeated with a slightly different spin or when motives are revealed, it changes the way the story is received. One is often left seeing supposed heroes to be not so magnanimous as originally presented. What if other stories not retold are equally distorted, or at least, could be told differently.

Probably you are wondering what or who the Konkans are. They are native Indians who were converted to Catholicism in the 1500s by Francis Xavier. This early acquaintance with western culture left the Konkan people open and friendly to further western influence, particularly the British during their rule of India.

An interesting view on cultural transitions is presented in the book. Never is it explicitly said that leaving one culture for another is damaging but one is struck by the consuming desire of Lawrence to fit into American life. This desire puts stress on his wife and family, while the inevitable letdowns and failures to fit in lead to alcohol and pent up anger. Everything Indian “reminded him in an uncomfortable way of where he was from and who he in fact was” (6).

Sam, too, it appears, is conflicted within himself over whether he is an Indian or an American. He blames his struggles on his sister-in-law Denise, asking, “Why have you done these things, Denise? Why did you go to India? Why did you bring us here? It is you. Everything that has happened has always been because of you” (205). If she had not married his brother and brought them all to America, he seems to be saying, he would have lived and died a set, predictable existence in India.

This inner turmoil reaches a climax when he must choose to marry an Indian girl his father has picked for him or continue dating American girls. He chooses the former and is “‘unhappy since I stepped off the plane’” (204). Yet the question is: if he had chosen an American girl would his state of mind be any different or would he still be torn by regret over his choice. The conflict is not so much over two girls, as over two cultures. I probably would not have noticed this aspect of D’Sousa’s story if I were not simultaneously doing a comparison paper on two stories that deal with this theme of cultural identity.

The most disappointing part of the book is the illicit affair between the narrator’s mother and his Uncle Sam. Although Sam starts out as the most fun-loving and likable character in the book, he ends as the most depressed and depressing. He wastes his life on pleasure and folly until he cannot even enjoy sin anymore. Yet this does not stop him up to the last page. Denise, too, is a listless sinner. Though she realizes “what she’d done with my uncle was a nasty thing” (113), she never does anything about it.

There is an inevitable monotony in their shared lives by the end of the story. No repentance, no epiphany one way or the other, not even any passion. When thought about this way the book could actually have some value in proving that “there is nothing so monotonous as evil.” No one reading through to the end of the book could want a life that drags on as Sam and Denise’s does. D’Sousa’s one flaw then is not finishing Ravi Zacharias’s statement about the monotony of evil by showing how “beautiful [is the] good.”

The Konkans, Tony D'Sousa (Harcourt, first ed. 2008).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hawthorne As History

The pre-Civil War period in America was rife with new theories and movements. Transcendentalism, feminism, and socialism were some of the ideas being developed and tested. As my history teacher briefly described these “isms” and their principle advocates, she mentioned Nathaniel Hawthorne and his connection to Brook Farm. His involvement in this socialist experiment was the seed for his novel called The Blithedale Romance. As I thought back to this book I realized that all of the movements my teacher mentioned are touched on directly or indirectly in Hawthorne’s book. The relation between history and literature was magnified as I considered that probably I was the only one in that class who had read a writer from that period dealing directly with the issues our teacher was discussing.

With an eye to this historical aspect of Hawthorne, I dug up an old (well, o.k. a year or two old) review I wrote on The Blithedale Romance. While it is embarrassingly unpublishable in its entirety, I present the undeleted portion of an often wandering, sometimes incoherent sketch (But really, my readers should be used to a generous dose of bibble-babble by now).

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Was Hawthorne's seeming praise of communes real? He seemed to like them at least in theory, yet while praising them he did reveal their flaws (at least some of them). The members and visitors envisioned an agrarian community in which the arts would flourish, instead they found themselves too tired at the end of the day to do ought but eat and sleep. A situation I can sympathize with. Also, some members were just not cut out for certain tasks. For instance, Zenobia cannot cook. The individual is made an individual for a purpose.

Zenobia is the most absorbing character, a passionate, strong-willed, feminist. In many ways we want to say with Miles Coverdale (the poetic and sensitive bachelor from whose observant viewpoint the story is told) that here indeed is a woman. Yet in reality she is unfulfilled, isolated, and angry. The real tragedy is not that she dies but why and how she dies. Suicide is a selfish, prideful way to die. Rather than do what good she could do with her talents, she quite literally buried them in the ground.

Hollingsworth is impressively sketched and blamed for a bit too much if a purely realistic novel was the aim. I’m not sure it was. It is said that Dickens’s characters are sketched larger than life with certain traits exaggerated. Whether this is true or not of Dickens’s characters it is certainly true of Zenobia and Hollingsworth. He does repent in the end and Coverdale’s mockingly Caustic question on his dreamed reform of criminals is answered in a touching scene:

'Not one,' said Hollingsworth, with his eyes still fixed on the ground.
'Ever since we parted, I have been busy with a single murderer!'
Then the tears gushed into my eyes, and I forgave him.

Despite its seeming gloom, The Blithedale Romance is a brighter book than the other Hawthorne novels I have read. Though the presentation of socialism and feminism in a 19th Century book may raise some eyebrows it was better than most books of a less controversial class. I have not brought myself to spoil this feeling by reading the introduction, written, I am informed on the cover, by a “distinguished” professor and recipient of the “Florence Howe Award for Feminist Literary Criticism.” I am old enough (not!) and wise enough (kidding again!) by this time (it took long enough) to not read everything that is written, or at the very least not to believe it

A good quote: “It is because the spirit is inestimable, that the lifeless body is so little valued.”

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For an equally short but more informative sketch of The Blithedale Romance try Wikipedia.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Too Much Work For Words

Blogging is slow right now because life is fast right now. Lots of work and lots of homework. when I was not doing these two things I was training for a mountain bike race at that time between dinner and dusk when bloggers creep to their computers and sit huddled over the keys trying to unlock the secrets of words.

I sometimes feel I have not been doing much reading either but this, I know, is not the case. I have been reading, just not the books I want to read. Poetry, 20th. century short stories, and now, drama, are the fare I am being force fed in English 1B. I thought about posting my poetry paper, but it's boring and dry; then I hoped to post my short fiction comparison and contrast paper, but reasoned nobody wants to read about feminist literature. Yes, you read that right: feminist literature. The fan of dead white guys is now reading the likes of Alice Walker. But never fear, dead white guys still rock!

In a few weeks college will be out for summer and then I can get back to pursuing my education.