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Burn This Book!

By Benjamin Winterhalter

In 1592, the Chinese philosopher Li Zhi wrote this preface:

I desire to burn this book. I say that I must burn and discard it. I cannot keep it… As for those who find my work grates upon their ears, they most certainly will succeed in killing me…

Li Zhi titled his manuscript, fittingly enough, A Book to Burn. The title can be read in many ways: as a challenge, a warning, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a bit of black humor. He followed it up with two sequels: Another Book to Burn and A Book to Hide. What drove him to publish a manuscript so controversial that he was certain it would bring about his death?

Li Zhi’s exasperation with the corruption, greed, and superficiality of the powerbrokers in his society fueled his writing. As he wrote, “if the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything. To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick. Even if they had done that, who would pay attention?”

Li Zhi never gave himself over fully to any one ideology. He called himself a Confucian, but was endlessly critical of Confucianism as he saw it practiced in the world around him. Even when he joined a Buddhist monastery and shaved his head like a monk, he let his beard grow long and refused to stop eating meat. You could call him a contrarian or a crank, or you could say that he was one of those people whose uncompromising principles make it impossible to live with the world as it is.

Nor did Li Zhi show much interest in creating an internally consistent philosophy. In fact, A Book to Burn is extravagantly and even joyfully self-contradictory. Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, that was his way of forcing readers to exercise their own judgement and form their own opinions. He didn’t want to become one of those dusty experts whose words people parroted without real understanding.

This was a radical position, because Li Zhi lived in a time when cultural status and success were deeply tied to “toeing the line” of acceptable beliefs. To receive a high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, young men were required to pass the famously difficult civil service exams. Success depended on regurgitating orthodox opinions. There was even a scandal in 1595, when it was revealed that students had passed the exams by copying example essays word-for-word from their study manuals. As a youth, Li Zhi passed the first level of the civil service examinations, but he refused to sit for the second, thus taking himself out of the running for any truly prestigious positions. This was perhaps the first sign of the rebellious streak that would come to define his life and work.

Despite his top-notch classical education, Li Zhi valued popular entertainment as well as the classics, and the vernacular tongue as well as the refined language of scholars. He followed the doctrine of Wang Yangming, believing that anyone had the potential to become a sage. He argued that women had equal intellectual powers to men, and were only deprived the opportunity to develop them. He even took on a female disciple, Mei Danran—an extremely shocking choice at the time.

Li Zhi challenged the orthodox belief, laid out in the classic text the Doctrine of the Mean, that the relationship between ruler and subject was the fundamental basis of social order. Instead, he argued for friendship as the most important social relationship. Indeed, Li Zhi’s friendships were central to the development of his philosophy. A Book to Burn started as a bundle of letters circulated among Li Zhi’s friends, and, in its preface, he justifies his choice to publish such a dangerous volume with the hope that “if one of my essays speaks to the heart of another, then perhaps I may find somebody who understands me!”

Yet the letters also record the strain that Li Zhi’s uncompromising principles put on his friends. He believed in harshly criticizing those friends who strayed from what he saw as right. As a result, many of his relationships suffered. As Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy write in the introduction to their translation of Li Zhi’s selected writings: “A Book to Burn reports the recurrent bewilderment and loneliness Li experienced as one by one his friends grew tired of his relentless faultfinding and abandoned him.”

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On the other hand, those of his friends who refused to compromise their ideals often suffered for it. In 1579, one of Li Zhi’s role models, the philosopher He Xinyin, died in prison after being arrested for his radical ideas. Li Zhi must have known that the same fate was coming to him, sooner or later. In 1602, the Wanli emperor ordered Li Zhi arrested. He died in prison that same year, and all copies of A Book to Burn were ordered to be thrown on the bonfire, fulfilling the promise of the title.

Yet the official prohibitions only increased the text’s cachet. Zhu Guozhen wrote that almost every member of the literati kept a treasured copy of A Book to Burn hidden like a precious rarity. In fact, Li Zhi’s name became such a selling point that booksellers slapped his name on entirely fabricated manuscripts. Wang Benke wrote in a preface to one of his books, “Within the four seas there is no one who does not read this gentleman’s writings; there is no one who does not desire to read them all; they read them without stopping, and some even read pirated editions.” Not bad at all.

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T.S. Eliot

By The Editors

T.S. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, was considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets—and not just because he wrote the poems that would become the libretto for the musical Cats. He also wrote acclaimed essays, plays, and poems like The Wasteland and Four Quartets, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

His famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be read in its entirety here, thanks to Poetry Magazine:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Download the PDF to read the rest of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

 

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The South According to Coetzee

Readers waiting expectantly for the third novel in J. M. Coetzee’s late trilogy, following The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, were in for a ...

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The Question of Race in Beowulf

By Amy Shearn

Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”

Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:

Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.

Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.

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Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”

This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there has never been a black scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies who has published on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.

Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He was born and raised in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his African upbringing scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the RingsAdditionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:

The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.

Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:

Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.

Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.

Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.

***

Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf  but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.

In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:

Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.

As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.

In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”

Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:

But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.

Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:

Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.

Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrisonthe corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.

Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:

One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.

Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:

In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.

In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed; his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.

Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:

…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.

In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political; she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”

As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.

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Autism Aesthetics

About 10 years ago, I began to get impatient with disability studies. The field was still relatively young, but it seemed devoted almost entirely to analyzing how disability was represented—in art, in culture, in politics, et cetera—especially in the case of physical disability. This, I thought, fell short of the field’s promise for literary studies. Where, I wondered, was the field’s equivalent...

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Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark

By Aaisha Haykal

In 1982, the American Library Association established Banned Books Week in response to the increase in challenges to books in libraries, classrooms, and school libraries.

The Reasons for Censoring

Of course, censorship and challenging creative thought did not begin in the 1980s. The earliest form of censorship was book burning, carried out in order to solidify governmental power, erase history, and prevent the spread of ideas.

Dr. Whitney Strub tackles the latter in “Black and White and Banned All Over: Race, Censorship, and Obscenity in Postwar Memphis.” According to Strub, the Board of Censors and the Memphis city government worked to censor films and media that they considered inappropriate. Ultimately, the films that they censored included scenes featuring a mixing of Black and White characters. There was a particular focus on regulating images of real or imagined intimate relations between Black men and White women, a trope that is a legacy of Reconstruction. The censors felt that the message of these films was one of “social equality” that challenged normative values. The intent was that by censoring these images, the Black community in Memphis would not get the wrong idea about their “place” in society.

Books, film, and art are commonly banned or challenged in American society because they are sexually explicit. However, as Strub notes, historically people use sex as a code for race. It is easier or more politically correct to claim that you oppose a work of art because it is sexually explicit, than to object to how it portrays race. A prime example of this comes from the challenges of Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou in schools and libraries across the country. All three of these works deal with issues relating to racism and have a sexual component. Nevertheless, they make a larger argument about the role and treatment of girls and women in American society.

The Societal Impact of Censorship

Attempts to remove texts like these limit students’ ability to engage with subject matter that will help them survive in society and understand what is happening in their own lives and the lives of others. Tonya Perry explores the impact in “Taking Time to Reflect on Censorship: Warriors, Wanderers, and Magicians.” She notes that there are three roles an educator can play: warrior (who teaches just the facts), wanderer (who encourages questioning and interpreting experiences), and magician (where learning meets action and transformation). The magician educator will have material that addresses subject matter such as sexual harassment, sexuality, racism, and sexism, and demonstrates to students how they can put this knowledge into action. Thus, students become producers as opposed to being consumers of knowledge.

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According to Perry, those who censor in an attempt to “protect” students are actually doing them a disservice by not providing them the language and tools to communicate. Furthermore, it disproportionately impacts the students who come from underrepresented communities. Censorship signifies that their stories and histories are not valuable or important enough to be studied. As Strub notes, the act of censoring puts attention on the action of the challenge rather than addressing the societal issues that are facing American communities. In other words: censorship is a dangerous distraction.

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Mundo Azul, Berlin

By Philip Nel
Mundo Azul, Choriner Straße 49, Berlin

This is the bookstore I want to live in. Mundo Azul (Choriner Straße 49, Berlin) is an international celebration of beautiful children’s picture books — some of which I knew, many of which I did not, and all of which are well worth reading. While browsing, I had the sense that the proprietor, Mariela Nagle, had selected each one intentionally. She displays them not because they are popular — though there are some well-known titles, along with many that were (to me) discoveries. She displays them because they’re art that she wants to spend more time with, and that her patrons should get to know.

And then there’s the space itself.

Two rooms of books, carefully displayed on wooden shelves, many book-covers facing outward — catching the eye, drawing you in for a closer look.

There are places for sitting and reading.

(Or for taking silly selfies with your friends.)

Ada Bieber and Philip Nel display 3 books: Jessica Love’s Julián Is a Mermaid; Megumi Iwasa’s Viele Grüße, Deine Giraffe (German translation illus. by Jörg Mühle); Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Löcher Gibt’s, Um Sie Zu Graben (A Hole Is to Dig in German).

And what is that tiny sign in the middle of that bookshelf over there?

Yes! That one! On the little easel.

“Silent books”? Does that mean what I think it means…? Yes. Perusing the books confirms that they are all wordless. An entire shelf devoted to wordless picture books! When Mariela Nagle noticed my interest, she strolled over with a new one she had just gotten in — from Portugal, which (she says) has more independent children’s book publishers than anywhere.

I think I got that right. Mariela, if I am mistaken, please correct me! I visited the shop with no intention of writing about it — so, I took no notes. I only decided to write about it afterwards, as I walked away thinking of all the people who would love this shop! Instead of writing only to them, I decided to shout it from the rooftops! Or, at least, from the laptops — via this blog.

This is the book Mariela showed me. It’s a wordless, anti-capitalist parable.
On the subject of anti-capitalist parables, I like this one even better. It has words — Karl Marx’s. (Thanks to Ada Bieber for directing me to it… and to the store!)

If ever you are in or near Berlin, you must visit Mundo Azul. Plan to spend the afternoon. Yes, all of the afternoon. And it is OK if you do not speak German. Mariela speaks German, English, and Spanish (and possibly other languages — I neglected to ask).*

If you cannot get to Berlin, I highly recommend browsing…

After you’ve done that, you’ll of course start saving up for a trip to Berlin….

Vielen Dank an Mariela und Ada! Es war wunderbar!


* Update, 11 July 2019: I met up with Mariela this evening at “Drawings from East & West: Sino-German Picture Book Exchange Salon,” and I asked. She also speaks Italian and French.

The Filipino Novel That Reimagined Neocolonial Gender

By Jessica Jacolbe

One of the most frequently taught novels about the Philippines is Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 Dogeaters. The novel takes place in the Philippines, a former colony of the United States, in the 1950s. Income inequality is extreme. Political turmoil churns as leftists rise up to challenge the ruling dictator. And in Hagedorn’s fictionalized iteration, the lives of three families of various classes become entangled in revealing ways.

Specifically, Hagedorn focuses on the women living in midcentury Manila, breaking down the ways in which neocolonialism can impact gender. In “Masquerade, Hysteria, and Neocolonial Femininity in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters,” Asian American literature scholar Juliana Chang finds that there are two forms of ambivalent femininity in the novel: masquerade and hysteria. While psychoanalytic theory has described these forms of femininity as operating under American and Western bourgeois family and closed patriarchal systems, Chang posits that the forms are also relevant in a former colony like the Philippines.

By this theory, masquerade is “a performance of femininity that masks feminine claims to power and covers over other contradictions of patriarchy.” This is exemplified by both the commodified and privileged female characters throughout the novel. The character of Zenaida, a mother whose labor is taken for granted, becomes a symbol of exploitation. Zenaida feels that she is only a surplus laborer; fittingly, she drowns at the end of the novel.

The novel takes place in a time of political turmoil. Hagedorn prominently features the First Lady, rather than the male head of state, as the political face of the country. Chang notes that this privileged figure is another example of “masquerade femininity” and spectacle. Hagedorn’s descriptions of how the First Lady must behave emphasize the pressures of women to be feminine in ways that are acceptable to the patriarchy, down to the grace with which she must wipe her tears.

The hysteric’s role, on the other hand, is “both to arouse and irritate paternal desire.” According to Chang, a character exemplifying hysteria is Baby Alcaran, the daughter of the powerful businessman, Severo Alcaran, and his wife, Isabel. Hagedorn makes a clear distinction between the mother and daughter. The mother is a symbol of upper class femininity. Baby, on the other hand, is often described as having physical traits and characteristics “like a man.” Baby sweats, chews her nails, has “flat breasts” and wide hips. These descriptions refuse the patriarchal normative standard and “insist on its contradictions.”

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According to Hagedorn, the neocolonialist Philippines held a heteronormative standard that ignored the possibilities of queer and female subjects. The structure of global capital, and the commodification with which human lives and labor are treated in the Americanized colony, only enforce these dominant systems. By representing diverse characters in Dogeaters, Hagedorn offers examples of the contradictory nature of neocolonialism—these characters are people who are not welcomed by the dominant systems, and yet they exist, living and loving in the world of the novel.

Hagedorn’s novel does not rely on tropes, but rather questions how those tropes came to exist. In the end, with its multiplicity of female and queer characters, Dogeaters presents an alternate narrative for the Filipino woman.

The post The Filipino Novel That Reimagined Neocolonial Gender appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Dubious Art of the Dad Joke

By Chi Luu

What’s brown and sticky?

A stick!

Maybe you’ve already heard this hoary old chestnut, not even a joke so much as a bunch of words, weighed down with the cares of the world, that once had a joke vaguely waved over it. Resolving the riddle requires not just a sneaky act of linguistics, but also the subversion of an entire genre of similar worn-out jokes, making it not just a terrible joke, but also terribly clever (well, let’s not go too far). For that reason it’s still a favorite of small children, linguistics undergrads… and of course, dads everywhere.

Here’s another told to me recently. A man comes up to the widow at the funeral of his old friend and says “Mind if I say a word?” She nods. The man clears his throat and says gently “Plethora.” The wife smiles sadly and replies “Thanks—that means a lot.” Cue the groans.

Ah yes, dad jokes. We all know the kind, where a dad joke walks into a bar… and doubles up in pain due to the obvious and enthusiastic wordplay. But it’s everyone else who groans. Take the worst joke known to humanity and surely somehow, somewhere out there in the world, some dad will be telling it as if it’s the funniest thing in the world to a long-suffering audience.

Are Dad Jokes Universal?

Bad jokes have come to be strongly associated with middle-aged men with children. Though it’s mostly since 2014 that the mildly pejorative term “dad jokes” really caught the attention of the general public enough to enter dictionaries, the idea of an uncool father regaling his kids with corny jokes seems to be widely relatable to lots of people. And when they’re so bad they’re good, these otherwise ridiculous jokes have sometimes become perversely popular and shared by more than just the dads of the world.

The popularity of cringeworthy dad jokes brings up so many questions. There are more ways to convey humor than you can shake a stick at, many of them clever, witty, original, and undeniably funny. So why is it the most canned, corny, formulaic, brown and sticky jokes that have become so popular? Why do people associate bad jokes with dads—and is this even fair?

While all cultures make jokes and share humor in some way, it’s unclear whether or not the dad joke is really universal. There are certainly counterparts in other languages. In Japanese, oyaji (old man) gyagu (gag) are essentially dad jokes that are met with a blank stare from younger folk.

Choi Jinsook examines the increasingly popular ajae (middle aged man) jokes in Korean, such as in television comedy shows in which sorely distressed interns are forced to laugh at the bad jokes of their bosses in order to keep their jobs. A typical ajae riddle: 비가 1시간 동안 내리면? 추적 60(Translation: “What do you call it when it rains for an hour?” “In-depth 60 Minutes,” is the homophonic punchline that uses the title of a popular Korean TV program, which could also mean “60 minutes of drizzle.” I guess you had to be there.) Obviously, as Choi points out, you’d need an understanding of Korean pop culture and language to really get the joke. But like dad jokes in English, they don’t “require skillful delivery style and can be repeated endlessly” by anyone, thanks to their simplicity, unlike other kinds of verbal arts, puns, and wordplay.

The ways dad jokes differ from other jokes and indeed other forms of humor can be telling. (Humor researchers caution us most earnestly that if we dare to dissect why a joke is even funny, it’ll take all the humor out of it. But since dad jokes are mostly not very funny anyway, I think we can take a chance).

What Makes a Joke Funny?

On the face of it we may think of jokes as fun and games, a way to make others laugh from delight and surprise. Humor has been shown to bring people closer socially and relieve the stress of negative situations. Jokes have an undeniable power to reveal truths and create a rapport.

Then again, Freud famously argued that jokes were a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. Successful joke telling can form a bond between the teller and the audience, but sometimes they are banded together against the butt of the joke. It turns out the social forces that drive our use of jokes, while they may improve our moods, aren’t always a laughing matter.

Topics that are usually too inappropriate to discuss in certain polite circles can be comedy gold to others: people falling and hurting themselves; people’s personal traits such as weight, height, hair color, or ethnicities; even taboo or sexual subjects. Jokes can reinforce conservative, conventional views of what’s considered normal.”The racist can safely broach a taboo subject by making a nasty remark cloaked in humorthat is, to use humor as a testing device,” notes Peter Farb. The listener can show whether they find it acceptable by laughing, or not.

At the same time jokes and black humor can be a way people can cope with horrific events, enjoyed precisely because they’re so bad and offensive. In the aftermath of the Challenger explosion in 1986, Elliott Oring describes how a tasteless joke cycle spread quickly across the country:

Why didn’t they put showers aboard the Challenger? Because they knew everyone would wash up on shore.

It’s both disconcerting and revealing, what we as an audience can find funny.

What makes a thing funny? At its core, humor seems to be all about incongruity. Comic situations set up a context where something is marked or out of place. This oddness, far different to what we were led to expect or what we blithely assume is normal, is what makes things funny. The joke par excellence has to be cleverly original, yet not too clever that no one can get it. Telling a good joke needs a delicate balance.

Successful jokes, especially when new to the listener, can increase the social status of the teller in the hierarchy of a group, allowing them control over the social interaction. If you’re a good comedian, people are going to give you more opportunities to tell jokes. The performance of joke telling actually usurps the normal turn-taking customs of conversation by reserving the right to speak and forcing listeners to play along with the format of the joke (for example in a knock-knock joke or riddle). For the time of the joke, it’s an exercise in defining a reality that is “fiercely conservative,” according to some researchers, maintaining our conventional views of the world by laughing at what’s different.

So the stakes can be high in joke-telling, especially if the teller fails to deliver. People regularly signal not only when they’re about to tell a joke, in case it’s been heard before, but offer up excuses for why the joke might fail to dissociate themselves from the joke. Failure to land a joke successfully, or failure to “get” the joke (and be accused of the dire crime of not having a sense of humor), even getting the joke too easily when the subject might be inappropriate or taboo, means you can be in danger of losing face. Who would have thought that telling a joke could be so fraught with social pitfalls?

The Joy of the Bad Joke

Humor researchers don’t always agree, but one thing seems clear. So-called “dad jokes” take what we know about joking and turn it upside down—and not just because they’re horrendously bad. Dad jokes are a kind of anti-joke, different from other ways of joking in their performance, even formulaic jokes. Like self-deprecatingly joking about a personal flaw before your bullies do, dad jokes seem to court failure, presenting themselves as deliberately bad, deliberately uncool, deliberately anti-humor. No special kind of comedic performance or timing is needed—so anyone can tell a dad joke. The jokes aren’t new, they’re the easiest jokes to understand, and no one can possibly fail at getting them. A listener is meant to groan at what is obviously a bad joke… yet if they do laugh, all the better.

Dad jokes play with incongruity largely through linguistics and wordplay, rather than subject matter. The much-maligned pun is a mainstay of the dad joke. Puns, bad or good, have long fascinated researchers for their playful ability to tell a micro mystery, with its red herring clues in plain sight. A piece of string is kicked out of a bar, disguises itself and walks back in. “Hey, weren’t you that piece of string who was in here before?” says the barman. “No, I’m a frayed knot!” Through a trick of linguistics, words cleverly disguised like other words because of the way they sound or their different semantic senses can lead us in the wrong direction of meaning resolution, before we “get it.” While puns can be clever, the language play found in dad jokes is often excruciatingly bad, obvious, and trite. And yet, in their exuberance, they work in some way.

Dad jokes may often build on the templates and expectations of other well-worn jokes in a kind of meta-humor, and then deliberately undercut them as an anti-joke for comedy value. I still remember my grade six teacher’s often repeated (by himself) masterpiece, a limerick that went:

There once was a snake called Jake
Who wanted to be as thin as a rake.
He was so fat
And because of that
He exercised and got quite thin.

As Choi shows when discussing ajae jokes, the popular culture around uncool Korean dad jokes allows for different views of masculinity, moving from a strictly authoritarian figure to someone who would playfully make jokes (even bad ones). There’s perhaps a parallel in English. No longer distant, traditional patriarchal father figures, dads can use jokes to bond and interact with their children, using simple humor that is most often appreciated by children earlier on in their development. Children begin to absorb the system of language by playing with language, through the enjoyment of jokes, puns, tongue twisters, schoolyard rhymes and the like.

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Not only do dad jokes overlap with the kinds of jokes and language games children learn to enjoy, they actively encourage and develop a linguistic curiosity and understanding in children who are becoming gradually more aware of the world around them. But as much as small children undeniably enjoy their fathers’ jokes, they’re no more delighted than the tellers of the jokes themselves. The enjoyment perhaps is more in the telling of it, even when accompanied by a chorus of unappreciative (and inevitable) groans. For a time, the parental jokester has the floor and the kids are listening.

So is it really only dads that tell dad jokes? Studies claim that men seem to prefer formulaic joking as a way to differentiate themselves while women tend to share funny stories cooperatively with each other, a form of humor that is based on intimacy and solidarity. Formulaic jokes draw on social knowledge that a wider audience can appreciate while humor based on intimate knowledge is understood only by those that have a relationship with each other.

The accusation often levied in the past, notably from linguist Robin Lakoff, that women “have no sense of humor” and can’t tell jokes or get them, often ignores the fact that humor studies may be biased towards overtly male forms of humor, such as aggressive jokes that are often hostile or sexual in content, while a more cooperative kind of humor or gentler wordplay is not always considered valid. What Dawn T. Robinson and Lynn Smith-Lovin found in their study of humor and group dynamics was that men did joke a lot more in general, because successful joking (and interruption) increases social status and differentiation. Women actually joked much more, in general, when no men were present to interrupt them.

So it seems jokes are really for anyone with an interest in linguistic silliness. If you think otherwise, well, perhaps your mom can interest you in a punchline.

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When Dogs Bite

“I could tell you that I was beating the dog because I was beaten, that I was six and stupid and knew no better,” Marwand recounts to his cousin Zia in eastern Afghanistan. “But here is the other thing I have to admit: the more I hurt him and the more he took it, as quiet as he did, without even a growl, the more I became attached to the dog.” Six years later, Marwand, now 12, returns from...

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William Blake, Radical Abolitionist

By Catherine Halley

Along the Caribbean coast of Suriname, all of the brutalities of eighteenth century empire existed in cruel abundance. From the genocide of the natives to the millions of enslaved Africans who labored in sugar-fields for first the English and then the Dutch, Suriname provides a sobering understanding of colonialism’s twin legacies of tobacco and terror, sugar and slavery. No contemporary text better illustrates slavery’s cruelty than the Scottish-Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman’s 1796 The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname.

Selling Stedman’s book alongside pamphlets by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, its printer Joseph Johnson knew that the narrative’s power lay in images as well as words. One illustration depicts a young man naked but for a loin-cloth, still alive with unblinking eyes, hung from a hook which is roped around a bloody exposed rib. A scattering of bones and skulls litters the base of the gallows, as if at Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Johnson understood that conflating this lynching with the crucifixion was necessary, and enlisted the aid of an illustrator and poet named William Blake.

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Blake was a radical who, in his 1809 poem “Milton,” would emphatically declare: “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!” The rare figure who is equally influential in literature and art, Blake is the ecstatic of Romanticism who extoled freedom, with Morris Eaves enthusing in the Huntington Library Quarterly that the poet “continues even now to be the sign of something new about to happen.” First known primarily for his art, Blake’s verse was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, and he has remained a counter-cultural icon.

An advocate of both the American and French revolutions, Blake was the prophet of rebellion who could sing:

In every cry of ever Man,
In ever infant’s cry of fear,
In ever voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

His abolitionism was a given, but his understanding of emancipation extended in even more radical directions than other Enlightenment thinkers whose rationality Blake found oppressive, intoning that “Prisons are built with stones of law.” Where the Enlightenment promoted rationality, Blake embraced mysticism; if the philosophes celebrated science, then Blake advocated visionary ecstasy.

Such was a view that Blake presented of himself, naming names when he wrote:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau…

You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Modernity, Blake believed, was defined by a wicked trinity of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke – incidentally the same trio that Thomas Jefferson valorized as intellectual heroes. Such a confrontational position would seem to configure Blake as a revanchist. Nancy Morrow writes in Early American Literature that the Enlightenment is often seen as a “philosophical movement that unequivocally advocated universal human liberty and political self-determination,” and yet the Enlightenment mainstream often advocated for inhumanity, such as when Locke wrote in the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina that “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”

By contrast, Blake was influenced by non-conformist religious sects from the well-known Quakers and the Baptists, to the exotic Muggletonians and Swedenborgians, which compelled him to reject slavery as an abject horror. Morrow emphasizes that “major sources of arguments against slavery during the Enlightenment” such as the Quakers “cannot be considered a true expression of the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy.” As the Age of Reason once again becomes a cultural flashpoint, it behooves us to examine what the Enlightenment was, and how its discontents offer an alternate vision.

Morrow writes that the literature of the eighteenth century demonstrates that the “dictates of reason, logic, balance, order and compromise were ineffectual tools for writers who may have wanted to forge an abolitionist ideology.” This was certainly the case for Stedman, who advocated for gradual reform rather than abolition, barely grappling with his own role in the institution of slavery. Despite this, Mario Klarer writes in New Literary History that Stedman’s narrative “ranks among the most important and influential humanitarian texts of the late eighteenth… century,” becoming a touchstone for the abolitionists, and a crucial source for Blake.

The historians Gert Oostindie and Inge Klinkers explain in Decolonizing the Caribbean: Dutch Policies in a Comparative Perspective that by the late eighteenth century in Suriname “the native people had almost completely died out” and that “slaves constituted more than ninety percent of the population.” These are staggering numbers that dwarf similar populations in the United States. Stedman had joined a Dutch army deployed to combat rebelling enslaved Africans, but his book made clear the nature of his service.

Stedman recounts stories such as that of a woman drowning her child to prevent his enslavement, for which she was punished with 200 lashes, or the suicide of a young man who preferred death to flogging. Gruesome scenes which Blake depicts, such as an executioner mutilating an enslaved man: “having not with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy crow or bar, with which blow after blow he broke to shivers every bone in his body, till the splinters, blood and marrow flew about the field. But the prisoner never uttered a groan.”

If Stedman had ambiguous positions on such evil, the illustrator of his book did not, attacking slavery as both economic and spiritual exploitation. Blake was able to connect his beliefs to the tangible nightmares of bondage. Suriname functioned as a body of evidence for the poet’s positions. As David Erdman argued in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, both Blake’s verse and artwork illustrated “modes of cruelty and prejudice which he wished to make known to the hearts of his contemporaries.”

Between 1792 and 1794 Blake produced sixteen images for Johnson, all done with “more than his usual care,” as Erdman reports, recycling several as illustrations for his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, with Erdman describing that poem as a counterpart to the “parliamentary and editorial debates of 1789-93 on the bill to abolish the British slave trade.”

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Black Boy” via Wikimedia Commons

Not Blake’s first foray into the controversy around emancipation, as his 1787 lyric “The Little Black Boy” coincided with the “early phase of… [an abolition] campaign in which several artists and writers were enlisted,” as Erdman writes. While Erdman argues that Visions of the Daughters of Albion has slavery as its central theme, the hermetic enthusiasms typical of Blake can make that message difficult to interpret. By contrast, “The Little Black Boy,” from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience seems deceptively simple. Containing the only unambiguously African characters in Blake’s corpus, the poem presents a black boy narrating his mother’s message about the fundamental equality of all people to his white compatriot.

The narrator prophecies a coming moment, both revolutionary and millennial, when “out from the grove my love & care, / And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.” For contemporary readers of the poem, however, there is something embarrassing about Blake’s language:

I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light

It centers Western chauvinism as much as the equality of humanity. Such language repeats, where “black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” and where, with the coming millennium the black boy shall shade the white boy from the “heat till he can bear… And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me.”

As problematic as this is, Erdman argued that Blake was anti-racist, writing that his “engravings, with a force of expression absent from the others, emphasize the dignity” of his African characters. Writing several decades later, David Bindman claimed in Huntington Library Quarterly that Blake, exemplary though he may have been, couldn’t help but be constrained by his era, that he was “unable to free himself—no more than anyone else at the time—from the complex and often contradictory web of ancient and modern beliefs that had settled around Africa.” To focus on the literal language is a red herring. Blake engaged a radical empathy, expressing something about colonialism’s violence that is as psychic as it is physical.

Blake’s narrator is a child, processing trauma while being forced to use the language of his oppressors. The narrator’s promise to the white boy shouldn’t be read as literal, as the possibilities of radical equality are hard to imagine, not least of all because the system under which he lives makes it hard to imagine. It’s a fallacy to assume that what Blake is speaking of is assimilationist, that we’re to believe that the black boy will be transformed into a white boy, just as it would be an error to confuse the archetypal significance of those colors with physical reality. Rather, the kernel of the poem is the narrator’s mother saying: “And we are put on earth a little space, /That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

Reading “The Black Boy” as simply the racist projection of a guilty white liberal doesn’t do justice to its subtle message. This is a lyric about what the constraints of racism does to both oppressed and oppressor, the ways in which ingrained prejudice alters perceptions, and how it limits the anarchic potential of divinity. In both the unearned sense of superiority of the white boy and the undeserved sense of inferiority from the black boy, we approach a subtle understanding of that utopian yearning for when we might “round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.”

Bindman notes that the “white boy adopts a position of supplication that would have evoked unmistakably… the famous emblem entitled ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’” Crafted by Josiah Wedgewood in 1786, this famous image depicted an African in chains pleading that question. The enslaved man, meek and deferential, is begging for a freedom that is naturally his right. Bindman claims that “The Black Boy” actually subverts the chauvinism of Wedgewood. When the black boy speaks of his partner by saying “I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee,” it’s whiteness that must bow its head in supplication, begging not for freedom, but for forgiveness.

Eaves writes that for Blake the “codes are simply too complex and cryptic—or too ambiguous and contradictory—to be cracked by straightforward references to big public categories.” Blake was not anti-Enlightenment so much as he offered an “alternate Enlightenment,” one that owed more to the religious dissenters than to Locke. While thinkers like Locke dwelled in the fallacies of pseudo-scientific bigotry, Blake was able to construct a vigorous denunciation of both slavery and racism. Marrow writes that the failure “to resolve the problem of slavery is perhaps a failure of this ‘Moderate Enlightenment,’” where an idolatry of what we assume rationality to be lends itself to inhumane conclusions. Blake’s reasoning was different, drawing not from pragmatism, but poetry; not from rationality, but prophecy—and that makes all the difference.

Such an alternate Enlightenment, which sees rights as being an issue of acknowledging the transcendent fixed within our hearts is a message of some use today. Blake offers a radical vision, where we are not slaves, nor consumers, nor products, where we are more than even just citizens—we are human. We are sisters and brothers.

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Kafka Transformed

Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa has undergone numerous metamorphoses in English: into “a gigantic insect,” “a monstrous vermin,” “a monstrous cockroach,” “some sort of monstrous insect,” and “a monstrous bug” ...

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Walt Whitman, America’s Phrenologist

By Matthew Wills

Walt Whitman is known as “America’s poet” and the “father of free verse,” but few know that in addition to poetry and politics, he was obsessed with phrenology. According to the nineteenth-century “science of mind” known as phrenology, the mind/brain was divided into different faculties which controlled different aspects of personality. These different faculties and thus one’s personality were thought to be revealed by the shape of the head. A bump on the skull showed a well-developed phrenological attribute. A well-rounded head, therefore, meant a well-rounded personality.

“Bumpology” was a common nickname for this popular and influential pseudoscience, which would be parodied by Poe, Twain, Melville, and others…but not Walt Whitman. He was so pro-phrenology that in 1848, he had a chart of his head made at the famed Phrenological Cabinet on Nassau Street in Manhattan. Whitman kept this chart for the rest of his life, upgrading some of his scores as he saw fit. He even included it in three editions of Leaves of Grass because he thought it gave him creditability as a poet: “It was, according to phrenological opinion on the subject, a poet’s chart,” writes poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey.

The positive feeling was mutual. Fowler and Wells, owners of the Cabinet and recognized leaders in the field, published the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Their American Phrenological Journal also published Whitman’s anonymous review… of his own Leaves of Grass.

As Mackey makes clear, phrenology was central to Whitman’s conception of “a reformation of poetry and for poetry as a means of reformation.” The notion of body as text, and the text as body, repeated throughout Leaves of Grass, was Phrenology 101. Phrenological categories included Amativeness, the propensity for sexual love; Philoprogenitiveness, a love of offspring; Adhesiveness, for friendship and camaraderie; Alimentiveness, which controlled the appetite, and so on. “Adhesiveness became Whitman’s favorite phrenological term.”

Mackey continues:

A significantly commercial undertaking, practical phrenology marketed the idea that a person could change his or her character; bumps, like muscles, could be made bigger or smaller through more or less exercise. A belief in the changeability or, even, perfectibility of personality was crucial to phrenology’s program of improvement and social reform.

That’s not how phrenology worked in the beginning, however. It was initially called cranioscopy by its inventor, German physician Franz Gall. Gall held a dark view of human nature, going so far as to label one section of the brain “Murder.” In America, phrenology—the term was coined by Gall’s assistant Johan Spurzheim—was transformed from a gloomy Germanic destiny into a self-help scheme. “Self-esteem” was one of the phrenological categories; perhaps unsurprisingly, Whitman scored high on this one.

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But phrenology wasn’t just a self-help hustle. It had a darker side, paving the way to the “scientific” racism of the late nineteenth. Skull-measuring and IQ-testing were phrenology’s children. A phrenological diagram Mackey reproduces posits cranial development and forehead slope for seven types of humans (Human Idiot, Bushman, and so on to the “Highest Type,” the “Caucasian”). “Phrenology presented a version of manifest destiny at the individual level, mapping the head and making it readable,” writes Mackey, alluding to the political manifest destiny of westward expansion. It’s worth remembering that Whitman himself was all for the U.S. taking Mexican and Oregon territories, and although he opposed the spread of slavery, Whitman’s racial views were not at all as radical as his poetry.

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The Life of Forgotten Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon

By Jessica Jacolbe

The newly published biography L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron,” written by literary critic Lucasta Miller, dives deep into the life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. The book covers recent revelations about the poet, examining her legacy through a modern lens.

Landon was writing in Romantic-era England. She published novels and essays, but was known mostly for her sentimental romantic poetry, which appeared in literary annuals and magazines; in 1820, when she was 18, her first poem was published in London’s Literary Gazette. The following year, she published a book of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide, which sold well. Her work was attributed only to “L.E.L.,” and when her first poems were released her readers were fascinated by the mysterious poet. There was much speculation as to who the poet behind the initials might be before Landon was revealed as the writer. Literature scholar Glennis Stephenson notes that her poetry contained euphemisms for sex, allusions to passionate love, and “erotically suggestive images.” According to Stephenson, Landon purposefully created her writing persona, L.E.L., as a “poetic construction,” and was always keenly aware of the differences between L.E.L. and her actual self, even if her readers were not.

Landon understood instinctively her role as a female writer, and played with her audience’s perceptions. Through her poems’ narrators, she molded her image into what would be acceptable and appealing to the public, which in turn rewarded her with more attention. Literature scholar Jonas Cope writes, “Her interest, perhaps obsession, with the plight of personal interiority in a world of stifling fashionable exteriors makes sense when we consider that she rose to fame shortly after the ascension of George IV to the British throne.”

L.E.L. was considered a “poetess.” This gendered term for literary women of the Romantic era was a way to patronize their work as soon as it gained fame. Society and the literary critics of the time demanded a specific construction of female beauty, intelligence, and manner in which women should conduct themselves in public. Landon recognized the role of the female writer in her time and, since she needed to make a living, she took advantage. She had a keen understanding of the market and wrote what would sell. Cope goes on to write that this was why her poetry consisted of popular themes like love, death, and beauty.

Many critics argue that Landon fell victim to the literary market and only wrote to cater to a popular taste formed by the masses, never developing her own voice. Cope, however, disagrees: “[Landon] manipulates market forces to her own advantage. Doing so empowers her as a woman writer and literary entrepreneur.” Landon had agency over the work she was giving the audience and found power in it. In an 1832 article for The New Monthly Magazine, she wrote that the “best and most popular…poetry makes its appeal to the higher and better feelings of our nature.”

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Still, the public questioned her lifestyle and motives. Rumors abounded that she had had affairs and had borne illegitimate children. Scandal hounded her in London, until, as Stephenson writes,

the thirty-six year old Landon, wanting to escape scandals still simmering in London, made the disastrous decision to marry the saturnine George MacClean, Governor of the Gold Coast; three months after this she was dead in Cape Coast Castle, possibly a suicide, but more likely—and surely more appropriately—murdered.

Stephenson then acknowledges that this melodramatic reading of Landon’s death—after all, some scholars have suggested the poisoning of Landon may well have been accidental—is in line with Landon’s readers who confused her life with the drama of her poems.

How easy it is to repeat the errors of her contemporaries, to confuse Landon with L.E.L. and conclude that the poet finally became too caught up in her own myth, in her own creation, that her sordid demise was the result of a desire to live out the exotic life of which she wrote. But Landon’s work repeatedly denies us any such neat conclusions.

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Public Picks 2019

Each year around this time we send our readers into summer with a curated list of the titles that dazzled, challenged, and inspired us most over the past year. For this, the seventh-annual edition of Public Picks, we’ve asked our editors for the Public Thinker series, Literary Fiction, Higher Education, Children’s & Young Adult Literature, Urbanism, Global Black History, TV, Print/Screen, and...

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The Return of Homer’s Women

Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe speak the lost and muted voices of ancient Greek women ...

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The Posthumous Mystique of Thomas Chatterton

By Matthew Wills

Once upon a time, Thomas Chatterton was the famous dead poet. Chatterton (1752-1770) had already been dead for decades when he was taken up like a kind of mascot by the Romantics, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.

For them, Chatterton—who famously killed himself a few months before his eighteenth birthday—was the quintessence of the tormented, misunderstood, starving poet who dies alone, young and unknown. He was the prototype of the teenage poète maudit long before Rimbaud.

Chatterton’s suicide fit with the Romantic sense of tragedy. That he might not have killed himself was beside the point. In his re-evaluation of Chatterton’s work, cultural historian Ivan Phillips notes that Chatterton may have died by accident, taking too much of what passed for medicine for his venereal disease. But Chatterton’s posthumous legend made it suicide, the epitome of the much more recent adage “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” This was, after all, the era of the pan-European phenomenon of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther’s fictional suicide had inspired a spate of actual youthful copycats.

Whatever Chatterton’s cause of death, when he died he “left behind a massive body of ‘acknowledged’ poems, letters, sketches, dramas, and essays, and an only slightly smaller body of poems, letters, sketches, dramas, and essays purporting to be by (or translated from) a cast of historical figures […].” Many of these forgeries were said (by Chatterton) to be written by a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley, so they’ve been called the “Rowley poems” ever since.

Phillips notes this divide in Chatterton’s work: “authentic but dull on one side, forged and fascinating on the other.” The reams of Chatterton’s work under his own name “have rarely been anyone’s concern,” but the fakes caused “learned dispute and extravagant enthusiasm (though precious little critical analysis) almost before the author was cold in his workhouse lime-pit.”

After all, this was the eighteenth century, the “golden age of literary forgeries” calling upon an imagined past, using that imagined past to create new traditions. The Ossian poems were the most famous of these. Even Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1749), the first Gothic novel, purported to be a translation of a text from a sixteenth-century Italian named Onuphrio Muralto.

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Chatterton didn’t merely write a few pseudo-medieval poems. He forged entire manuscripts. These, writes Phillips, were “forgeries in the strictest sense, reproductions of nothing, they are ready-mades that were assembled but never found, neither copies nor—according to any traditional understanding—originals.” The precocious Chatterton’s fake oeuvre is made up of “distressed parchment, singed and sooty, waxy, ragged, ink-blotted, fragile.” Philips goes on to describe them as “complex tactile and visual objects which revolt against print culture because they are both chimerical—they are forgeries of things which never existed—and unrepeatable.” Modern spellchecking software, he suggests, would melt down when tasked with Chatterton’s work.

“Rarely in print, infrequently read, critically untended,” Chatterton was almost all myth for the Romantics. Wordsworth, who was born the year Chatterton died, apostrophized him as “the marvelous Boy/ The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Then the reputation-tidying Victorians got their hands on him. He was “cleaned up by the Victorians, all but cleared away by the twentieth century.” Yet Phillips finds Chatterton’s body of ersatz Medievalism surprisingly relevant in our own age. In Chatterton’s pre-modern work he finds both modernity and post-modernity, and a fascinating example of “the cultural force of forgery in general, and a uniquely adaptable politics of style.”

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