Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Room of One's Own

            Today, let’s talk about the big, bad Virginia Woolf.  Woolf graced the world with her presence in 1882 and graced the literary community with her first published work in 1990. She couldn’t vote, but she could certainly write. Much of her work touts the *radical* notion that women can do things well. The catch? Women’s limited resources inhibit their intellectual potential.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf argues that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf, 6). The extended essay comes from lectures she gave to women’s colleges in 1928. It explores the conditions required to produce a creative work and emphasizes the necessity of literal space and privacy, which women simply did not have at the time. She invents the fictional sister of Shakespeare—Judith. Judith might have the same skills and ambitions as her sibling, but because she has meals to cook, children to raise, and shelves to dust, she is forced to squash her imaginative spirit. William is over here whipping out sonnets on the regular, and all she can do is call him Bill behind his back to belittle him. She laments her wasted talent so much that she kills herself.

Of course, the gender dynamics of the sixteenth century differ from that of her own generation. In the early 1900s, there were some—though, not many—female writers. But even then, a woman had a pickaxe in her hand instead of a pen (Woolf, 80). Her writing served as a therapeutic exercise in which to (rightfully) bitch (however unconsciously) about her inferior position in society. She wasn’t creating art with unperturbed vigor; she was constantly grinding against a strong patriarchal current that guffawed at her attempts. To highlight the prevailing sexist mentality, Woolf smugly quotes a contemporaneous male preacher, who said, “‘A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all’” (Woolf, 56). Actually, sir, there are some that do it quite well: 

Woolf also observes the strange contradiction between the way females are depicted in literature (by male authors) and the way they’re considered in real life. Poets prattle on about the magic splendor of women. If that’s how men really feel, then it’s nonsensical that “the spirit of life and beauty [is left] in a kitchen chopping up suet” (Woolf, 45). A male chopping his own suet?! The horror. [What is suet, and is it the same as the System of a Down song "Chop Suey"?]

I find Woolf’s perspective particularly interesting because she has her own room and she has money—her aunt died and left her the big bucks. These opportunities provide her clarity of mind in such a drastic way that she can’t deny their importance. It’s nice when someone gets ahead in life and doesn’t forget about the little people. Even more curious is the fact that Virginia Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, which contributed to her suicide by drowning. Might I point out the irony of The New Yorker’s recent article “The Bath: A Polemic”**, which was originally shared on Facebook with the caption “There’s a reason Virginia Woolf insisted on a room of one’s own, and not a bubble bath”? Perhaps there’s more than one reason why Woolf isn’t associated with bubble baths? Might I also point out that the article is pretty stupid/useless?

Drowning jokes aside, I think that this woman is excellent. She says things like “we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex” and she lights a fire in my soul that’s grounded in tangible frustration (Woolf, 22). Her brilliance is timeless because she attacks the root of the problem: people who are at a disadvantage culturally and financially have physical and spiritual barriers that prevent them from entering a mental space that allows for pure creativity. Because this situation disproportionately affects women, where does that leave us? Her lectures culminate in an inspirational urge to move forward. She encourages listeners to write despite circumstance, but also strive to speak out against those circumstances and thereby incite social progress.

The essay is relatively short (my copy is 112 pages). I think that it should be mandatory reading in high school; understanding how populations are deprived is hugely essential to interacting with them in a non-douchey way. Additionally, Woolf knows how to slip humor into her writing, and I respect any author who can simultaneously speak about a serious subject with deference and interweave an appropriate light heartedness. Woolf’s impressive and sensitive dexterity make A Room of One’s Own four out of five humps. I’m docking her one hump because I don’t agree with everything she says. I appreciate that she starts a much-needed conversation about a subject that’s not easily definable—creative poverty—but I don’t necessarily think that it’s inextricably linked to financial poverty. I think that Woolf wrote what she wrote with an enlightened perspective of her time. That perspective can help us today as a launch pad, but I think that it’s imprudent to view it as the end-all-be-all feminist doctrine.

*Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: The Fountain Press, 1929. Print.

**Klein, Jessi. “The Bath: A Polemic." The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 23 May 2016. Web. 25 May 2016.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

                Think you know the story of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame* because you’ve seen the 1996 Walt Disney film? Think again. The film adaptation is basically skim milk, and this is how Nick Offerman feels about it...

                Truly, the watered-down Disney version barely resembles Victor Hugo’s original 1831 publication (although, it’s worth watching if you want to hear Demi Moore speak seductively for 90 minutes). The Disney classic is a musical drama in which the good, handsome man ends up with the good, beautiful girl. The Hugo creation is a Gothic depiction of love and its failure to prevail. It shares characters’ most vulnerable moments and asks what extremes will they go to in defense of their love? Of course, Hugo demonstrates all different kinds of “loves”. Some conflate love and lust, so their love is less exclusive and thus less consuming (Phoebus). Some develop a one-track love-mind, so they’re blinded to anything that contradicts their vision of their lover (Esmeralda). Some love is unreciprocated, and the unloved harbors a bitterness that bursts into rage (Claude Frollo). Some love is unremitting, and loyalty persists no matter the costs (Quasimodo). You get the picture—people love other people, and sometimes that works out, but most of the time it doesn’t.

                Plenty of nineteenth century tales discuss love, so what makes Hugo’s novel any different? Like his contemporary, Charles Dickens, Hugo writes stories that comment on the history of his birthplace—Paris, France. Hugo portrays the Norte Dame cathedral as a sanctuary for citizens and a large portion of the book is told from the physically heightened point of view of the building. His reasoning is less religious and more artistic; he laments that architecture is a dying art form and he hopes to remind Parisians that their buildings leave behind a historical imprint, defining who they are as a culture. Unfortunately (for me, at least) this means Hugo goes heavy on the structural description sauce. I’m not Hank from Breaking Bad—I care only so much about stones.

 Looking past Hugo’s lengthy architectural descriptions, I see a well crafted narrative with a disturbing ending. When you read “‘You must either die or belong to me! …Either the grave or my bed!’” you don’t exactly think *all’s well that ends well* (Hugo, 280). On the other hand, I am disappointed by the lack of character growth, and therefore the predictability of their actions. Quasimodo is an intriguing character; he’s a horrifically ugly, deaf orphan, who clings to the cathedral for refuge. He’s generally kindhearted, but he’s often misunderstood. This unique background and temperament allows for a vast array of narrative opportunities. In my opinion, Hugo puts him in a corner and then lazily confines him to that role. He’s ugly, and people remind him of that fact. He’s deaf, which understandably hampers interpersonal communication. He’s an orphan, so he’s desperately loyal to the man who lovingly takes him in. He adores the cathedral because the gargoyles don’t judge him. In the rare moments he deviates from expectations, his defiance becomes a footnote, overshadowed by other events. I feel that Hugo spread himself too thin; instead of having several main characters compete for the reader’s attention, I wish he had explored the depth of Quasimodo further.

Overall, his dramatic prose does not sufficiently sweep me away, and I think a more apt title would be The Hunchback of Notre-Lame. This work is not so unsatisfying that it’ll keep me from Les Misérables, but I don’t revere Hugo as much as I anticipated that I would. As such, I give the novel 2 out of 5 camel humps, and I’ll have to find my love story elsewhere. Don't get me wrong-- I love sad endings-- but I don't love numerous edificial barriers keeping me from getting there.

*Hugo, Victor. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Book, 1956. Print.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Long Way Gone

            “I never thought that I would be alive to this day, much less that I would write a book”, Ishmael Beah shares at the end of A Long Way Gone (Beah, 219). Acknowledgement sections are typically stuffed with sappy thank-yous and generic nods to those who helped publish the piece; Ishmael is mostly thankful he’s alive to tell the tale.

The 2007 memoir chronicles Beah’s horrific experiences as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002). As most civil wars go, the Sierra Leone one was complicated. Several different factions—namely the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), the SLA (Sierra Leone Army), & the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council)—disagreed about how to run the country. Over 50,000 died as a result.
Ishmael in particular lost his village to the RUF. He wandered from village to village with a group of friends for many months, dodging attacks until they settled in a village guarded by the SLA. When RUF forces surrounded their haven, men of all ages were recruited to join in the fight, including thirteen-year-old Ishmael. The army brainwashed his impressionable mind through drug addiction and a “kill or be killed” mentality. Drug of choice? “Brown-brown”—a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. Confusing your nostrils with your AK-47, classic.

I had a very physical reaction to the book. I read it while vacationing in Charleston. Charleston was so damn lovely, so I guess I had to get my masochistic fix somehow. There were times when I had to put it down, take a walk, and remind myself that there is some good in the world. I think about the civil war in Syria. Same story, different colors. It’s difficult to grasp how lucky we are and it’s a little sickening that we constantly tell ourselves we’ve earned everything that we have. I wonder when we’ll stop justifying indifference to war crimes by emphatically convincing ourselves that our country’s safety comes first. I think that we’ve heard “please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” too many times. We’re starting to suffocate from too much oxygen.

In his memoir, Ishmael constantly asks Why me? He watches his friends get blown to pieces. Why not him? “…Rebels had cut off the heads of some people’s family members and made them watch, burned entire villages along with their inhabitants, forced sons to have intercourse with their mothers, hacked newly born babies in half because they cried too much, cut open pregnant women’s stomachs, took the babies out, and killed them” (Beah, 108). Why not him? I think this is a question worth asking ourselves on a regular basis. It is humbling and honest, as we must continue to grapple with our existence despite not having all the answers.

Ishmael’s story has a happy ending, but his childhood is irrecoverable. I had a wonderful childhood full of oversized stuffed animals and trips to Chuck E. Cheese (shout out to that dank pizza), so it’s difficult to comprehend Ishmael’s pain. His impressive writing skills serve to bridge that gap. He transports the reader in time and place to a dark corner of the universe and he doesn’t hesitate to turn up the depravity notch.

My only complaint with the book is its distribution. It’s structured in such a way that leaves me wanting. From a storytelling perspective, I wish he had discussed his pre-war life in more depth. It’s natural for readers to appreciate what’s been taken away if we know more about what was there in the first place. I realize that makes me sound bloodthirsty, but I think with a heartbreaking book like this, anything that makes me feel less removed helps.

Inspired by Ishmael’s triumph over evil, I decided to further depress myself and watch Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation* (2015). The film is a fictional account of a child solider in an unnamed, war-ridden African country, but the story’s elements are almost identical to that of Ishmael’s. Watching the horrors of child soldiering aroused the same level of repulsion and distress as reading them – a testament to both the movie and Ishmael’s book in their effective no-holds-barred approach. Both give me a sinking, overwhelming feeling that there is so much wrong with the world, where would we even start? And then I think of Ishmael now, a gifted writer and a relentless advocate for human rights. His current existence proves that good can come from evil if we fight to find it. I think of Agu, the child from Beasts of No Nation, and I realize we should do everything in our power to help kids like him, if only for the purpose of creating a viral meme depicting Agu eating Ragu.

I give A Long Way Gone 4 out of 5 camel humps, docked one hump solely for the aforementioned story-structure reasons. I give Beasts of No Nation 5 out of 5 camel humps because it effectively addresses before, middle, and after. These are hugely important stories even if they’re difficult to swallow.

*Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007. Print.

*Beasts of No Nation. Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga. Perf. Idris Elba, Abraham Attah. Netflix, 2015. Netflix.