Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Musings of a Frustrated American Literature Undergrad

(Title clarification: I am an English Literature and New Media undergrad studying American Literature this term.)    

 Unfortunately, I didn’t feel a particular connection with this week’s readings.  Not only were they largely unable to catch maintain my interest, but, with the possible exception of Li-Young Lee, each writer seemed to be characterized by a sort of melancholic and humorless resignation: individuals for whom it seems there is no hope of joy or meaning in present life.  I’ll be the first to confess that I have a bias in favor of the writers of past generations more than today—just as I tend to prefer classical composers belonging to centuries other than our own.  That said, I’m not usually overly critical, but the last two weeks of readings have been somewhat uninspiring.  Even with those authors and poets, like Sylvia Plath, who held my attention, the common thread that comes to mind for the past few weeks, at least, is one of despair.  While I can appreciate the need to gain some familiarity with some of these lesser known contemporary writers, it’s becoming an increasing challenge for me personally. 
     It’s more than a despair of the present, though; the attitude of these authors seems to convey a deep-seated and pervasive hopelessness running through these writers like blood runs through veins.  If we follow these threads of despair back through the past couple weeks, or so, a good starting point would be Sylvia Plath. 
You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, A cleft in your chin instead of your foot But no less a devil for that, no not Any less the black man who 
Bit my pretty red heart in two. I was ten when they buried you. At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do.  
But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue. And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look 
And a love of the rack and the screw. And I said I do, I do. So daddy, I’m finally through. The black telephone’s off at the root, The voices just can’t worm through.
Plath, Sylvia (2016-11-15). The Collected Poems (pp. 223-224). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

     As I observed last week, these words echo and reverberate like a popular tune that won’t go away.  The contrast of the darkly powerful and profound “Daddy” with more natured-centered works like “Winter Landscape, with Rooks,” “Channel Crossing,” or “Southern Sunrise” is also fascinating.  What mental or spiritual darkness led this author to veer so violently away from the appreciation of the beauty around her to a focus so upon the blackness of her own heart and mind?  If she is expressing sorrow and anger for the loss of her father, then why did she herself choose to commit suicide (using her own stove, after leaving food out for her orphaned children)?  Since her father reportedly refused medical treatment, does she see his death as morally synonymous with suicide?
     A similar thread of darkness infuses the writings of Ginsberg, and is conveyed with something akin to anger or a nightmarish rant in “Howl.” 
a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the 
     stoops off fire escapes off windowsills of Empire State out 
     of the moon,
yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and 
     memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of 
     hospitals and jails and wars,
whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and 
     nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on 
     the pavement,
who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of 
     ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall,
suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and 
     migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak 
     furnished room,
who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad
     yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken
who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing
     through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,
who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and 
     bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at
     their feet in Kansas, who loned it through the streets of
     Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary
     indian angels, 
Ginsberg, as I confessed last week in the presentation discussion, neither caught my interest, nor did his writing seem to convey anything other than a sort of random litany of profanity.  It didn’t seem to me to represent profanity directed towards a higher purpose, but more like profanity for the sake of profanity.
     This week’s readings include an account of a disturbing male on male sexual assault within Junot Diaz’s “Drown,” a story whose protagonist is a drug pusher.  It’s not possible for me to find a redeeming characteristic from this particular story.  Nothing is conveyed other than a feeling of despair, isolation, and sin (the ultimate separation between God and man). 
     From my perspective, then, the last two weeks’ readings conveyed mainly inarticulate expressions of spiritual deficits and emptiness: form devoid of underlying depth of content.  Compare these authors to the more uplifting and edifying words of authors like W.E.B. Du Bois or Flannery o'Connor, and modern literature (as represented here) strikes me in a similar way as modern art and modern classical music: abandonment of time-tested traditions and methods in pursuit of dissonant and cacophonous artistic methods—from visual arts to music.  “If it feels good, do it” seems to be the modernist approach.  Whether something has inherent value, truth, or beauty is apparently irrelevant as long as the “art” is believed suitable for making one think.  I think I will go wash my brain out with some good Flannery O’Connor and reflect on a simple verse from Philippians 4:8.  Sometimes the most beautiful and eloquent writing is also that infused with the greatest truth; after all, truth is beautiful.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

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