‘A Little Life’ (Hanya Yanagihara) Review: Humanity’s Beauty Amidst Depravity

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Humanity’s Beauty Amidst Depravity
(Spoiler Free) Review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Out of the 3,000 or so books I’ve read in my 24 years of living, never have I read a novel that has affected me this deeply. It’s the most fucked up novel I’ve ever read (I felt so sick at the halfway point of p.350 that I had to stop reading and couldn’t pick it up again for 3 weeks)… and also the most beautiful.

Chronicling the lives of four friends in New York—Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude, the last being the central character—we witness their lives from college to old age. It’s also deftly interspersed with flashbacks from Jude’s dark (an understatement) past which is revealed gradually and painfully over the 720 pages that make up Hanya Yanagihara’s brilliantly written tome and masterpiece.

If I had to describe A Little Life in one word: DEPRAVITY. Hanya doesn’t shy away from portraying the depravity of humans, rather detailing every abominable act relentlessly—and this comprises 95% of the novel. I kept getting angry, upset, even nauseous, over and over and over. So why did I keep reading? What made me persist?

Because of the other 5%. Because of its belief (albeit wavering) in the beauty of humanity. Because Hanya clearly believes in the saving power of love in the face of utter hopelessness and desolation. Because the love showered unconditionally upon Jude by his friends, especially Willem, reflects a pure and sacrificial love that is close to the truth. Because no matter how irrational it may be, no matter how little we understand why and how and what for, it’s worth living, worth fighting to live, even when logically it makes complete sense to die, to end our lives. Because even at the end of the fight (even if only slightly), there’s even a chance at redemption (even if only pretension).

Depicting such extreme and horrific realities doesn’t allow for a neutral response. The world is fucked up: this is unambiguously laid out and instinctively comprehended. We all differ in our understanding of what is “right” and what is “wrong” on the spectrum, but A Little Life produces a unanimous: ‘this is SO WRONG’. Thus explains the backlash and controversy, but also its unabashed acclaim: the former readers must have had their buttons pushed in a discomforting manner, while the latter were led to head in the opposite direction towards hope (which though faint is naturally magnified by our innate desire for grace and salvation). Either way, every reader is forced to confront the presented reality and make a response. And whatever our beliefs, whatever our stance on life, I find that the majority of us will discover we’re too damn stubborn on continuing to live to give up or succumb to despair, because we want to believe that somehow, in some way, life is beautiful.

I cannot lightheartedly recommend this novel to everyone. In fact, there are many to whom I wouldn’t recommend it at all. I give you ample warning: this is not an easy read. But at the end of the day, I’ll also say it’s worth reading, and that I wholeheartedly recommend A Little Life, that is, only if you’re ready to face life’s toughest realities and deepest questions.

Disclaimer: this book is sure to change your life, as it did mine.

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Semantic Change in the English Language: Evolution of Words

‘Want to grab a pint next weekend?’

‘You mean this weekend?’

‘No, I mean the weekend after that… next, next weekend… two weekends from now…’

I don’t remember the number of times I’ve had this sort of conversation. It’s common. It’s frustrating. Which is why Ivan Cash and Jeremy Knight have created a new word to describe, not this coming weekend but the following, in order to eliminate the usage of the ambiguous ‘next’ altogether: oxt.

‘Want to grab a pint oxt weekend?’

‘Yeah, I’m keen!’

Simple. Easy. Revolutionary. Still confused? Here’s a graphic from their Oxt Weekend website (visit their site for an interactive graphic):

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And it’s not just for weekends. ‘Oxt Friday’ means the Friday after this Friday, and ‘oxt week’ means the week after this week.

Yes, it may seem a bit odd, but if it catches on, it’ll be just one of many words that have been created and inserted into the English lexicon. Flexible and malleable is our unique, bastardised and beautiful language.

I wrote an essay examining various types, examples and motivations of semantic change in my first year of university (already 3 years ago!—forgive the poor writing). Have a read—it’s a fascinating dissection of a language many speak without realising how complex and tumultuous its evolution has been!

~

Semantic Change in the English Language: Evolution of Words
by Justin Lau

In order to grasp someone’s attention immediately, as in with the opening line of an essay or the first words of a speech given by a presidential candidate, one must generally employ words with a commonly accepted meaning by the majority. This is perfectly sensible if one desired to efficiently communicate with another without misunderstandings. Gustaf Stern asserts that the speaker must conform ‘to the ruling language system, in order to be understood by his hearers’.[1] But throughout the history of English word meanings have undoubtedly changed, be it drastically or not, and this has certainly impacted the way people speak today. Even T. S. Eliot, in his poem entitled ‘Burnt Norton’, observed the manner that ‘Words strain / Crack and sometimes break’.[2] To an assured extent, words have indeed undergone incredulous transformations which threaten the security of ‘correct’ definitions. But why does such a phenomenon exist? Stern states: ‘Every man has […] thoughts and feelings to express that are peculiarly his own’.[3] This is one of many theoretical reasons for the flexibility of language and the freedom accompanying a multitude of words previously understood differently. Semantic change can be classified into groups of specific types as evidenced by various examples of commonly used words that have evolved over time. Though the list is not exhaustive, one can easily see the more characteristic types permeating extensively through English and culminating in unforeseen processes of word meanings. Although there is no one explanation behind the inevitable change of meanings, it is possible to infer important motivations for the language shift and spread.

It is firstly important to comprehend the definition of semantic change. The English language constantly changes, whether daily or over long periods of time, but semantic change refers specifically to the change in meanings of particular words. According to Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner, this differs from lexical change in that ‘no formally new creation occurs, but an already existing form is extended in use.’[4] In other words, semantic change is not the formation of completely new words never used before, but rather a transformation of currently used words. Stern simply describes it as ‘when a word is employed to express a meaning which it has not previously expressed’.[5] It shows the acceptance of a continually changing language system apparent even in individual words, as well as suggesting the possibility of any person being capable of personally altering such a widely spoken language on a greater scale.

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Bedlam © Wikimedia

Now that the definition of semantic change is clear, one can now examine specific words that have changed over time. Many words currently used with a particular meaning did not possess the same meaning, or even connotation, years ago. One of the most widely accepted change types is the extension of meaning, which involves ‘the widening of a word’s signification until it covers much more than the idea originally conveyed.’[6] Take, for example, the word lovely, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, described someone ‘deserving of love or admiration’ during the period of Old English till the mid-nineteenth century.[7] Now it has extended, or generalised, into a word with a wider scope, used very often to describe anything as delightful, enjoyable, and simply nice. If lovely had retained its original meaning, one would most likely hesitate in using it to describe a nice chair, unless he were truly infatuated with it. Bedlam conveys another occurrence of extension: originally the name of an asylum for the mentally ill belonging to London’s Bethlehem Hospital in the sixteenth century, it has now come to mean any scene of madness or lunacy.[8] One can sense the emergence of its new meaning stemming possibly from both convenient usage as well as social allusions. It is rather unfortunate for the hospital’s legacy to transpire in such an infamous manner.

As expected, the opposite of the widely encompassing function of extension is narrowing, which in contrast restricts the range of meanings.[9] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable examine the word doctor: though it technically refers to ‘learned man and women’ in ‘theology, law, and many other fields beside medicine,’[10] it is now commonly presumed to mean the person in a white coat who prescribes drugs when people are ill. Girl, in its Middle English form, referred to a young person of either sex, but now solely means a female child or young woman.[11] Leonard Bloomfield gives another example of a narrowed word: meat. In Old English, mete denoted all forms of food, especially evident in the King James Bible, which described the herbs and trees as meat to eat:[12] ‘I have given every green herb for meat’.[13] But meat subsequently came to indicate ‘edible flesh’,[14] strikingly reduced to a mere partial definition as compared with its initial capacity and application.

Metaphors are literary figures of speech that serve to compare and present a similarity between two separate objects. This device, interestingly enough, also contributes to the patterns of semantic change. Lyle Campbell describes metaphor as an extension of word meanings to entail ‘a semantic similarity or connection between the new sense and the original one.’[15] For example, root was originally associated with a plant, but it is now often used in correlation with words, algebra, and even to mean ‘source’.[16] In the nineteenth century, the word broadcast referred to the scattering of seeds,[17] but now many people only know the modern, metaphorical sense: to disseminate through radio or television by ‘the diffusion of radio waves through space’.[18] A lot of semantic change has occurred not just over the centuries, but also in recent years. The slang word drunk ‘involves being saturated with liquid’; thus the terms ‘pissed’ and ‘soaked’ are used likewise.[19] These words prove the extensive variety of connotations one single word can conjure up, demonstrating the rich vocabulary of English.

Hoover © Wikimedia

Hoover © Wikimedia

A change type often linked hand-in-hand with metaphor is metonymy, which unlike the former does not involve two completely separate objects, but rather concepts that are ‘near each other in space or time’[20] and are ‘neighbours’.[21] These new senses are not entirely foreign to the original meanings, but rather an addition of related associations. The Old English word cēace initially referred to the jaw, but as time went on, the word cheek meant the side of the face below the eye.[22] Campbell provides another example with the word tea, which ‘in addition to the drink’ can also allude to ‘the evening meal’.[23] Grzega and Schöner elaborate upon a more specified type of metonymy known as eponymy, which happens when ‘a proper name is taken to serve a concept’.[24] For example, the company Hoover was such an important producer that its name generally refers to any type of vacuum cleaner;[25] similarly Kleenex now refers to any facial tissue.[26] Subsequent brands will unmistakably have a difficult time replacing already accepted names with their own.

Two further types of semantic change are degeneration and elevation. Degeneration, also termed pejoration,[27] results in words losing particular meanings, and at times, even attaining a less favourable and negative sense.[28] Elevation, or amelioration,[29] has the opposite effect, in which words attain an increasingly positive meaning as compared to its original understanding.[30] Vulgar is an obvious form of degeneration where presently it describes someone as offensive and uncultured, as opposed to centuries ago when it simply referred to anything in customary practice or belonging to the common people.[31] Another famous example is knave, which now mainly means a crafty rogue and a fool, but comes from the Old English cnafa, meaning a boy or servant.[32] On the other hand, the Old English word cniht, which also meant a boy or servant, underwent the counter effect of elevation and resulted in the word knight, a noble and proud attendant to the King.[33] It is intriguing just how two words initially meaning the same thing ended up on opposite ends of the spectrum. Praise, which simply meant appraise ‘put a value on’, now means ‘value highly’.[34] One hopes God will understand that people praising him intend to glorify, and not to blasphemously put a price on his worth.

In-depth examinations of the words sophisticated, gay, and literally bring to light interesting insights about initial meanings and the fascinating processes thereafter. Sophisticated first meant ‘adulterated’, ‘not pure or genuine’, and even ‘falsified’; the OED provides an example from 1673 by John Dryden: ‘I love not a sophisticated truth, With an allay of lye in’t.’[35] Nowadays, lies are rarely associated with sophisticated people; though it previously ‘had an evaluative meaning, implying disapproval’, the word ‘has now lost its disapproving sense’.[36] Dick Leith reveals that in the 1960s, the word was ‘used to describe technologically advanced weapons […] with the sense “elaborate” or “highly refined”.’[37] The change was soon apparent and widespread, causing the definitions of ‘refined’ and ‘cultured’ to be identified with people.[38] Denise Robins wrote in 1957: ‘She preferred smooth sophisticated young men like Keith who amused and flattered her.’[39] Interestingly, what is now used as a compliment could easily have offended many just a few centuries ago. Eliot’s description of words changing because of ‘merely chattering’ voices is illustrated by this term,[40] where the original meaning could not resist its modification brought about by consistent and evolving use through a universal epidemic of small talk and chatter.

Gay is widely known as a term for a ‘homosexual’ but many are also aware of its earlier meaning from the fourteenth century: ‘light-hearted’, ‘cheerful’, ‘merry’.[41] Yet most are oblivious to its seventeenth century meaning, where ‘light-heartedness’ was soon ‘interpreted as frivolity’;[42] thus this inclination for ‘social pleasures’[43] resulted in the use of gay to describe ‘people who lived immoral and dissipated lives.’[44] This downward path only progressed rapidly. ‘A gay woman was a whore’ in the nineteenth century, and so it came to be that ‘a gay man’ meant a homosexual.[45] Not only are people ‘scolding’ and ‘mocking’ others with this term, but they ‘assail’ the word itself,[46] shaping its meaning to fit their very purposes of derogatory disdain. Gay is a word tragically endorsed by societal pressures, converting from one of pleasant connotations to one filled with malevolent spite.

© Flickr

© Flickr

The extreme developments that produce completely opposite meanings as originally proposed is most recently beheld in a word familiar to all: literally. What was designed to mean ‘in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically’ now signifies exactly the reverse: ‘metaphorical […] to be taken in the strongest admissible sense’.[47] Michael Israel says this is ‘self-contradictory, insisting on a literal interpretation when […] a figurative one is intended.’[48] Indeed, it is not uncommon for one to hear a friend exclaim, ‘I am literally dying of hunger!’ One would, in response, only nod in detached acknowledgement, but only because of the word’s present status. This is precisely an example of one of many words, as Eliot accurately depicts, which ‘Decay with imprecision’.[49] One can only speculate about its constant misuse despite common knowledge of the paradoxical meanings, and furthermore hypothesise with uncertainty which radical direction it eventually takes.

The reasons for the boundless semantic changes in the English language cannot be simply explained by one sole factor. In fact, studies on semantic change are multiple and ceaseless as there is rarely a unified answer. Then what can prevail as a rationale for, as Eliot poetically illustrates, why words ‘will not stay in place, / Will not stay still’?[50] Encouragingly, there exists a predominantly accepted conclusion about the occurrence of shift in meanings and the motivation behind them. Andreas Blank rephrases the words of George K. Zipf: ‘the main motivation for speaking is to achieve success.’[51] Humans speak with the intention to communicate, to influence, and to accomplish their goals. Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher agree, saying the issue is about ‘purposeful negotiation’.[52] Stern reinforces this idea,[53] and even Knud Schibsbye says change occurs when speakers make an effort ‘to get his thoughts across.’[54] It might take ages before somebody discovers the exact motivation behind a changing meaning. But whether the change was gradual or sudden, someone intentionally thought it more convenient or beneficial to use a word in an unconventional way. As for the dispersion of new meanings, the spread can be accredited to people, who upon hearing the new usage believe the word to be the ‘normal way of using speech’ and begin a process of imitation.[55] Thankfully, not everyone doubts and questions the meaning of words used in daily conversations, allowing for the peaceful progression of English.

The repetition of this phenomenon allows the English language to expand, alter, and continually develop. The rich diversity of its vocabulary is astounding upon each renewed observation. It is exciting when meanings change and new words come into play, for it opens up a fresh approach for one to use common words to express common issues in an experimental, inventive manner. As words undergo an evolution, people’s worldviews expand simultaneously. Words incite emotions and have the power to influence tremendously. Meanings have expanded, narrowed, gone through metaphorical and metonymical changes, yet have all undeniably carried power. The study of semantic change will continue for years to come, especially since new meanings are formed even in this modern age. Israel argues that the ‘notorious misuse’ of the word literally is only but ‘a natural development from its orthodox usage’ and that it is ‘a case of semantic change in progress’ that ‘still has a long way to go.’[56] One will intriguingly follow such words to see which paths they take as they develop due to their constant exposure to the complex introductions of innovative usages. Never will people tire of such an elaborately heightening sense of vocabulary. The use of this beautiful English language to communicate our fears, aspirations, and dreams is bound to last for ages.

~

[1] Gustaf Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975), p. 174.
[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[3] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 162.
[4] Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars, Onomasiology Online Monographs vol. 1 (Germany: 2007), p. 41.
[5] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 163.
[6] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, Fifth Edition (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009), p. 308.
[7] Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110598 >.
[8] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/16879 >.
[9] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 309.
[10] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 309.
[11] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/78475 >.
[12] Leonard Bloomfield, Language (London: Henderson & Spalding, 1955), p. 425.
[13] The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Genesis 1: 30.
[14] Bloomfield, Language, p. 426.
[15] Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 258.
[16] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 259.
[17] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/23507 >.
[18] Robert J. Jeffers and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1980), p. 128.
[19] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 258.
[20] Bloomfield, Language, p. 427.
[21] Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 27.
[22] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/31127 >.
[23] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 259.
[24] Grzega and Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology’, p. 42.
[25] Grzega and Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology’, p. 42.
[26] Jeffers and Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics, p. 128.
[27] Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th edn. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 245.
[28] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 310.
[29] Pyles and Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 246.
[30] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 263.
[31] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/224849 >.
[32] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 261.
[33] Bloomfield, Language, p. 427.
[34] Pyles and Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 246.
[35] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[36] Dick Leith, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983), pp. 76-7.
[37] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 74.
[38] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[39] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[40] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[41] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/77207 >.
[42] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[43] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/77207 >.
[44] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[45] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[46] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[47] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/109061 >.
[48] Michael Israel, ‘Literally speaking’, Journal of Pragmatics, 34/4 (April 2002), 423-32, at p. 424.
[49] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[50] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[51] Andreas Blank, ‘Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical semantic change’, Historical Semantics and Cognition, ed. Andreas Blank, Peter Koch (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), 61-90, at p. 63.
[52] Traugott and Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change, p. 25.
[53] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 172.
[54] Knud Schibsbye, Origin and Development of the English Language II: Morphology and Syntax Verbs With an Excursus on Semantic Change (Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1974), p. 11.
[55] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 177.
[56] Israel, ‘Literally speaking’, p. 424.

~

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

  • Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn. (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009).
  • Bloomfield, Leonard, Language (London: Henderson & Spalding, 1955).
  • Campbell, Lyle, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
  • Grzega, Joachim and Marion Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars’, Onomasiology Online Monographs vol. 1 (Germany: 2007).
  • Jeffers, Robert J. and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1980).
  • Leith, Dick, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983).
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.oed.com/ >.
  • Stern, Gustaf, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975).

Secondary Literature:

  • Blank, Andreas, ‘Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical semantic change’, Historical Semantics and Cognition, ed. Andreas Blank and Peter Koch (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), 61-90.
  • Eliot, T. S., ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
  • Israel, Michael, ‘Literally speaking’, Journal of Pragmatics, 34/4 (April 2002), 423-32.
  • Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th edn. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993).
  • Schibsbye, Knud, Origin and Development of the English Language II: Morphology and Syntax Verbs With an Excursus on Semantic Change (Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1974).
  • The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

© Justin Lau, 2015

New Publications (Competition Winner: ‘Dunelm War’)

I sincerely apologise for my silence last month, during which I wrote not a single blog post. I won’t make too many excuses (such as finishing up my last 2 essays and revising for my 3 final exams this month) and hope you don’t hold it against me. I’ve had several exciting publications recently though, including one that won a writing competition, which I’d like to share with you all!

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1. My short story ‘Dunelm War‘ won the literary magazine From the Lighthouse 2014 inaugural writing competition (short fiction)!

From the Lighthouse is Durham University English Society’s new literary magazine ‘looking for work either from, about, featuring, or carrying a sentiment of, Durham and the North East.’ They launched a writing competition last November based on this theme and so ‘Dunelm War’ was written then. I have to say, out of all my stories I’ve written so far, I had the most fun writing this! The premise is this: What would happen if a no-holds-barred civil war broke out in the lovely city of Durham?

Here are the first 2 sentences:

Tim, a third year anthropologist, pushed Old Man John over the side of Elvet Bridge into the river. For the locals of Durham, this proved to be the final straw; there remained only one path, and that was the one to war.

Needless to say, I didn’t relent and went all out, creating a caricature of university life and utilising every stereotype I could think of. Even good old Bill Bryson makes a cameo appearance.

There’s something deeply satisfying in writing something purely for my own entertainment, and it’s an added bonus when it’s approved by others! My editors thoroughly enjoyed it, one even calling it one of his favourites of mine so far and remarking ‘you really have a thing for satire.’ (Thanks, J-Love.)

And I’m presuming the judges enjoyed it too since they awarded it 1st place! Judges were: Kelly Falconer (founder of Asia Literary Agency), Lauren Owen (author of The Quick), John Challis (award-winning poet). Many thanks to them all.

Enjoy this satirical tale concerning the ‘town vs gown’ issue—have a read, let me know what you think and please share!

~

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2. My flash fiction piece ‘The Girl by the Lake‘ was reprinted in an anthology entitled Reverberations!

Originally posted on my blog in August 2014, then subsequently published by The Bubble in October, ‘The Girl by the Lake’ has now made its 3rd appearance in an anthology created and edited by Pegah Moradi and Stella Elena Alexandrova, which I unexpectedly found in my Hatfield College pigeonhole one fine day!

It’s always a pleasant surprise to see my work in print and am grateful to the editors for choosing my story. ‘The Girl by the Lake’ opens the anthology, setting the tone for the other stories/poems divided into sections including identity, loss, humour and love.

Stella Elena Alexandrova wrote a lovely narrative intro to my piece:

I walk to get lost.

For most people walking is a tool, a way to get from point A to point B; for me it’s an escape. For those blissful minutes, those hours, I can be a world away. I can relive every moment of joy and forget every second of sorrow.

I walk to get lost.

But sometimes that is the furthest thing from what happens. Instead, I find that I am found. Instead, when I stand there to lose myself, I see someone being found.

I see a girl by a lake…

Who is this girl by the lake? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.

~

family matters

3. My essay/memoir ‘A Masquerading Outsider’ was published in Family Matters: Stories of God’s faithfulness to children in OMF!

My parents belong to OMF International, an interdenominational Protestant missionary organisation based in East Asia. I was asked to write an account of my own experiences as a TCK regarding the various identity crises I went through for ‘an anthology of stories focused on family life in cross-cultural contexts.’

Essentially, it’s an updated and much more detailed version of my essay ‘TCKs: Children of the World‘ published by Japan Harvest back in 2012. It contains a lot more personal anecdotes and unrepressed thoughts. To be fair, my thoughts and feelings have progressed and evolved since writing this piece more than a year ago, but it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what I went through and how I felt.

I talk about how ‘I will always be a masquerading outsider’ in Japan; how ‘I subconsciously want the politeness of the Japanese, the racial integration of Singaporeans, the friendliness of Americans, the table manners of the British, etc., to be present in one society’ despite knowing it to be an impossibility (you were supposed to laugh); but ultimately realising that the ‘entire earth is my stage’ and thus ‘I am now a vagabond at peace.’ (<- *ahem* blog title *ahem*)

If you’re interested in getting to know me and my life story better, and somehow manage to get hold of a copy, do have a read and let me know what you think!

~

4. I’ve also been doing some freelance writing since December, 2 of which you can read here if you’re interested (I know, it’s random):

~

As I look forward to graduating in June, I have ambitious plans and goals for my writing. Once my degree is finished, I can finally begin writing my first novel! Also, I have some exciting news coming up this summer so stay tuned for… a new literary magazine?!

Nothing Ever Ends: Postmodern Cycle of Despair and Hope in Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’

472331I’ve been blessed. In my time here at Durham University studying English Literature, I’ve been able to incorporate my love for comics… oops, I mean ‘graphic novels’ (must maintain literary sophistication haha) into my degree course without any issue. I wrote on Alan Moore’s Watchmen in my second year Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism exam, completed my dissertation on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and am planning to write my American Fiction essay on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, I know those are all major titles, but there’s a reason why so much critical work has been written on them: they’re well brilliant.

I’ve also been binge-reading graphic novels, especially when I visited the Central Library in Edinburgh this past week (free graphic novels!!). I’d forgotten just how wonderful and magical libraries are! Anyway, in commemoration of finishing my dissertation and my recent devouring of graphic novels, here’s an essay I wrote in my second year on postmodernism and Watchmen.

Hope you enjoy it! Also, SPOILER ALERT. And finally, if you want any graphic novel recommendations, don’t hesitate to ask.

~

Nothing Ever Ends: Postmodern Cycle of Despair and Hope in Alan Moore’s Watchmen
by Justin Lau

Alan Moore’s Watchmen revolutionised the comic medium in a way no other comic had done before. The emergence of a graphic novel that dealt heavily with politics, history, and morality paved a way for subsequent comics. Ironically, despite starting a new trend, Watchmen was never about beginnings or ends; instead, it deconstructed modern conventions and notions about superheroes and comics that used to be viewed as only for children. McCloud describes this process ‘breaking nearly every one of the tried and true “rules.”’[1] Applying various literary techniques specific to the postmodern tradition, Alan Moore created ‘a world which is both morally ambiguous and full of semiological complexity – a far cry from the clear-cut semiotics of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.’[2] Presenting heroes without superpowers, who behind the masks and costumes were regular people walking the streets of New York, Moore portrayed a frighteningly realistic alternate world where good rarely triumphed over evil. Watchmen provides a harsh critique of the cyclic despairing tendencies of society and life, but at the same time challenges readers by revealing infinite possibilities that could potentially lead to consequent, hopeful progress.

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© DC Comics

‘The Comedian is dead.’[3] So ends Chapter I, which incidentally also begins with the murder and death of the Comedian. On more than one occasion, Moore employs this reflective strategy as if to signify that the beginning and end are theoretically the same. This is most evident in Chapter V, entitled ‘Fearful Symmetry’, in which over the course of twenty-eight pages, the visual formatting of the first page perfectly reflects the twenty-eighth page, the second page with the twenty-seventh page, and so on. In fact, even the very first page and the last panel of the graphic novel are reflective: both present the iconic yellow smiley face with a red stain, whether blood or ketchup, over the right eye. Moore subtly mocks the concept of an introduction and a conclusion, emphasising the cyclical, neverending nature of life. Indeed, Barry expounds Lyotard’s view of postmodernism, which encompasses an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and instead embraces a ‘series of ‘mininarratives’, which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative’.[4] The sceptic postmodern refusal to accept a totalising definitive explanation is apparent in Watchmen, composed of various ‘mininarratives’. There is no universal solution or answer presented in the graphic novel, and it adequately deconstructs ‘the idea of a unitary end of history and of a subject.’[5]

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© DC Comics

The concept of having no beginning or end has to do with being outside and independent of the forces of time. Gertrude Stein desired to portray through her art a ‘continuous present’ which makes ‘the past, present, and future into a continual state of always’ in ‘a sort of dimensional simultaneity.’[6] Dr. Manhattan, the only character in Watchmen with actual superpowers after a tragic atomic accident, is the epitome of one not confined by time or space. Bernard succinctly describes him as being able to ‘transform the molecular structure of any object, teleport to anywhere in the universe, and is slowly becoming omnipotent.’[7] What makes him so fascinating is the process he undergoes from human to superhuman, to his gradual realisation that since he is so far removed and different from mankind, he has no more interest or sympathy for what used to be his own race. In Chapter IV, entitled ‘Watchmaker’, Moore revolutionises the concept of time by allowing readers, through an innovative combination of texts and visuals, to grasp what it is like to be outside of space and time. Dr. Manhattan narrates: ‘It’s October, 1985. I’m on Mars. It’s July, 1959. I’m in New Jersey, at the Palisades amusement park.’[8] By having him speak entirely in present tense throughout the chapter, whether he is referring to the present, past, or future, one sees that Dr. Manhattan has no sense of time, but is rather stuck in a perpetual state of being. Yet he begins to be troubled by such a concept; despite his omnipotence, he questions his own and the world’s origins: ‘A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand? […] Which of us is responsible? Who makes the world?’[9] Furthermore, he understands that ‘things have their shape in time’; does the fact that he is outside of time discredit his existence and purpose?[10] He concludes the chapter by musing: ‘Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there… a clock without a craftsman.’[11] If the world’s only superhero with actual superpowers faces such a complex dilemma, what does that imply for the rest of the world when faced with utter confusion and despair?

Though postmodernist texts seem to offer infinite possibilities, the initial reading of Watchmen seems to suggest that these possibilities are stifled by the subconscious awareness and acceptance that no conclusion, no end can ever be reached; all is futile and hopeless. Waugh describes postmodernism as expressing ‘the sense that our inherited forms of knowledge and representation are undergoing some fundamental shift’.[12] Barry also adds that for postmodernists, ‘fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief.’[13] Arguably, the lives of the heroes are fragmented and disjointed, connected by their disapproval and rebellion against the fixed systems of belief. Van Ness describes Watchmen as a ‘story of storytellers’, in which many of them grasp and take control over their life story, such as Nite Owl who follows in the footsteps of his hero, seeking to eradicate evil and bring about good, both in society and in himself.[14] Yet ultimately, as evidenced by their countless failings, everything is foolhardy and to no avail.

Despair and apathy pervade the entire book, from Rorschach’s pessimistic outlook to Bernard, the newsvendor, who accurately comments: ‘See? Apathy! Everybody escapin’ into comic books an’ T.V.! Makes me sick. I mean, all this, it could all be gone: people, cars, T.V. shows, magazines… even the word ‘gone’ would be gone.’[15] This ‘pervasive loss of faith’ prevents anyone from thinking optimistically and looking forward to a bright, hopeful future.[16] Dr. Malcolm, Rorschach’s psychologist, who begins his therapy with a positive mindset eventually falls prey to the futility of life: ‘in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.’[17] This phenomenon often embodies the postmodern helplessness present in many texts. According to Waugh, Arnold Toynbee described postmodernism as ‘dominated by anxiety, irrationalism and helplessness. In such a world, consciousness is adrift, unable to anchor itself to any universal ground of justice, truth or reason’.[18]

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© DC Comics

And indeed, Ozymandias, the smartest man on earth, fears such anxiety and irrationalism. To prevent uncertainty, and to ground his intellectual confidence in some sort of universal truth or reason, Ozymandias, who idolises Alexander the Great, devises and carries out a plan of mass murder in order to save humanity on the brink of nuclear war. However, even after his plan has succeeded and he asks Dr. Manhattan for affirmation, he receives an unexpected, unsettling response:

Ozymandias: ‘I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.’
Dr. Manhattan: ‘”In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’
Ozymandias: ‘Jon? Wait! What do you mean by…’[19]

The forlorn look on Ozymandias’s face despite the success of his plan shows no one is exempt from the hopelessness of a life without beginning or end. Hughes says, ‘Simply put, no matter how elaborate or cunning Ozymandias’ plan may be, he can do nothing to change humanity’.[20] Even Dr. Manhattan gets disillusioned and ponders over questions he does not know the answers to. Van Ness shrewdly points out that ‘as the narrative progresses, Dr. Manhattan expresses his inability to alter the future, questions free will, and has a sense of perversive predetermined conditions’.[21] He accepts that even his powers are limited: ‘We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.’[22] Whether he or the other characters like it or not, life goes on. Those who refuse to accept this, such as Rorscahch who believes he can make a difference, die. Is there any hope left for mankind and can the human race continue in their process of becoming?

There are two options: one can either fall into despair eternally or make the most out of their hopeless lives. Dr. Manhattan makes an interesting observation: ‘There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.’[23] He suggests that though futility is one way of looking at things, there exists another option. As long as the characters continue to live and exist, mankind will always learn, know, and become. Thomson describes Watchmen’s deconstruction of the superhero genre and comic ‘as an attempted martyrdom, that is, a sacrifice with a redemptive intent, a would-be rebirth’ in order to maintain a ‘hope for a better future.’[24] Indeed, the first Silk Spectre embraces this rebirth by overcoming past traumas, including her rape at the hands of the Comedian, through embracing them; she eventually gives birth to the Comedian’s child, the current Silk Spectre. She tells her daughter, ‘So, what, you want I should curl up and whimper for forty years? You want I should go be a nun? Life goes on, honey. Life goes on.’[25] She continues: ‘Every day the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it… well, it just keeps on getting brighter all the time.’[26] She demonstrates the possibility of carrying on with life despite the atrocities and unspeakable terrors humans have experienced.

Moore claims the world is beyond comprehension; there is no overarching truth or narrative to explain everything. He sees the value in Lyotard’s words: ‘Let us wage a war on totality’.[27] Wilde further explains that mankind must hold onto ‘an acceptance of the impossibility of making any sense whatever of the world as a whole’ and ‘a willingness to live with uncertainty, to tolerate and, in some cases, to welcome a world seen as random and multiple, even, at times, absurd.’[28] But is the effort worthwhile when knowing such possibilities in the process of becoming reach no end? Dr. Manhattan questions ‘the point of all that struggling […] accomplishing nothing, leaving people empty and disillusioned […] broken.’[29] That is the paradox of postmodernism and texts such as Watchmen: both the characters and readers must keep striving to make the world a better place, to improve as individuals, to give their lives meaning, yet all the while knowing it will lead to nothing and history will continue to repeat itself forever.

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© DC Comics

However, Watchmen concludes with a glimmer of hope. Its ambiguous ending does not reveal to readers what happens subsequently: does Rorschach’s diary eventually get published and is Ozymandias’s plan revealed? Moore seems to suggest that the entire course of life, society, and the world could change even in the hands of a minor character, an assistant working at a newspaper company. Reynolds says, ‘Watchmen is at bottom about the inventions and fictions employed by everybody […] to get through their daily lives.’[30] There is a poignant urgency to find meaning in such a horrific world, and though one might feel tempted to succumb to a life of no beginnings, no ends, no possibilities of becoming, Moore conveys through Dr. Manhattan a truth that all is not lost:

Dr. Manhattan: ‘I don’t think your life’s meaningless. […] in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged.’[31]

This concept of rebirth and the continuation of life, of humans growing up and becoming offers a sense of light and meaning in a world beyond understanding. Choosing is necessary, and if one is inclined to pick hopeless death, he or she must realise it is a collective effort to maintain mankind’s future. For ‘this hope […] we can deconstruct but never destroy.’[32]

~

[1] Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), p. 117.
[2] Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (London: B. T. Batsford, 1992), p. 114.
[3] Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 2008), I. 26.
[4] Peter Barry, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 83.
[5] Barry, Beginning theory, p. 83.
[6] Mark Bernard and James Bucky Carter, ‘Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel: Confronting the Fourth Dimension’, ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 1/2 (2004), last accessed 14 March 2014 <http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v1_2/carter/ >, p. 8.
[7] Bernard and Carter, ‘Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel: Confronting the Fourth Dimension’, p. 17.
[8] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 1.
[9] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 27.
[10] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 24.
[11] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 28.
[12] Patricia Waugh, Postmodernism: A Reader (London: Edward Arnold, 1992), p. 5.
[13] Barry, Beginning theory, p. 81.
[14] Sara J. Van Ness, Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010), p. 63.
[15] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, V. 12.
[16] Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, ‘Postmodernism: Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 325.
[17] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, VI. 28.
[18] Waugh, Postmodernism: A Reader, p. 5.
[19] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, XII. 27.
[20] Jamie A. Hughes, ‘”Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and “Real World” Superheroes’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 39/4 (2006), p. 554.
[21] Van Ness, Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel, p. 97.
[22] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 5.
[23] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 6.
[24] Iain Thomson, ‘Deconstructing the Hero’, Comics as Philosophy, ed. Jeff McLaughlin (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 117.
[25] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, II. 2.
[26] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, II. 4.
[27] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 82.
[28] Alan Wilde, ‘Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis’, Contemporary Literature, 20/1 (1979), p. 44.
[29] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 12.
[30] Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, p. 114.
[31] Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 27.
[32] Thomson, ‘Deconstructing the Hero’, p. 117.

~

Bibliography:

Primary:

  • Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 2008).

Secondary:

  • Barnes, David, ‘Time in the Gutter: Temporal Structures in Watchmen’, KronoScope 9/1-2 (2009), 51-60.
  • Barry, Peter, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
  • Bernard, Mark and James Bucky Carter, ‘Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel: Confronting the Fourth Dimension’, ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 1/2 (2004), last accessed 14 March 2014 <http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v1_2/carter/ >.
  • Hughes, Jamie A., ‘”Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and “Real World” Superheroes’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 39/4 (2006), 546-57.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
  • McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).
  • Reynolds, Richard, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (London: B. T. Batsford, 1992).
  • Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, ‘Postmodernism: Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 325-28.
  • Thomson, Iain, ‘Deconstructing the Hero’, Comics as Philosophy, ed. Jeff McLaughlin (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 100-29.
  • Van Ness, Sara J., Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010).
  • Waugh, Patricia, Postmodernism: A Reader (London: Edward Arnold, 1992).
  • Wilde, Alan, ‘Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis’, Contemporary Literature, 20/1 (1979), 13-50.

© Justin Lau, 2015

Recommended Reading (5)

Looking for a good laugh? Here are 2 humorous pieces of sophisticated criticism for your enjoyment.

1. ‘Ebola: What It Is‘ by Teju Cole (7 October 2014 / non-fiction)

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© YouTube

It’s short, and it packs a punch.

Back when the Ebola virus epidemic hit its peak in October 2014, and traces began to appear in the US, the immediate and natural American response was paranoia (watch a hilarious clip from Russell Howard’s Good News: ‘The difference between US vs UK Ebola news coverage‘).

Then CNN broadcasts a groundbreaking, highly profound report, a shot of which you can see above: ‘EBOLA: “THE ISIS OF BIOLOGICAL AGENTS?”‘

Ridicule and criticism followed, but none as effective and powerful as this New Yorker piece by Teju Cole. It begins:

Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? Is Ebola the Boko Haram of AIDS? Is Ebola the al-Shabaab of dengue fever? Some say Ebola is the Milosevic of West Nile virus. Others say Ebola is the Ku Klux Klan of paper cuts. It’s obvious that Ebola is the MH370 of MH17.

And that’s just the start. Here are some of my favourite lines:

At first there was, understandably, the suspicion that Ebola was the Hitler of apartheid, but now it has become abundantly clear that Ebola is actually the George W. Bush of being forced to listen to someone’s podcast.

Look, I’m not the politically correct type, so I’m just going to put this out there: Ebola is the neo-Nazism of niggling knee injuries.

He aptly concludes:

But first let me open the discussion up to our panel and ask whether Ebola is merely the Fox News of explosive incontinence, or whether the situation is much worse than that and Ebola is, in fact, the CNN of CNN.

A brilliant tongue-in-cheek… oops, I meant completely serious piece by Teju Cole. As my friend put it: ‘Teju Cole truly is the maître d’ of sharpshooters.

About the author: Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American author of two works of fiction, Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief. His pieces of journalism make their rounds frequently in the major newspapers and magazines (New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, etc.). Follow him on Twitter (although he’s currently on a hiatus). Also, read about how he chose my 3-sentence story as one of the best in a small Twitter ‘competition’: ‘Creative Writing Prompts (Teju Cole and Neil Gaiman)‘.

2. ‘The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown‘ by Clive James (11 July 2013 / non-fiction)

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© Ian West/PA Wire/Press Association Images

When the subtitle is ‘The less his talent, the more amazing his achievement’, you know you’re in for a treat.

Disclaimer: If you’re a Dan Brown fan, and you know his writing is atrocious, read the article. If you’re a Dan Brown fan, and think he writes brilliant prose, DON’T click on the link.

In an article for Prospect magazine, Clive James, who at the time of the essay released an acclaimed translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, reviews Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno, which also contains allusions to Dante. Well, to be a bit more blunt, he rips it apart and tears it to shreds—with class and grace, of course. He begins:

As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful. Nevertheless it is still almost worth reading.

Some personal highlights:

[Dr Sienna Brown] has an IQ of 208 and at the age of four she was reading in three languages. You can picture the author at his desk, meticulously revising his original sentence in which, at the age of three, she was reading in four languages. Best to keep it credible.

Generally [Dan Brown] believes that a short paragraph will add pace, just as he believes that an ellipsis will add thoughtfulness. Groups of three dots appear in innumerable places, giving the impression that the narrative … has measles.

On top of the shaky language are piled the solecisms. “Pandora is out of her box.” (Dan, she was never in it.)

Ha-hah! Touché!

I’ve read most of Dan Brown’s books. I liked a few when I was younger, despised the rest. The last one I read was The Lost Symbol, published right before Inferno, and I was wholly appalled by the poor, poor quality of writing—I could swear it’d deteriorated since his earlier novels (but then again, I might have been too young to notice).

Which meant I never bothered to read Inferno; and after reading this hilarious review by Clive James, I’m glad I didn’t. Or maybe I should read it? James does give a most convincing argument about it being ‘enjoyably awful’…

About the author: (from Wikipedia) Clive James is ‘an Australian-British author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism.’

New Publication (‘What accent are you?’)

Have you ever stopped in the middle of a conversation to think consciously about what accent you’re speaking in? To check if you’re pronouncing things ‘correctly’?

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© Denizen

Thus begins my latest TCK essay entitled ‘What accent are you?‘ published just yesterday by Denizen, a highly acclaimed ‘online magazine and community dedicated to people who grew up in multiple countries, international school alumni, or Third Culture Kids.’

Now my faithful readers might be thinking, ‘Wait a minute, haven’t I already read something related to accents on your blog?’ You’re absolutely right. Back in September 2014, I wrote the post ‘Accents of the English Language‘ which documented my English accent transformations, starting from Singaporean English, to American English, to British English, and finally to Mid-Atlantic English.

Essentially, this latest essay contains many of the same points made in that post, but it’s much less a rambling rant (my blog post was pretty much a dump of undeveloped stream-of-consciousness) and more a coherent, properly-structured memoir. Plus, I’ve added several never-before-seen-or-told photos and amusing anecdotes. So please have a read, and if you like it, please share it!

1 Japan (Justin Lau)

Some of my fourth grade classmates at Christian Academy in Japan, the American international school I attended. (Me: front row, second from left, kid with glasses.)

Special thanks to my editor, Steph Yiu, who is also the founder of Denizen! A fellow TCK, she has lived in Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Edinburgh, Portland, Chicago and Boston. She has also written a humorous essay regarding her accent experiences (like me, she attended an American school) which you can read here: ‘The white lies TCKs tell‘. Follow her on Twitter and check out her blog.

In fact, if you’re a TCK who wants to read well-written personal stories to feel a sense of solidarity or articles for advice, do browse around Denizen—it’s a great site, created by TCKs for TCKs. If you’re not a TCK, and you’re wondering what in the world is a TCK, you can start here: ‘Third Culture Kids‘; or you can read my previous article here: ‘TCKs: Children of the World‘.

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BONUS: if you read ‘What accent are you?‘ and you’re dying to know what my Transatlantic accent sounds like, you can watch a bunch of YouTube videos of my friend BradfromBradford and I discussing the differences between British and American English here: ‘Talking British‘. I’m supposedly speaking Mid-Atlantic English with British inflections. Maybe. I think. Who knows. What do you think?

Effectiveness of Literature: Marxist Relationship Between Art and Ideologies

urlHow effective is literature? Does literature, or any art for that matter, have the potential to change lives, and even the world?

Ever since I first learnt about ideologies last year in my Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism module when studying about Marxism, I can’t help but view everything taught and believed suspiciously, aware that socially constructed ideologies permeate our lives, whether consciously or subconsciously. But it’s only when one achieves awareness, understands and transcends this notion of ideologies, that one takes a closer step towards discovering truths, both personal and social. And I earnestly desire to expose and criticise constructively such ideologies through my own writing.

5987588217_ca2d075c9e_zI’m not a Marxist critic—this was simply an essay I wrote last year addressing the issue of ‘the effectiveness of literature’ from a Marxist viewpoint. It’s also rather simplistic and not very in-depth. But there are several substantial points and issues raised; and it’s certainly helped me to reconsider the effects and consequences of literature.

I also encountered, in my reading, a book entitled The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer (1963) which is very insightful and unabashedly advocates the power contained within art to influence society for the better (or worse, depending on your motives). If you want to delve deeper into the issue of the effects of art, I highly recommend checking it out.

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Effectiveness of Literature: the Marxist Relationship Between Art and Ideologies
by Justin Lau

Literature and art have been involved in major turning points throughout history. The extent of literature’s direct effects have understandably been debated and challenged. However, literature has always presented the world through a filter of light, often reflecting societal, political, and cultural conditions in which humanity has found itself present. Marxist critics have latched onto this concept by advocating their theories about the relationship between art and ideologies. Wilson says: ‘What Marxism can do […] is throw a great deal of light on the origins and social significance of works of art.’[1] Through an examination of such revolutionary perspectives, one can see that literature has not only been used as tools of political or social motivations, but its effectiveness has stood the test of time, bringing about radical changes that are difficult to deny.

‘Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world.‘[2] Ernst Fischer is ultimately saying, in a shortened and more concise paraphrase, that ‘literature can change the world.’ This bold statement often finds its way from the lips of many Marxist critics, albeit in various reworked forms, from Althusser to Eagleton. But to what extent can this statement claim to be true? Is literature, in actuality, nothing more than a form of entertainment with no apparent value? Before this complex issue can be addressed, one must first examine the beginnings of Marxism in order to understand the basis of this particularly literary theory and its subsequent dealings with ideologies. From Marx and Engels’ base and superstructure theories stemmed two extreme main streams of Marxist criticism: ‘Engelsian’ and ‘Leninist’. According to Peter Barry, Steiner described the ‘Leninist’ view as insisting ‘on the need for art to be explicitly committed to the political cause of the Left.’[3] This resulted in the 1930s in the Soviet State’s all-encompassing control over literature and other forms of arts through an imposing of ‘socialist realism’. One can see how literature was quickly forced to adopt a role to fulfil Lenin’s specific political program. Subsequent uses of literature as a tool for political motivations and spreading certain ideologies were carried out through what Althusser termed the ISAs, or ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’.

Louis-Althusser-Quotes-1Althusser was quick to realise the State’s use of both Repressive State Apparatuses, such as law courts or the army which functioned ‘by violence’, and Ideological State Appratuses, such as schools, churches, and art which functioned ‘by ideology’, in order to exercise ‘its hegemony’.[4] This cunning system made people believe that the way they ‘live out their roles in class-society’ and ‘the values, ideas and images’ which define their lives are absolutely normal and natural, when in fact it prevents ‘them from a true knowledge of society as a whole.’[5] Secrets are kept by the State through a deceptive method of enforcing ideologies that are thought of as the individual’s own way of thinking, when in reality they are aligned with the interests of the government. Balibar and Macherey describe the ‘bourgeois ‘cultural revolution’’ as the bourgeois class achieving hegemony by establishing its ‘political, economic and ideological dominance’ through the formation of new ideologies, disseminated ‘through new ISAs’.[6] This deceiving interpellation often remains unchecked and the unrecognised ‘systems of false consciousness’ must be exposed.[7]

Base-superstructure_DialecticThis is where literature steps in to overcome these oppressors. Marxist critics not only view literature as a work produced and influenced by the cultural and societal ideologies around them, but also as being able to affect the base from which it originates. The relationship between the base and superstructure is dialectical, and Eagleton remarks that ‘the text […] is a certain production of ideology’; it is precisely because literature is a production that it can affect its source.[8] This carries with it important connotations, for not only does literature reflect and expose hidden realities of society, but it can also potentially and effectively change the society which it deals with. Eagleton interestingly describes two extreme views of the relationship between literature and ideology: one, that literary works are merely ‘reflections of dominant ideologies’ also known as ‘vulgar Marxist’ criticism; two, that literature ‘always transcends the ideological limits of its time’, revealing truths and realities often hidden from view.[9] There is a middle ground presented by Althusser that connects these two extreme views, in which he proposes that art is ‘held within ideology’ but at the same time distances itself from it.[10] He suggests that art allows people to see, perceive, and feel ‘the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.’[11] A work of literature does not necessarily allow people to know the truth, but rather to experience the context from which it emerges from, thus leading to a deeper understanding. The importance of literary theory is exemplified here, for the writer who ‘translates social facts into literary ones’ must be followed up by a critic who will ‘de-code them back into reality.’[12]

But what about literature which does not consciously seek to expose and bring about change, but rather solely to provide entertainment? It is true that literature can be read superficially. Fischer notes that ‘countless millions read books’ to ‘seek distraction, relaxation, entertainment’.[13] But one must not forget that every work has the potentiality of causing revolution. Writers, whether they are aware of it or not, are undoubtedly influenced, whether consciously or subconsciously, by their environment and their works may easily contain unintended elements of criticism or commentary. According to Macherey, Sartre had mentioned: ‘All writing has a meaning, even if this meaning is remote from that which the author has dreamt of putting there’.[14] In elaboration, Fischer remarks that art carries ‘the role of illuminating social relationships, of enlightening men in societies becoming opaque, of helping men to recognize and change social reality.’[15] Plekhanov held that ‘only art which serves history rather than immediate pleasure is valuable’; though one must not undermine the freedom of pleasure reading, one must perpetually recognise that all literature holds the potential to serve history.[16]

Literature enlightens people about social, political, and economic situations, provides the possibilities of criticisms, and acts as a means to spur people on into action. Nineteenth-century Russian ‘revolutionary democratic’ critics believed that the artist should be a ‘social enlightener’ and literature should serve as ‘social criticism and analysis’ as well as an ‘instrument of social development.’[17] Marxism ‘leads directly to programmes of action’ in ‘the possibility of re-creating human society’ and emphasises the need to be active and not passive.[18] ‘Change’ is the keyword when talking about the effectiveness of literature; people constantly desire change. Fischer asks the question, ‘why is our own existence not enough?’ and answers it himself: ‘man wants to be more than just himself. He wants to be a whole man […] a world that makes sense.’[19] Man desires a coherent, comprehensible world, one that is free from ‘coercion, injustice, hunger, and chaos’; and in the pursuit of such a world, change is necessary.[20] But can literature really bring about change?

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

La Liberté guidant le peuple

Examining several examples in history demonstrates just how effective art, especially literature, can be. Morawski refers to the Greeks, explaining how Greek art expressed the ‘whole significance of the society’ and the ‘highest human values’.[21] These works of art were ‘bound up with certain forms of social development’, highlighting the importance of art in correlation with their societal progress.[22] Fischer introduces the ‘Romantic protest against the bourgeois-capitalist world’ as an exceedingly successful revolution.[23] Figures like Byron and the ‘Romantic idealization of folk lore and folk art’ served as weapons for ‘stirring up the people against degrading conditions’ of ‘medieval bondage.’[24] Fischer takes it even further by claiming that the adoption of realism by bourgeois writers and artists have resulted in a successful representation of social reality in ‘England, France, Russia, and America.’[25] Literature has transcended not only ideologies but also history, working as an ‘art of protest, criticism, and revolt.’[26] The power of literature lies, according to Williams, in its ability to reflect, break up, expose, and displace ideologies, glorified as a ‘potent source of emancipatory and critical possibilities.’[27] The effectiveness of literature and its capability to change society can hardly be questioned after such evidence and most Marxist critics have expounded this to an extent, but several critics have argued about the ‘nature of the relationship between literature and ideology’; what then is the best method of theoretical approach and interpretation?[28]

Althusser’s undeniable influence on Marxist criticism has served as a subject of in-depth examination and analysis. His theories on the relationship between art and ideologies have provided an extremely beneficial overview. But though he acknowledges the need to ‘see’ ideology through art, he often refrains from explaining the essential practicalities in exercising such a concept. Other critics have sought to expand on Althusser’s theories, Macherey being one of the more significant critics. In regards to ideology, Macherey says that fiction ‘is aimed at […] exposing it, helping to release us from it.’[29] ‘What is important in the work is what it does not say’: his emphasis on the gaps and silences of a text to reveal truth was a major milestone in the history of Marxist criticism.[30] But what about the text itself, what it actually says? Do silences speak all?

Lukacs and Brecht, both champions in their own right, have continually battled out their stance on the most effective form of art. Lukacs fight for ‘realism’ and ‘totality’ is entirely reminiscent of Engels own remarks in 1888: ‘Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.’[31] Lukacs says that the ‘literature of realism, aiming at a truthful reflection of reality, must demonstrate both the concrete and abstract potentialities of human beings’.[32] This will be the most effective way of recreating a ‘harmonious totality of human life’, which will combat society’s ‘alienation and fragmentation’.[33] Lukacs makes the important point of art not only having to reflect society but also to reveal ‘positive possibilities’ for necessary progress.[34] Though Lukacs’ realism and totality can be an effective way of bringing about change by straightforward exposure, his utopian idealism and ‘glance forward’ carries with it the risk of mystifying the ‘social reality of the present’.[35]

chalkOn the other hand, Brecht’s themes of ‘epic theatre’ and ‘alienation effect’ presented a modernist approach of defamiliarising art to expose ‘contradictions’ and ‘the processes of naturalisation.’[36] He desired to change the world through ‘enlightening and stimulating action’ that will bring about the abolishment of these contradictions.[37] His method of reproducing reality (‘making strange’) was different in the sense that he understood the impossibility of reflecting life exactly: ‘If art reflects life it does so with special mirrors.’[38] Even Adorno espoused Brecht with his view that ‘only avant-garde art is capable of penetrating through the veils of ideology’.[39] But despite Lukacs and Brecht’s conflict, they were both aware that ‘all art is conditioned by time, and represents humanity […] the ideas and aspirations, the needs and hopes’ and were advocators of ‘constant development.’[40] There was no time to waste idling around and being passive receivers of enforced ideologies; change was necessary and inevitable.

zzzLiterature will never be limited to just one way of writing or one ideology. What makes literature so powerful is its unique capability to adapt to various styles, forms, and contents in order to accommodate the very environment it is produced in and by. ‘Significant developments in literary form […] result from significant changes in ideology.’[41] And as ideologies evolve over time, literature will follow suit, producing ‘new means of expression […] in order to depict new realities.’[42] Adorno pointed out that often times literature, especially ‘poetic subjectivity is itself indebted to privilege’; but it is the role and responsibility of the privileged, of those who are aware of the critical meanings in literature to inform and educate those who are still yet unaware.[43] As new societal problems emerge, awareness through literary presentation must occur in order for change to come about. Brecht believed in changing the world, but he was also mindful that ‘every answer leads to a new question and that nothing on earth is final.’[44] He knew that ‘new things must arise against all odds’, and it is this very attitude that has allowed mankind to survive and improve humanity.[45] Literature has played its part in history and its effectiveness cannot be denied. It will continue to fulfil its role in the future, carrying with it the tremendous potential to solve problems, save souls, and change individuals, societies, and even the world. In this sense, man and literature must never lose sight of the ‘pleasure of changing reality.’[46]

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[1] Edmund Wilson, ‘Marxism and literature’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), p. 246.
[2] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, trans. Anna Bostock (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1970), p. 14.
[3] Peter Barry, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 154.
[4] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1971), p. 138-9.
[5] Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. 15.
[6] Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, ‘From ‘Literature as an Ideological Form’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 135.
[7] Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 104.
[8] Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1998), p. 64.
[9] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 16.
[10] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 16.
[11] Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, p. 204.
[12] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 41.
[13] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 7.
[14] Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978), p. 78.
[15] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 14.
[16] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 41.
[17] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 41.
[18] Edmund Wilson, ‘Marxism and literature’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), p. 252.
[19] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 8.
[20] Stefan Morawski, ‘Introduction’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), p. 10.
[21] Morawski, ‘Introduction’, p. 36.
[22] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 11.
[23] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 67.
[24] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 56.
[25] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 67.
[26] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 102.
[27] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 107.
[28] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 103.
[29] Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, p. 64.
[30] Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, p. 87.
[31] Friedrich Engels, ‘The Problem of Realism’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), p. 114.
[32] Georg Lukacs, ‘From The Meaning of Contemporary Realism’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 111.
[33] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 26.
[34] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 48.
[35] Morawski, ‘Introduction’, p. 11.
[36] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 105.
[37] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 14.
[38] Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), p. 204.
[39] Rice and Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, p. 106.
[40] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 12.
[41] Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 23.
[42] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 114.
[43] Theodor Adorno, ‘From ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 114.
[44] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 99.
[45] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 99.
[46] Fischer, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, p. 10.

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Bibliography:

Primary:

  • Adorno, Theodor, ‘From ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 114-21.
  • Althusser, Louis, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1971).
  • Balibar, Etienne and Pierre Macherey, ‘From ‘Literature as an Ideological Form’’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 134-42.
  • Brecht, Bertolt, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), 179-205.
  • Eagleton, Terry, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1998).
    • Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Routledge Classics, 2002).
  • Engels, Friedrich, ‘The Problem of Realism’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), 103-16.
  • Fischer, Ernst, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, trans. Anna Bostock (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1970).
  • Lukacs, Georg, ‘From The Meaning of Contemporary Realism’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 108-14.
  • Macherey, Pierre, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978).
  • Williams, Raymond, ‘From Marxism and Literature’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 122-34.
    • — ‘Realism and the contemporary novel’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), 580-91.
  • Wilson, Edmund, ‘Marxism and literature’, 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), 240-52.

Secondary:

  • Barry, Peter, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
  • Brooker, Peter, ’14 – Key words in Brecht’s theory and practice of theatre’, The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. Peter Thomson & Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 185-200.
  • Jha, Prabhakara, ‘Western Marxism and Literary Modernism’, Economic and Political Weekly, 17/44 (1982), 1787-92.
  • Morawski, Stefan, ‘Introduction’, Marx & Engels on Literature & Art: a selection of writings, ed. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), 3-47.
  • Mulhern, Francis (ed.), Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism (New York: Longman Group UK Limited, 1992).
  • Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, ‘Section 3: Marxism Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 103-8.

© Justin Lau, 2015