Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Reflecting on the Human

by   |  11.26.09  |  221-Restoration/18th Century

    Much of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s Travels comes from a captain’s log describing a foreign land to his countrymen or describing his own country to a foreigner. Either way we as readers are forced to view ourselves from a different perspective. In Book 2 after hearing a relation of the “State of Europe” with its senators, soldiers, priests, lawyers, and judges, the 70 foot king of Brobdingnag can only look down on Gulliver and his countrymen, dismissing them as a “pernicious race of little odious vermin” much like the Lilliputians in Book 1.

    Gene Rodenberry must surely have read Swift since similar descriptions or critiques occasionally appear in episodes of Star Trek. Whenever Kirk or Picard attempt to explain some typically human behavior to a Vulcan, an android, or an alien ambassador, the audience is forced briefly to reconsider its own view of the world.

    The heirs of Gene Rodenberry have occasionally used the human body to consider the essential features of humanity. Each series has provided rational foils like the Vulcan Spock or the android Data as mirrors through which to reflect the most basic elements of a human being: body and mind, passion and reason. In the following clip from Star Trek: Voyager, Lieutenant Torres has been sent to repair an alien ship inhabited only by a pathological hologram who may have disposed of the ship’s human crew.

    Star Trek, Revulsion clip

    Though many of the political and social targets of Book 4 have been treated earlier in the novel, one subject new to Book 4 is the satire of the human body. In passages like those in chapters 5 and 6, the Houyhnhnms provide an ironic study of the human form which focuses not on its beauty but on its deficiencies. What does Swift have to say about this “biological cage of flesh and bone and blood”?

Gulliver’s Trek Exercise

    Since, if Swift had lived in our own time, he surely would have sent Gulliver traveling through space, boldly going where no yahoo had gone before, choose some aspect of life in our country or on our planet that an alien observer would find amusing or repulsive (possibilities might include love, democracy, social clubs, church, movies, weapons of mass destruction, or kissing).

    Before moving on, write a 1 or 2 paragraph description of a topic taken from politics, religion, or society for some member of a more civilized culture and bring your work to class.

    I’ve included two imaginative examples from past students below, but feel free to take your own post into uncharted territory.

    We Call It “Democracy” – Student Example

    On Matters of Transportation – Student Example

Rescuing the Human

    Scott Derrickson’s 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still offers a recent revision of the alien visitor motif. The hyper-reasonable Klaatu has come to save the earth from the human race. These scenes share several parallels with the judgments of the representatives of pure reason in Gulliver’s Travels though they add a clear acknowledgement of humanity’s dual nature, as the greatest threat and hope of the future.

    Judgment Day clip

News of the Triangular Trade

by   |  11.12.09  |  221-Restoration/18th Century

    After reading the intimate meditations of Donne and Herbert or the introspective sonnets of Milton and Shakespeare, the first impression for readers of Behn’s Oroonoko is the striking scale of her novel. Not content to introduce a single setting or domestic love story, she stretches her canvas to include two continents and characters from three very different worlds.

    Joanna Lipking has speculated on the seventeenth-century vogue for travel writing from the New World in her introduction to Oroonoko:

      Early travelers to the Americas described lands that seemed to recover the first age of the world, the golden or innocent time of both classical and biblical tradition. . . . For those at home, the discoveries brought travels of mind: catalogs of the plant life and strange animals, collections of natural specimens and artifacts, a stage fashion for New World pageantry. (Norton Critical Edition 75)

    Behn’s novel comes after a long career as a popular playwright for the Restoration stage where her success depended on gauging the fashions of public taste. For example, Lipking suggests the original appeal of the novel lay in just the catalogs of New World flora and fauna quickly skipped over by readers today. She implies that one reason to begin the novel in Surinam was to establish a cultural ideal of golden innocence, “so like our first parents before the Fall” (Norton 2184), to prepare us for the contrasts to come.

    The most striking and obvious contrast in the novel appears in the juxtaposition of South America and Africa. As Lipking notes,

      No such idealizing marks the reports of West Africa. . . . Like most Native American peoples, West Africans were without written language and might go unclothed, but they provided no scenes of naked innocence, no trustful, open-handed kings. On the contrary, by a reverse stereotyping passed on from book to book, the received opinion was that African women were by nature lascivious, punishments notwithstanding, and the men crafty or “thievish.” (75-6)

    If the South American setting of the novel’s opening shared an untouched, golden innocence with the first age of the world, Africa represents a people that bring together duplicity and a heroic code of courage and brave deeds. New World simplicity and contentment are replaced by the sumptuous luxury and decadence we find in the “Kingdom” of Coramantien.

    However, the more subtle contrast Behn introduces in the novel’s opening juxtaposes naive Americans with no concept of lying and her civilized readers. Lipking concludes in her discussion of travel writing:

      Most of all, [travel books] brought accounts of “savage” people living without divine or human law, as if far back in time or out of time. For reflective writers in Europe, Montaigne, Swift, and Rousseau, among many others, the simpler New World societies could hold a mirror up to the old, letting civilized Europe view itself in all its habitual corruption and deceit, the whole sad tangle of its history. (75)

    With Behn, and later with Swift, travel narratives question the foundations of cultural superiority on which European colonialism was based. The perfect example of this is the English Captain. Behn feigns objectivity over Oroonoko’s abduction but within paragraphs she has her hero questioning the Christian faith of the Englishman, whose “gods had taught him no better principles than not to credit as he would be credited.” Clearly Behn’s aims in the novel are complex and require careful consideration.

    As we research the complex network of politics, religion, and commerce that fueled the triangular trade, consider how Behn’s presentation of the Middle Passage functions within the novel. Does Oroonoko’s suffering only heighten the sympathy for a tormented hero in a steamy romance novel? Or does the novel move beyond entertainment into social satire or critique with the intent of changing views of slavery if not public policy?

Middle Passage Exercise

    After seeing your first piece based on Behn’s novel, your editors were skeptical about her reliability as a source. (Some critics early in the twentieth century doubted whether Behn had even been to Surinam herself though more recent scholars support her claim.) You’ve been asked by your editors to find other sources to challenge or corroborate Ms. Behn’s description of the Middle Passage.

    Spend 15-20 minutes researching the motives and realities of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade using one or more of the links below. In your notes, record leads which support or challenge the truthfulness of Behn’s portrayal. Be ready to distinguish differences and similarities between the slave trade as practiced by the British in the seventeenth century and by other countries in later centuries. Your editors have asked you to consider writing either a provocative exposé revealing the conditions of the Middle Passage or a business profile recommending a promising investment opportunity, so try to find details to support both anti-slavery and pro-slavery positions from the period.

    A Slave Ship Speaks – The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie

    The Slave Trade in Britain – Norton Topics Online

    Breaking the Silence – Learning about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

    Keep in mind that the novel’s main action occurs two centuries before the American Civil War, so you’ll need to develop a definition of slavery particular to the world Behn and her readers knew. Historian Dinizulu Tinnie suggests that

      Perhaps the most challenging aspect of studying a phenomenon like the Atlantic “slave trade,” as it was known, is the realization that such developments are not as monolithic and constant as even their vast scope, verifiable statistics, and widely recognized patterns might suggest. It can be easily overlooked, in examining a phenomenon that endured for more than four centuries, involving tens of millions of individuals, that it is in fact a story of individuals: each person, each voyage, each ship has a different story to tell, a different, but definite, impact on history. (“The Henrietta Marie in Perspective”)

    In what ways does Behn’s novel seek to personalize the slave trade by telling the story of this “royal slave”? Is her novel ultimately about slavery, or does Oroonoko represent some other injustice, social or political, she hopes to consider through her suffering hero?

Margery Kempe, Then & Now

by   |  09.12.09  |  221- Middle Ages

    Sarah Standbury’s site at Holy Cross helps illustrate the importance of Margery Kempe’s achievement as a believer, as a woman, and as an author: 

      Margery Kempe’s spiritual biography is often called the first autobiography in English. A married woman who attempted to live a life devoted to Christ, Margery sought official Church recognition for her status as a spiritual woman and mystic, while continuing to live and travel in the secular world. She experienced intense emotional visionary encounters with Christ, which have at times a strikingly homely quality. Her Book, dictated by her to a scribe, records these visions as well as her travels in Europe and pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her particular spiritual trial, according to her Book, was to be misrepresented, persecuted, and rejected by many of her clerical and lay peers. The recording of her spiritual life, despite severe difficulties and her own illiteracy, became a symbolic act in itself, representing both her claim to spiritual status and evidence of her special relationship with God. Rich in detail about the people and places Margery encountered, the Book is a fascinating record of life in turbulent early 15th century England. (Mapping Margery

    This site maps the intersections of religious belief and social attitudes represented by The Book of Margery Kempe through examples of the material culture of fifteenth-century England. Spend 15-20 minutes exploring images which investigate the place of the Parish Church, the Cathedral, Devotional Images, and Pilgrimage in the life of a medieval believer. How do these images help illustrate or challenge your idea of Catholic Christianity in the century before the Reformation?

    The site also includes an Outline of Kempe’s text with a detailed Glossary of unfamiliar terms such as anchorite, brewing, or chaste marriage which may be useful as you read.

    Mapping Margery Kempe

Margery Live! Interview

    After reading and reflecting on The Book of Margery Kempe, this week you will have the unique opportunity to see an interview with the author. Her story was first transcribed by a priest, then lost for almost 500 years, before reappearing in 1934 to be recognized and reinterpreted by secular critics. Now, after a long meditative silence, Ms. Kempe has decided to go back on the record to respond to charges of indecency, heresy, and lunacy. Don’t miss this exclusive interview hosted by Dr. Bill Rankin. 

    Margery Live! – Video

    Margery Live! – Audio

    This interview is based on a live chat Margery held with ACU Online students several years ago. If you have trouble with the video, you’ll find a transcript of that event below.

    Margery Live! transcript