Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joel Schwartz
ENG 258

Armory Show of 1913

Oscar Bluemner’s landscape depicted in his 1911 painting Canal, Patterson, New Jersey parallels T.S. Eliot’s “Unreal City” and the modernist motifs of his poem The Wasteland.  Bluemner was an American and his painting’s setting a scene ten-years prior to Eliot’s description of post-World War One London, yet his bleak portrait and The Wasteland’s prose fit together like they were made for one another.  I see leafless and scrawny trees peeking out from behind simplistic structures and Eliot‘s words resound -“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?”  The world these artists were born into had re-invented itself through industrial revolution and would not be coming back.  Cities grew in size, nature’s place within them shrank accordingly and a modern landscape emerged to replace a more classical one.
Long before these men’s documentation of their changed surroundings, the American poet Henry Wadsworth noted his in saying that if a material revolution should radically change the nature of the items we interact with “the poet will sleep no more than at present” and I believe this brings up an interesting notion.  Modern times are no less beautiful than classic ones and the respective artwork of each must be held in the light of the values of the period which the artist attempted to reassure or challenge.  The classic masters painted the divine - religious or natural - and the modernists chose to portray human beings in all their gritty commonness.  Enlightenment thinking would lead to the commission of paintings to glorify and honor subject material greater than man while Modernists were spending their time documenting everyday life.

In 1912 the American painter Guy Pen du Bois creates a scene of two women reading books in their living room, titles it Interior and calls it art.  The notion is so familiar, so acceptable in its normality that it exists within the thin line separating bland reality from respected critique of it.  Painted 100 years ago, the piece shows women in what would have been seen then as in their place inside the home - inside of society’s limits placed upon them.  The women are domesticated, heads buried in their books, reading for leisure in a period where their role outside the home was minimal at best.  Emily Dickinson’s words compliment du Bois’s piece perfectly when she writes “They shut me up in Prose, as when a little girl - They put me in the Closet, because they liked me ‘still.’”  The women in du Bois’ piece are no more marginalized by society than Dickinson was but the depiction of them had become acceptable subject material for the visual arts - they had become a social landscape to replace the natural ones of the past.  The divinity and breathtaking qualities which ethereal works were praised for at once seemed pretentious and as if they were lying to their audiences about what being alive is all about.  It’s understandable to strive for perfection in life, yet repeated and never-ending scenes of perfection leave the art viewer feeling as if they’ve living palely by comparison to the beauty they look upon.  Conversely, we see the simplicity of human existence - of two women reading much as we have on long nights - and are re-affirmed of the divinity of the little things in life.  It’s spiritualism in the commonplace.   It’s artists who wandered from portraying subjects with inherent godlike qualities and rather began bestowing these characteristics upon what was previously the common rabble.

We gaze upon the French painter Paul Cézanne’s self-portrait completed in 1894.  The piece echoes Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself where he says “I resist anything better than my own diversity and breathe the air and leave plenty after me, and am not stuck up, and am in my place.”  Whitman’s prose is very humbling, much as Cézanne’s portraiture would have you believe of him as well.  The separate works each portray their creators without exalting them in the process - each man modestly acknowledges himself as an individual without boasting.  One characteristic of Modernist thinking is that of self-consciousness and focusing ones eyes upon one’s immediate surroundings, not striving to create something perfect but rather to create something human.  Whitman summarizes this concept best in saying “What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you? All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,  Else it were time lost listening to me.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

"The Revolt of Mother" & "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Each of these stories focus their attention upon women whose opinions are invalidated by their husbands.  In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's tale The Yellow Wallpaper, a woman is told how she must cure her nervous depression by her husband after he is the one who diagnoses her.  He is the one who makes the decision for where they will vacation to during this recovery period and even where exactly his wife will sleep once they arrive.  She is told to stay in a disheveled wallpapered-room which grows on her over time, eventually resulting in a complete mental breakdown and subsequent boost of willpower sufficient to challenge her husband's plans for her and assert her own.  While sane, the narrator adheres to the wishes of her husband and plays a docile, ignorant role in her own life, yet after a psychological breakdown, she values the wallpaper of her confined room over the wishes of her husband, and becomes independent, albeit insane.

In Mary. E Wilkin's tale The Revolt of Mother, a woman married forty-years to her husband confronts him over the importance of his life as a farmer outweighing his obligations as a married man.  His wife brings this up after he begins work on a lavish barn rather than a proper house to replace the meager one they've lived in since their marriage.  She says he values his animals more than his wife and children - a claim he seems unshaken by.  This woman's husband has not fulfilled his promise of a new house for forty-years and he has little interest in listening to her pleas now.  After the completion of the barn, he goes away on business and asks her to move new materials and animals he's ordered into the new barn when they arrive.  Rather than this, his wife chooses to reverse the roles of her current house and new barn, so she and her children move all their household items to the new structure.  Upon returning from his trip, the husband sees how important a new house is to his family, agrees with his wife's wishes and allows her this victory over his wishes.  This is different from The Yellow Wallpaper because his wife doesn't go insane during the process of doing something to please herself for once.  In The Yellow Wallpaper, the author draws back from society and her family and becomes a part of the wallpapered-nursery.  In The Revolt of Mother, the wife jumps out from her domesticated comfort-zone at home to create a new home in the newly constructed barn.  Both women get what they want, essentially, yet one curls up inside a single room and another moves everything she owns. It's all about relocation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dickinson, Emerson, Whitman & Douglass [Freedom Quotes]

"The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind"

I believe this to be an interesting statement Dickinson is trying to make about the overwhelming amount of shocking information we're blissfully unaware of.  We're not ignorant, per say, but if we were to be confronted with all the dramatic truths of the world, we'd be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.  Freedom, to Dickinson, may be the status of a man who may gradually uncover the truth.  Staying in the dark or being exposed to the blinding light of omniscience each render men blind and thus, shackled.

"In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking."
Here, Emerson introduces the interesting concept of intellectual slavery - that is, merely repeating the thoughts of others without adding to, modifying or expanding upon their conclusions.  Emerson defines a "proper" intellectual as "Man Thinking," or progressive.  He defines a degenerate state of pseudo-intellectualism as one in which a man becomes a mere parrot, repeating others thoughts verbatim.

"You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."
Emerson is clearly saying here that he does not wish his readers to take his opinions as their own.  He says he wants his readers to think for themselves, free of his minute involvement in their lives.  Emerson sounds very much like Emerson when he proposes the idea to his readers that their thoughts should neither begin or end with his - that they should think for themselves to truly be free (in thought).

"The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me; on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing which I could have enjoyed by staying."
Frederick Douglass was a slave, so he more than anyone, should know exactly what freedom is and is not.  He writes of leaving his home, where he was raised and worked, and feeling no sadness during his departure.  This is the departure of a slave from an epicenter of slavery - a plantation - and freedom is leaving happily, without regret, even if it is only temporary.  Like a prisoner being transferred from one prison to another, the relative freedom between locations is a breath of fresh air.  Douglass won't know true freedom for quite some time, and until then, this is his silver lining.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dickinson's Richest Word

In the poem which I had analyzed line by line last week, I believe the word "soul" is the most important.  Dickinson is writing about weather a soul (be that an individual or a literal spirit) chooses to allow other entities to associate with itself.  The word appears all capitalized at the beginning of the poem which strongly indicates its importance to the piece.  The soul is referred to as "her" throughout the poem and personified through figuratively shutting a door and noticing a chariot approaching a gate belonging to her as well.  Each time "she" is referred to, Dickinson is referring to the SOUL, but weather this is a person, mere idea, or divine figure is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dickenson, one line at a time

The SOUL selects her own society
Then shuts the door;   
On her divine majority   
Obtrude no more.   

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing   
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling   
Upon her mat.   

I ’ve known her from an ample nation   
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention   
Like stone.

The SOUL selects her own society 
Not the mind, not God 
The society is formed through selective souls

Then shuts the door;
As if to say no more
To let no more enter
To cut itself off through its own accord

On her divine majority 
The rest of the souls, the soulless and the rest Divinity attributed through selection
Selection attributed through triage of divinity
Divinity selected by the soul  

Obtrude no more.
Shut the door
This is not the time, nor the place, nor the company

Unmoved, she notes the chariot's pausing
One soul slows to near another  

At her low gate;
Humbly, one's soul has been approached
A gate sends a message
A low gate sends the same message, yet can be overcome with ease  

Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling 
A great soul has humbled itself
Humility is a dance for two Respect is mutual  

Upon her mat. 
Singled out, a second soul has come to the society 
It rests where the first lay itself down 
It's looked down upon no more than it has chosen to look up to another 

I've known her from an ample nation
Familiar and capable
The past is not forgotten

Choose one;
Like any other, why not
Ready for judgement
Ready for success as much as failure

Then close the valves of her attention
The soul has decided
It has closed a passage

Either in acceptance inside
Or rejection outside

Like stone.
Strong resolve
Heavily weighted in favor for or against
Not immovably, but decisively

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Emerson, Whitman & Douglass on "Freedom"

In Emerson's 1837 speech The American Scholar, he alludes to freedom of thought in the sense of a thinker being independent from simply internalizing another thinker's words.  For example, a parrot who repeats words does not understand them or their concepts, they merely make the sounds which they have heard previously.  Likewise, a true intellectual thinker according to Emerson should not simply repeat thoughts they've come across exactly as they've heard them, but rather interject their own knowledge into the mixture.  Freedom, in the intellectual sense, means freedom to debate theories and add to them rather than accepting them as infallible and merely repeating them.  Enslavement, in the intellectual sense, would then be to accept other's words without question and to fall victim to logic that may be unjust or simply wrong.

To Walt Whitman, freedom is in a poet's ability to overcome their title as a poet and transcend the barrier between writer and reader.  He wants very much to be intimate with his readers and have them not consider him a distant, elite voice but rather their own voice embodied in poetry they can relate to.  In his 1855 poem Leaves of Grass he writes that "You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself," - a concept Emerson would certainly agree with from a scholarly point of view.  Whitman believes freedom lies in the ability to read poetry and separate the meaning of the words from the connotations readers associate with lofty writers - the ability to relate to poetry rather than relate to a poet.  Whitman wants his readers to be free from the mindset which keeps them from interpreting his words as their own thoughts - from using his prose to describe themselves rather than him.

Frederick Douglass has a very literal definition of freedom: the ability for someone to be free of the de-humanizing qualities imposed by another person.  He calls this out two-fold though, saying that as much as slaves are made so by their master's cruelty, their masters are also de-humanized through the cruelty they impose upon their slaves.  In chapter 7 of Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, he writes of a benevolent mistress whom he becomes the first slave of in Baltimore and how through becoming her slave, she becomes a slave of her own evils as well.  Through acquiring him as property, this moral woman becomes a cruel master and abuses her power over her new servants - through Douglass losing his freedom, she loses her human civility.  Freedom, to Douglass, is two-fold, and through enslavement, neither the master nor the slave retain their humanity.  Such is the nature of slavery.