Human mind is a weird thing

My childhood friend got married couple months ago. Amid the usual hectic administration requirements for a wedding, she found that her father’s name did not match with the name in her birth certificate. She was reportedly angry that the problem persisted.

It was not the first time she got angry with the discrepancy of her father’s name in documents. The non-problem happened simply because, as you might have expected, the father is not her biological father. Her biological father died when she was a child and her mother remarried with the man that she now believes to be her biological father.

I understand that the common practice in my hometown for adopted children or step children is to tell lies. They are led to believe that their guardians are biological parents. They may or may not be told the truth when they become adults. It’s completely optional.

My childhood friend’s case, however, is rather peculiar to me. We are the same age. When her mother remarried, I clearly remembered the process. As clear as day. I even remembered people were joking that this neighbor was going to marry a widow (calm down, SJW, it was pre-internet and pre-political correctness era). I remember running around playing games during the wedding.

If I can remember it, why this childhood friend can’t? Again, we are the same age. Even though she was told lies, how couldn’t she educate herself?

Because long before her wedding, she already ran into similar problems. When we were in elementary school, she went home crying because her father’s name in her school record was a name she couldn’t recognize. Each time I heard she got angry over the exact same problem, I could not believe that the thing was still going on.

I don’t want to go sci-fi but I think this is the case where human mind tricks us into believing what we want to believe because we can’t handle the truth. This childhood friend’s memory is simply creating a delusion that hijacks the objective reality.

Now can we just spare a moment and ask ourselves which objective realities that have been hijacked by our minds 😐

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Why, never the right time

There are two things that I want and have been fighting for since years ago: A and B. I want a lot of things, of course, but these A and B are the goals that I’ve been relentlessly and consistently pursuing despite all the failures.

Last month, I was so excited because there is a very high possibility that I will get A. It will become definitive around February or March next year. Finally, there’s something I’m looking forward to.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s also a very high possibility that I will get B. If they come in the right time and in the right order, they are just perfect. But obviously, they will have to be conflicting, and consequently, I cannot get both. Choosing one will revoke the other. I have exhausted all possible middle grounds and loopholes, back and forth, and resulted in naught.

I shouldn’t have been surprised actually. Typical my life. Everyone else around me could get both A and B effortlessly but not me. My friends told me that it’s not that bad, and that I can choose either A or B now and fight again next time for the other.

That sounds easy but when you get to be lucky after a decade of trying, you can’t just let go of it without wondering when or whether you will ever get to be lucky again.

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An apology to modern literature

I tried to read modern literary works when I was an undergrad student, in semester 4 or 5. My English was limited and the curriculum was heavy on Victorian novels. So I read Mrs Dalloway and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in between assignments of Tess of the  D’urbervilles and Wuthering Heights.

I didn’t like them instantly. Mrs Dalloway didn’t make sense and A Portrait was too trivial. Probably because I was young and I demanded concrete action in plots, which were easily the heart of Victorian literary landscape (my undergrad thesis is Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist).

It was from this first attempts that I draw cynical conclusion about modern literary works. I am normally cynical but this was more than usual. I carried out this perception even until I teach and told students that anti-realist tendencies in modern literary works are just excuses for bad writing.

Forgive me for I have sinned!

Only recently did I try to revisit Mrs Dalloway. Probably because I have aged (just as probably because I was young) that I suddenly understand it, and that I become more attracted to contemplation than concrete action. And the absence of objectives and well-made plots is actually powerful.

Because that is life: chaotic, purposeless, random, and isolating.

So I should retract my assessments and now firmly say that modern writers, in fact, know what they’re doing.

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Writing voices

There is “create” in “creative writing”. Or “creat”, to be precise, goddamit English syntax! It differentiates creative writing from other types of writing. Academic Writing, the course that you have to take at least 3 times until you get the passing grade, heavily requires you to follow conventions. The heart of academic writing is losing your personality to impersonal statutes.

The heart of creative writing, on the other hand, is to create and invent. Right after saying that, I need to say that what we’re going to learn in Creative Writing, is the conventions of creative writing 🙂

Why not. Literature itself is always in the tension between convection and invention.

In next parts, I will break down this course into genres of creative writing, which are fiction, poetry, drama, and personal narrative. But before that, I will start with features generally found on all genres of creative writing.
That first feature is voice. Voice here means almost literally, such as talks, conversations, yelling, swearing, anything that translates into sound that appeals to the ears.

Interestingly, critics believe that literature is developed from oral tradition and never completely evolves to become written tradition. It always tries to reduce the gap between the spoken and the written. Its power, is its proximity with the spoken.

Taking voice into further place is the consideration to dialects and accents. Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin says that “diversity of speech is the ground of style.” Characters speak and yell and whisper differently, let’s say, in Charles Dickens’ and Jane Austen’s novels.

“Please, Sir, I want some more.”

“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

twist some more

In other words, voices are generated by what you write. But there is a voice nonetheless. So in order to get your voice, ironically, you have to listen and copy what you hear. In an interview, Seth Macfarlane said that he invented the character Peter Griffin from a person he knew from senior high school–a security personnel of some sort–who happened to have a very annoying voice.

So listen carefully to what people say around you, write them down, and listen again to how they sound in writing.

Paul Mills, 2006, The Routledge Creative Writing Coursebook, Routledge.

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Bridging word/image

On the first post I mentioned that the course Film and Literature is the attempt to bridge the awkward relationship between film and literature. Even postmodernist thinkers, who tend to refuse structured arts, believe in word/image war. Elliot in Stam and Raengo (2006) compiled some of the statements:

Barthes: “there is never a real incorporation since the substances of the two structures (graphic and iconic) are irreducible.”

Foucault: “statements” and “visibilities,” are pure, a priori elements. (With Foucault, however, you can never be sure of what he’s trying to say).

Miller: “Neither the meaning of a picture nor the meaning of a sentence is by any means translatable. The picture means itself. The sentence means itself. The two can never meet.”

Ironically, film and literary critics belong to the same body of critical systems. Both of them derive their arguments from the same philosophical roots, and even down to technical approaches. Except for specific aspects of film, such as mise en scene (setting, lighting, composition), cinematography, editing, or sound, film criticism formulate their arguments similarly with that of literary criticism. It even uses the same jargon such as calling film as “text” and seeing as “reading”.

rotten tomatoes

Thus, it is easy to argue otherwise. There is apparently “language” in film and “image” in literature. Critics believe that western film is started from Victorian literature, where novels employed vivid images in a pattern that films later adopted.

This course, Film and Literature, however, will not pursue much of this aesthetic differentiation (and collision) between literature and film. This course belongs to American Studies division in my department and the art is only one approach from other multidisciplinary approaches. It is mostly focused on introducing film and its elements, literature and its elements, and theory of adaptation.

Art theories? Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

Stam, Robert and Alessandra Raengo, 2006, A Companion to Film and Literature, Blackwell Publishing.

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Not your daily drama

Drama is the awkward family member of literature. Drama, when written, is verbal art and undeniably literature. It also uses exactly the same devices as other literary forms, including character, plot, setting, and conflict.

Drama, however, doesn’t stop there. Its dramatic element needs to be realized as performance. Drama is written to be performed, and this creates all technical complexities and inadequacy in approaches normally used for other forms of verbal art. And aren’t we in academia just love technicalities.

This dramatic element usually also bridges the proliferation of literary studies to film, which is also performed narrative through dramatic action. It should be mentioned, however, that some critics believe that the natural ancestor of film is novel, explaining why adaptation from novel to film is rampant due to their similar dynamics.

Except for drama marked as “closet drama”, which is intended to be read than performed, there is a transformation between the text and the stage. Its artistic medium goes from text to other forms of art, which together could create completely different meaning compared to its textual form. From the side of consumption, drama needs to be read and seen.

From the side of production, drama is also more chaotic as it has a lot of uncontrollable factors. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a masterpiece, but the actor performs it poorly maybe because he’s not a good actor or because he’s not satisfied with the pay, and the drama fails. Good actor, satisfied with his working environment, but the accent is just wrong, then the drama fails.

As a conclusion, let’s consider the definition of drama by G. B. Tennyson:

“Drama is a story that people act out on a stage before spectators”

As pointed out by the definition, drama can be approached at least from three aspects: “story”, “people act out on a stage”, and “spectators”. The “story” aspect makes drama literature and can be studied using narrative theories. Its performance on a stage is the hybrid nature of drama and needs interdisciplinary art criticism. Spectators also significantly determine the receptive meaning of drama, and can be studied using psychological or sociological approaches.

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What is literature

Literature is like porn. It’s hard to define, but we always know when to call a creature literature. Having said that, literary studies as an academic discipline just cannot avoid to define its object. Except maybe for some semi-poet academics who insist on maintaining the idea that literature, they might also add “like life itself”, is indefinable.

In comprehensive exams, I like to ask this simple question “what is literature” and most of the time get answers that can be easily invalidated.

“Literature is the work of art that uses beautiful language,” answered a student.

“Many novels and poems use swearing words and are violent. Are they not literature?”

“Literature uses figurative language,” answered another.

“News stories use figurative language all the time. Are they literature?”

“Literature uses literary devices such as plot, conflict, characters.”

“Biographies use those. Are they literature?”

And after establishing an agreement about the definition of literature, I usually go on asking “are holy books literature?” and “Then, who holds the authorship of holy books?” just for fun.

Is this literature

Basically, to put it simplistically, there are two ways to define literature. One is “everything is literature” and the other “nothing is literature”. The ancient battle between the conservatives and liberals.

Everything-is-literature flexibly defines literature. Basically if you are able to argue that there is a literary element in anything, you can call it literature. Academics with this view will quickly say that film is literature, comic book is literature, PC game is literature, advertising is literature, and the list could easily expand.

Nothing-is-literature only recognizes literature in its most familiar forms, namely novel, poetry, drama. They don’t even like experimental works, those that are not really novel or not really poetry. So if you need to ask if a work of art literature, then it is not.

This is, of course, an exaggeration to help describe the two extremes. There are more analytical approaches to defining literature, which I’ll probably discuss on the next post. But at this point it is enough to understand first that definitions are always problematic in literary studies. It can just go far, far beyond textual analysis like what we used to learn in school.

Btw, I usually like to emphasize in this course’ first meetings about the difference between literature as art and literary studies. English Departments basically don’t do literature as art (except if they specifically mention “creative writing”). What they do instead is literary studies as science. If someone discredits you for not being a poet after getting a degree from the English Department, you can slap them right in the face.

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Maybe a teaching journal

I’m preparing classes for the next semester and thinking of making a sort of teaching journal. I never did this and not sure how to do it, especially because blogging is apparently dead for quite sometime now. What I want is just short notes to record things I’d probably need to revisit next years (if I haven’t changed jobs to pursue career in espionage).

This semester, which will be started significantly earlier than formerly planned due to Idulfitri holiday adjustment (very religious reason), I will teach four courses: Introduction to English Literature, American Drama, Film and Literature, and Creative Writing.

Four courses?

too much work

Introduction to English Literature, as the name clearly suggests, will cover basic concepts of literary studies. American Drama covers the concepts of drama, drama in the US, and important playwrights and plays. Film and Literature is an attempt to bridge what is currently still awkward relation between the two narrative arts. And Creative Writing is practical (compared to mostly critical) approach to literary production.

I know that a stated plan like this post is a bad sign in blogosphere: where nothing actually happens afterwards. To this, I don’t have something smart to say. Sorry.

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Philosophizing toe injuries

Three days ago, I slipped when I tried to chase that damn feral cat did a heroic deed and managed to hurt my right toe. Naturally, I overthought the accident. Until I came to an understanding about privileges in life.

I think I began the question long time ago. There was this TV character I encountered when I was a kid. The basic plot, as I vaguely remember, tells the main character’s mission to avenge something I don’t remember. In order to succeed, he needs to master this incredible power. The downside: the power can only be mastered by blind people.

The main character decides to get his own eyes blinded (he stabbed his eyes, if I am not mistaken).

It didn’t make any sense to me. How would blind eyes make a better fighter? Or was it really worth it? I still think it’s irrational and unreasonable. But now, at least to some extent, I get the basic working of the philosophical argument.

Privileges weaken us, not the other way around. If we are healthy and strong, we tend to take things for granted and there is a constant sense that there is always another day to do things. Why not, things feel easy, there’s no need to rush. Or if we’re wealthy and money is never a problem, we take decisions relatively free from fear of mistakes.

A friend of mine is a good driver. But because he paid a sum of money for car insurance, he suddenly became reckless and almost once a month got bad scratches or even broke a wing mirror. Privileges cause moral hazard just like insurance.

So I got my right toe injured. It took literally (meant as figuratively) an hour just to move from bedroom to bathroom. I lost the privilege of mobility. (Yes, mobility is a privilege. In fact, everything could be a privilege. I’ll argue elaborately about this another time).

And when mobility became a luxury, came the economy of everything. I calculated every move before getting up. Before I struggled to move, I made a mental list of things I needed to do on the way there. I became very efficient.

Also, with limited movement, came the opportunity to work without distraction. I’d just be satisfied spending the day sitting in front of the computer and finishing my work just to kill time. I became effective in doing my work.

That’s all, though. I need to stop before I become motivational and start to say things like changing a mindset to see problems as opportunities, or being grateful with everything we get in life or whatnot. Too much positive thinking in one short article.

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