Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Places and Projects

Since we talked about space and stasis in Lean (and Dickens) today, I thought you might ponder the setting of Cuaron's Great Expectations. Its early scenes are set in my back yard, the central Florida Gulf Coast. Satis House (renamed Paradiso Perduto) is the Ringling (of circus fame) mansion, now a world-class art museum: https://www.ringling.org/ca-dzan

And since many of you asked, here's the website for the Page One book: http://www.graphicdesignand.com/shop/page-1-great-expectations

Here's another intriguing Great Expectations page-based, adaptational (Hush: it's my blog and I can coin words if I want to): http://havishamhour.com/project/

"Each day I read a single page of Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations on a 1963 edition I found in a used bookstore. After reading the page, I use it as format to create artwork onto it inspired by the words I just read. I then scan the painted page and publish it on different online platforms, along with a personal journal entry, exactly at 8:40 AM PST each day, the time in the novel when Miss Havisham receives a letter on her wedding day announcing her groom is not marrying her after all. In addition, selected artwork is accompanied with a reading of the page by a featured guest.

Go back to the Home Page to see the pages done so far.

The project started Monday, January 7th, 2013 and it will end Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 for a total of 513 days, 513 pages, and 513 sketches: 1 year, 4 months, and 27 days."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Great Expectations (1998)

Instead of an exploratory post, i.e. an examination of an already formed answer, I'd like to pose a series of questions about the Alfonso Cuaron Great Expectations. Some are more serious that others, perhaps. For the most part, these are the questions that I would use to frame a discussion, or the questions that students would hopefully create themselves to frame a discussion.

Note: I'm using their Dickens names in this review, but their names in the film are Finn (Pip), Lustig (Magwitch), Ms. Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham), and Estella (Estella... Cuaron pointedly keeps her original name). 

Why do we begin with half-finished drawings? Does this already hint at Pip's inability to really read and perceive reality (too leading of a question, of course)?

What is the significance of Pip saying he will tell the story "the way I remember it"? What are the implications of telling it this way, versus telling the audience what may have actually happened?

Does the young girl know she is going to grow up to be Gwyneth Paltrow?

Does this voiceover seem oddly Carraway-esque (particularly since the students I teach have already studied Gatsby adaptations)? In what way?

Why do we get the odd moment with Magwitch berating Pip for biting his nails?

What is the significance of making Mrs. Joe frustrated with her life but not with Pip? Alongside this, is Joe drastically less likable? What do these changes reveal about the film's potential audience?

Alongside the previous question, where is this movie purposely made modern, and how does this affect our reading of the film and our sympathy (or lack of it) for the film's characters? Do we agree that Pip should leave his poor origins behind?

Why does Cuaron use so many fades? Is it excessive? Does it serve to highlight themes in the film/ themes in Dickens' text?

Why does Ethan Hawke insist on being in these remakes? Is it purposely to spite me? Is his Pip even worse than his Hamlet?

Is Miss Havisham more comic than tragic? Does updating her a zany drunk succeed for you? How do you define success in this case?

Why are there so many insects in this movie?

Pip is not a great painter, do you agree? Alongside this, what does it mean for him to already have this talent and simply be harnessing it (Dickens' Pip has to learn his trade from scratch)? Does it change our experience of his expectations? What does it mean that Pip couldn't actually even sell his terrible paintings?

What is the role of mirrors in this movie?

What are your reactions to Estella in this movie? Does making her an immediate sexual tease (and an attainable object of sexual desire) alter how we see her relationship with Pip?


Do you see film noir influences in this film? How do they affect your experience of it?

Why does Miss Havisham have to be punished in Dickens' novel? Why isn't she punished in this film?

How necessary was Magwitch's death? Did Robert de Niro actually enjoy being in this movie?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Penetrating Jack Maggs

This post is admittedly a little wandering, because I found Jack Maggs so compellingly heavy with different ideas and angles. I’m interested in secrets, secrecy, and suppression in Carey’s novel, and how they relate to power, and how power relates to sex. 

(I like that picture because he looks all broody and Heathcliff-like)
I started the book a little unsure why we were reading the text. I read the first few chapters, alternating between “what is going on?” and “Oh. Criminal comes home. There we go.” In reimagining Magwitch as Maggs, returned from exile to care for his “child,” Carey is pretty explicitly inspired by Great Expectations, and, like other adaptations we’ve encountered, wants to explore a gap in the “original” text. This gap is Magwitch- Magwitch’s motivations, desires, and the reality of an experience he could have had upon returning to London.

So why does my title reference penetration (apart from to obviously horrify and titillate the reader)? To get to the thrust of my argument, I’m amazed and intrigued by how explicitly sexual language is used in the novel to describe claiming secrets. In a broader sense, I’m interested in how the obtaining of these secrets is akin to unwanted penetration. Maggs angrily demands of Tobias “‘Do you have him in the room when I am naked? And her?... Do you invite her in to see my shame?’” (139) Tobias has the “appaling spectre” of Maggs’ death “forced… into his mind” (146).

Alongside this, I want to briefly consider how the revelation of secrets, the creation of creativity, is a masturbatory act. Maggs, aroused by Mercy, enters a room “hard behind her” (164, amusing double entendre), locks her in “before he could change his mind” (164), and masturbatorily replaces his attraction to her with “pouring all his feelings into that secret history” (164). Tobias feels a “a huge relief”(255) in releasing all of his secrets to Maggs (and Tobias is often sexually charged by his own writing and his writing process).

Leading out of this is my more open-ended question about power in the novel (maybe sexual power in particular, especially since we have the monumentally important aside piece of information that Henry Phipps (Pip) spent weeks sexually abusing Constable). When does Maggs have it, when doesn’t he have it, and what are the implications of this sliding and slippery spectrum of authority? And if we disagree with my rough ideas about power and sex… where can we take our discussion of power and physicality? What do we make of the intense focus on bodies in the novel?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Thought on "Literature versus Literacy"

There were several portions of Thomas Leitch’s chapter “Literature versus Literacy” where I wrote “YES” in the margin, but perhaps my strongest “YES” response occurred when Leitch discusses the teaching of writing in college English courses. Leitch is absolutely correct when he states, “Even though students are typically graded almost exclusively on their writing, most English teachers [he is speaking of college teachers] spend little time teaching it, preferring instead to assume it is an adjunct to the reading we do teach” (13-14). I think this is common all the way through the post-graduate level: I had taken four MA literature seminar courses before (finally!) a professor asked the class, “Would it be helpful if I put up a few notes for you on how to go about organizing your critical essays?” Ummm, YEAH, that would be helpful. In fact, I still feel grateful for the American Lit professor who, during my junior year of undergrad, took the time to point out the passive voice habit I frequently employed in my essays; she then taught me how to make my arguments stronger and more concise. 

Leitch’s key point in this section is that teachers—and I think this certainly applies to high school teachers along with college professors—must always be cognizant of teaching students “how to do things with books” in tandem with reading the texts themselves (14). This is not to say that I feel we high school teachers don’t teach writing skills (anyone who, like me, has graded 90 9th grade research essays in a semester would become highly defensive at the idea that someone thinks we’re not slaving away at teaching the writing process); this point made me think more about teaching “how to do things with books” in deeper, more critically engaging ways. I discuss the texts a great deal with my students, and of course they have various writing assignments, but I would love to improve upon my own practice of demonstrating for students how to more effectively express their reactions to the text. I always talk with my students about how much they hate Gatsby’s  Daisy Buchanan, but I would love to help them actually produce something as a result of their strong opinions. Several of us have mentioned wanting to veer away from the standard practice of assignments that simply ask students to compare-and-contrast the film and the originary text, and that is my end-goal for this seminar:

Through our seminar, I have certainly learned how NOT to say, “This movie sucks! The book is SO much better!”—how can I guide my students to this understanding?

Ultimately, how can I teach students to work with the text—both the source texts and various adaptations—in an actively engaging, critical way?

 (I don’t expect an answer…well, at least not tonight).

Saturday, July 19, 2014

One Last Christmas Carol Tidbit...

 As many of you may know, I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, which just so happens to be the setting of Rich Barlow’s article entitled “Ebenezer Scrooge: Made in Massachusetts.”  Lowell is famous for its textile mills, many of which still proudly stand along the Merrimack River.  Today, the city retains its title as an industrial hub, but the majority of the mills have been turned into various offices, museums, and apartments (one of which I presently call my home).  Therefore, the idea that Dickens, one of the most renowned Victorian authors, found his inspiration for much of the plot of A Christmas Carol in my hometown particularly resonated with me.

 In his article, Bray postulates that Dickens took many of his basic plot points from a monthly periodical called Lowell Offering.  The journal was filled with contributions from various Lowell mill workers; the majority of these writers were women and girls who spent their spare time creating fictional tales based upon the mills and their surroundings.  These women worked twelve hours a day, but when Dickens visited in 1842 at the height of the American revolution, he was astonished at the “workers’ superior living conditions in Lowell compared with peers in his home country.” (As a child, I was always impressed upon that the young women faced a terrible fate filled with disease, untimely death, and harrowing working conditions, but Dickens apparently saw it differently.)

 During his visit, Dickens took over 400 pages of notes on activity in Lowell.  He read through various copies of Lowell Offering, in which there are ideas strikingly similar to those that would appear in A Christmas Carol only one year later.  One essay, “A Visit from Hope,” described a specter who “extended his thin, bony hand” as the Ghost of Christmas Future would do in Dickens’ classic.  In another essay, “The Blessings of Memory,” a young author describes memories being overridden by “unreal phantoms,” thus supposedly introducing the memory motif that is prevalent in Dickens’ piece.  Furthermore, both writings speak of an “idol” that “engrosses” someone within the text. 

 Are there some similarities between the two publications? Absolutely. But, I believe that this does not necessarily mean that Dickens was wholly inspired by Lowell and his experiences there.  He may have adapted some Lowell Offering segments to augment his originary text, but that is wholeheartedly to be expected.  No text can truly stand on its own; there are overlaps.  These similarities seem a bit too vague in my opinion to truly denote a strong inspiration from Lowell.  Rather, I believe that Dickens’ used “The Goblin and the Sexton” as an impetus for A Christmas Carol and thus added to it based upon his imagination and life experiences, tools that all great writers must rely upon.

What do you all think?

Lowell Mills

Lawrence Mill Today (My Home)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Criminality is The Condition of Life?

While reading Julian Moynahan's critical article "The Hero's Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations", I was struck by many of the points Moynahan makes, but one line stood out to me. In quoting G.R. Strange's "Dickens' Fable for his Time' Moynahan says "Pip, therefore  feels criminal guilt because he is criminal as we are all criminal" because 'criminality is the condition of life' ergo we as humans are not inherently good. The Joes and the Biddys are ideals--perhaps even unrealistic ideals in many ways.

Speaking on the terms of connotations, I immediately want to react to the concept of being called a criminal. It's a harsh term that conjures up images no one wants to claim. However, stepping back I can get behind the argument. Who among us has not committed a crime? That doesn't mean we have all been caught--but most of us have broken the law and few of us are plagued by guilt when it happens. Speeding, jaywalking, etc. "small crimes", sure, but they are criminal. No one is perfectly innocent. So we are all carrying criminality inside of us, as Pip does in Great Expectations. So what do we do with this information? For that matter, what does Dickens want us to do with this information? 

Honestly, I'm not sure, but it's something to consider especially as we take this text to our students.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One More Source for A Christmas Carol

I would also like to add one more thing, before we move on from A Christmas Carol (as I know that some of you are chomping at the bit to do!).  At least two of our readings quoted from this source specifically, so I wanted to publicize it as a seminal text in terms of how A Christmas Carol has been viewed as a text over the last 20 years.  When I first read it, the article fundamentally changed my reading of the story (in a good way, I think), and it has informed my research and teaching of A Christmas Carol ever since.

Jaffe, Audrey.  "Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's A Christmas Carol."  PMLA 109.2 (March 1994): 254-265.

Here is a link to it on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/463120

The article discusses the role of "commodity culture" in the text (which is a term that I threw out at least a time or two in our discussions so far), which is a concept that combines the story's emphasis on not only human fellowship, but also on economic spending.  For Jaffe, Scrooge must learn to change into a man that is not only friendly to his fellow humans, but he also must learn to shed his miserly ways and engage in the economic marketplace.  In discussing commodity culture, Jaffe connects the financial economy to the human economy of affection, which is a combination that is now consistently emphasized during the Christmas holiday.  Being nice to people during Christmas is good, and even buying gifts for them is not only nice to do, but it also helps out your fellow humans in a financial sense by strengthening the economy.

Anyway, it's a great article, and it also helps to reconcile the Christian emphasis on goodwill towards men and the Reason for the Season and all of that to (rather ironically) the importance of material gift-giving during Christmas.

Well, on to Great Expectations...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Putting Xmas Carol to Bed

I wanted to take a few minutes as we lay Xmas Carol to bed to think about some of the ideas that circulated.  Digest them a bit.  Ah, more figurative food language with Dickens. 

First, I came to Xmas Carol with a reading offered up by Lee Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive.  It’s a text I encountered in grad school and serves as a stark, dark lens that mediates my vision of the text.  Edelman’s No Future wants to make the argument that queer people too easily submit to assimilationist elements of heteronormative culture.  And, that reproductive futurism (our investment in kids and the future) police queer people and discipline society in direct and indirect ways. The title No Future takes on several meanings – (1) that we should reject the social lessons that are directed toward us that suggest we should shirk the present by chasing the future, (2) the teleology of the future discredits queers as anti-productive social members, and (3) along similar lines, reproductive futurism “imbues straight sex with its meaning as the agent of historical continuity” (“Ever After” 470).   Crucial to this thinking is Edelman’s notion that children are easy symbolic political tools and there are many larger narratives at work in American culture that support the notion of parents yielding their time and identity to their children.  But what Edelman argues is that in a culture that attaches supreme value to the symbolic child, the biologically non-reproductive queer will also occupy the shadow space. 

Edelman uses Xmas Carol as an application to some of his ideas. The setting, Christmas, provides the ultimate backdrop, being that it is the birth of the embodiment of the sacred, symbolic child.  This frames our worship of family, children, and the social engine.  Edelman even tugs at the solid footing that has propped up Tiny Tim, suggesting his sympathies set up the destructive alterity of Mr. Scrooge.  Edelman laments the turn the novel takes – that Mr. Scrooge must give up his hard-earned money, anti-communitarian angst, and homosexual relations in order to be absorbed into the happy heteronormative ending.  Edelman marks Scrooge as a queer figure with references to screwing, looks at Scrooge’s close relations with Marley and concludes by reading the ending in which Scrooge had "no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards" (Dickens 134),  suggesting that Scrooge's decision here is "accepting this peter-less principle," – that Scrooge must lose his queerness in order to be socially accepted in the end of the novel. We might call his writing analysis; we might call it adaptation; we might call it nonsense or a bad, forced argument.  I’m not sure.  But it’s interesting.

I’d be interested to hear some thoughts on this reading.  My take is that the evidence isn’t strong enough to claim him queer in terms of sexuality, but queer readers have often needed to forge imaginary spaces in text that afford no queer characterization. So, that’s tricky and I’m more in the camp of reader-response than fidelity.  But I think it does help us think about an anti-communitarian and normative ethic and the binaries that exist – we must either be singular and sad or happily swimming in sugarplums with family and community.  That the text folds on this theme makes it a durable tension and ultimately queries the very easy divide that this is making.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Quick Word on Illustrations

This is in some ways an aside/ footnote to my last post about bibliographical studies. It was just getting too long (an odd thing for a Victorianist to be hesitant about).

As a visual minded student and teacher, thinking about how images translate, adapt, live on, and resonate is crucial to my understanding of and engagement in Adaptation Studies. How artists imagined the text is so influential... in the same way that I can't look at Ralph Fiennes and not imagine him hissing "Harrryyy Pottttter" (for better or worse. Probably for worse). Since I'm partial to the Ghost of Christmas Present, here is how he was portrayed in the two editions I talked about in my last post:


The later edition has him in color, of course. And there's probably much to be said about the minute differences... but the two illustrations are pretty similar. Here's how he looks in the graphic novel I read yesterday:

Thinking about him as a larger, more foreboding figure (the lines are deeper, he looms over Scrooge brandishing his horn like a saber) asks us as readers how we see this Ghost, how Scrooge sees this Ghost, perhaps even how Dickens wanted his audience to receive this Ghost. And this is just one small example... how we see Scrooge, the other ghosts, even Tiny Tim (who was far from Tiny in the 50s version and looked like he'd never missed a meal in his life), is both determined by our imaginations and by our experience with illustrations and adaptations. I'm excited to see how our minds and our conceptions of characters and moments will change as we continue to explore adaptations this month. 

Editing A Christmas Carol

One of my highlights of the first week was visiting UCSC's Special Collections. The librarians were awesome (though librarians are always awesome), the Dickens paraphernalia they put out was exciting:

They also have this punch ladle, allegedly used by Dickens. I am suspicious as to whether it was or not, but at the very least, it is a cool-looking old spoon 

Thinking about "old books"/bibliographic studies led me towards some new questions about Dickens and adaptation. How can we consider editions as a kind of adaptation in their own right? This is perhaps stretching the term adaptation since most editions will contain Dickens' story unaltered (we had a brief dispute about online versions, but I'm hesitant to wade into those murky waters and distract myself from my bibliographic point), but what the text is literally surrounded by, or covered in, impacts our consumption of it... not exactly in the same way that having Redford or Di Caprio play Gatsby affects our experience of that character, but not in a way that can so easily written off, either.

I looked (briefly) at an 1869 edition (left), and a 1905 edition (right).

Here are just a few questions that these editions raised for me. 
1) What is the significance of how an edition treats the "Preface"? In the Oxford World's Classic edition, both prefaces are laid a few pages before the text. In the 1905 edition, the "Preface" is right next to the first page. How could this impact our reading of the story? 
2) What else could fit into the literal book that could impact our reading? Advertisements, notices about other Dickens novels... I'd be interested in learning more about Victorian books and how they were usually laid out, to see how Dickens fits into that schema. 
I worked with the University of Virginia's Rare Book School for a year as a Fellow, and took one of their summer courses. I had similar questions about Wuthering Heights, and concluded that how an edition treated "The Bronte Myth" could easily impact whether a reader experiences Emily's story unaltered, or experiences it surrounded by excerpts from Jane Eyre, or Charlotte Bronte's "Biographical Notice." Consider the example below, where we are encounter Currer Bell's ideas (and apologies) before we even delve into Ellis Bell's (fantastic) novel. 

These questions require a lot more bibliographic knowledge and time in Special Collections, but they serve to shape and nuance our thoughts about adaptation even without said knowledge and time. 

Is everything an adaptation? (Dum dum DUMMM)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Visual Metaphor for Adaptation?

from Kornbluth's adapted Christmas Carol illustrated by Paige Peterson (2011)
John Leech's engraving that accompanied Dickens' 1843 release of A Christmas Carol

Dead Text Walking

This post is partly inspired by I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas, and partly inspired by my debilitating need to stop reading I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas, and do almost anything else.

This zombie story breathes life into Jacob Marley (or breathes in death-life... zombie biology is gravely unclear), who rips apart the people around him, and starts to make for Scrooge. The text immediately shows some wit, pointing out that Marley had been dead "for about three minutes,that is" (3). That's not dissimilar to how long his soul rests in Dickens' novel. It then becomes tiresome, unfunny, and graphically violent. So I'll readily admit to not finishing it, which is convenient since my title actually refers to the original text and not this bloody, "braaaaaaaaaaains"-less tripe.

My question is whether the classic novels like A Christmas Carol, the works that span decades through their spawn, are in a sense, dead. Does A Christmas Carol exist at all outside of its hideous/beautiful progenies? If the "culture-text," intriguingly introduced by Paul Davis, is the one that we "collectively remember," "the Carol as it has been intriguingly recreated in the last century and a half" (4), what space is there for the original text? Can it exist on its own shaky legs, or is this text only bolstered by its afterlife? 

I don't believe that the classics that have permeated our culture are dead, I think they are uniquely newly alive in how they can be devoured in so many different forms by so many. But I do think that recognizing and appreciation this new life that adaptation has breathed into these works is a crucial step towards (finally) moving away from fidelity complaints, from purist wringing, and from snobby eye-rolling at a text that may forcefully engage with pop culture as much as it engages with Dickens.

Keeping all that in mind... I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas is still awful. Please don't read it. And greeting from Dickens Camp in Santa Cruz!

- Lingerr Senghor