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.