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Le chevalier Calogrenant verse l’eau sur le perron de la fontaine merveilleuse et déclenche la tempête; il se retourne pour affronter le gardien, Esclados le Roux, sorti précipitamment de son château. 1433. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The world of Yvain is no fairytale landscape: in it, princes die before the giant can be vanquished, the right hand man of the good king champions the wrong person, magic ointments come only in limited quantities, heroes need two-week recovery periods before battles, young damsels get sick and risk failing in their quests, and, though demons may be beaten, their masters are allowed to remain at large. That Yvain’s is not the world of the likes of Erec and Enide is hinted at from the very beginning of the romance, though Yvain is not aware of it himself. Chrétien does not choose the shame and failure of one of Arthur’s knights to serve as the action’s catalyst arbitrarily; rather it is the first (and one of the greatest) indicators of the type of world in which this story will take place. In the world of “The Knight with the Lion,” realism comes to the fore in ways which we haven’t encountered elsewhere in Chrétien de Troyes—particularly existential realisms, not simply the sort presented by the plight of the weavers at Dire Adventure.

In this tale, failure is not an abstract concept, but a real possibility. Death lurks ever-present at the story’s edges and the hero, though he is a force of nature, is not superhuman (as perhaps one might argue Erec is in the context of his tale and his world). Yvain, though, does not initially recognize that his world is not of a kind with Erec’s and that he himself is not superhuman. Yvain, as he listens to Calogrenant’s tale, never considers the implications of the fact that Calogrenant was beaten by Esclados; he only registers the opportunity for an adventure and a flexing of his chivalric muscles in publicly avenging his cousin’s shame. Indeed, Yvain is initially characterized by an unflagging belief in his own prowess and capabilities—his own inability to fail—which goes hand in hand with his misunderstanding of his world. It is this belief—this lack of self-knowledge—which renders Yvain’s failure to keep his word to Laudine such a shock to him, sending him spiraling into self-hatred and madness. Yet it is this very madness which proves the vehicle for the rehabilitation and correction of Yvain’s relation to his world as it retrains him in his interaction with the people around him and allows him to rebuild his sense of self. Read More


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Peggy Ann Garner as Jane Eyre in the 1943 film adaptation

Very Short Reflections on Jane Eyre

Almost from the first page of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë raises questions of substance and insubstance, fantasy and reality. Indeed, the distinctions which are drawn between Jane and her first antagonist, John Reed, place the issue of substance squarely at the center of the first chapter as the first body described in the book is not the diminutive one of Jane, but the “large and stout” one of John, whose “thick lineaments. . . heavy limbs and large extremities” (8-9) are overwhelming in their corporality, particularly in opposition to the girl whose presence we only really know through her thoughts to this point in the novel. John Reed is not the only antagonist whose physical presence is the basic fact of his existence; when Jane first meets Mr. Brocklehurst, she apprehends him not as a man, but as a solid, physical—even architectural—presence, a “black pillar. . . [a] sable-clad shape standing erect” whose “grim face was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital” (24). Mr. Brocklehurst’s physicality is even more dominating than John’s, as in subjugates his animacy in its solidity. Jane is, of course, contrasted with these figures in her diminutive stature, which, even as an adult, lends her a waif-like presence.¹ However, these descriptions of intense corporality highlight a more interesting distinction, not between size, but between presence and absence, by throwing into relief Jane’s liminal self-conception, by which she places herself constantly on the border of fantasy and incorporeality.

The first image we receive of her is not actually of herself, but of her reflection in the red room’s looking-glass, so that her physicality is distanced from herself, unlike the physicality of John Reed which constitutes his entire being. Jane sees herself as a “strange little figure” that has “the effect of a real spirit. . . like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented” (12). In this description of her image in her reflection, Jane blends the real and the unreal, bringing the spirits of lore into the real world, giving them substance in herself. She goes in to say that she feels that she is “like nobody there” (13), an interesting phrasing for though she literally means she is unlike the rest of the family, it also conveys a sense of absence, extending the ghostliness she saw in her reflection to her real being in the world where, indeed, she is often treated as if she were not there. Read More

Subordination, the Other, and the Question of the Self in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe


All illustrations N. C. Wyeth

Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe spends much of his time in “imagining” and “representing to [him]self” those imaginings. With not much constraint on his time, daydreaming plays a large part in his daily routine, but it also serves the deeper purpose of helping him to adapt to—and escape from—his circumstances. At first these imaginings are quite recognizable for what they are, but as the text progresses, Crusoe’s imaginings increasingly blur with his self-perceptions and definitions, leading to contradictions in his self-representation. Tracking Crusoe’s own ideas of self-definition and his relation to the island as well as the concept of the other, it becomes clear that central to the problem of his shifting self-representation are the issues of power and subordination, which Crusoe, though largely alone, wrestles with, both in his imagination and without.

From the very first, Crusoe’s relation to the island is one of subjugation. Finding no immediate inhabitants of the island, Crusoe sets about subordinating nature, ordering the space around him to his liking. At first, this imposition of order is purely defensive: Crusoe expends much effort in building a wall “so strong, that neither Man or Beast could get into or over it” (44) fortifying him “from all the World” (45). However this fortification is also a means of  staking a claim: Crusoe, in enclosing his bit of earth, marks it as his own, subjugating it to his own purposes. This first fortification is emblematic of the many enclosures by which he orders his life in his twenty-eight years upon the island, all of which he designs to be impregnable and, with time, invisible.¹ And yet, it is not only through these enclosures that Crusoe figures the subjugation of his environment; his feeling of possession extends beyond the confines of his fences. Read More

 “Unvarnished Truth”: The Blurring of Fiction and Reality in Shirley

At the heart of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley is the means by which a story is told. Though it is not until the last pages that the reader is given any idea of who the narrator is, the narrator is just as much a character in the preceding 480 pages as Caroline or Shirley, constantly passing judgement on the action and the people it involves, and, what’s more, upon her (?) presumed reader. It is through this latter relationship—between the narrator and her reader—that Shirley most often draws attention to itself as an act of storytelling, as the narrator asks the reader to eavesdrop with her or read over a character’s shoulder as he writes, or, more often, accuses her reader of misinterpretation and misjudgment.¹ The first paragraph is scarcely ended when the narrator begins to accuse the reader, shattering the camaraderie established in the opening paragraph’s communal “we” and undercutting the assumptions she assigns to her reader. “If you think,” the second paragraph begins, “that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken” (3) she warns, replacing the unifying “we” with the accusatory and disintegrating “you,” which she repeats eight times in six sentences. And we, as readers, may squirm, uncomfortable with the judgmental role Brontë has assigned us—aware, suddenly, that our interpretive powers are not trusted; that while we are invited in, privileged to knowledge unknown even to characters themselves, we are also held apart as outsiders likely to misjudge and misunderstand. Thus storytelling in Shirley is not merely a collaborative exercise, but one born of conflict and confrontation—not just between the narrator and her imagined reader (and author and real reader), but as that second paragraph makes clear, between fiction and reality.  Read More

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Park La Brea, Corbusier, and Planning the City of the Future

Park La Brea, the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, is one of a great many  high-density housing projects built across the country in the first half of the twentieth century. Located west of downtown Los Angeles, the complex is an assembly of low garden-apartments and thirteen story towers, the latter of which make it something of an anomaly in the low-rise environment of Los Angeles. It and its fellows were the product of half a century of thought regarding the state of the city and the question of how to define its future. The schemes  which birthed it—from Ebenezer Howard’s garden city to Le Corbusier’s City of To-morrow— have been roundly and often justifiably criticized since their inception and even more vociferously from the 50’s onward, when the tracts and projects which had been built in their name began to decline. However, Park La Brea stands out as an instance of one of these projects which did not decline and, furthermore, shows no signs of doing so. Rather, Park La Brea has, in its now more than 75 year history, enjoyed unprecedented success, remaining attractive to Angeleno home buyers (there is always a list to get in) and succeeding in creating a diverse and vibrant community, despite all odds. As such, Park La Brea, anomalous though it may seem, seems to offer something of a vindication of so-often criticized utopian designs of early twentieth century planners, perhaps indicating that at their cores, those utopian plans were not so far off-base. Read More


Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 1.38.39 PMThe Collision of the Miniature and Immense in the Construction of Self

The dining table of the house I grew up in wasn’t a particularly enormous one, but it was big enough that, when it was spread with the far-too-large tablecloth my mother used for Christmas parties, the space enclosed by the walls of heavy fabric was more than enough for a brother and sister to hide away in. Every year, as soon as this tablecloth came out for the Christmas party, my younger brother and I were in and out from underneath it, burrowing under the folds of fabric which pooled on the floor around the table’s edge, sitting in the semi-darkness together or alone, playing at spies or detectives or cavemen or else just existing within the space we felt we’d made—in helping to lay the table cloth—and discovered—in crawling beneath its folds. This was not the only such space we created or appropriated; we made pillow forts and tree-houses (some more successful than others), took over the tiny triangular space behind the winter coats in the closet under the stairs where the ceiling sloped to meet the floor, built huts of fallen palm fronds in recesses of the backyard, and appropriated the little shed that housed the back-up generator at the side of the house in the day or two when it was empty and awaiting an newer model. The two of us, only fifteen months apart, pushed and wormed our way into every nook and cranny we could find and made them ours—despite having our great-grandmother’s little wooden playhouse available to us in the backyard. Many of the memories I have of the house I grew up in (which we left nearly ten years ago) are grounded in images of these places—small, physically enclosed spaces, which were, because we found and created them, ours.

Our engagement with miniature space did not stop at inhabiting any nook we could discover or make, though; both of us  spent hours constructing spaces too small for anyone but fairies or Alice after she’d drunk the shrinking potion. American Bricks, Girder and Panel, Erector, and Lego were staples in our house growing up, but they were more the domain of my brother. My building materials were whatever I could get my hands on, constructing cities and buildings on my bedroom floor from books and dominoes and boxes and blocks and anything else I fancied. In the backyard (or anywhere we went, really), I made houses and huts of twigs and grass, leaves and berries, moss and flowers. Somewhere around the house, there was always bound to be some such construction project underway and I could sit for hours building and staring at my creations, imagining life into them, imagining myself into them. Looking at the photos of myself in the midst of constructing one of these miniature worlds—whether on the floor of my room, in the backyard, or by a lake—I am struck always by the look of concentration on my face and by the size of the thing I am building, which, though logically I know the scale I must have been working with, always surprises me by its smallness in the photograph. For in my imagination then and in the vestiges of my memory now, those cities and buildings were somehow infinitely vast, transgressing their physical boundaries and swallowing me. Read More


The Garden of Eden, Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel (1615)

Understanding Eden through Place, Environment, and Landscape in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Milton dreamed all his life of seeing the Earth from the air. Flight and the imagining of an aerial perspective obsessed him and, as a result, his many descriptions of flight and of what he imagined the world would look like from the air are some of Paradise Lost’s most sublime passages. In flight, Milton saw something daring and rebellious—to dream of it symbolized for him a reaching beyond man’s capacity to something greater in an impossible striving to transcend his own being. When, in Book Five, Eve describes her dream to Adam, it is her feeling of flight and the look of the world below her that sticks with both her and the reader: “Forthwith up to the clouds / With him I flew and underneath beheld / The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide / And various, won’dring at my flight and change / To this high exultation” (5.86-90). Eve cannot quite shake the awe of the feeling of flight, despite Adam’s warning against heeding dreams. So desperately did Milton wish to feel that soaring he imagined, that he configured his lofty ambitions in terms of it, opening Paradise Lost by declaring his intention to write a poem which will “with no middle flight. . . soar / Above the Aonian mount while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.14-16). If Milton cannot soar with the same ease that Satan’s “sail-broad” wings allow, he will content himself with a parallel audacious striving: the writing of this very poem, by which he will simultaneously imitate flight and attempt to understand the world. It is this last which accounts for the extent to which the geography and environment of Paradise Lost are so memorable and sublime. As John Stilgoe notes in his What is Landscape?, the aerial view obsessed people curious about the would around them for centuries before it became possible for that view to be achieved, let alone for it to become achievable for the average person. Milton was just such one of those people. Had he been a young man in 1897, I do not doubt Century Magazine’s articles on how to send a camera aloft on a kite and how to build a kite which would lift a person would have found an eager reader in him (What is Landscape?, 23). In lieu of these exploits, Milton performs his exploration of place, environment, and landscape imaginatively in the creation of a poem in which place and environment are crucial at every stage, often playing roles in and of themselves.

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Satan Descends upon Earth, Gustave Doré (1866)

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