March 2011


Sorrow

BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, —
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

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Here is what I am working on in terms of a theory of heartbreak: The poems used here are read literally with none of the irony that Millay intended. I just want to use the words she writes to flush out ideas, so this is in no way meant to be a reading of Millay, but rather a thought experiment on heartbreak:

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.”
– Ednay St. Vincent Millay “Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied”

The Millay poem quoted captures a feeling of heartbreak and of what happens in heartbreak. After being in love and spending time with a loved one, when that loved one is no longer present, the memory of that person lingers. The heartbroken tries to forget, but in forgetting suddenly becomes aware that the ex-beloved has been forgotten and, in turn, the heartbroken is reminded of the loss, which turns the beloved into an object of contemplation. I believe Martin Heidegger can inform this feeling of heartbreak. The beloved is gone and forgotten, “there is no memory of him”; that is, until the heartbroken remembers that the beloved was forgotten, which leads to the heartbroken standing “stricken, so remembering him.” In the one heartbroken, the memory of the beloved resembles Heidegger’s present-at-hand. Furthermore, the heartbroken’s emotions lose their ontological definition or “ready-to-hand[ness].” Heidegger describes the interconnections of Being and all the things Being interacts with in the world. The tools that Dasein interacts with are what is ready-to-hand. As Dasein moves through the world in average everydayness, the things in the world, the ready-to-hand tools in the world, remain unnoticed. In other words, when things are going smoothly, we become absorbed in everydayness in the world, but when something breaks, we notice the interconnectedness of the world, and we also notice how that previously ignored tool relates to the world—that is, the tool becomes present-at-hand. The longer the tool is broken, the more the tool becomes an object of contemplation; as Charles Guignon describes the situation:

As we adopt a stance in which things are explicitly noticed, we can be led to believe that what have been there “all along” are value free, meaningless objects whose usefulness was merely a product of our own subjective interest and needs. Heidegger’s point, however, is that this conception of reality a consisting of essentially contextless objects can arise only derivatively from a more “primordial” way of being absorbed in a meaningful life-world (13)

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Guignon goes on to explain how this is a product of the “disworlding of the world” and is not how the world is actually built. I would argue this explanation Heidegger gives informs heartbreak. When heartbreak occurs, is there not a sense that something is being taken for granted in the relationship? People get comfortable and start to treat loved ones as mere objects in the world, as a tool that is merely ready-to-hand, and then with the dissolution of the relationship and the onset of heartbreak, suddenly, the relationship and the beloved become “a meaningless object” who was only used for our own selfish subjective interest and needs. The relationship and the other become objects of contemplation as if something was broken. However, the heartbroken’s contemplation can lead to a “more primordial way of being absorbed in a meaningful life-world.” In heartbreak, the heartbroken becomes aware of his/her world and the lack of the beloved in it.

In order to understand heartbreak and what happens in heartbreak, it is important to understand identity because heartbreak makes a subject confront his/her identity in a radical way. Heidegger posits identity as Dasein. Dasein is the being that asks about its own being. This being is a being-in-the-world-with-others-towards-death. Within this conception, Heidegger explains that Dasien is always a taking up of possibilities. The structure of being that Heidegger outlines is as an always-already being in the world thrown ahead of itself into its potentiality, but being thrown ahead of itself Dasein still has to deal with the past while always having the potentiality of the end ahead of itself. Heidegger describes it as such:

The ahead-of-itself presented itself as a not-yet. But the ahead-of-itself,
characterized in the sense of something outstanding, revealed itself to our
genuine existential reflection as being toward the end, something that in the
depths of its being every Da-sein is (Heidegger 292, italics in original).

In heartbreak, this ‘ahead-of-itself’ as a ‘not-yet’ is manifested because the not-yet—the possibilities that Dasein can take up in the future—is no longer possible. The other has left and with the other leaving, so to do all the possibilities Dasein had with the other. Heartbreak gives rise to the feeling of life being broken, of identity being changed, and of Dasein looking at its life in contemplation as an object present-at-hand.

— I have more ideas about this– so I am going to leave this here and come back to it. This might be what I explore in my dissertation.

I’ll be back soon… i hope.

I’m off to a conference, so I have been working on my conference paper while trying to do school work.

I want to come back and blog about Passage to India and Beckett’s Murphy…

One of the issues in modernism is the belief at the time that the sun would burn out and the world would end. However, it seems that this idea was around long before modernism, and if I had my notes in front of me, I would look at some more details and dates, but I am too lazy, and really, I just want to have this poem handy:

Darkness

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires–and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings–the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire–but hour by hour
They fell and faded–and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless–they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;–a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought–and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails–men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died–
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful–was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless–
A lump of death–a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge–
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir’d before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them–She was the Universe.

The following are some ideas I typed up while trying to study for a mid-term exam, but I ran out of ideas. However, I think this is a good start for a loner paper:

In the 16th century, Copernicus decentered the earth. However, that was just the beginning of taking man’s narcissistic attitude away. Darwin discovered that human were not the divine creations of God but rather evolved through natural selection, and if that were not unsettling enough, Freud discovers that Humans do not have control over their own minds. With these discoveries, civilization was beginning to question the concept of an all caring God watching over humanity, and this was only excaberated when the first World War broke out. Civilization began to have fears that the sun would burn out and that the world was coing to an end, and they were beginning to think that there was no God to care.

This pessimism was seen before 1914, though, when Nietzsche declared the death of God in 1883. Nietzsche’s criticism extends beyond that of Christian morality and includes passionless atheism as well. Nietzsche was trying to convey that Christian morality no longer had a hold on Western culture; this attitude towards Christian values appears throughout modernist writing in Christian writers, such as Eliot (“The Waste Land”); in atheist writer’s, such as Conrad; and in agnostic writers, such as Yeats (“the Second Coming”). Modernist writers were dealing with this death of God (of Christain morality guiding Western attitudes about good and evil in their writings. I would argue that all the writers we have read are writing about this loss of spirituality and God in some way; furthermore, these writers are conveying how it is the spiritual Christians, imposing their morality, who have killed God, colonized people, and engaged in senseless war.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has a subtle critique of Western Christian values inferred behind the critique of imperialism. If God is supposed to be “the light,” then one can read Conrad’s darkness as the light of God that has gone out. In an inversion of Western values, darkness comes to native people when colonizers bring their light. The frame narrator of the story describes the explorers as, “bearers of a spark from the sacred fire” (67). As the story will show, most of these bearers of the sacred fire will use the fire to burn down the native civilization that is colonized.

There is a sense of Marlowe being equated to an inverse fallen Adam. Marlowe begins his story by stating how his experience can be seen as “…throw[ing] a kind of light on everything about [him]” (70). Knowledge is usually equated with light, but it is with knowledge that Adam is divorced from the light of God; in Marlowe’s case, this knowledge (that takes him out of Eden), actually makes him more ethical because he is now outside of the constrains, that is the demands, of bringing the scared fire to the “savages” who don’t know better. Marlowe’s light is the knowledge of the horrors of imperialism. To further extend this Adam/Marlowe metaphor, Marlowe is tempted by the river that looks like a snake that charms him. Marlowe’s “fall,” like Adams, is dependent on a charming snake. Tempted by the snake he goes to find knowledge, but Marlowe’s knowledge will be that the scared fire makes “civilized” men savages. In fact, Marlowe is equated with a Buddha, an eastern symbol of values. Furthermore, when Marlowe is at his aunt’s before leaving, he says that he was supposed to be an “emissary of light;” but then as he leaves his aunt’s with this knowledge, he says he feels himself an imposter (77). Marlowe feels like an imposter because he does not want to civilize “savages” by bringing them the light of God, but rather, he wants to, like a belated Adam, explore the darkness.

Marlowe foreshadows Kurtz at the beginning of his story when he describes the inland post of the jungle as “utter savagery.” But is it the jungle that is savage, or is it these inland posts, specifically, that are savage? That is to say, when man has to confront the rules of God without society to restrain him, man’s savagery is unleashed. In this case, it is not that “without God, all is permissible” but rather that “with God, all is permissible.” With God, man has rules he knows he is breaking, with God, man knows that all he has to do is ask for forgiveness, with God, man has a ready excuse for savagery: his savagery is a result of being away from God. This seems to be Kurtz’s excuse. This seems to be the excuse of England who sets up post in order to fulfill God’s plan “for humanizing, improving, [and] instructing” (104).

However, looking at the way the “civilized” act in comparison with the “savage,” one can infer that Conrad is commenting on the savagery of colonization, which in turn, is a critique of Christian morality. It is the European Christians who chain the savage people in a line by the neck, and which leads Marlowe to call the imperialist devils (82). Marlowe sees the horror of this treatment, and one gets a sense of Marlowe descending into a hell: “Instead of going up, I turned and descended to the left” (82), which appears to be a reference to Dante’s descent into hell (usually turning to the left), but this is a hell that has been created by the civilized Christians. This contrast is further seen in Conrad’s treatment of the cannibals. Unlike the Christians who treat the savages like animals, the cannibals (without God to tell them) know not to eat the crew of Marlowe’s ship, even though they are starving (115-116)).

Conrad uses Kurtz to epitomize European Christian values that lead to the death of God. Before Marlowe meets Kurtz, Kurtz is described as a special being. Furthermore, Marlowe describes Kurtz in language that sounds like someone trying to explain the story of God: Kurtz was “just a word,” Marlowe does not see the man in the name, Marlowe describes how it is impossible to convey the idea of Kurtz. Marlowe goes on to describe how Kurtz is present in his words, a gift only a God can have because words never have fully present meaning. For Kurtz, though, his ability to talk carried a real presence. Furthermore, in describing Kurtz, Marlowe says “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (127). Although the office for the suppression of savage customs entrusted Kurtz to write a report on the savages, it is Kurtz, and his European-ness, that becomes a savage while the savages, without God, know right from wrong. The savages only become evil and begin to rob and kill each other when Kurtz takes over and sets himself up as a god.

It is in this inversion in which Marlowe, without God, and the savages, also without God, are the moral ones of the story. This is Conrad’s critique of Europe’s idea of God and Christian morality. It is this morality that leads to imperialism and treating “savages” like animals and leads to the First World War.

Barthes answers his own question after asking who speaks in Balzac’s novel: the reader can never know because, “…writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” (1322). If writing is the destruction of origin, then it means that the Author must be dead since the Author is the origin of the text. Barthes indicates this by replacing the idea of an Author (capitol A) with the “modern scriptor” (1324).

Barthes’s idea echoes Lacan in the way that both perceive language giving subjectivity; language isn’t just a tool that the Author uses to communicate; rather, before the Author can use language, it is determining the way He thinks (there is no consciousness outside of language). Language is already imbued with structures, angles, values, priorities, etc.. The idea of a capitol A Author conveying inherent meaning is impossible because (for Lacan, there is no Subject that does not have lack, precisely because of language) language is, as Saussure elucidated, arbitrary. Language only means by deferral (and to jump ahead to Derrida by Differance: both deferral and difference).

Barthes traces the idea of an Author-God back to the reformation; therefore, the very idea of an Author is a historical-cultural construct. This construct posits the Author as the owner of his/her work as if she/he created the language with which the work was created. Barthes points out how this view limits a text, supplying the text a final signified (1325). This view makes criticism a game of simply finding the writer in the work.

The death of the Author opens up reading and the complicity of language. A text is not composed of a Meaning that can be traced back to an Author-God; this would imply that Meaning is outside of language. Language produces meanings rather than reflects language. Therefore, the Author dies, and the Meaning the Author “intended” goes with him/her, and meaning(s) are found in the reader: “A text’s unity lies not in tis origin but its destination” (1325). I like to think of this as the death of Capitol T Truth Meaning for the birth of little t truth meaning.