Meaning in the Mundane

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Thoreau seemed to be much ahead of his time in regards to environmentalism. His new ideas come across as revolutionary and probably a bit “hippie-ish” to those of his time. People might not have known what the coined term “hippie” meant yet, but he was paving the way. Most farmers of Thoreau’s time simply farmed for one thing: survival. They farmed to have food to eat, to have food to trade, and to ultimately make a living. They had no interest in making any sort of connection to their land or products. They farmed as a job, as a task to complete, and nothing more. Thoreau erased all of those shallow ways of farming when he let readers into his journey of bean farming in his chapter called “The Bean-Field” in Walden.

From the very first paragraph, Thoreau discusses his intimate connection to his rows and rows of beans on his property at Walden Pond. He writes, “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so much more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth…” Thoreau embraces his one-ness with nature throughout the entire novel, but seems to take it a step further in this chapter when describing his connections to his crops. He takes a task that had become so mundane in peoples’ lives and brings it to vibrant life. He speaks of his beans as if they were his children. He writes how he cared for them, tended to them, and cultivated them to maturity- just like parents do with their own children. He adores his land in a way that was unheard of at the time. He learns from the land and from nature, and he attributes the crops to much of his happiness.

Towards the end of the chapter he strikes against typical farmers of the time saying that by “avarice and selfishness” and by “regarding the soil as property” that “the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature as a robber.” Thoreau understands the relationship needed between farmer and land in order to cultivate bountiful crops. He recognizes the insincerity behind farmers who farm just for selfish, monetary reasons and have no love for the land. He argues that by simply regarding the soil as property it pales in comparison to how the land could look if the farmer treated it with love and respect.

Even as I type I feel like perhaps Thoreau was off his rocker a little bit, but it seems that he might have been onto something. He made significant profit for the time, and had so much joy in life that cannot go unnoticed. While he may have received criticism from traditional farmers of the day, he certainly paved the way for a whirlwind of future ideas on the topic. He jump started the idea of environmentalism and the concept of selflessly giving to the land in order to receive from it.

With Thoreau’s deep connection to his land and nature in general, he was able to perceive so much more than normal farmers were. He saw the significance of all pieces of nature in the farming process. He spoke of the sun, the animals, the weeds, etc. He found meaning in the mundane, and paved a way for the early expression of modern environmentalism.

Transcendentalism Uncovered- Light vs. Dark

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Something that strikes me most about the vast differences between the transcendentalist writings of Emerson and Poe are the vastly opposite ideas of life and death shared through each of their writing. It seems to me that Emerson sees life, and more specifically life abundantly, in all things in the world. In his writing entitled, “Nature”, he sees newness and growth in the natural world and in his spiritual life that comes from his experiences in nature. Emerson has an evident positive glow in his writing and speaks of the importance of the soul and nature. He also discusses how the two (soul and nature) coincide in a human being. In Emerson’s most connected moments of life in what he calls his ‘Transparent Eyeball’, he seems to step into some sort of lovely, intimate, spiritual universe where he feels connected to a ‘supreme being’. Emerson sees such immense beauty in the world and relays that love of the wild to his audience. While Emerson does acknowledge the fact that there is no way to live in the ‘Transparent Eyeball’ moment all of the time, and that some moments are less connected than others, he seems to have created such a positive aroma for his life that he finds joy in most circumstances. So though he realizes he cannot live in this other-worldly state at all times, he seems in no way negative in his world view.

Poe on the other hand seems to focus more on themes of death and darkness than on the lighter ideas of life. In his famous short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Poe begins the dark themes of the tale almost immediately. He uses such dismal language and imagery in his writing that readers are sucked into this dark whole of despair for the entirety of the reading. Poe uses adjectives such as bleak, decayed, depressing, and hideous in the first paragraph alone. Moving forward in his writing he suggests the idea of a dream-like state that he is certain he has entered in to.  When describing his moments in nature as he comes upon the house of Usher, Poe begins describing his surroundings and begins to get lost in the moment as Emerson seems to do. Yet, Poe makes a swift observation that the atmosphere had “no affinity with the air of heaven.” Could he be making a jab at Emerson’s spiritual transcendentalist writing of “Nature” that was written three years before? Poe then goes on to say that he must have been in a dream state. So, the comparison seems evident. While Emerson finds himself in a state of intense connectedness, Poe is convinced he is simply in a state of dreaming. One seems more positive than the other. One seems more in tuned to the universe than the other. One seems to be able to embrace the meanings of life while the other seems to be trying to find some way to avoid it. Emerson seems to love life- to live it fully and face it head on. By Poe’s writing it seems that he desires to slip into a state of dreaming- of unconsciousness rather than allowing himself to slip into a state of being where his eyes might be opened to some truths of the world. Perhaps he is frightened of what he might find.  

“Crusoe in England” – A Life of Vividness

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In Bishop’s poem, “Crusoe in England,” the main character, Robinson Crusoe, has a vivid sense of the world around him. He seems to have been exiled on this island for so long that he has become deeply in synch with his surroundings­­: “the flora, the fauna, and the geography.” This sense of connection Crusoe has is portrayed in Bishop’s mastery of description and her fine attention to detail. Readers sense such a close connection between word and actuality in this poem that reality begins to take the backseat to this fictional island that Bishop has created. Her attention to detail gives the theme of authenticity that Crusoe possesses during his time on the island. He sees life vividly with goggles that make life beautiful and adventurous. While he is lonely on the island and feels a sense of “Oneness” and solidarity, he seems so in tune with his soul and his inner-self that it seems to compensate for his isolation.

Though Crusoe seems to be in synch with himself, this vivid attention to detail may mark him as insane to some, and I could understand why. Bishop’s Crusoe seems to have gone a little mad with all of the time spent alone in exile. Could this attention to detail be a sign of Crusoe’s impending madness? Perhaps. But then again, I see this vivid imagination as something to celebrate. Not many people can view the world around them with such clarity as Crusoe seemed to do. The time on the island seemed to make him the best version of himself. One that was free, real, and imaginative.

 I find the idea of the knife in this poem interesting in regards to attention to detail. Bishop writes when Crusoe has returned to England, “it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. It lived. How many years did I beg it, implore it, not to break? I knew each nick and scratch by heart, the bluish blade, the broken tip, the lines of wood-grain on the handle… Now it won’t look at me at all. The living soul has dribbled away.” Could this knife be the pen in Crusoe’s life? Is it what he is using to recount all of the glorious sights he sees during his time on the island? This metaphor could be an explanation for his vivid attention to detail throughout the poem, and then shows how he can’t even pick up his pen anymore when he returns to England.

When he is finally rescued and returns to England in the poem, this vividness and imagination completely halts. Bishop’s language becomes languid and slow. She writes with less urgency and fervor, and her character seems to have a lens of complacency and mediocrity so vastly different from the lens of the Crusoe on the island. The theme of authenticity is gone, and a theme of remorse and sadness has taken over in her writing. This rescue seems to have taken the life out of Crusoe. He no longer views objects and the world around him with attention to detail as he once did. Could his acute attention have ultimately caused his demise?  It seems that his exciting life abroad could be the reason he becomes so broken at the end of the poem. He sees things as a burden, and is frustrated by the museum’s desire to showcase his possessions.    He even shares that he is bored with his life- what a dull thing to be when he used to live a life full of magic.

Identity

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After research I have discovered that Mamet’s use of profanity in his writing seems to be a trademark of his writing style used not only in “Glengarry Glen Ross” but in his other plays also. While reading “Glengarry Glen Ross”, I found myself being distracted by the constant stream of curse words flowing from the mouths of the characters. With that being said, I see the need of profanity in this play, and I understand the urgency with which the characters speak. Taking note that every main character in the play was male, men are traditionally known to use curse words more flippantly than women do. Perhaps this stereotypical depiction of men was intentional on Mamet’s part as a means to keep the male power at the exterior of the play. Mamet has been said to be anti-feminist, and even misogynist, so perhaps this was a way to give men authority and dominance through his writing.

While reflecting on the play, several aspects of the characters’ personalities came to mind. These men seem to be in search of something- fulfillment, meaning, success, satisfaction. Whatever it is that they’re in search of seems to prohibit complete control of their whole selves, and I see them attempting to take control of themselves through their words. You chose every syllable that escapes your lips. Maybe I am wrong, but I see these men using their words to define themselves- to give themselves meaning. They seem lost without success, and they seem on the brink of drowning in failure with every unclosed deal, that perhaps they are trying to find control in even the most miniscule way they can. With so many things out of their control in their line of work, perhaps they hang onto some sliver of control in their lives though their word choice.

Another way to consider the use of profanity in this play is to think of it as a way to alleviate pent up frustrations that the characters hold. Whenever arguments in the play intensify, the use of profanity undoubtedly increases. From a worldly prospective, cursing is seen in people who are angry or frustrated, and this is shown fully throughout the play. In Act 1, we see Levene slowly getting more and more frustrated with Williamson throughout the scene. While Levene uses some profanity at the beginning of the scene, readers see him begin to use more and more profanity as he realizes he isn’t going to get the leads he wants out of Williamson. Williamson, not wanting anything from Levene, uses little profanity in this act. Out of all of the characters Williamson seems to be the man most in control of himself and his words, and comparatively uses scant amounts of profanity throughout the play. In the end, Williamson ‘wins’ because he finds out that Levene is the one who broke into the office. Coming from Mamet’s perspective, I find it ironic that the man who curses least would be the man to come out on top at the end of the play.

While the use of profanity was a bit distracting while attempting to ingest the play, I understand Mamet’s writing style and deep need to express his characters in such light. Mamet’s own values shone through in his writing, and he created his characters to be much like himself. 

“Women Weapons” – King Lear

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King Lear could be thought of as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. The characters become your own as you read, and you begin to think as they do and to want the things they want. One of the first things I picked up on as I read King Lear was the fact that the mother, King Lear’s wife, was absent in the family. Readers are never told specifically what happens to the mother, but her absence screams loud enough to give her a character of her own. At the premise of Shakespeare’s play, readers are introduced to a self-indulged man who finds meaning in life from manipulating his daughters into professing their love for him. Whether or not these professions of love are true or not (which I suspect they are not from the actions we see them take later on), the way in which they are shared defeats any validity they may have held.

Coppelia Kahn states in her argument about Lear’s inner woman, “But what the play depicts, of course, is the failure of that presence: the failure of a father’s power to command love in a patriarchal world and the emotional penalty he pays for wielding power.” Kahn brings out a strong point about the character of King Lear in the depiction of the play in this statement. She sees past the loving façade that Lear portrays at the beginning of the novel, and views it as a defense mechanism that Lear is putting up as a means to shy away from his “inner woman.”  Kahn goes as far as to call Lear’s power a failure. She also depicts in her argument, the “emotional penalty” he pays for exercising said power. Readers see the price Lear pays in his ultimate death due to the grieving of his daughter, Cordelia, whom he childishly shuns early on in the play. Had Lear confronted his emotions concerning Cordelia from the beginning, perhaps the tragedies of the play would not have unfolded the way they did.

Kahn writes on the reunion between Lear and Cordelia, and concludes that this reunion is the first time in which Lear accepts his need for human dependence. Due to the patriarchal society of the seventeenth century, Lear perhaps steered clear of any emotional feelings at all for fear of judgment and rejection from his people. Yet, at this meeting, we see Lear let down his defense walls and finally accept the fact that emotions and weakness are not synonyms.  Readers see him cry and grieve for his daughter, Cordelia, and for the loss of his life because of his own defense mechanisms he spent his life putting up. Perhaps for the first time, Lear is mourning the loss of his wife, and all of the other repressed tragedies of his life. While the grief of Cordelia’s death kicked off this emotional downpour, maybe his death is the repercussion of the release of the dam of emotions in himself.

Kahn presents a fascinating psychological approach to studying King Lear, and I believe she has discovered exactly what the character of King Lear was struggling with in the play. Her insight offered me another way to study and respond to the material, and gave me an edge to the reading that made Lear come alive in an exciting way.

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       Marjane Satrapi invites readers into her world as a teenager growing up in a warring Iran through her autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis.  Throughout the graphic novel, the theme of compliance versus defiance shines in almost every scene. At one point, Marjane’s (Marji’s) father reiterates this theme of the novel by stating to her, “Politics and sentiment don’t mix.”  Yet, we see the Satrapi family acting as revolutionaries against the war effort which violates the powerful statement Ebi, Marji’s father, made to her.

       Several influential people in Marji’s life boldly resist the war effort and help develop her character by doing so. Her mother and father go to demonstrations to protest, and at one point even invite Marji to go along with them. Marji’s beloved Uncle Anoosh is ultimately murdered for the crimes he committed against the government as a revolutionary. Another example of this defiance is shown when Marji’s parents bring her westernized gifts, such as clothes and posters, from their trip to Turkey. Parents who truly believed that politics and sentiment do not mix would not take the risk to smuggle these goods through Iranian borders.

       Marji’s mother, Taji, is so repulsed by the veils required for Iranian women to wear her and Marji remove them as soon as they get inside of their house where the windows are strategically covered with black curtains. In the video, Marji goes to visit her grandmother, and when she arrives her grandmother tells her to remove her veil, and Marji replies that she hardly even notices it anymore. Her grandmother retorts that she should never forget that she is wearing the veil, meaning that Marji should never forget who she really is. These two leading women in Marji’s life demonstrate that obedience to the law is not as important as standing strong for one’s personal values.

       Perhaps the most momentous example of the Satrapis regarding sentiment over politics is the move they arrange for Marji. They send her to Austria in order to escape from the politics her father originally told her did not mix with personal lives. Marji is, obviously, ingrained as a child with revolutionary ideas and morals.

       Possibly Ebi wanted to teach his daughter to resist mixing her personal life with politics in order to save her from certain hardships if she decided to live in a way other than that. Throughout the novel though, we see this declaration defied time and time again. I believe it is a strong statement Marjane wanted to make in order to show her readers that personal morals and values should never be compromised for anyone, even the government.

Compliance vs. Defiance

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      When thinking of Binx Bolling one word comes to mind: alterity. This is a philosophical word meaning “otherness.” This word implies that one is acknowledging a sense of self and not-self, and is granting the possibility of the existence of an alternative viewpoint. This word captures the personality of Binx Bolling to the core. Binx’s sole goal in life, it seems, is to seek authenticity. Exasperated with the mundane, and those ensnared in it, he spends his life running as fast as he can from the malaise which is inevitably lingering in the air. Is Binx mad? This is a valid question, and one a reader probably wrestles with at some point or another throughout Percy’s novel. His search for something, anything seems to prove a man with a distinct mind; a mind that is fearless to wonder. A mind that is unafraid to dream the impossible, refusing to settle upon the dreary “everydayness” of the rest of the world. He searches for meaning in the strangest of places. He searches for it sitting on a laboratory floor while his colleague conducts research, becoming “bewitched by the presence of the building.” He searches for it in the midst of war, internal and external, and in the presence of a seemingly haggard family. All of the places that he chases meaning collectively come to create a collage of his future self.

       At the denouement of Binx’s story, readers are left with a man who seems to, through trials of his own, have found what he spent the entirety of the novel diligently seeking.  He finds solace in the last few moments spent with his beloved step brother, Lonnie. Lonnie’s deteriorating health and eventual death seem to awaken something deep in Binx’s soul. Corresponding to Kirkegaard’s philosophies, Binx seems to have reached the third stage of life, religion, when the epilogue arrives. Percy’s addition of religion in Lonnie’s character was, I believe, intentional. Percy introduced this facet of Lonnie early in the novel to allow readers the ability to recognize Binx’s cutting-edge personality transformation when the time came. Binx goes from being a seemingly dull man in search of something more, to a man rich in love and understanding of the world and what life holds.

       Even if what Binx was searching for all along was not religion, he has found things that have given his life new meaning.  His other step siblings’ contagious spirits seep into him and give him a gentle demeanor that seems more genuine then readers have witnessed from him thus far. We also see how his relationship with Kate has revolutionized. We see a man who is enamored by a woman and will help guide her through life in any way she asks, shown by the way he gives her distinct instructions for a simple task at the end of the novel. Though Binx may have begun as a disheveled man, his demeanor has changed when readers meet him again in the epilogue. While readers may not witness exactly what occurred in him from the final chapter to the epilogue, it is clear that a change of heart has occurred in this protagonist. He becomes a man who is telling children he loves them, taking them on train rides, staying with Lonnie until the dismal end, and is picking flowers for his girl. This seems to me like a man who has found authenticity of life, and has found it to the fullest. Binx’s search has paid off.

Alterity