Just My Own Personal Opinion/Rant

As a social scientist, I’ve always clung to the idea that context is content.  There is no thought that could have 0% relevance in any scenario, since, if it did, the idea would never cross one’s mind in the first place.  Given that personal assumption, I have a hard time saying that any critical analysis method could ever be “better” than another.  Nothing is ever so simple that a new perspective could not possibly add to the conversation.  The more points of view we can approach a topic from, the better.  Some may be more useful in specific circumstances than others, but each has its merits.  Otherwise the useless ones would have ceased to exist, and we probably wouldn’t have covered them in class!

That being said, I do have a bone to pick with the New critics, who argue that if we stick to the words of the text itself, we can agree on one specific connection between form and meaning.  It’s a simple enough concept, and relatively easy to put into practice.  And if that’s all one is looking for out of literature, if that helps people to sleep more peacefully at night, then more power to them.  But I find that approach insanely limiting.  While it yields a meaning that is easy to conceptualize, it completely disregards all of the context simply for the sake of it being “easier that way”  There is no discussion of the greater significance of the work, no putting it into its proper time-period, and therefore no real discussion of why we read the work in the first place.

It is safe to assume, then, that I prefer the critical methods that allow for more discourse.  What makes literature (and life, more generally) beautiful is its complexity.  I had read Othello a few times before stepping foot in English 220, but each time I get something new that I had never noticed before.  There are almost 7 billion people in the world, so theoretically there could be 7 billion different analyses of any given work.  Any critical method that allows us to better understand the range of these interpretations is obviously one I would be in favor of.  Since I am privy to the thought process of my own mind, I am not interested in analyzing what I think and how I came to think it.  Instead, I’m more fascinated by how that differs from what other people interpret, and why it is that we see things differently.  What is it about the variety of life experiences that allows two human beings to read the exact same grouping of words and come to different conclusions?  I love the basic premises of New Historicism, postcolonialism, deconstruction, race theory, gender theory and cultural studies for this exact reason.

500 words obviously isn’t enough space for me to flesh out these concepts in a way that I would find satisfying.  But I’ve always found that the most complicated discussions end up being the most rewarding.  There is both a human reader and a human author behind every work, and there is a reason every work was created in the first place.  People may argue that those two facts are/should be irrelevant, but I think that disregarding them entirely is a crime.

New Historicism and Mrs. Dalloway

New Historicism developed in the 1980s, largely through the works of critic Stephen Greenblatt (a name we’ve already encountered this semester).  We’ve also discussed that New Historicism attempts to understand both the “historicity of texts” and the “textuality of history”.  In simpler terms, this theory outlines two ideas: the reading of any literary text would benefit from being put in its proper historical context, and any document of history can be analyzed in the same way that we analyze literary texts.  In that sense, New Historicism does away with notions of background versus foreground information; literary and non-literary texts are inseparable in a greater mission to understand history.

Given this information (an extreme version of the textual criticism argument that “context is content”), there are a variety of paths I could take in relation to Mrs. Dalloway.  If I so desired, I could consult historical documents (doctors’ records, timely medical journals) of shell-shock patients in conjunction with Woolf’s characterization of Septimus Smith to get a better understanding of returned WWI soldiers.  I could seek out information on Parliament activity and debated topics in conjunction with the character of Richard Dalloway to comprehend the mindset of post-WWI conservative British politicians.  I could even find information on popular opinions of lesbianism to combine with the relationship between Clarissa and Sally Seton so I may have a clearer knowledge of post-WWI understandings of lesbianism’s place in society.

But since I have a particular affinity for Peter Walsh (how can a girl resist a sensitive yet desperate romantic?), I might compare opinions of British-Indian race relations in this time period with Woolf’s specific depiction of a scene between Peter and Clarissa.  When Peter declares that he is in love with an Indian woman, Clarissa is horrified by the idea “that he at his age should be sucked under in his little bow-tie by that monster” (44).  Clarissa believes the Indian woman “flattered him; she fooled him…” and that Peter’s love for an Indian woman is “what a waste! What a folly” (45)!  From this, one can assume that Clarissa Dalloway would look down on this romantic connection.  By loving a racially non-white (and therefore impure) Indian woman instead over a more traditional white-white relationship, Peter does two things.  First, he allows himself to be tricked by an Indian woman’s savage witchcraft, betraying his own British sense of moral incorruptibility.  Second, he wastes his pure bloodline, potentially letting British whiteness be tainted by the Indian Other.

To get a better sense of what the British mindset towards mixed-race relations would have been in the post-WWI period, I looked to historical documents on a social movement that was in its heyday right around this time: the eugenics movement.  Inspired by the 1870s theory of Social Darwinism and the sociopolitical implications of the expansion of the British Empire, the eugenics movement came out of a societal desire to protect the superior white race. The eugenics movement started among scientists and radiated outward until it became a popular opinion in the 1910s-1920s.  I was able to find articles from sources such as The British Medical Journal, The Scientific Monthly, and the Journal of Social Forces that use pseudoscientific evidence to support post-WWI racial prejudices and re-enforce the current arrangements of power. Advocates argued that whiteness itself is very fragile and must be protected, but it is entirely possible to guide the evolution of humanity and use the artificial selection of human mates to potentially create the perfect species through the limitation of mixed-race relationships.

New Historicism would encourage me to make connections between the eugenics movement and Clarissa’s mindset.  Clarissa’s distrust of the Indian woman relates to the eugenicist view that Caucasian is the superior race.  Since Peter is a rational British man, the only way he would be seduced into loving an inferior woman must be through some unnatural force.  Similarly, Clarissa’s declaration that their love is a “waste” is a nice way of saying that she disapproves of the union based on the eugenicist principle that it would tarnish Peter’s pure white bloodline.  Peter is a suitable candidate to pass on socially acceptable Anglo-Saxon genetic material, but a child with an Indian mother would undeniably be considered non-white.

Both of these texts reinforce each other, validating the New Historicist argument that they should be considered side-by-side.  The eugenics movement documents give readers a more detailed understanding of the motives behind Clarissa’s strong reaction to Peter’s announcement.  Similarly, the scene from Mrs. Dalloway gives scholars of the eugenics movement a physical representation of how the ideology manifested itself in a realistic, daily-life scenario.

Bottom line: Can there ever truly be “too much information?”

Sources:

Cunningham, J. “Some Factors in Racial Immunity and Susceptibility to Disease.” Man 26 (1926): 184-888. Print.

Garth, Thomas R. “Race and Psychology.” Scientific Monthly 23.3 (1926): 240-45. Print.

Goldenweiser, Alexander. “Race and Culture in the Modern World.” Journal of Social Forces 2.1 (1924):127-36. Print.

Schuster, Edgar, Harry Campbell, and J. Stewart Mackintosh. “Discussion on “Eugenics”” British Medical Journal 2.2744 (1913): 223-31. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005. Print.

There is a Pole

There is a pole on the corner
Of a patch of grass-carpeted earth.
Each day, thousands of scholars walk past it,
Ignoring it altogether, or worse,
Disregarding its beauty and using it
As some mundane meeting place, a point to gather
Before making a lackadaisical journey across campus
In search of nourishment or some new parcel of wisdom.
But this pole has a unique symbolic aesthetic
Lost on many of the scholars it is meant to inspire.
One end of the black rod pierces the ground shamelessly,
Calling forth images of the student with his mind
Firmly rooted in his studies.
As the pole is embedded in the terrain,
So too is the student grounded in his text,
Using logic and reason to seek the knowledge of his ancestors.
The other end of the pole points heavenward,
Reminding the student that his parents were right
When they used to chide him with the clichéd notion
That “the sky is the limit”. It hints of higher layers
In the atmosphere, just as student flirt with new ideas,
Embracing the possibility that we have not yet discovered
All there is to know in this world.
Between these two endpoints
(Admittedly closer to the dream side than to that of logic)
Lies a series of white arrows, emanating in every direction.
Inscribed on these points are great cities of the world,
Sites where dreams are realized or destroyed.
These guides suggest the distances our dreams may travel.
The post identifies locations that need to be “engaged”,
Then grants us the courtesy of boldly stating the distances
That must be traversed in order to engage this world.
Dickinsonians pass this guidepost every day,
And each year a new crop of students inherit its sagacity.
But to truly feel that “distinctly Dickinson” experience
One must grasp the insight which this inconspicuous pole freely distributes.
For what is the point of mere tuition and bookstore bills
If we cannot heed its call to a higher purpose?

Critical Analysis:
“There is a Pole” is a description of how underappreciated the post is by the people who walk past it daily. I intended it to be a sort of stream-of-consciousness “rant”, and so I wanted it to have a very conversational feel. It sounds as if it is the speech of a college student frustrated that no one else realizes the symbolism of this post to greater campus culture. Because of the conversational nature, I knew I wanted this poem to be in free verse (that is, no rhyme and no meter). To give it rhyme and/or meter would make it feel like a planned or scripted speech, instead of being reminiscent of the natural epiphany that I myself experienced. I did, however, wish to play around a bit with diction. I wanted the speaker to clearly come across as a student at Dickinson College. I tried to achieve this through the use of some larger (almost obnoxiously large) words, much like the ones college students try to insert into their conversations to impress professors and classmates. Honestly, who uses the word “lackadaisical” in everyday speech besides the college crowd? I also wanted to make the speaker clearly a Dickinson student by manipulating the Dickinson slogan “Engage the World” that we all know and love. In terms of imagery/symbolism, I tried to relate the post to college student life through three shared experiences. Firstly, the way the pole is rooted into the ground in the same way that the college student is “rooted” in his studies. Second, the top of the pole reaches toward the sky, much like the student’s dreams and aspirations reach towards heights yet unseen. And finally, the white directional arrows are like our smaller life goals, goals for which we know exactly what we must do to succeed. The speaker is illuminating this imagery that seems so relevant to our lives as college students, displaying frustration with the fact that this is such a powerful image, yet we walk by it unappreciatively every day.
P.S. – Poetry has never been my strongest suit (I’m much more of a prose/Shakespeare girl), so be gentle!