Friday, 20 June 2014

You're alright, Dr Freud.

There are few people whom I truly hate. Of course, there's the obligatory hatreds that any sound-minded and clean-souled person harbors and cherishes, like hating Hitler or Henry the Eighth. There's those little personal childhood hatreds that, as an adult, you know you should be able to let go but simply can't (like that girl in my year nine class who told everyone that I had skeleton legs). But there's someone who, for three years, I hated with a passion that was unrivaled and seemingly unprovoked. That person is Sigmund Freud. While I understand that this sounds somewhat unhinged, I do have a good(ish) reason for it.

Along with my English degree, for three years I slaved away at a double major in Psychology; something which came at the expense of my mental health and well-being. While the irony of this was not lost on me, it was not until I burst into tears at my computer in a stats lab that I realised that I should stop fighting the fact that Science and I would never be great lovers. We had a good run, and my academic record is certainly better off for my ill-advised liaison with Science, but our relationship was always doomed to be short, passionate and painful – and like all such break-ups, I am a much happier person for this decision.

Like most students, I pay for my Two-Minute Noodles and file paper by working in customer service. My job in a little local news-agency is, in many ways, lovely. For one thing, we can have hours at a time with no customers, during which time I get to sit on the 1950s stool behind the counter and read my book. The downside, however, is the fact that I have to interact with the – urgh – public. I live in an area that is populated almost exclusively by students and very, very old people. Serving Oldies can often be delightful. I have one sweet old man who tells me every day that he is “all the better for seeing you, my dear.” I have a sweet old girl who cackles like the Witch of the Waste every time she wins two dollars on her lotto ticket. But I also have a lot of Oldies who ask me (up to four or five times a week) what I'm studying. And I found that almost invariably when I answered psychology, the response was “You're not going to psychoanalyse me, are you??” accompanied by a flinch and step backwards. Of course, there were other responses. I was told once that I was making a great choice because it would mean that what I would end up doing was “sitting on my arse all day, doing nothing.” This was accompanied by a tone and expression of deepest disgust. One regular once asked me incredulously, “What are you going to do with that?” When I responded “be a psychologist,” he snorted, raised his eye-brows and left. However, it is the assumption that psychology consists of Freudian, sex-crazed nutters sitting next to a futon and demanding you “tell me about your muzzer” that I most object to. And this is what Freud gave to psychology. And, while, yes, I know he provided the basis for other, important and – oh, what's the word? That's right – accurate research, pretty much every particular he said in his life about the human mind was WRONG. And yet he is the man that ninety-five percent of the world think of when they think of psychology. And I hate him for that.

This semester, however, I did a unit on literary theory – and one of our topics was Psychoanalytic Reading Theory. When I first saw this on the lecture list, I was incensed. I had a long rant at my friend, in which I think I said; “ Fraud – I mean, Freud – should not be legitimised in any discipline! He needs to be wiped from academia, or he'll never loose his poignancy in psychology, where he dose most harm! I HATE him!” To which she responded that she could tell that, and that I should get over it. Which was pretty fair advice. However, it turned out that I was quite wrong.

Psychoanalytic reading theory is actually an interesting and very useful technique for approaching literature. While there are too many critics who go straight for the psychobiographical reading (for example: oh, Heathcliffe has some ikkey necrophilial tenancies going on. That must be a symptom of Emily Bronte's repressed necrophilia), there is also a school of thought that suggests that what you find in a text is an expression of the unconscious of the text itself. While this sounds a bit wakky at first, it has some interesting reasoning behind. Firstly, the idea of making an assumption about an author's mind based on their art is, obviously, ridiculous. We can never assume to know how something got into text: did they put it there on purpose? Did it get there by accident? Or – are we reading something into the text that the author didn't put there deliberately or otherwise? Thus, making these assumptions is never legitimate. Secondly, the idea of attributing things to a character's unconscious is also not legitimate. This is because, in making this attribution, you are assuming the characters themselves to be real – and, therefore, to have an unconscious that it entirely independent and separate from that of the reader. This is also pretty clearly quite silly.

So when we attribute everything we find in a text to the unconscious of the author or of the characters, we are ignoring the fact that our own mind is actively involved in the creation of meaning in a text. But when we give credit to the unconscious of the text itself, this allows for the fact that, as readers, we have an important role in the construction of the meaning we find when we read. This means that the unconscious of the text is something constructed by the reader from a combination of what he finds in the text and what he find in his own head. As Elizabeth Wright puts it, “it is not only the author who is in transference to his medium, who has unconsciously invested it with his fantasies; [your] reading is equally subjective” (in Psychoanalytic Reading Theory; 2013, pg 40). 

I love and respect this idea of creating meaning from only what you yourself find in the words on the page. It reminds me that reading is a creative act: it is an act of conception, edifice and invention. And notice that it has nothing at all to do with sex.

What do you know, Sigmund? Looks like you told me something about myself after all.

Monday, 28 April 2014

In defense of Anglophilia

It came to my attention some years ago that I am something of an Anglophile. English culture, English history, English countryside and, most of all, English Literature compel and enchant me. My life in Australia has, no doubt, a lot to do with this obsession. Even though my childhood here has connected me more firmly to a wild natural beauty than I could ever have been to the serene and gentle English countryside, I have always longed for the immense and charted history embedded in the soil of that dreary little isle. Oh! to wander on the moors with Kathy and take a turn in that prettyish kind of little wilderness with Lizzy. It's little wonder that the Romantic poets and their obsession with the Picturesque hold such a fascination for me. 

I came across something in Donna Tartt's The Secret History that summed up my experience very neatly. When choosing Hampden College, Richard admits that
"even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of the little mission towns."
Is this, then, something experienced by all those in love with English literature but stranded in the colonies? There is something about the literature of a place that imbues the land with an alluring magic that calls to people across the sea. Perhaps the enchantment is a two way process. Perhaps the magic of the land leaks into those who brood upon it. If Keats were living in Arizona, do you think he would have written La Belle Dame sans Merci?:
"I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy's child; 
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild."
But when Keats wrote this, some of that enchantment went back into the land that inspired it.  Every piece of writing about England adds to the magic of the place. Hey, I'm not saying other places aren't great too. I'm just saying that there's a special magic about that.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

A tirade against the love of Jane Eyre

Today Charlotte Brontë is one-hundred and ninety-eight. It seems, therefore, a fitting day to have a little rant about what I think is wrong with her most famous work. Jane Eyre is almost universally upheld as a romance that is both timeless and beautiful. But this is something that I just can't understand. I read Jane Eyre for the first time only recently, and was thoroughly disappointed to find that neither the story nor the characters captivated me. I felt no emotional investment in Jane's personality or plight. She is to my mind one of the most self-indulgent and unsympathetic characters in fiction. The story of her "romance" with Mr Rochester is neither beautiful nor timeless, and here's why.
Firstly, Jane and Mr Rochester are both selfish and inconsiderate characters who do not have the decency to admit to this. To compare them to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights: yes Kathy and Heathcliff and selfish, malicious and cruel, but at least they're upfront about it. Jeez. Have some integrity. But more importantly, their love has the ability to transcend all: true, they may do a fine job of making everyone around them miserable, but it is all motivated by a love that remains passionate and engulfing for their entire lives. In Jane Eyre, however, the opposite is true. Each lover stands on their pride and false virtue to the detriment of the other. Mr Rochester tortures Jane through his attentions to Miss Ingram. Jane runs away from Mr Rochester without a backward glance, purely to save her own over-prized virtue. How is that selfless love transcending all? How is that beautiful?
Secondly, they rejoice in the death of an innocent.Yes, Bertha Rochester was completely yoyo, but is that really any reason to be quite so happy she's dead? And while it is true that she clearly didn't have an excellent quality of life, and her death was the only way that Jane and Mr Rochester could ever be together, no-one could claim that this sentiment was either beautiful OR timeless. Oh, hang on, silly me, mentally ill wives are kept in attics as an act of mercy ALL THE TIME is contemporary England.
Thirdly, the ending is at best bleak. Jane's great prize is that she gets to be the carer of a mostly-limbless man twenty years her senior who tried to marry her while he had a mad wife locked in the attic who wanted her dead. Ok, I get the idea that he loved her so much that he was willing to endure all that he did, and that she loved him so much that she didn't care about his injuries and being bound to him for life with no independence. But this is not a beautiful or a timeless ending. Jane is forever tied to a man who never treated
her with respect or considered her as an autonomous being. She is isolated in the middle of nowhere (or as much as you can be in the middle of nowhere in a country the size of a pea), caring for a man that she is
Jane Eyre
completely dependent on AGAIN. Not to be cynical or anything, but do we really realistically think that her long-term happiness lies in that direction? Sorry, Jane. That one's a bloomer. An ending like this in contemporary literature would be immediately pin-pointed as about as anti-feminist as you can get without openly declaring that women are objects to be possessed and utilised by men. Oh, my bad, this ending actually does that.
So all in all, while Jane Eyre may be a beautifully written product of its time, to me it will never be a great love story. Unlike her sister's beautiful and wonderfully Gothic Romance, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre will always seem dull, bleak and anchored in its own time. Sorry, Charlotte. I know it's your birthday.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


What is it about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that has sparked so many fundamentally terrible spin-offs? It's something that vexes me to no end. Every time a new piece of distorted rubbish is released onto the silver screen, I cringe with shame for poor, poor, misrepresented Mary Shelley.

Frankenstein: or a Modern Prometheus is a complex, engaging and intriguing classic Gothic story that poses questions about morality, humanity and sexuality. It's the story of the naive and egotistical Victor Frankenstein, in his quest for scientific (and arguably sexual) supremacy - and the consequences of this quest. Victor slaves to create a new living race from dead matter - but upon the animation of his prototype, spurns and abandons it in disgust of its physical features. Lost and completely alone, the Creature wanders through the human world, searching for companionship. He is spurned everywhere for his gruesome and macabre appearance - and there's only so many flaming bricks you can have lobbed at you before you stop being so sunny in your outlook. Spurning his creators' race as they spurn him, the Creature asks Victor to create for him a companion. Frankenstein refuses, and in his fury the Creature begins an unstoppable quest to murder all those that Victor loves. Eventually, creator and Creature chase each other into the arms of death in the frozen North. 

The element of this story that is most strikingly misrepresented in popular culture is the nature of the Creature. He's not a monster. He's just not. He's a child, brought into this world by an incapable parent with wildly inappropriate motives. Victor unceremoniously abandons an innocent creature of his own making purely because it's not pretty enough. Shelley's opinion of this is made clear in the Paradise Lost quote that she placed on the title page:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Argh! Victor! You are just a terrible person!

As to Victor's motives, no matter how you look at it, they're egotistical. He's desperate to play God to an entire race: "how many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me!" he exclaims as he stitches bits of his creature onto other bits. That he then goes on to think of how "no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should claim theirs" is very telling. To put it simply, Victor is sexually insecure. He's not only anxious about the actual act, but also deeply threatened by the power the exists in female sexuality: the power to create life. So much so that he finds a way to by-pass using, um, a WOMAN to reproduce. He reproduces all by himself. Eww. Seriously. That's just desperate. 

This fear is pretty obvious in the Creature's threat that he will "be with him on his wedding night." This threat instills in Victor a mortal dread of the time when he would otherwise be consummating his marriage. So when the time actually comes for Victor to go upstairs with Elizabeth and confront his fear of her lady parts, he sends her to bed - and then paces around anxiously downstairs with a gun (ahem, phallic). 

But in my love of ranting about Victor Frankenstein I seem to have digressed. My point is this: it's a complex and interesting novel with nuances and themes that you wouldn't necessarily expect. But, somehow, popular culture has transformed that into this:
How did that happen?? And, seriously, where did the green come from? Green is only mentioned seven times in the novel, and every time it's in reference to either foliage or GREENLAND (I know, I looked it up on Project Gutenberg). So seriously, what happened to completely savage Victor Frankenstein and his Creature in the minds of millions?

It seems that this distortion's genesis lies in the first film adaption, written by J. Searle Dawley and released in 1910. In this nineteen minute (very free) adaption, the Creature is like a loyal, if revolting dog, following Frankenstein and jealously despising anyone loved by him. Bizarrely, all Victor has to do to get rid of his creation in this version is, um, fill his heart with love. Then the Creature literally disappears before his eyes. Sorry, but WHAT? Ridiculous as this is, it does pinpoint the origin of the Creature becoming represented as the villain. I mean, he must be evil, right, because he's magically expunged by love. Barf.

 It was Universal Studios' 1931 version, however, that really put the last nail in the coffin for Shelley's Creature and birthed the square-headed, bolt-necked, green-skinned, criminal-minded villainous monstrosity that reigns today. There is literally nothing accurate about this version, and yet it's the one that lives on. They didn't even get Frankenstein's name right. Henry Frankenstein? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?

So, we've traced green-block-head to his source, but that doesn't answer the question of WHY? Why take an interesting and compelling story and turn it into something trite and simplistic (and WRONG)? I can only conclude that it's because it's just easier. It's so much easier to turn a Gothic Romance that questions morality and sexuality into a straight-up horror. It's so much simpler to just know that the human is a Goodie and the other thing is a Baddie. And that sucks.

It's true that not all adaptions and distortions of Frankenstein are terrible. I won't deny that I loved Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. But the thing is that this particular adaption/spin-off really has nothing to do with Shelley's masterpiece. Quite apart from the fact that Sparky is a cute and beloved puppy as appose to a abandoned and hideous giant uber-human, he is simply reanimated, as oppose to assembled out of bits of dead human and animal.

There is, however, hope for Shelley's creation, although it comes in the disguise of (surprise surprise) another really terrible movie. I haven't seen it (nor do I intend to), but Stuart Beattie's I, Frankenstein is, by all accounts, vomit in film-form. I've read the plot summary on Wikipedia, and it sounds like that's a pretty accurate description. But there's something different about this one, and it's important: the Creature is not the villain. No, actually, he's here to protect humanity. Ok, it's nothing to do with A Modern Prometheus, but it's a start. And at least he's not green.

PS - In this post I mentioned Project Gutenberg. If you haven't checked it out, you should: pretty much every piece of literature in public domain is on there for you to either read online or download for you Kindle for free

Monday, 14 April 2014

Gosh, you've got nice legs!

I first discovered the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh when I did a unit on "Shakespeare and His Contemporaries" in my second year of uni. His poetry has a beautiful and haunting melancholy in its words that has moved me to tears. He seemed to have an outlook more bleak and hopeless than many of his contemporaries, something which (if we trust his poetic voice) can be attributed mainly to his despair in the world he observed. Raleigh lived in an age when society was pushed back and forth between religions on pain of death. This caused some of the more pensive to reflect on the nature of those who trifled with something which was supposed to be sacred and personal. As the Norton Anthology of English Literature puts it, 
"In the space of a single lifetime, England had gone officially from Roman Catholicism, to Catholicism under the supreme headship of the English king, to guarded Protestantism, to a more radical Protestantism, to a renewed and aggressive Roman Catholicism, and finally to Protestantism again. Each of these shifts was accompanied by danger, persecution, and death. It was enough to make people wary. Or skeptical. Or extremely agile."
Raleigh chose skepticism. Not of his god, but rather of the value of the material world. He saw death as the only hope and the only truism in the world: "Only we die in earnest - that's no jest." Raleigh penned his own epitaph while imprisoned in the tower of London, awaiting his death. To me, it is one of the most beautiful things ever written:
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of out days:
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.
Now, I'm not a decidedly religious person, but I definitely want this read at my funeral. Raleigh was painfully aware of the transience of this world and constantly peering though the clouds into the next one. Of course, for someone who thought that the grave would shut up the story of his days, he left an incredible legacy.

Around about now, you might be looking at the title of the post and wondering if I'm even more confused than your average book nerd. Well, here's the thing: long before I encountered the melancholy Sir Walter Raleigh of his poetry, I met another version. The first Sir Walter Raleigh that I met stood immovably in my mind and stubbornly refused to be evicted by his brooding original. I grew up on (slightly inappropriate) BBC comedy: Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones....and Blackadder. Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's series contained a Sir Walter Raleigh whose idea of the story of "The Time I Fell Into The Water And Was Almost Eaten By A Hammerhead Shark" was: "I fell into the water, and I was almost eaten by a shark! And the funny thing was, its head was exactly the same shape as a hammer!" Even now, as I read Raleigh's words, "Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies, A mortal foe and enemy to rest," the picture in my mind is of Miranda Richardsons' Queenie simpering at his knees and interjecting, "oh, my bedroom's just upstairs you know!" I just can't shake him.

There were of course, similarities between these two Raleighs who wrestle for supremacy in my imagination. For one thing, he did introduce the humble potato to Ireland, and he was a very great favorite with Queen Elizabeth - a circumstance that has sparked much historical speculation about whether he ever actually discovered if her bedroom really was just upstairs. He also fell out of favor with Elizabeth in later years; although it wasn't because she was "completely bored with explorers", but rather because he seduced and married one of her ladies-in-waiting: about the most dangerous thing you could possibly do in Elizabethan England. However, there were also great differences: the most obvious being that, while Queenie's Raleigh was a bumbling, pompous moron, Queen Elizabeth's Raleigh was brilliant and successful, not only in composition, but also as a soldier, scientist, historian, courtier, philosopher and, of course, colonist and explorer of the new and unknown world.

There is, however, one historical quirk that seems fit for the Raleigh of Richard Curtis, and yet belongs to the troubled Raleigh of whose legs we have no particular record. After his death, Raleigh's head was embalmed and given to his wife. She kept it with her at all times for the remaining TWENTY-SIX YEARS of her life. It was then given to their son, who held onto it until he, too, died in 1666. It then finally came to rest in the earth and dust, forty-eight years after the rest of him. That's too ridiculous for even Mr Curtis to come up with.

If you would like to read any more of Sir Walter Raleigh's poetry, there's a good selection at:
Otherwise, I strongly suggest you meet his incarnation in episode 3 of Blackadder II.

Friday, 11 April 2014

So much bigger on the inside.

For my first post on OtherWords, I wanted to write something about the books and words that make my life big and exciting and familiar and foreign. There's a John Green quote that I've always loved and which pretty much sums it up. In The Fault in Our Stars, he wrote many things that made me think that he was writing that book just for me. But there was one particular moment that made me cry with the truth of it:
"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are some books ... which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal." 
When I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars, I went straight onto John Green's website and left and very creepy and stalker-like message in which I confessed that I wanted to tell him everything about myself because I felt like he already knew. I also knew that I had found a book that demonstrated its own point to perfection and illustrated everything that is powerful and and brilliant about writing. It's a book that I simultaneously wanted to recommend to everyone I'd ever met as perfection between electric blue covers, and at the same time never EVER wanted anyone to ever read ever again because it was just mine. So my point is this: writing and narrative is resplendent in its magnificent complexity. It's the TARDIS of art forms: small and unassuming on the outside (what looks magnificent about a closed penguin paperback?) and infinite in size, possibility and depth on the inside (seriously though, what is UP is Hamlet's head? Four-hundred years later, and NOBODY KNOWS). So that's why I read, and that's why I want to write.