Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

"These people love their offspring more than any in the world, and treat them very mildly.
If a son dies, the whole village joins the parents and kindred in weeping."

- Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in "The Malhado Way of Life"

"Frazer is much more savage than most of these savages."

- Ludwig Wittgenstein in "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough"

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, or ANCdV as I'll be calling him through the course of this journal, holds a special point in history for me, because he was one of the first, well known, western anthropologists. He was sort of like Columbus version 2.0, in that he went on perilous journeys of adventure and discovery, and managed to do so without raping or killing anyone, which is pretty admirable for a 150''s Spanish explorer. In fact, not only does he NOT slaughter the indigenous peoples of wherever he went, but managed to also write very detailed journals on them, their culture, their customs, etc. What I find to be remarkably notable is that he manages to write all this tremendous literature on this culture so outrageously foreign to his own, and manages to do so without once calling them "backwards", "savages", "simple" or without writing his hands evilly and thinking "these people would make good slaves!"
Growing up, one of my favourite books were "The Golden Bough" written by James Frazier in 1890. Just in case you're not familiar with the text, here's a brief summary. James Frazier went around the world, studying a vast multitude of indigenous tribes, making detailed accounts of their society, focusing mainly on the elements of mysticism and magic he observed. His thesis was to find a unifying theme among the world's various religions and mythologies.
At the time, I had considered this to be one of the west's first and best forays into a lengthy understanding of cultures completely foreign to theirs, and I took it in with great interest, because I am a sucker for anything ancient. However, as I grew older, I began to look at Frazier's writings with more critical eye. Of course, to this day I still very much admire his work, his attention to detail, and his scholarly determination to know as much as he can about his subject, but there is one flaw in his approach. Frazier suffers from the all to difficult to eliminate "point of view". While Frazier never comes out and says anything as non PC as "These backwards savages worship the sun" or anything like that, his mindset is still very present in his writing, whereas Cabesa De Vaca seems to not only approach the subject a much more open mind, but also with a certain level of caring, and acceptance. Strange that the more enlightened viewpoint would come almost 400 years before the one that is still having some trouble.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christopher Columbus

"From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold, ... If the information I have is correct it appears that we could sell four thousand slaves, who might be worth twenty million and more"

- Christopher Columbus, Journal Entry for September 1498

"For it's the end of history
Its caged and frozen still
There is no other pill to take
So swallow the one
That made you ill
The Nina The Pinta The Santa Maria
The noose and the rapist
The fields overseer
The agents of orange
The priests of Hiroshima
The cost of my desire
Sleep now in the fire"

- Rage Against the Machine, "Sleep Now in the Fire"

Who the heck WAS Christopher Columbus?
I've heard hero, I've heard monster, I've heard a product of his time, I've heard explorer, I've heard businessman, I've heard it all. I always struggle with this, at an early age, I was taught that he was a hero. He discovered America, he found it, no one knew it was here until he landed here. People told him he'd sail off the edge of the world, and barked back "screw you! I'm looking for a continent that might not exist!" It was romantic, it was epic, he was an adventurer in an uncharted frontier, he was Captain Kirk!
Then, roundabout middle school or so, people began to not like the smell of the bull that was being fed to them. Now wait, if he discovered America, what about all the people who were here first? you know them, they're called the Indians! But wait a second, this isn't India! Where did that name come from? Oh! Columbus wasn't out to "discover" America, he was looking for a secret passageway to India, and he did this by traveling WAST, even though India is to the EAST! So he landed (crashed) in America by accident, right? No wait, he actually crashed in Cuba, and the Bahamas, not technically part of America, granted it's off the coast of the South American continent, but it has nothing to do with the United States! So why all this patriotic attachment to Columbus? He didn't discover a thing, at least nothing attached to us! What's worse is that when he got here, he totally brutalized the population! Some claim that stories of him being such a huge bastard are greatly exaggerated, but it's very well documented in his own journals of his expeditions!
Why would Columbus talk so freely about such violence? And so nonchalantly for that matter? He was able to articulate his disgusting plans, his nefarious deeds, all with utter dis-attachment to the reality of his crimes. Some might hear this and call it the modus operandi of a sociopath, but I see something else, something that is simultaneously far more, and far less terrifying.
I read this and I see a man who is a product of his time. The reason he could slaughter these people en masse, rob them and bring the survivors back as slaves, is because to him, these people were not human whatsoever. You can't enslave people, that's a given, that's a basic human right! But these aren't humans, and it's okay. They shouldn't be wearing all these fancy stones and metals anyway, it's shameful! They should be adoring the greatly appointed garments of the monarchs! This wasn't a hard decision for Chris, because it was his way of life to begin with. It's awful, because it almost robs him of credibility and accountability. We know now, being the 21st Century Schizoid Men that we are, that this is deplorable behavior, and Columbus, his men, and the corrupt system that hired him should be reviled and hated, his holiday should be stricken form the record! But the sheer reality of this, the reality that makes this jagged little pill even tougher to swallow than it ALREADY IS, is that this was not a war crime, this was not a nefarious plan set forth by history's greatest villains, this was just... business as usual! Was Columbus a bad man? HE certainly didn't think so! His royal investors certainly didn't either. Columbus had done what no Spanish man had done, and he had brought back the goods to prove it, rich resources, precious stones and metals, and sub human slaves! If somewhere down the line, the world somehow adopts vegetarianism as a universally accepted truth, and way of life, will the dreadful butcher Oscar Meyer become a reviled and hated figure in history? Will Chef Boy Are Dee become public enemy number one? Don't even get me started on Ronald McDonald! My point is, are these characters inherently wicked, and vile? They represent a business, and that's what they do, they kill animals so we can eat them. From our perspective, this is not a crime, it's not even a thing that should be considered a crime. But if over the next 600 or so years, if our perspective changes drastically, then could it be possible that Wendy's founder Dave Thomas might suffer the same wrath of history that Christopher Columbus has? do these two people even deserve to be compared? Let's hope not.

Thomas Morton and William Bradford. Pilgrims and Puritans.

Morton and Bradford as almost as alike as they are different, which is what makes them so interesting. In a way, their dynamic is not unlike that of Batman and the Joker in that they sort of lived only to be one another's adversary.
It all starts with Morton, in a way, since he sort of consciously decided to settle near Plymouth, almost as if he was trying to be a bother. There, he set up Merrymount, a mere 30 miles away from the puritans, where he flaunted his flashy, sinful lifestyle, of business, and dancing! The hilarity ensues when the pilgrims go after him with full force, in a lovingly portrayed, age old style of hypocrisy that would come to define this land. The pilgrims, who fled their homeland of England in search of religious tolerance could not STAND that the guys next door had a May Pole up! It almost reads out like a farce.
Morton set up shop, and even good relations with the native Algonquin tribe, who Morton quipped, were far more pleasant allies than his "intolerant European neighbors". This whole scene brings to mind catty women lobbing underhanded insult s at one another at the salon.
The Pilgrims resented Morton's fun and fancy free lifestyle, and so, lead by Bradford, pooled every ounce of clout that had to try and get Morton arrested for unlawful sale of firearms to the surrounding native tribes. In defense of the Pilgrims, selling guns to the Indians WAS technically illegal, but it was about as illegal as downloading MP3's is today. The Pilgrims had Morton carted away, sailed across the damn ocean, and imprisoned, and while he was gone they BURNED DOWN HIS HOUSE! Because what he was doing was so awful, and so terrible, a message had to be sent!
The flip side to this, however, is comparing Morton to the puritans. The puritans thought Morton's May Pole is intolerable! However, what IS acceptable is this constant and looming belief that you were either damned... or A-OK! If you were damned, you were damned, your life and action suddenly become meaningless, you are going to hell, no questions asked. If you were NOT damned... well, well, well! You STILL might be screwed! It doesn't take much to open up those floodgates! God does not like you, he never wanted you, in all probability, he HATES you. This was the reality these people lived with every day, they raised their children to believe this. If I had to chose whose house to burn down, I might be to quick to rush over to Morton's place. Morton was not only a legitimate businessman, but an intellectual, and also an important pioneer in race relations in the newly settles/invaded frontier of the new world.
The text seems to want to argue that puritan life was not so dire and tragic, but it's really hard to imagine it any other way, but that's only coming form my 21st century, pop culture junkie loudmouth perspective.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thomas Morton

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

- Oscar Wilde

"Many threatening speeches were given out both against his person and his habitation, which they divulged should be consumed by fire."

- Thomas Morton

Thomas Morton was not exactly an outspoken proponent of decadence, but he was an avid practitioner of it. In the view of Oscar Wilde, a man like Morton might have been that all too important dividing line in between America’s barbarism and decadence, but in the eyes of the pilgrims, he was the rising tide that loomed over their precious little lives, and represented everything that was wrong, and bad and evil. He was so reviled that they framed him as a traitor to the crown, and had him sent to prison … overseas! Morton was a victim of the Puritan’s intolerance on several occasions, and had to dodge their legal actions upon him many times, twice being sent to prison. On the second time, they burnt his plantation to the ground while he was gone, as if to drive home the point that he was not welcome. To me, however, this only symbolized a massive hypocrisy on the parts of the pilgrims, since they themselves fled to the new world in a desperate vie for religious tolerance. It really is too bad they learned nothing at all from that experience. Alas, they did not, and as a result, an intellect as alive as Morton's was not allowed to thrive, let alone survive, in the shadow of the crushing reality of colonial America. If Tom had lived a mere three centuries later, he could have possibly seen the decadent world that Oscar Wilde foresaw, and embraced. Since I enjoy the concept of novel crossovers, I can’t help but imagine what it might have been like if these two could have rubbed shoulders. Who would be the master, and who would be the mentor? I imagine a grizzled Thomas Morton taking young Oscar Wilde under his wing, and imparting all his knowledge of life worth living unto him, and as young Wilde grows and matures, taking the concept and totally running with it. I have no idea why this amuses me so.

Thomas Morton's "New English Canaan"

I like Thomas Morton, he almost reminds me of a prototype Oscar Wilde, just 275 years tamer, but the character is still there. He rubbed the pilgrims the wrong way, and I think that's another reason I love him so much. "New American Canaan" really brings out the "Bacchanalian" spirit of Morton's leanings. Decoding his poetry was by far the best part. Poetry as an art form is something I myself have barely scratched the surface of, but despite that, I can really appreciate the message laden passages, which make all kinds of colourful references to the Greek mythology, like Oedipus, and Hymen. He even make Biblical references, he invokes the name of Job in "The Poem", and even makes obscure gestures to English history, when he mentions Scogan's Choice.
Aside from the various overtures to history and mythology, the poetry's structure itself is rather pleasing. It's obvious iambic pentameter, which is actually really helpful when I get to words I've no idea how to pronounce, like "Charybdis", which interestingly enough does not have a footnote in the text (Charybdis is a sea monster, by the way).
There is only one break in the pentameter, and it occurs in lines 11 and 12. not only does "paramour" and "patient" not rhyme, but line 12 only has 9 syllables, breaking from the uniform 10 of pentameter. Why chose to break uniform here? I can't be sure, I am not a poetry expert, but to me, it seems like simple laziness. It serves no purpose, and breaks the rhythm of the piece.
"The Song" is very different, and harder to read, specifically because I am certain there is a melody that goes along with it, and not knowing it, it's hard to imagine the rhythm. There is a pretty nifty rhyme scheme going on that I really like, and a catchy little repetitive callback in the chorus. The whole thing has a very old English ring to it, and really reminds me of songs you hear sung at the Dickens Festival, and in that way, becomes a mirror for the time and the culture.
His poetry also serves as an insight to why the puritans hated him so, so bad! The very first line of "The Song" says it all, "Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys", that in and of itself is kind of the very antithesis of the entire puritan philosophy. I don't know if the puritans even had poems, or songs. To the puritans, things like songs and poetry, or anything that inspired a merry temperament were probably considered hell worthy trespasses!
In either case, Morton is a historical bad ass, and it saddened me to read of his bum deal and his sad ending.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

William Bradford

"What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say "Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity."

"(William Bradford is) a forerunner of literature"
Charles F. Richardson

The book "Of Plymouth Colony" is too often misappropriated as a journal, or as an even dryer connotation, as a history book. While it is both of these things, it is also a great deal more. William Bradford's epic work is not only the single most authoritative look into the lives of the pilgrims of Plymouth colony, but one of the earliest forms literary non-fiction. Reading it, it does not read like a journal, not as bland as "today I woke up, brushed my teeth, ate some breakfast, swept the porch..." nor does it carry the sizable weight of a historical text, which often will read as "on the date of September 7th, 1616, the Pilgrims did THIS...". William Bradford breathes such life into this place, and its people. This is not only because he lived there (although that's a big part of it). He also cared about these events and these people, which even still, on its own, doesn't seem to be the mitigating factor in why this work carried so well. Bradford lived these times, had a very real stake in them, and on top of all of that, cared a great deal about the art and craft of writing. This is made even more poignant in knowing that Bradford was a self taught individual, whose family never sent him to university. He did not have the benefit of having been taught the craft, and having his skills honed among his writing peers. On the contrary, William lived a life of relative isolation from the outside world. He was outcasted for his family situation, and then again by his family for his religious views. In this way, Bradford almost lived in a bubble. Yet despite having lived so apart from the rest of society at large, proved himself a talented and capable writer. His passages have not only taught countless generations what it was like to have lived in those days, but they paint such a detailed and specific picture of it, that to this day, these images are firmly implanted in our collective subconscious, and have taken deep roots in our culture. In this way, William Bradford really puts me in mind of Mark Twain, in that he was that generation's equivalent. Twain mustered up all of his literary bravado to write epics like "Old Times on the Mississippi", "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" which do so well to encapsulate the times they represent. In this same way, Bradford captures 27 years worth of life, very vividly depicting not only the life and times, but the drama, and the reason, and the context for this place, this time period, and these people. Wholly authentic. The times and the language have changed, but the heart of the writing remains pure, and makes the passages still highly readable, and relatable to this day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jon Edwards

"Eve was to be the mother of that Seed that was to bruise the head of the serpent, the grand enemy of mankind that had brought death upon them, and had the power of death, and so was to be the author of life to all that should live, i.e. all that should escape death. So Eve was the mother of all living, as all that have spiritual and eternal life are Christ's, and so the woman's Seed, because Christ was of the woman."

-Jonathan Edwards: Notes on the Bible

"Edwards’s surprisingly positive treatment of Eve in these sources reveals his willingness to deviate from the ideological background with which he has become synonymous and a theological innovator whose praise of Eve anticipates that of modern feminist theologians."

-Zachary Hutchins: Edwards and Eve: Finding Feminist Strains in the Great Awakening's Patriarch

Religious writing has little to no effect on me. When I was a boy, I was already very much disillusioned by Christianity, and most of what it and the other major religions had to offer. In effect, I had a similarly jaded outlook towards this particular period of American and European history, where Christianity held sway, in a big, big way. It influenced the decisions and outlook of most of history's major players, while at the same time, was also used as a shield of justification for their greatest crimes and mistakes. With this in mind, I slogged through the pages with Jonathan Edwards with a pithy and passing interest. I think he's actually a pretty excellent writer, I particularly liked "Images or Shadows of Divine Things", where I think his language becomes the most colourful and interesting. Despite all this, I could not get past his subject matter. I am always brought to mind of that scene from "Forrest Gump", when Forrest find his old army Lieutenant living crippled and alone in a trashy apartment in New York, and he rants and raves about the annoying people he meets in church. "Jesus this... and Jesus that! Have you found Jesus yet?" I have a similar reaction to Edwards' writing, and many other similar authors of the time. Despite his wonderfully crafted, and expert use of the language, even "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" make him out to be a caricature, all of the hilarious stereotypes you think of when you imagine the fire and brimstone preacher. It wasn't until after I had dropped the book in disgust that I retreated to the internet, to see if I could dig up anything more interesting on this author. To my surprise I found something wholly unexpected. Modern religious scholars are of the opinion that Edwards may have been one of the earliest proto-feminists, because of his pretty extreme and unique views on Eve, and other women of the Bible. My immediate thought was "since this whole class seems to be structured around progressive thinkers in history, why on Earth were his proto-feminist writings not the main focus of this section?" To me, a hyper religious white man who thinks of women with any ounce of respect other than being the dutiful wife, subject entirely to her husband is revolutionary to me. The more I read of Edwards after this, the more I began to pick up on his language and the direction of his writing pointing towards this mindset. Was I just seeing what I wanted to see at this point? Who can say? According to Wikipedia, the two writings which seem to showcase this proto-feminist view the most are "Miscellanies" and "Notes on the Bible". After much searching, I was able to find an obscure link to a Google Books page, in a 23 volume collection of Edward's writings. Why these two volumes were not made available in our text is beyond me, because they so perfectly illustrate Edwards reverence not only for Eve as a Biblical figure, but for women in general. If I could leave this class with but one suggestion, it would be to restructure this section on Edwards, because I think he has a lot more to say than just what's selected for him in our books.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Summary of Thomas Jefferson's Autobiography

Most of what I know about our founding fathers come from the Broadway musical "1776". Having read this excerpt from the actual autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, I am sorely disappointed with the severe lack of musical numbers. In no way does the real thing measure up to the dramatization, but I will try to make do anyhow. The section begins as Jefferson recalls the forming of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, which he describes in all of it's gruesome and dramatic detail. I suppose deep in my heart of hearts, I always kind of knew, instinctively, that writings on governments and politics were mind numbingly boring, but Jefferson's second for second account of appointing committees, motions, and delegates is a far cry from the fun historical musical I grew up with. It's not usually my temperament to complain about assigned text, but when Jefferson wrote this, I can't help but wonder what target audience he had in mind who'd sit through all of this monotonous detail.

Back to the text, Jefferson goes on to describe what the representatives of each colony had to say about the draft, he even goes as far as to describe the actual document being laid upon the table, my god, are you serious? The biggest dramatic turn of events? New York asked to be withdrawn from the committee, because they drew up their plans for this negotiation a year prior to the actual meeting, when reconciliation with Great Britain was still being thought of as a viable option. Alas, at the actual committee, the option was no longer on the table. At first, I thought New York maybe wimped out a little bit, a very far cry from the New York of today, not afraid of being tough and in your face. Then I remember that these were politicians, and that wimping out was kind of their business, so I kept reading.

Oh man, the question of whether the House would agree to the resolution of the committee was postponed until the next day? My heart is going a mile a minute here. I remember in the musical, there was a really cool scene here, where John Addams, played by William Daniels of "Boy Meet World" fame stood pensively looking at the unfinished board, where the votes were being tabulated from each colony's representatives. It was looking grim, it seemed like Adams' and Jefferson's countrymen were not quite on board for their radical idea of rebelling against the motherland, in a desperate vie for freedom. As he stood in the empty hall, his face mired in the evening shadows, as well as the severe, and equally darkening doubt that hung over his head, the New York representative quietly entered the office from behind him. In one of the film's few non-musical sequences, Adams makes one final desperate plea to the New Yorker to reconsider his position on the vote. He paces dramatically back and forth, and then gives a very moving speech about how hearing the words of the soon to be founding fathers have moved him so, that the battle for independence seems like it's becoming more inevitable every day. He says something awesome like "I want to make sure that when war comes, that I'm on the side of righteousness!" He takes his walking stick, and slaps the board where the still yet to be tabulated votes hang. He moves New York's placard from the "Nay" side to the "Aye" side. He then walks away, but before exiting, has another great line of dialogue, like "you'll have your revolution it seems, Mr. Adams. Don't let the colonies down!"

Jefferson is often called the poet laureate of American History, but how is it that a silly little musical from the 60's so poignantly captures the drama of these trying and turbulent times, when an actual person who was not only there, but instrumental in the events themselves cannot describe it without a mind numbing play by play of the non stop thrills and chills of bureaucracy?

Attempting to summarize this literally hurts my brain, the short version is that there was an assembly to discuss the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, some people disagreed, but then later they agreed (except for Mr. Dickinson of Pennsylvania, no reason is given). A small amount of talk about slavery ensues, but nothing to really comment about. Since it is well known that Jefferson owned many slaves, it seems he'd rather end this discussion as quickly as possible. After that, the Declaration itself is reproduced, word for word to the best of my recollection.

My bottom line, this is really great, for the purpose of preserving history and whatnot, but it does not make for interesting literature. This is interesting to me, because the concept of political unrest, and trans-Atlantic war between an Empire and her colonies SHOULD make for interesting literature, but in this case, it does not. Mr. Jefferson, I thank you deeply from the bottom of my heart for helping to found a nation that is so great that I can get away with saying that you're a dreadfully boring writer. God Bless America.

(Fun Fact! William Daniels who played John Addams in "1776" would later go on to player Mr. Feeny in "Boy Meets World." The school that Mr. Feeny taught at was John Addams High. To me, THIS is interesting!)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tom Paine

"Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man."

- Tom Paine

"We're the renegades, we're the people
With our own philosophies
We change the course of history
Everyday people like you and me"

- Afrika Bambaataa

In his song "The Renegades of Funk", Afrika Bambaataa name drops Tom Paine along side other figures in history, including Chief Sitting Bull, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. On the surface, this list of people seems like it might appear on a Sesame Street segment of "One of These Things is Not Like the Other", but there is a very specific reason he is included. It is true that Tom Paine is included among the ranks of the "founding fathers", the stuffiest of stuffy white men in American History. It is also true that modern day American public has become increasingly disillusioned with the once illustrious image of the founding fathers. They've gone from a group of heroes that fought tooth and nail to form this nation to a group of slave owning aristocrats who didn't want to pay their taxes. Some of these stereotypes are deserved, some are not. Tom Paine, despite his association with these pigeonholes, stands out as a true renegade, well deserving of a place in Bambaataa's list, immortalized in song.
Who was Paine, and why was he different? Perhaps the first and most important distinction was his marked distance from the nobility. Paine was born into a fairly working class family, which in 18th Century England pretty much meant he was poor. This is an important distinction for Paine, life didn't really give him anything, everything Paine is, is self made. This lends him an air of credibility when he goes on to talk about radically changing the government. These are words that come not from someone who's in the ivory tower looking down, but from someone who has lived the rough times, and knows from firsthand experience how miserable the system can get. Self made also means self schooled, Tom attended school as early as 7 years old, when education was not mandatory for children. This means that Tom was of the unwashed masses, very much aware of the askew cogs in the system, and made a point to educate himself in order to really articulate these thoughts to others. But how was a man with such radical ideals supposed to flourish in an environment such as this? Paine really found his voice during the precursors to the American revolution. I think a part of his saw the changes about to take place, and wanted to make sure he was on the right side when it all went down. Not only did his intensely eloquent ideology help form the new American government as it took shape, but he was also among the first abolitionist writers' knowing full well way before the fact that slavery in America couldn't possibly have a happy ending.
It is for all these reasons why Thomas Paine is more than just your average American hero, and it is for these very reasons that his place in Bambaataa's song is well secure.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Olaudah Equiano

"I was still more astonished to see people on horseback. I did not know what this could mean; and, indeed, I thought these people were full of nothing but magical arts."

- Olaudah Equiano

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

- Arthur C. Clarke

I admit with no small amount of apprehension that my familiarity with the early American slave writings is slim to nil. I spent a fair amount of time studying the events in various history classes, but the literature was always lost on me.
Until recently, I never really knew I was missing that much, I either discounted it, or otherwise never thought about it. It wasn't until a year or so ago that my opinions on such matters was drastically altered, by the very wise words of one of my greatest mentors in life. He told me that "you can figure out almost anything about any culture just by looking at their popular media", and it is in reading this account of the life of Olaudah Equiano that these words ring particularly true for me. Before reading this, my only other exposure to the writings of slaves came from people who were born into slavery, like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Ann Jacobs.
Equiano tells the story from the perspective of someone who grew used to life in Africa, and was taken, and while the validity of this story to this day is still a matter of controversy, that isn't the story that I myself am trying to tell. The point is, Olaudah is forcefully taken form his home and family, traded around among different people and different territories, some familiar and some not, treated kindly, treated poorly, given many different names, and finally forced into American society. The culture shock that this little boy endures at this point is palpable. My mind never really fathomed the depths of the intense changes these people were forced to cope with during their servitude. I think in many ways, my perception of this point in history was very painted by the perception of Americans from that time as well. when they carted boatload after boatload of screaming, sobbing slaves onto American shores for the first time, they were perceived as savages, sub human, and bereft of the intellect needed to exist in modern culture, and hence was the justification for enslaving them. This sadly is the very same perception I was left with, having known little to nothing about African culture prior to enslavement, the thought of boatloads of slaves being dumped into an unfamiliar civilization where they can't even communicate left nothing but an image of blank, scared faces. This reading tells a different tale, of a young mind reeling to make connections from their various cultures and lore to reconcile what is happening to them. From his culture, stories of magical beings and spirits were not unfamiliar, but when confronted with the insane wonders of this new world was tantamount to coming face to face with these fables. As Arthur C. Clark so eloquently put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." To put it another way, if you remove someone so far from what's familiar to them, their psyche will grasp at any straw it can to make sense of it all. The concept of Magic isn't a strictly African story, it's been all around the world for millennium upon millennium. So it would stand to reason that if you show someone something that they in all of their practical knowledge of the world cannot explain, chances are, their mind will wander towards magical thinking, or in this day and age, towards government conspiracy.
Nowadays, to think of the white man of the 1700's as a magic race is laughable. We were primitive and cruel, the only thing that really distinguished us from the rest of the cruel and primitive people of the world is that we utilized our cruelty through technology a little better than most had been able to.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Henry David Thoreau

"Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?"

-Henry David Thoreau

"the popular thing is not always right likewise the right thing is not always popular."

-Howard Cosell

I love Thoreau, and I love this work by Thoreau the best, for the explicit reason that I love any piece or literature, any essay or any treatise whose soul purpose is to be critical of the government. When I was young and I first read "Resistance to Civil government", I was awestruck that it started this early. I had this image in my head of American history being a bunch of shady white men who basked in seats of inscrutable power, upholding this ideal of a government which could do no wrong, while they hid the truth from the citizens and from each other at any cost. While the second half of the 20th century was the first generation to take that first step in a long journey of change for the better. I imagined the 60's at the turning point, where people STARTED questioning the government. If I only knew how wrong I was! It was beautiful for me to see someone who lived so long ago who was able to not only see through the haze of bull, but also write so eloquently about it. On top of this, he was a white man, and not just a white man, but someone who's writings survived and were upheld in very high esteem. Not a minority they tried to push out of the way, and not just a footnote in history either, but a real and prevalent political critic who was not steamrolled or censored, and who's writings stood up to the test of time. Thoreau was my very first taste of this world, and as such, he and his writings hold a very special place in my heart and mind. While I carry all these fond memories or reading Thoreau in my youth, on the flip side it's kind of horrifying how true how words ring still nearly 150 years after his death. For someone who is so celebrated, it's amazing that the establishment he was so critical of has yet to make very many changes towards the better, despite his popularity.
What's even more unsettling is that Thoreau's message seems so relatable, to think of a person who can read Thoreau, and somehow disagree with him brings to mind an image of a man who longs for enslavement, and that's just silly.
Thoreau's message seems simple enough to me, and has been echoed endlessly through the generations. "the popular thing is not always right likewise the right thing is not always popular." This is a very famous quote by sports announcer Howard Cosell, who said it in defense of Muhammed Ali, who refused to let himself be drafted when the Vietnam War was overtaking America. Whether or not Cosell was the originator of this quote is irrelevant, but what is relevant is the poignancy and the coincidental nature of this quote. Ali risked his fame and his career, to be a conscientious objector to the war, a philosophy that Thoreau makes pretty clear in even the first few paragraphs of "Resistance to Civil Government". I can't say for sure that Ali read or knew of Thoreau, he never made any public statements on the matter, but let's assume for a moment that he didn't The very fact that Ali was a conscientious objector at all is a testament to Thoreau's penetration into culture. Ali wasn't the only one, there were thousands upon thousands of people who risked it all for their beliefs that the draft was wrong, and especially that the invasion of this small south eastern Asian country was wrong. Some of them were bound to have read "Resistance to Civil Government" at some point.
Sadly, since the essay is of such revolutionary nature, here we are 150 years later, and still very little of what Thoreau spoke of in these pages has been taken to heart on a mass scale. Since he is so ingrained into our culture, there are still people out there, who feel compelled to fight the good fight, and keep the dream alive. But will our government, or the governments of the world ever want to make the change? ill the most powerful men in the world suddenly one day decide that the way of the philosopher king is the ideal road to world peace? Only time, and our eternal vigilance will tell.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

"In the world I see, you're stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."

-Tyler Durden

Ralph Waldo Emerson's reverence for the environment is an age old philosophy that predates even Emerson himself. What I really admire about Emerson however is that this very deep awe of the natural is coming from a white man at the forefront of the industrial revolution. In a weird way, I can sense that Ralph understands the needs of the changing world, but refuses to let that stop him from deconstructing it. He shouts at us, amidst the cacophony to remind us all to not forget what and where we come from. This is a sentiment that has been echoed all throughout American pop culture, be it in literature, cinema or even music. Sadly, I'm more familiar with the echoes than I am with the source. I think in high school I may have read "Self Reliance" with faded interest, but it took a read through of "Nature" to open my eyes to this philosophy that some of my favourite fictional characters have been parroting for years.
The most prominent Emerson-esque pop icon I can think of is Tyler Durden, of Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel "Fight Club." In it, Tyler is a nihilistic/neo-luddite/anarchist/primitivist character who envisions a world where our modern trappings and comforts are rendered obsolete. While it's never specifically addressed within the character, it is heavily implied that his philosophy revolves around a return to nature for all of mankind, in a very Emerson-esque style. Unlike Emerson however, Tyler is willing to resort to extreme acts of violence in order to get mankind to that point.
Both Emerson and Durden try to make very clear that the modern world's conventions do more harm to our spirituality than they help improve our lives. Their words take us by the shoulders shaking us violently, trying to shudder us loose from the snares of our new and comfortable lifestyles. They warn us that we are in danger of losing touch with our very souls, if we let the awe and splendor of nature slip through our ever softening fingers.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jacobs, Douglass and Lies My Teacher Told Me

The obvious connection I can make between these three writings is they are all writings having to do with slavery in America, the emancipation and the reconstruction, slavery of course being the central focus. Frederick was a slave who fled to his freedom, and against great adversity managed to learn to read and write the English language. Then, using his latent storytelling skills, was able to tell his story, as a way yo educate the American masses on what life as a slave actually was.
Harriet Jacobs has a similar story, a master storyteller who used her gifts to craft a narrative that simply could not be ignored, and reminded an entire generation why they went to war and fought and died for 5 years. It was a dark and gritty truth, a truth most Americans of the time I'm sure would rather not see.
The writings in Chapter 6 of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" however spans a range of subjects pertaining to the time. The first being unsung national hero John Brown. I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea who John Brown even was before cracking open this volume, which I guess just goes to prove the point that was being made in the chapter. John Brown was one of the earliest recorded examples of a white man resorting to violence for the sake of the freedom of African American Slaves. Despite his courage, he is not a very well known patriot, and even when he is mentioned from within the annals of American History, he either barely touched upon, or painted in a rather unflattering light. Some say he was crazy, or was moved to his violent actions vis-a-vis fanatical religiously inspired hallucinations. Actual history of course will lead one to believe that none of this is true.
The second enlightening article in the chapter deals with the side of President Abraham Lincoln that never gets talked about in history textbooks. I will also shamefully admit that my view of Lincoln is forever changed after reading this book. I never imagined Lincoln as a person who really struggled with his decisions that much. In the context of history, his actions seemed to cut and dry, but to know that he was tortured internally by the remnants of his own racism acquired from his youth, vs. the guilt he felt as a Christian. To be a war president is wrought with its own turmoils without a doubt, but to shoulder this burden on top of it really makes Lincoln out to be more of a person in my eyes, and less of an iconic historical figure. After Lincoln's assassination, the chapter goes on to describe the difficulty the nation had during the reconstruction. Despite the victory of the North and the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, people who helped the newly freed slaves live and function in society did so at great risk.
Knowing of the daily dangers that white people faced during these times only makes me have more respect for Douglass, Jacobs and everyone like them, who literally had to put their lives on the line in order to tell their stories, thus canonizing them in the pages of history. Sadly, the same could not be said for poor John Brown, who not only gave his life for the cause, but was literally the first white man to do so.
In summary, the basic lesson I can take away from these three writings is that it is the job of this generation, blessed with the luxury of hindsight and instant access to information, to make sure these names, and these actions are never forgotten.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Harriet Ann Jacobs

"I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be the half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered slaves in America."

-Harriet Ann Jacobs

"Better to die free than to live in chains"

-timeless quotation

This single passage in and of itself is only sixteen words long, but tells an entire generation's worth of hopes and wishes. It's a difficult concept for me, as a white male living in the modern age to really wrap my head around. The epigraph at the beginning of "Incidents" manages to put this loss for words of mine at a very eloquent explanation. "Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, Slavery; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown". To say it in a more modern tone "You kinda had to be there."
This applies to me, just replace "Northerners" with "anyone who was not a slave". We cannot even go as far as to grasp the profundity of what it means to be a slave. Do we sit at home and ponder the advantages of starvation, and destitution? We cannot, our lives cannot compare to the realty that hundreds of thousands of African Americans lived with in those times. For many of them it was their entire lives, most slaves who lived in that era did not live to see freedom, it gives the term "from the cradle to the grave" an even more frightening connotation.
As if to drive this point even further home, while doing research for this very journal entry, I happened across a yahoo answers page started by an anonymous person, with the simple question "is there anywhere in the world where slavery is still legal?" The asker's motives were pure, they were trying to culminate knowledge, probably for another school project, not unlike myself. The question itself is not the point I'm trying to make, what really stood out to me were the answers the inquiry received. In droves, the cliches piled, angry suburban kids who could only think to compare themselves to slaves, because their parents made them rake the yard, mow the lawn, take out the trash, walk the dogs or do the dishes. The comparison, to me, is staggering. I will concede that yahoo answers is a TERRIBLE place to do any kind of research at all, since it is a website infamous for disinformation, joke answers, and a minefield of the extraordinarily ignorant dregs of internet culture, but my point remains valid. Can these children say the same that Jacobs said? Would they rather live free in poverty, as the poorest and hungriest of street urchins, if it meant they no longer had to live under the tyranny of their parents and household chores? I think the question they should rather be asking themselves is could they survive even a day outside of mom and dad's protection? Randomly stumbling upon this page really kind of opened my eyes to the realness of Jacob's statement, she'd rather starve as a free woman than live another day as a slave.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Frederick Douglass

"The Christianity of America is a Christianity of whose votaries it may be as truly said, as it was of the ancient scribes and Pharisees, " --But woe unto you-- hypocrites! For ye shut up in the kingdom of heaven against men' for ye go in for yourselves""

-Frederick Douglass

"I learned it from watching you, Dad"

-1980's anti-smoking commercial

This is a quote of a quote, actually, but it is in this quote that Douglass lays bare the heart of what he's communicating in this appendix. The surface message is clear enough, Christianity's core values are lost on Christians in America. In Douglass' eyes, there is no greater evidence of that than in America's embracing of slavery. When you boil down Christ's message its most basic components, you are left with something pretty simple, God loves everyone, and therefor, we must love each other in the same way he loves us. Frederick is dead on in pointing out the gigantic conflict that exists in loving one's brother, while you also enslave and abuse hundreds of thousands of them.
The idea of the hypocritical Christian did not start here, and has also been echoed throughout the ages. The rampant success of the religion had already proven that people would do a lot of crazy stuff in the name of faith, including but not limited to killing for, and dying for. In the early days of Catholicism, there were plenary indulgences, the idea that you can buy your way into Heaven. This meant using earthly money to absolve you of your earthly sins, as a bribe to the priests, who supposedly had a more direct line to the Almighty, and who could put in a good word for you, for the right price. Whole wars were fought, lined with soldiers who felt safe charging into battle because they knew they'd be dying for a holy cause, and that their place in Heaven was secure.
This is where the America angle fits in. After all, America started out as nothing but a big European colony, made up of people who lived and died by the corrupt clergy. Using religion as a justification of terrible things like slavery, witch burnings and the subjugation of women seems in this context to merely be a sad, but natural progression. To invoke a tired cliche "We learned it from watching you, Dad."
Frederick recognized it as an American problem, but that doesn't mean it's true for the whole world as well. If we use religion as a means to harm and enslave, we miss out on the whole point. Sadly, this problem did not end with slavery in the United states. To this day, all over the world, there are places where slavery is still rampant, sometimes even tolerated or encouraged. In many cases, it is still sanctioned by religious doctrine. Frederick Douglass helped to strike a major and victorious blow for human rights with his writings, but even he knew that "until all of us are free, none of us are free".

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Get Smart (An Intro)

Hello, and Welcome to "Get Smart", a literature blog by Knave Murdok.
I have begun this blog primarily for school, as a way of getting my assignments to my teacher. However, if I maintain writing this for the whole quarter and find that I dig it, I may well consider keeping it in my update schedule.

From now until the end of the quarter, I'll be writing mostly on the subject of American Literature, since that's the class I'm taking, sadly this limits my writing to only focusing on an author or group of authors for a short amount of time.
My teacher calls this "The Baskin Robbins Approach." 31 Flavours, 31 tiny pink tasting spoons worth of 234 years of writing.
This can be problematic, as well as enlightening.
I can't go on too much on any one author, and I'll be the first to admit that some of the authors I plan on covering really deserve an in depth treatment that I can't afford. However, just having a taste can spark a kind of motivation. If the sample sits right with you, you may be compelled to order yourself a big ol' waffle cone.

That's the aim of the class, and that in turn in also the aim of the blog.