Thursday, January 30, 2014

Brave New World & Baudelaire

After finishing The Book Thief (which is absolutely fantastic), I stopped at the greatest place on earth (B&N) to buy some new books. Even though I have over 27 books lying around waiting to be read, I couldn't stop myself from buying a few more. So what is Miranda reading right now, you ask? Brave New World. I've often heard it referenced, but quite frankly I've never understood what all the hype was about. After reading the introduction I now understand why it's so fascinating to everyone. I haven't begun reading it yet, and I can already envision what it will be about. What struck me most was not the explanation of super-utilitarianism or technologically designed humans, but the reference to ennui. Yes, ennui, a term coined in our most recent subject, Baudelaire's "To The Reader." In Brave New World, it is stated that humans fall prey to this ennui, and I can't help but imagine the disturbing imagery in "To The Reader" that describes the results of boredom.

Immortality through Poetry

After reading A Carcass by Baudelaire in class, I automatically thought of at least three poems that have a similar theme of immortality, which is a lot considering I'm not much of a poetry-enthusiast. In particular, Amoretti LXXV by Edmund Spenser stood out to me (probably because I really like it).

"One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."

In the poem, a man is writing the name of his love in the sand in order to have her and their love immortalize. However, waves keep washing away what he has written. A female voice, most likely his beloved, tells him his work is in vain because you cannot make something immortal that isn't meant to be. He tells her she is wrong and that she will be immortalize through his sonnet ("…,but you shall live in fame: My verse your vertues rare shall eternize"). This line by Spenser is extremely similar to lines from Baudelaire's last stanza in A Carcass. It states, "…That I am the keeper of corpses of love Of the form, and the essence divine!" 

Frued and Divergent

I've found a lot of our most recent discussions pertaining to Freud very interesting. Right now I am reading Divergent, (there is about to be a movie about it) which is about a dystopian Chicago. I saw a few similarities between the book and Freud and psychoanalysis. In the book, each member of each faction goes under a simulation when they turn 16 which determines which faction they are most compatible with. This simulation digs deep into each persons subconscious as they undergo a test while unconscious. The way they respond to the test reveals their subconscious intentions. In the book, the main character Tris is a Divergent because she is able to maintain her consciousness while under the simulation. As a result, she shows signs of belonging to three different factions. As a Divergent, she can manipulate the simulations and in a way protect her subconscious. This makes her harder to control, which becomes a threat to the leaders of the Erudite faction. To develop these simulations the Erudites must have had to study Freudian concepts of psychoanalysis. From what I understand, psychoanalysis basically tries to make you conscious of your subconscious. In the simulations in Divergent the test digs into your subconscious to help you understand how you would react to certain situations and in return determine which faction you belong to. Basically, after the test you are more conscious of your subconscious. I don't know too much about Freud and Psychoanalysis so everything I said above might be completely wrong but I do find the subject very interesting and would like to study it more in the future. I'm really interested in learning more about how the brain works and why people behave certain ways.

Gregor and I

I didn't have trouble sympathizing with Gregor; I definitely felt bad for the bug/man. However, I don't think we have many similarities, and I feel like people usually sympathize with those they can relate to. I would never work in such a untrusting environment. I enjoy having freedom. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like growing up or moving to a different country where you're not free. A country like North Korea, Vietnam, or China, for example, where the government restricts the people by doing everything from monitoring the internet to killing those who betray or speak out against them. It's hard to imagine living a life like that, constantly in fear. I think Gregor was in fear like those in North Korea, Vietnam, and China today. He was fearful of his boss, his family, and to some extent himself. I think if he would have stood up for himself and showed a little more confidence, he wouldn't have turned into a bug. Instead, he let fear take over his life.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Different Pictures

So I was looking up some pictures of Gregor to get an idea of what other people pictured him as, and I got a lot of different results. A lot of them I expected, like pictures of cockroaches on beds and a few dung beetles, but others surprised me, like one that seemed to be some sort of play adaptation. I've attached a few of the ones I found.

A Question That Haunts Me

Frankly, Underground Man drove me crazy. I understand that Dostoevsky intentionally didn’t make Underground Man the most likeable character, but I still strongly disliked being inside his head. He was essentially battling Oskar for the number one spot on my “Least Favorite Character” list. Having said that, you can imagine my relief when Gregor came along. Gregor, who is almost selfless to a fault, is a character I can root for.
         This great disparity among the characters we have read about makes me wonder why authors make a character either likeable or unlikeable. This obviously goes far beyond the protagonist/antagonist, hero/villain device. What is the literary value of making a character either likeable or unlikeable? You would think this question would have a simple answer, but I personally can’t seem to figure it out. What truly confuses me is why Dostoevsky made Underground Man such an unbearable character, especially since he seems to represent many of Dostoevsky’s own ideals (i.e. his view that humans are not naturally good, freedom to choose is the ultimate goal, and scientific rationalism is the end all). For me, when I don’t like a character and honestly question their mental stability, it makes me less inclined to agree with their opinions on anything really. So why on earth would Dostoevsky use Underground Man to get across so many of his own opinions? My friend, this is the question that haunts me. Unfortunately, I’m about 133 years too late to ask Dostoevsky personally.

The Little Comma That Could

I don't know about y'all, but I am an avid supporter of the Oxford/Serial comma (not joking). If you've been following the endless debate on the controversial little comma, you'd know I'm not the only one. Fun Fact: The Oxford comma got its name from the Oxford University Press, where it has been traditionally used by editors. If you have no idea what I am talking about, the Oxford comma is the comma that comes before the conjunction in a series of words. Basically, it’s used to prevent any confusion or ambiguity.
Here’s an example:

“Among those interviewed were his two friends, Jane and John.” 
In this sentence, it could be taken that Jane and John were his two friends.

“Among those interviewed were his two friends, Jane, and John.”
Now the Oxford Comma has clarified that his two friends were interviewed, as well as Jane and John.

DEBATE WON with that example. I'm being biased and not writing the argument on the other side of the debate because, frankly, it doesn't make sense to me. By the way, MLA likes the Oxford comma too.

Side Note: You should listen to Oxford Comma by Vampire Weekend. I really don’t know what it is about or what it has to do with the Oxford comma, but it’s a pretty great song. 

Debussy's Symbolism

Sam noted in a comment on my last post on Debussy that he is also associated with the Symbolist movement.  I wasn't really aware of the connection, but looking at Debussy's opus there is a pretty clear indirect connection.  While the aesthetic characteristics of Symbolism are somewhat hard to transfer to music, composers like Debussy tried to carry over the effect of Symbolist works like Les Fleurs du Mal.  The most famous of Debussy's works to show this influence is Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), which a somewhat programmatic piece that attempts to convey a symbolist poem (The Afternoon of a Fawn by Stéphane Mallarmé); you can read a translation here.  However, I can't really say that the piece is Symbolist; it's definitely not at all realist, but nor does it make much use of symbolism.  Here is a recording:

Another of Debussy's Symbolist works is his suite Cinq Poemes de Baudelaire, which sets to music five poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, none of which we read.  I am not a fan of this suite; I don't think it even sounds like Debussy, but here is a recording of the first piece, Le Balcon.  There is a link to some translations in the description:

However, neither of these pieces actually contains any sort of symbols.  The closest thing in music to a symbol is a motif, which can simultaneously represent a figure in a programmatic work or opera (like Berlioz's Idée Fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique) and an abstract idea--in the aforementioned work, the motif represents love.  This extension, though, opens up works from Beethoven to Shostakovich to the "Symbolist" label.  A piece that not only contains such a symbolic motif but also contains the Symbolist characteristic of capturing an abstract idea, thought, or feeling is Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony "Resurrection".  Here is a recording:

This long and very complex piece contains innumerable potentially symbolic motifs.  The most well-known and symbolic is the rising and falling syncopated (here, I mean alternating long and short notes) scales, which are almost always present either in some form or another, starting at 2:08 in the woodwinds.  The most notable and famous of these figures is the eponymous "Resurrection" theme, beginning suddenly at 1:03:24 and first recited in 1:03:41.  The Resurrection theme is one of the most famous symphonic melodies ever; it is triumphant and march-like, but contains echoes of the Dies Irae and repeatedly starts to modulate into a minor key.  Like Symbolist works, it represents a concrete image--resurrection--in an abstract, non-programmatic setting, and tries to evoke a sensation rather than strictly an image.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Spirit Animal

Have you ever taken one of those "what is your spirit animal" quizzes or tried to associate a specific spirit animal to each of your friends? Have you ever thought that someone's was a cockroach? Have you ever thought that yours was a cockroach? It's really sad that the animal Gregor subconsciously associates himself with is a cockroach. If I woke up one day to find that I had metamorphosed into my spirit animal I hope that it would be something cooler, like a narwhal or a whale shark....... 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Greater Good

Sorry to give another Harry Potter reference.....

While covering Utilitarianism in class I recognized a connection between this philosophy and the seventh book of Harry Potter. In the last book, Harry discovers a letter between Dumbledore and  a Dark wizard in which Dumbledore mentions "The Greater Good." In the letter he is referring to the oppression of muggles (or non-wizards). This concept seemed like its was derived from Utilitarianism, in that he justifies wrongdoings by saying that is for the greater good of the entire society, or in this case, the wizarding world. Sooo yeah, HP and Utilitarianism!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Conscience vs. Desire for Power

As a second semester senior I am taking the SAT again and am taking classes. Today I wrote a practice essay in which the prompt asked if selfish motivation for money, fame, and power was stronger than a person's conscience. For arguments sake I said that a person's selfish desires were more powerful and used the Underground Man as an example. I argued that the underground man's need to feel power over Liza caused him to act in spite of her. He knew that what he was doing would hurt her, but decided to do it anyway because it was more important to him that his pride stay intact. His desire for power outweighed  his conscience.

Free Will and Dualism

Reading Notes from Underground, one of the Underground Man's contradictions particularly struck me: he laughs at dualism, and yet is somewhat obsessed with the idea of free will.  I think that these two positions are totally inconsistent.

To be totally honest, the idea of "free will" has never made much sense to me.   It supposedly means the ability of people to make choices, like the choice to be "good" or "bad" to use the archetypal example.  If I take the materialist position that people's actions are entirely determined by the physical state of their bodies and brains, I am anti-free will.  If I say that people can "overrule" their bodies, then I am pro-free will.  But the latter position implies some sort of mind-body dichotomy, since something has to do the choosing and something has to be the object of the choice.  Another way of putting this is that there is a completely external, non-material agent doing the choosing for us--which sounds awfully anti-free will.

I think that the problem inherent in answering the question "Do I choose to do what I do?" is imprecision in the definitions of "I" and "choose".  When people say "I", to what do they refer?  I think that generally the pro-free will people are referring to the soul, or more prosaically the mind (in the true sense of the word--the conscious, thinking element of a person).  Anti-free will people, meanwhile, are referring to the entire physical manifestation of a human, in which case the answer is that the question doesn't make sense--you do what you do; "choosing" is nonsense, because it implies the above-noted dichotomy.

Before I get back Notes from Underground, let me backtrack a little.  A lot of what U.M. talks about in relation to free will is physical determinism: the idea that if some entity "knew" all of the information (a term cosmologists use to refer to mass and energy) and rules in the universe, it could predict what all of that information would be in ten million years, or what it was a few seconds ago.  This means that the universe is physically deterministic and reversible.  A simple case of such a universe is one that oscillates between two states, "T" and "H" like this: "THTHTHTHTH...".  If I tell you the state is T, you know that it was just H and will be H one state later.  Modern physicists, however, think that our universe is actually more like a coin toss: "THHTHTHHTHHTTTTH".  At some level, it is unpredictable and not deterministic; not only that, but it is impossible to be aware of the exact location and energy of every particle in the universe--and talking about "exact location and energy" may not make sense at all.

This is what UM means when he says that people would not be able to stand being predicted by a "table"--the sort of algorithm our omniscient entity might make in a deterministic universe.  He argues contrarily that people would rebel against such predictability.  I think that this is nonsense: if we lived in a deterministic universe and had tables made by an omniscient demon, there would be no external factors that our demon couldn't predict; UM's hypothetical is simultaneously materialistic and dualistic.  When I think about it, this logical error is almost the source of his evil.  He constantly wants to rebel and do what he shouldn't do (dualism) but he thinks that he can't change how he is (materialism).

Impressionism in Music

Musical impressionism shares a lot of similarities with its equivalent in the visual arts: it started in the late 19th century in France; it included a lot of techniques that "sound" similar to impressionist art, like vague tonalities, mostly subdued melodic patterns which always rise to a dramatic climax, and so on.  Its practitioners in both media hated the term, and especially in music it is very difficult to delineate the movement.

In music, unlike in art, Impressionism was a small countercurrent against the various Romantic schools of composition, which were still going strong.  Probably the only composer consistently associated with the movement was Claude Debussy (1862-1918), who vehemently hated to be classified as such.  Debussy was a French composer and pianist; most of his body of work is for the solo piano.  About the only thing music historians agree characterizes Debussy's work is that it is new and doesn't use traditional harmonies.  His music sometimes verges on atonality, a style in which there is no tonality at all.  It's hard for me to explain theoretically how his music sounds like Monet, so here are recordings of his Menuet from the famous Suite Bergamasque (which includes Clair de Lune) and La Cathedrale Engloutie from his first book of Preludes.

These two pieces are technically very similar: they're both highly chromatic pieces heavy in rapidly changing chords and repeated melodies.  However, a lot like Monet, Debussy uses different "colors" to evoke totally different moods.  I find the extent to which the music sounds like the art really amazing.

A Brief, Somewhat Ironic Timeline of French Censorship

French National Assembly 1789:
"Free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print freely." 

1857 under Napoleon III:
Six of Charles Baudelaire's poems banned by French government.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19, 1948:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Ban on Baudelaire's poems lifted. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Moulin Rouge

I feel like I have brought up Moulin Rouge quite a lot this week in class. First of all, the movie is set in France during the turn of the century in 1990. The main guy in the movie, Christian, is a bit of a romantic himself. When Liza told the Underground Man that he sounds like a book, I thought that he sounded like Christian from Moulin Rouge. Christian thought that he could save Satine, a performer at the Moulin Rouge, from her degrading profession. She is a prostitute and he is a hopeless romantic and writer who fell in love. Although, Christian never snaps the same way as The Underground Man had. Christian continues to love Satine and strive for her affection. Although, in one scene when they are fighting, I’m pretty sure he ends up paying her, as an insult, for her services, just as the Underground Man had done to Liza. I think Christian from Moulin Rouge closely resembles the moralizing hero that The Underground Man tries to be when first waking up to Liza. Another thing that made be bring up Moulin Rouge was the painting by Manet that we talked about in class, Absinthe Drink or “the green fairy.” In the opening scene of Moulin Rouge Christian drinks this drink for the first time and basically he sees a green fairy dance and sing... 
P.S- This movie is a musical…. But mashes up modern songs by Elton John, Nirvana, David Bowie, The Police, ect… 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fight Club and Notes From The Underground

In class Ms. King mentioned Fight Club while discussing Notes From the Underground. In Fight Club, the main character’s name is not initially revealed, just as in Notes From the Underground. However, the main character in Fight Club eventually discovers that his name is actually the same name as his alter ego’s, Tyler. The main character in Fight Club initially suffers from insomnia and can only sleep whenever he feels pain. Just like the Underground Man, he begins to find pleasure through pain. He’d rather feel pain than nothing, which basically becomes the basis of Fight Club. He and his alter ego create Fight Club as a way to cope with their needs through aggression and pain. He uses Fight Club so that he can feel something and sleep at night. Through Fight Club he escapes boredom and nothingness. The main character from Fight Club and the Underground Man are also both very insecure about their appearance. The Main Character in Fight Club creates Tyler to overcome this insecurity. Tyler basically represents the main character’s ideal version of himself. Tyler is stylish, in shape, persuasive, smart, and desirable. The real Tyler is small and too insecure to love someone else. Tyler’s behavior towards Marla is also similar to the Underground Man’s behavior towards Liza. When he is the ideal Tyler he is confident enough to call up Marla and control the situation. When he is the real and more insecure Tyler he feels more vulnerable and looks at Marla like she is beneath him and not worth saving. The real Tyler would allow Marla to overdoes and die whereas the ideal Tyler attempts to rescue her. Similarly, the Underground Man struggles between his need to save Liza and insulting her and seeing her as beneath him. Tyler’s behavior towards Marla frequently shifts depending on the situation and his mood. While he is the ideal Tyler, he acts more like the Underground Man when he initially met Liza. While he is the real Tyler, he acts more like the Underground Man when Liza came to his house. There are many differences between the Underground Man and Tyler, but there are also some psychological similarities between the two characters. Although the Underground Man didn’t create alter egos, him and Tyler share similarities through their need for pain to escape nothingness, their inability to love, their insecurities, and their drastically changing moods. Although Tyler was more of a threat to society than the Underground Man, his character is still more likeable because at least he eventually redeems himself and conquers his issues. The Underground Man never faces his issues and continues to perceive the world through his own cynical vision.