Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 - 2009)

“The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it. What else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration?”

- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (1955)

On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. […] But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent [i.e., arbitrary], how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?

- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology

Claude Lévi-Strauss was a giant of modern thought (a bit about Structuralism). He died today at the age of 100. Here's a roundup of some of the better obits I could find.

N.Y. Times


Washington Post

Le Monde (french)


Friday, October 30, 2009

The Raven (wordle)

For Halloween, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, in wordle format.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Count Trickster

This may be a bit early, according to the Infinite Summer spoiler line we're at the end of Chapter I, but this post will only go a few paragraphs into Chapter II. So if you haven't met the Count yet, read this tomorrow.

First, it is difficult to write about just the happenings of a specific chapter. We know so much of the mythology that surrounds Dracula, no matter what the source. I think anyone who reads this story comes into it with a certain amount of cultural baggage (possibly of the worst kind). I'm going to carry it as best I can.

I came to a simple conclusion reading the first chapter of Dracula that I'm sure other readers have as well. This Dracula — Stoker's Dracula — is a far cry from the caricatures that have been on display in the media of the past hundred years. This Dracula is not a cartoon-ish Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, but a suave and convincing and truly dangerous and frightening creature. He is able to get his way without question or rebuke. It's said that Stoker modeled the Count after Sir Henry Irving. I don't know much about Irving, but his image surely does fit the picture I had in my mind.

"You cannot deceive me, my friend. I know too much, and my horses are swift"

- D. (as the coach driver)

The exhilarating mad rush of the first chapter, where Jonathan is being whisked to Castle Dracula by a mysterious coach driver, is an appropriate introduction to the Count. We find out early in Chapter II that the nameless driver is in fact the Count himself.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!" The strength of the handshake was so much akin to that which I had noticed in the driver, whose face I had not seen, that for a moment I doubted if it were not the same person to whom I was speaking. So to make sure, I said interrogatively, "Count Dracula?"

-J.H. journal Chap. I
Welcome to the fun-house. At this point, I started to think about what type of character Dracula really is. Stoker's description of him had already surprised me and discredited many of the preconceptions that I had of the Count. Here, I was being presented with a sly and strangely urbane character. I came to a realization.

Dracula is a trickster.

I do mean that in the Jungian sense. At first glance (and relying on collective cultural baggage and preconceptions), Count Dracula would ostensibly seem to fit the archetype of the Shadow. Lurking, hiding. A sinister foreigner. Gypsy. Thief and burglar of blood. Inchoate. There but not there. The stuff of nightmares. But, as we see in the first chapter, he doesn't actually hide in the shadows, he has no need to. He uses deceit to achieve his goals from the very first time we meet him. He's always a step ahead. He is cunning, funny, and foolish but not the fool. He is an animal master. A gypsy shaman.

"Once there appeared a strange optical effect. When he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary, I took it that my eyes deceived me straining through the darkness. Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle. "

"As he swept his long arms, as though brushing aside some impalpable obstacle, the wolves fell back and back further still."

Joseph Campbell describes the trickster as "a fool and a cruel, lecherous cheat, an epitome of the principle of disorder, he is nevertheless the culture bringer." Dracula is a destroyer of lives and a savior. He offers immortality, at a price. Much like Hermes, the Coyote, and other archetypal tricksters, Dracula is constantly changing form and shape and attitude. He's here and then he's over there. He will morph his own psyche in order to control yours. He is a bearer of a kind of gift, and a shepherd for those who follow him into immortality. Here's where the cultural baggage comes in. I'm assuming he is 'immortal' in the vampire tradition. In fact, I am assuming he is a vampire since it has not been explicitly stated yet in the novel, and may never.

Tricksters do not use force, they use deception. They are driven to manipulate. According to Jung, the trickster is "a collective shadow figure, an epitome of all the inferior traits of the character individuals." It's too early to tell if Dracula will indeed play the trickster throughout the novel. Its a subject I'd like to revisit. But, is it even useful to try and place an archetype on this creature? Campbell says that archetypes are expressions of the biological nature. Something built into the nature of being human. Dracula is not human. Should we conform him to human archetypes? Who knows. My theories may not pan out, but it's something to think about while reading.

Questions I'll be looking forward to answering as I read: Tricksters exhibit gender and form variability. Does Dracula specifically feed on women in the novel? Would it break Victorian conventions for him to do otherwise?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

There Will Be Blood.

I hate vampires.

They're right up there with pirates and professional wrestling on my pop-culture scale of hatred this decade. They've always just seemed a little silly to me. Immortality seems fine and all, but throw in the costumes, the infinite search for blood, the nocturnal-ism, and it's just not for me. I didn't always hate them; I'll admit that I went through an Anne Rice phase in middle school just like everyone else. But the new found cultural sensation in films and books and games and just about everything else kind of sickens me. I think people now are jumping on the vampire bandwagon for all the wrong reasons. I guess we can blame it on Stephanie Meyer and aging goths.

That being said, I'm looking forward to participating in Infinite Summer's fall project: reading Bram Stoker's Dracula.

I've read Dracula before. I actually wrote a book report on it in, like, ninth grade. I remember absolutely nothing. I do however still have the worn copy that I'm now very pleased I never returned to my school library. The only difficulty I see with reading Dracula as part of a scheduled book club is that it's kind of a page turner. That seems to be a function of the Gothic romance novel. At least I'll make it thorough this time; I'm still trying to get through to the end of Infinite Jest.

As preparation, I'm reading a bit about the role of horror in fiction, literature, and philosophy. I discovered a fantastic philosophical journal called Collapse which has dedicated their most recent edition to the subject of Concept Horror. They have an electronic version of the journal at their website. Of particular interest to Dracula readers are the essay Infinite Regress into Self-Referential Horror: The Gnosis of the Victim by George Sieg, and M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire by China Miéville. I am hoping that these essays will inform any commentary I might have on the novel, and maybe help to correct my poor attitude towards Vampires and the horror genre in general. At the very least you'll get something better than a ninth grade book report.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zen and the art of not reading Infinite Jest.

I'm back from worshiping the dirt for the past few weeks. My vacation was glorious and rejuvenating and enlightening. Unfortunately, I didn't get much reading done, which has put me extremely far behind the spoiler line.

I'm still reading; I've decided not to write about it regularly, though. I've removed all my post-it notes, extra bookmarks, and other paraphernalia from my copy of Infinite Jest and I'm just going to read for sheer wanton pleasure. It's the only way I'm going to make it through.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"A nobler want of man is served by nature."

I am off to a well-deserved vacation. It's been two years since I've had a proper one. I will be reading and catching up on Infinite Jest; hopefully I will return all caught up to the IS spoiler line. It's going to be difficult because I usually prefer to read Emerson when I'm out in the woods. There may be a random post from vacation if I can get one through, but don't hold your breath.

This is what I hope to experience again on this trip:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough , and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.


Back in 2 weeks.

Friday, July 10, 2009


I am quite behind. So far behind that I've had to practically drop off the Infinite Summer forums for fear of spoilers. I'm still reading diligently and loving every word; it's a time management issue that's keeping me from catching up. It also comes down to reading style. I am a very slow reader by choice. I usually imagine that I am reading the text aloud — no, I don't move my lips — to a reading circle consisting of multiple 'me's. The 'me's are different aspects of my personality and they have wonderful arguments on the text. Then, several 'me's have side conversations that I'm not privy to and only fill me in on what they've hashed out through sideways glances. It's difficult and maddening.

Oddly enough, this is how I've always read and this is the only way I seem to be able to retain anything that I have read. I enjoy reading this way, but it affords me no swiftness of pace.

There is something in Infinite Jest that I read last night; I read it over and over. There have been several of these 'Interludes' so far. Short changes of perspective that drop back into a previous scene, just for a moment, and just to let you know that the characters still exist and are still engaged. Here's one of those interludes. I hope it's not too much text to post, I'm actually going to enjoy typing this out:
The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas' peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.

- DFW, IJ p. 97
It's interludal passages such as this that keep me reading. They always read as a stark poetic contrast to the preceding scene involving the same characters. The previous scene with Marathe and Steeply was odd and stuttering and dislocated. This passage is focused and beautiful. These sparse interludes are my favorite things in the book so far.