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Literature

Bien qu’il puisse paraître que la société que Diderot décrit dans le Supplement au voyage de Bougainville est une sorte d’utopie—un endroit idyllique où règnent la liberté et l’égalité—en réalité, ce que Diderot fait dans le Supplement est de présenter seulement l’image d’une utopie et ensuite de montrer que ce “paradis” a autant de problèmes que la société il est supposé de s’opposer.

Sur la surface, le Tahiti est décrit comme quelque part qui approche l’état parfait de Rousseau: l’age d’or au début d’histoire d’homme. En Tahiti, il n’y a pas des lois arbitraires et contre la nature. Tous les gens peuvent faire ce qu’ils veulent. Les Tahitiens, dans les mots du vieillard, sont “innocents… heureux” et ils “suiv[ent] le pur instinct de la nature” (148). “[En Tahiti]” il continue, “tout est à tous.” Si on prend ces déclarations comme la vérité, le cas est simple: le Tahiti est une vestige de l’état dont parle Rousseau. Il est libre, juste, et aligné avec la nature. Et il fournit un point de contraste concrète avec la société Européenne qui est corrompu à cause des forces de la civilisation. Mais, en fait, le projet de Diderot et plus compliqué que ça: son Tahiti n’est pas une utopie, mais une société qui est aussi convaincu de sa supériorité que celle de Bougainville et l’aumonier. Read More

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An illustration of an 1898 Pericles-themed Mardi Gras float

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a play deeply concerned with the question of the construction of identity, a question played out in the journey of its titular character from naïve prince to wise, happy, and complete King of Tyre, a father both privately and publicly. The text takes Pericles through every possible role available to a game young (and later, old) man of the ancient world— would-be suitor gives way to fugitive, to mere man and tennis ball of the winds, to successful anonymous knight, gentleman, husband, father, and suffering ascetic—only to unite them all in its last act. Each of these stages is marked by changes to Pericles’ outward appearance, often achieved through differences in costume, pointing to a connection between apparel, appearance, and identity. This connection, though, is complicated by the fraught relation of other characters in the play to their apparel and appearances, prompting a deeper interrogation of the role Pericles’ own apparel plays in his identity. Of Pericles’ various guises in the play, by far the most memorable and the most significant is the rusty armor which he dons to win fame and approval at the court of Simonides in Act II. This armor, in its mediation of Pericles’ relation to time and to his family as well as in its fragmented origin and construction, is both a central element of Pericles’ construction of his own identity and a symbol for the play’s conception of identity as  composed of interwoven fragments. Read More

Mary Wollstonecraft et son Divorce de la Féminité dans sa Défense des droits de la femme

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Mary Wollstonecraft, John Opie, c. 1797

Wollstonecraft commence sa Défense en disant que son propre sexe (“my own sex” 31) “will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in it a perpetual state of childhood, unable to stand alone” (31). Cette citation introduit un problème qui persiste tout au long du texte: la question de nous et eux, le problème de la localisation de Wollstonecraft elle-même dans son texte. “My own sex” ne vient pas avec “them”; “them” implique qu’on parle de l’autre, mais “my own sex” unit le sujet avec l’autre. On a une contradiction dans la coeur du texte qui pourrait fausser l’argument.

Dans son introduction, Wollstonecraft parle de nous—“men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment” (30, accentuation la mienne)—se présentant comme un membre d’un groupe qui est plus large qu’elle: les femmes, un front de solidarité. Mais cette utilisation de nous, de “us”, commence à disparaître après le début*—au moins dans le contexte de “nous, les femmes” (elle l’utilise parfois comme “nous, mon lecteur et moi”—un “nous” sans identité réelle ou fixe et particulièrement sans gendre)—d’être remplacer par “eux”: les hommes essaient toujours de “keep them in a state of childhood” (46, accentuation la mienne). Ce mot “them” introduit une division entre Wollstonecraft et son sexe qui est problématique parce qu’il permet Wollstonecraft d’être condescendante à l’égard des femmes et aussi parce qu’il implique qu’elle ne s’adresse pas aux femmes, en dépit de l’introduction (en fait, à la fin, elle s’adresse directement aux hommes). En parlant de la situation et les manières des femmes sans instruction elle est en accord avec les satiristes comme Jonathan Swift dans leurs critiques des femmes, mais elle place le blâme—elle dit—pas sur les femmes elle-mêmes, mais sur les hommes, la société: elle dit que c’est naturel pour les femmes de mettre “their hands to each others lappets and ruffles” (dans les mots de Swift) tandis que les hommes parlent de la politique parce qu’elles “have not any business to interest them, have not a taste for literature, and they find politics dry, because they have not acquired a love for mankind by turning their thoughts to the grand pursuits that exalt the human race, and promote general happiness” (219). C’est vrai que dans la figuration de son argument, cette situation vient d’oppression des hommes, mais sa formulation est intéressant: elle laisse l’action aux femmes. Elles ne sont pas empêchés de faire quelque chose; elles ne l’ont pas fait. Peut-être (probablement) sans le reconnaît, Wollstonecraft attaque les femmes pour les mêmes choses qu’elle insiste sont les produits de la société et l’oppression des hommes. Son ton, qui est souvent condescendant vers les femmes, implique une frustration avec les femmes qui restent ignorantes, qui ne se luttent pas contre leur circonstances, les femmes, en bref, qui ne sont pas comme elle-même. Voilà l’origine de la division entre eux et nous: quand elle parle de l’assujettissement des femmes par les hommes, elle s’inclure (“I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions which enslave my sex” (62)), mais quand elle parle de la situation courante des femmes, elle se sépare (la répétition continue de “they” et “them”) parce qu’elle se considère comme une évadée réussie, qui a pris la décision d’échapper ses circonstances et faire ce qu’elle peut avec ce qu’elle a. Dans sa formulation précédente, elle a fait le choix de tourner ses pensées vers les “grand pursuits”—une idée qui rappelle la liberté positive de Berlin.**

Au vu de cette division entre elle (consciente de l’oppression des femmes dans la société et engagée en luttant contre cette oppression) et les autres femmes (qui sont ignorantes), peut-être on peut voir son projet moins comme une vindication des droits des femmes et plutôt comme une vindication des droits des humains (distinct des hommes). Cette idée revient au fait que j’ai mentionné avant, qu’elle utilise un “us” et un “we” qui manquent un gendre distinct pour l’expression de ses vus en écriture, comme si elle veut se divorcer de sa féminité. Wollstonecraft développe une conception de gendre comme la chose qui conduit les problèmes dont elle parle. Ce n’est pas les hommes qui sont le problème, mais les conceptions qu’ils ont créé de la femme et de l’homme. Wollstonecraft écrit que “[the] desire of being always woman, is the very consciousness which degrades the sex” (126). C’est à dire que les femmes sont opprimées par la connaissance du fait qu’elles sont des femmes et par l’idée qu’elles doivent êtres toujours “la femme”—elles ne doivent jamais “forget their sex in company, for they are for ever trying to make themselves agreeable” (219). Qu’est ce qu’on doit faire, alors? Oublier notre sexe! L’idée de Wollstonecraft est de vraiment “obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex” (31, accentuation la mienne).

*Ce n’est pas à dire qu’elle n’utilise pas “us” pour signifier “nous, les femmes” après le début, mais que cette formulation est beaucoup moins fréquente que celle d’“eux.”

**Je ne suis pas satisfaite que cette explication est assez pour résoudre le conflict entre “us” and “them” et le problème de son ton condescendant. Elle explique d’où il vient, mais elle ne le justifie. J’ai quelque chose approchante une idée qu’il y a une scission de Wollstonecraft dans le texte et quand elle attaque “les femmes” comme un groupe elle attaque elle-même aussi, ou une partie d’elle-même, mais j’ai pas un vrai argument.

1.

I met a man in the street today whose collar was turned up even though there was no wind. I did not nod to him, but pushed my left index finger through the hole in my left coat pocket and kept walking.

I think that’s all.

2.

Most people are good people until they are given the opportunity to go bad. This reminds me of an aunt who died last year alone in her apartment. They only noticed because the neighbors complained of the smell. The aunt had rotted because she had been given the opportunity.

3.

When not speaking, keep your mouth shut.

4.

“Lyuba!” cried the undertaker.

“Elena!” cried the baker.

“Kchkch!” cried Irina, raising the doorknob.

Behind the fence Serge drank the goat’s milk and listened to the thwacking.

April 18, 2017

5.

Matvei ate peas from a spoon.

The children’s grandmother peeked out from behind the curtains.

The goat in the garden bleated.

The sun went down.

Andrei waited in the dark.

Mice squeaked and Arseni died. Read More

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Red Cavalry, Kazimir Malévichy, 1930

History, in its ceaseless forward movement, is something of a juggernaut, crushing beneath it everything and everyone in its path, indiscriminate and impersonal, an anonymizing machine antithetical to the individual experience. In times of war and strife, of mass suffering, the juggernaut’s path widens; hundreds, thousands, millions are swept under its wheels, crushed and forgotten. Individuals are rendered nothing more than numbers in tallies of the dead. In the face of such a relentless machine, the individual seems no more than an ant (or, as we shall see, a larch in a gale) and yet, throughout history and in the face of it, individuals have survived the juggernaut’s anonymizing power, constructing themselves to withstand its force. Not all of these are heroes; many are ordinary men, such as the narrators of Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose” and Varlam Shalamov’s “The Snake Charmer”—stories which, though set in different periods and contexts, both treat the confrontation between the individual and history. Set amid the Polish- Soviet war, Babel’s story treats the choices and actions of a young soldier trying to balance his individuality with his yearning for the group identity of his division. Shalamov’s “The Snake Charmer,” on the other hand, takes place in the gulag and deals with the preservation of the individual in the face of the mass death in Kolyma. Unlike Babel, Shalamov defines the individual not through self-constructing choices or actions, but with the cultivation of a particular forward orientation towards life and time, and it is this temporal distinction—actions in the present versus orientation towards the future—that comes to define the ways in which these two authors conceive of the individual in the face of history. Read More

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From the British Library’s MS Cotton Nero A.x folio of The Pearl.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes as its subject the struggle between temptation and virtue. In the tale, Sir Gawain’s adherence to his values and to the code of chivalry is repeatedly tested and, in the end, he emerges a veritable paragon of knightly virtue—despite having succumbed briefly to temptation. As such, the text can be read as a celebration of the triumph of the chivalric code and the society it defines, presenting Gawain’s story as a quasi-parable about the importance of adhering to the values of chivalry.

In the tale, the Gawain Poet presents the reader with a Gawain “as good as the purest gold” (633), a paragon of chivalry and prowess, whose virtue and purity are symbolized both in his connection to the Virgin Mary and in his association with the “endless knot” (630) of the pentangle, which represents his unending, infallible allegiance to the five main tenets of chivalry: friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and courtesy. Gawain himself is thus a symbol of all that aristocratic culture values and aspires to be. Thus, it appears that when he succumbs to temptation in accepting the lady’s girdle, not only has Gawain failed, but the code and culture he represents have as well. But the tale does not end here; rather Bertilak as the Green Knight teaches Gawain to see his fault and seek to repair it. “I am found to be flawed and false, / through treachery and untruth I have totally failed” (2382-3) laments Gawain, immediately resolving to “bear the blame” (2386) and determining to wear the girdle evermore as a “symbol of sin” (2506) and a reminder to himself never to forsake the code of chivalry and succumb to the temptations of “cowardice and covetousness” (2508). He returns to Camelot a man chastened and matured, ready to impart his lesson to his fellow knights, thus saving them from falling prey to the same errors he did. Gawain is absolved of his sin in the acknowledgement of it and in his lesson to his fellows—a lesson they heed and decide to honor through the adoption of bright green belts as reminders of their duty forever after. And thus order is restored and chivalry and the courtly culture which values it have triumphed. Read More

In his Art as Technique, Viktor Shklovsky argues that the function of poetic language is “not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object” (Shklovsky 18), an impeded perception, which forces us to linger on the object and see it as it actually is, not as we expect it to be through years of automatic recognition. For art to be art it must teach us to see, often by making the familiar unfamiliar, allowing us to see it for what it is. In the short story “A Family Journey,” Teffi impedes the reader’s perception so that the reader might see that, despite appearances, what lurks under the surface of this apparent family comedy is a family tragedy. However, while she employs modes of defamiliarization to achieve this slowing, they are not identical to those Shklovsky discusses. While Shklovsky emphasizes the presentation of the world through unfamiliar eyes—the eyes of a child to whom everything is new and wondrous, Teffi does almost the exact opposite, presenting her world through the eyes of a canny narrator, who, rather than making the ordinary seem extraordinary, renders the extraordinary—the absurd, the tragic—ordinary. Thus, the absurd and tragic are defamiliarized to the reader because, initially, they read as nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. In this process, it is the purposeful hastening of the reader as the narrator passes by certain moments in the narrative which causes impeded perception and slowing as the reader is forced to pause and reread with a more careful eye. To borrow Shlovsky’s metaphor of the stone, rather than making the stone stony by directing the reader’s attention to its various components, Teffi passes over the stone speedily, forcing the reader to look harder at the stone by her assurances that it is not, in fact, a stone at all. Read More