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:


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 more there are who would say ‘ours,’/ so much the greater is the good possessed/ be each–so much more love burns in that cloister”(Dante, Purgatorio. XV. line: 55-57).

As I was reading Nussbaum’s article “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts” I could not help but think of Jeremy Rifkin’s RSA video ( on “Cultivating Empathy” as both of these scholars look at the ability to empathize in society as a measure of a good society.

Rifkin relates a study in which scientist found that all human’s brains are soft-wired with “mirror neurons”– that is to say that if I see someone angry, sad, or going through whatever emotions, the neurons in the brain that control the emotion will fire in my brain as I watch the emotion in someone else. My neuron will mirror the neurons merely from observation.

Nussbaum’s claim then that “Children…are born with rudimentary capacity for sympathy and concern” (96), there is science to back her up, and more so than just Winnicott’s observations.

As an aside, Rifkin believes that empathy must be nourished; that we must build an “empathic civilization” which is not to say utopia, but a society in which we can build solidarity with not just one another but with all animals on this earth. Rifkin looks at how empathy has grown with technology. When humans were hunter gathers, empathy extended only to within tribes and the tribe on the other side of the mountain was an “alien other,” but with globalization, our tribe now encompasses the entire globe. And it seems that the way to create the empathic civilization that Rifkin is discussing would be through the arts, the way Nussbaum is suggesting.

I believe the correlation here between Rifkin and what Nussbaum points out when looking at Ellison’s ideas for his novel are informative for how to build a empathetic community: Rifkin says that humans are soft wired to feel what the other is feeling, and Ellison points out that his novel help us see the relationship with people we encounter everyday (Nussbaum 107). As Tagore is suggesting, as Rifkin is hoping for, as Nussbaum is analyzing– humans are wired to be sympathetic and a way to tap into that sympathy is through the arts and imagination. I am in complete agreement with Nussbaum when she mentions the arts as a way to teach children about “cultural blindspots” (108). As Nussbaum goes on to give examples of arts affecting young people (Chicago Chior, implementing art to psychotherapy, etc), it seems amazing that more schools are not doing this.

The idea of writing about race in The Great Gatsby is interesting. I have read this novel a few times now and have never thought of it in terms of race, but race is always present, in any novel.

First, though, I needed to find out what “race” means. Is it culture (or just linked with culture)? Is it the psychical attributes? As I learned from PBS,org, “…humans have not been around long enough…to evolve into separate subspecies or races. Despite surface differences, we are among the most similar of all species”– and despite what Tom’s “scientific” book “The Rise of the Colored Empires” might say, when we talk about race then, we mean a, “…classifications of humans into populations or groups based on various factors, such as their culture, language, social practice or heritable characteristics.” I point this out because the issue of race has alway fascinated and confused me, and I think that is what draws me to postmodern theory that shows how these terms are socially constructed and not just naturally inherent. With this in mind, I think that race can be looked at in The Great Gatsby in the same manner it can be looked at in Hughes’s poetry: Hughes addresses race… well, how? Is it that Hughes is black? or is it because Hughes writes about Harlem? or both?

I think it is both. Hughes’s race comes out when he writes about Harlem, jazz, blues, bee bop, and the culture that informs him, as a black man in Harlem–That is to say, Hughes writes about his ‘culture, language [and] social practices.’

Fitzgerald, as some people have pointed out, speaks about race by not speaking of it (but he does speak about the “white race”), and in doing so, it makes “white” the default, normalizing race. However much Fitzgerald does not directly invoke race, race is implied when Nick talks about his Ivy League days, when Gatsby says he went to Oxford because it is well known that there were no “colored” people at these ivy league schools at this time, we might also wondered if there were any colored people at Gatsby’s parties, and we can infer, with people like Tom going to these parties, that the only colored people there were walking around with silver trays with drinks on them for guest; And while Nick has a Finnish woman as a servant (and why is her race invoked?), we never learn the race of the “eight servants, including an extra gardner” that prepare Gatsby’s mansion for the party. Why does Fitzgerald feel it important to name the race of Nick’s maid but not the eight servants?

I believe the novel addresses race more in these subtle moments than in the obvious ones, such as Myrtle’s aside about the “shiftlessness of the lower orders”, the “These people” (36), which is interested that “shiftless” is used to describe “these people” when it is the rich Tom, Daisy, and Myrtle who wander around shiftlessly and amorally.

Another subtle moment of race in the novel is the extravagant buffet of the party: “…hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold” (44). Food is, I believe, one of the biggest signifiers of race. If this party were given by my family, there would be a whole roasted pig, congri, white rice and black beans; if this were a party in Harlem, the food would be bar b q, pigs’ feets, watermelon– the point of this (reading it again what almost feels like racist comments) is that Fitzgerald takes the time to write about the actual food that is displayed, which is intricately linked to race and class. Just as the location is linked with race; just as having Daisy come over for tea and lemon cake (Gatsby’s big plan to meet her again) is linked with race because this activity is itself a very “white.”

These moments are peppered through out the novel. In telling the reader that Klipspringer plays rag time jazz, Fitzgerald is making a comment about race because this is not the jazz that Hughes is writing about in his poems. In other examples, Fitzgerald mentions a person’s race (the Greek who sees Myrtle struck by Daisy, for instance), and then other times he doesn’t. While there are plenty of moments that Fitzgerald ignores race, there are also plenty of subtle moments he does.

I studied “The Waste Land” when doing my masters. A group of us grad students got the department to let us team teach (with an overseeing mentor) an upper level English course, so we decided that we would have modernism be our subject. I saw this as an opportunity to “learn” “The Waste Land.” The summer before the Fall term that we would be teaching, I got an independent study course with the modernist expert in the department, and he had me reading many Eliot biographies, and I, on my own to prepare to teach, went out and started to “decipher” this epic pulp poem.

I learned that Ezra Pound said “Eliot’s Waste Land is, I think, the justification of the ‘movement’ of our modern experiment since 1900.”

I learned the major themes of the poem: the barrenness of a postwar world in which human sexuality and the natural world has been perverted from its normal course and has become infertile. I read I. A. Richard’s praise of Eliot describing the shared postwar “sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of the endeavor, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed.”

I learned how Pound’s motto of ‘Make it New’ and of radically changing poetry was not done in order to destroy poetry but to save it– and to give literature back the authority that it was losing in the face of an industrialized age of mass cultured that was reading sentimental tripe. This was the reason that Eliot goes back to classical literature, why he mixes ‘low art’ with ‘high art.’ It is because, as Eliot said, the world is divided between Dante and Shakespeare, that he wants to keep the classic, true literature alive. I learned how Eliot inherited from the French symbolist the use of esoteric private meanings and symbols (much in the same manner that WB Yeats does), but that for Eliot, these are “A heap of broken images,” and to help us, the hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable, –mon frere, Eliot has provided us with notes on his private meaning and broken symbols.

Then I did my close reading of the poem. Line by line, I learned that April is a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, rebirth, and a reference to James Frazier’s Golden Bough. April is cruel because what rebirth brings is memories of the past that was better. This rebirth mixes memory with desire– is this a desire to return to the past or a desire for death in order for rebirth.

On and on, I learned that the Eliot struggles to make a new poem out of inherited language of tradition, and this is mirrored in the poem’s language, pastiche, and unevenness. After all this reading about the poem, and then all the reading of the poem, I was more or less where I had started, not gaining much “meaning” at all.

By the time I was done annotating and deciphering the first section and was about to move on the part II. A Game of Chess, I realized that I had enough notes for the entire hour of lecturing allotted to me, and I had a moment where I thought why? Why was I struggling to learn this in order to teach it to college seniors? Especially since I didn’t have much in terms of “answers” or insights into the meanings– I would just be adding more notes to the poem that lead nowhere, much like what Eliot already did.

I asked the class why they think we should read the poem, and after listening to what you would expect about being better humans, the human spirit, cultured, learned, etc… I gave my answer, which was simply:

“It makes my toes tingle.”

The music of the words itself, the play with the language, the mixing of images (some of which I could finally recognize without a footnote), and the joy of letting the words linger in my head: “Unreal City/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many/ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”

After the class was over and my teaching of the poem was a disaster (mostly because my professor had spent the entire summer teaching a class on only “The Waste Land”) I came across a collected works of Eliot with an introduction by Mary Karr, who strengthen my view of reading the poem simply because it makes my toes tingle: “Read it for joy, Shut up your head’s claptrap and open yourself to fall in love with it. Treat it like a first date, which should begin with ignorance but also with hope. Only if you fall in love do you make a study of the beloved…” (T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Writings xxv).

Now that I have fallen in love, I have begun to make a study of the beloved.

Dada reminds me of Buddhism, as Tzara says. the rest is sauce. But language gets in the way here, as it does in Buddhism, as it does in postmodernism, as it does with ethics. Once we put something into words it is as if we make a system of it, and Like Kierkegaard and DaDa contend, “I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.”

It is because we can only know the world through words (or more generally any kind of sign system) which is why the DaDA manifesto is so inspiring and makes me want to drop out of school and go line on New York City streets and be an artist of the absurd because, “I detest greasy objectivity, and harmony, the science that finds everything in order.. . . Science says we are the servants of nature”

But then I read Eliot and I am reminded that I want to study literature instead.

These DaDa ideals don’t seem too much of a stretch from the Imagist idea of wanting (like the Haiku) to have poetry that paints a picture with words, a picture of the thing itself using words without decoration, without any kind of flair, but rather to use words to simply describe the object, objectively, which is noble, but then we are back to the problem with words, which are always already in slippage and can never simply just describe an object. In terms of DaDa, the use of simplistic language might be appealing, but I would guess that DaDa would think that the Imagist use of language was too “rational”—and sp, of course, they would cut up the words, put them in a hat, and pick the words out at random to make a new poem.

To go back to Eliot, I believe that in light of “Journey of the Magi” that “Prufrock” can be read as a Christian poem about a man vacillating about telling society the religious message he has. For me though, personally, I keep going back to the poem because for me, on a simpler level, the poem has always been about the vacillation itself. I remember first reading this poem and being so confused, and in a way, this poem led me to be an English major.

Now, as I read the poem, I relate to it. It seems a real existential dilemma: how do I make sense of life as I grow old ( I grow old/ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled… and Do I dare to eat a peach), of a life I have ‘measured out in coffee spoons’? For Kierkegaard, every choice we make is a leap (because every choice is ultimately just as “rational” as any other choice we make); therefore, for Kierkegaard, the leap is in making a choice, and there is always anxiety in all choices because we can never know how things would have turned out if we made the opposite choice, and this seems to be Prufrock’s anxiety in the poem; this is the reason he can’t even feel as if he is the star of his own life since he is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

I believe this is why I am constantly drawn to this poem—because, especially as an English major, sometimes I wonder if I haven’t lingered in the chambers of the sea too long, and I am worried that human voices are going to wake me and drown me, but this again brings me back to the DaDa-ist, who remind me not to take life too seriously, and that literature is what matters because “the rest is sauce.”

It seems that Woolf is concerned with the perceptions of things, and not so much the things in themselves. Her views seem to coincide with phenomenological views, starting with Husserl, who attacks a popular psychologism of his time. Husserl does not think that logic can be reduced to mere psychology (which seems to be the attack that Woolf makes on Freud at the beginning of the novel); rather, the novel seems to be a phenomenological account meditating on experience and “meaning.”

Woolf seems to be concerned more with the way things appear and not in what things really are. This is seen throughout the novel as different characters contemplate “meaning”- especially the meaning of words, some examples are:
“Mrs. Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only the words” (12); “And to those words, what meaning attached” (24), and also pages 30, 38, 54,55, and about 11 other times (I didn’t keep a consistent count); Furthermore, this is seen in contemplating the table when no one is there to contemplate the table, and also in the way that Mrs. Ramsay’s art, as Lily realizes in the “Lighthouse” section of the book, is the ability to see the “…little daily miracles” (161) in everyday life.

It is this ability (as well as many others, such as Mrs. Ramsay’s contemplation on life and love, Lily’s reduction of Mrs. Ramsay to just that triangle, etc) that is the concern of Husserlian phenomenology. As we go along our everyday lives, we take for granted ‘the little miracles’ all around us. Husserl gives his method to seeing the world as it is given us, stating that all consciousness is consciousness of an object, and in order to see the object phenomenologically, “We put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude; we parenthesize everything which that positing encompasses with respect to being” (Husserl 1982, sec. 32). This bracketing is literally seen in the accounts of the Ramsay deaths. The idea, I believe, is to look at death phenomenologically. We are to bracket out any of our preconceived sentimental notions of death and contemplate them in and of themselves, alone.

This is the novel’s underlying concern– a bracketing away of preconceived notion in order to get to the object itself without any preconceived notions. The characters bracket out all of there thoughts on an object or experience of an emotions until it is left without meaning, which is why there are so many references in the novel to “what does it mean?” Mr. Ramsay in his work is concerned with this idea of subject and object, and for Husserl, there is always a perceiving subject. The novel itself is set up in a dialectic where the reader sees the subjective thoughts of the characters in part one, and then see the objective passing of time in part two, and then we get the synthesis of subject and object in part three.

Lily is seen struggling with these ideas as she is finishing her painting: “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on the level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy” (202). And, through phenomenology, the chair, simply, can be both, just a chair and a miracle.

Without turning this into a long, twenty-page essay, I wanted to look at Dedalus’s relationship to language, which is a concern for Stephen throughout the entire novel. Since, in my opinion, this is a novel about the development of a subject (subjectivity) of a person (artist), and if there is no consciousness outside of language, then it makes perfect sense that Stephen has such a fascination with language. This relationship to language is complicated when, in chapter 5, Stephen is talking to the dean of students, an English priest, who doesn’t understand Stephen’s Irish word for oil funnel.

This leads Stephen to complicate the language he is being educated in:

“The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit, His language, so familiar and so foreigh, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language” (170).

This scene exemplifies the English colonization of the Irish so perfectly as it shows what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in Declonising the Mind calls a “Cultural Bomb,” saying, “The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves,” and then a little later on he goes on to say, “It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than with their own” (3). This is what I see this short, subtle passage conveying.

Stephen is coming into his artistic consciousness, but he will always ‘fret in the shadows’ of an English language that he uses to create art. Furthermore, being educated in an English school, he is learning the culture of proper English society; is this what Stephen’s mother is worried about and why his father is mad at him?

This also parallels the somewhat contentious relationship Joyce had with Yeats. Joyce say Yeats (and Maude Gonne) as relics of a antiquated Irish past. Joyce didn’t understand Yeats’s mysticism, but I believe the Thiong’o quote explains why Yeats was reaching back to old Irish folklore and to Eastern symbols in his plays (which was derided in real life as is seen in Portrait). Yeats does so because he wants to find an uncolonized identity for the Irish. Joyce, on the other hand, is more caught up in the colonization since he was educated by English Jesuits.

This subtle critique of colonization is seen in Ulysses as well when Stephen says he has three masters: England, the Catholic Church, and Ireland that wants him for “odd jobs.” I wonder if this Ireland that wants him for odd jobs is a reference to Yeats believing that it was an artist duty to help establish an Irish identity.

I believe that this moment is here to show that Stephen is developing not just as an artist but as an individual as well. I take Joyce to be tongue and cheeking much of Stephen’s development– it is all so dramatic and important. At the end of the novel, Stephen is writing about an encounter with Emma, and the language he uses is dramatic and intellectual, “Turned off that calcve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri” (233).

I think back to being in my late teen and early twenties when everything I read was so meaningful; it was all so serious, so I see Joyce capturing this youthful exuberance in Stephen. As I finished my masters degree, my school hired a new philosophy professor who taught a class entirely on Marx, so of course, every freshman who takes the class wants to be a communist until you get older and realize, as Yeats did, that revolutions are for the young, “Oh, that I were young, and held her in my arms again.”