Intersections of the Personal and the Political in “The Last September” and “Solar Bones”

Learning to navigate the intersections between different identities is an almost constant process when one inhabits supposedly conflicting spheres of existence. What has fascinated me throughout this process has been the questions: Where do these identities come from? How are they formed? Who gets a say in how they should be performed? I’ve decided to look specifically at Irish Literature due to the history of English occupation and the tensions created through defining identity as what one is not just as much as what one is. The political and the personal become inseparable when we look at national or cultural identity as a construct both adopted and assigned.

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Published in 1929, following both the First World War and the Irish War of Independence, Elizabeth Bowen’s second novel, The Last September, follows Lois Farquar as she navigates what it means to be a woman in the post-war era but surrounded by the murmurs of Irish unrest. Lois Farquar is living with her Aunt and Uncle, Lady and Lord Naylor, and their nephew, Laurence.The family goes through the motions of the everyday–receiving visitors, attending social events, eating meals, reading, playing tennis–while the presence of conflict becomes ever more integrated into their thoughts and story. Their lives are marked by the arrival of long-term guests, such as the Montmorencys and Miss. Norton, who continue to complicate Lois’s understanding of her family and personal identity.

This novel has been held up as a prime example of Big House literature, in which Anglo-Irish families are given positions of power due to their economic success in the colony. The novel itself is separated into three parts: The Arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency, the Visit of Miss Norton, and The Departure of Gerald. This separation of story, of time and action, by the people who arrive feels important for understanding the way that Lois comes to learn about the world. In the final section, Gerald, the romanticized British soldier who Lois had been hoping to mary is killed by an Irish ambush (307). The novel ends with the three big houses of the neighborhood vacant, burning to the ground (314). The novel therefore ends with the violent dispelling of anything perceived as English and imperial from Cork, however throughout the work, the younger generation of Anglo-Irish occupiers are relatively detached from the politics that will determine their own lives. The ways in which similar, yet distinctive, identities are navigated throughout the novel (such as English v. Anglo-Irish v. Native Irish) demonstrated the complexities that come with who creates identity, how they decide what counts as “in” or “out,” and how this impacts individuals without them necessarily recognizing it.

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Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), is the story of Marcus Conway, a deceased civil engineer from county Mayo who has been pulled back into consciousness on All Souls’ Day. Told in a first person limited perspective, the novel begins with the ringing of the Angelus church bells and the confusion of Conway as he is transported into the moment and then realizes that he is home alone (McCormack 1-3). Over the next few hours, as he waits for his wife, Mairead, to come home, Conway sits reading the paper, and later watching the news, reflecting on current events and diverging quickly into his own train of thoughts about his own history, focusing on his relationships with his father, and children–Darragh and Agnes. His thoughts linger on media, politics, environmental disaster, and the economic crash that have all shaped his county, Ireland, and his understanding of the world.

What is deeply fascinating about this work is that the entirety of the 217 pages are comprised of one singular sentence, which never receives punctuation at its end. The stream of consciousness and continuity between one moment to the next flows in a slightly disorienting, but entirely captivating fashion. The transition between the personal and the political is seamless, as Conway considers himself a well informed and politically conscious individual. Conway repeatedly connects the body and existence of those around him to the political at large through short comments, often interrupted by another thought. In thinking about the “metaphysical reality” of his daughter’s birth, Conway comments on her status as a citizen and maps the political onto her body within days of her coming into the world (McCormack 34). He maps the environmental crisis in Mayo following the introduction of an oil pipeline in the north of the county on to the body of his wife through her illness as a result of environmental contamination (McCormack 96). This novel is deeply entrenched in the relationship between the personal and the political, in a way that is unexpected from a man who only has a few hours of consciousness due to peculiar circumstance. Solar Bones complicates my research thus far by forcing me to think about how form factors into remembrance of personal, local, and national histories, since McCormack’s structure can not be ignored.

Both novels contend with what it means to exist in both a local, personal, and political manner. Both manipulate temporality as a way to comment on identity. McCormack collapses an entire life, an entire history, into a few short hours, making the reader feel scattered throughout time and space. Bowen, on the other hand, lilts time, making her characters feel trapped in a repetitive circle that Lois can not seem to break. Solar Bones was published in 2016, meaning that there is no real body of criticism addressing the work yet. However, using a contemporary piece which interacts with Ireland’s history in the way that this novel does would be interesting in mapping how perceptions of norms, culture, local identity and national identity evolve or change over time. Writing about Bowen, on the other hand, means trying to contend with decades worth of scholarship, which would leave me unsure of where my own voice and thoughts fit into the conversation. Currently, I am leaning towards McCormack’s work due to its form.

 

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Bowen, Elizabeth. The Last September. The Dial Press, 1929.

McCormack, Mike. Solar Bones. Tramp Press, 2016.

Language, Class, and National Identity in Irish Literature

The development of national identity is a product of a worldview born relatively recently. In the following article, Elizabeth Gilmartin discusses linguistic identity and reclamation, while Markus Kornprobst discusses the role of the social and economic elite in the development of nations. In conversation with one another, the two pieces highlight the tensions between English and Irish, the lower classes and the elite, and tradition and modernity in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

In “The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict,” (2004) Elizabeth Gilmartin maps the tension between the Irish and English language during the Victorian era, the period where the most common language spoken at home in Ireland transitioned from Irish to English. Gilmartin argues that this linguistic tension resulted in the “Anglo-Irish” dialect, which was “‘sufficiently Irish’ [enough] to give appropriate voice to the identity of the new Irish nation that was emerging early in the twentieth century” (Gilmartin 2). This “new Irish English,” termed “Hiberno-English or Anglo-Irish,” followed distinctly Irish syntax and accent while using English vocabulary (Gilmartin 2-6). This dialect became the result and marker of class, as Irish-speaking parents encouraged their children to learn English so that they could access social and economic status that would otherwise be denied to them (Gilmartin 4). This trend is representative of “auto colonization,” a process in which the “punishment for using the native language does not come from the colonizer but from the colonized themselves” (4). Therefore the dialect that emerged from Irish speakers imposing English on their own children was distinctly Irish in syntax and accent (Gilmartin 4). Anglo-Irish therefore gave authors a language adequate for describing the culture of the Irish Renaissance, as it was an english adapted for the use of the lower class Irish (Gilmartin 13).

In discussing the linguistic trends of the lower classes, Gilmartin also describes the linguistic nationalists and english-supporting modernists elites who were debating the linguistic path of the nation during the Victorian period, and who gave Anglo-Irish legitimacy through their works. In “Episteme, nation-builders and national identity: the re-construction of Irishness,” Markus Kornprobst focuses on these literary and political elites, analyzing their desire to create a national identity and the process of doing so. Kornprobst presents Foucault’s understanding of “the episteme [as] an ideational force that makes us interpret the world in a certain way, often without an active interpretation process,” and expands upon it, drawing on similarities to “theory” as a whole (Kornprobst 408). Episteme becomes important in delineating “which identity narrative is plausible,” therefore validating the elite’s understanding of nation (Kornprobst 409). Kornprobst connects strategies of episteme to Eamon de Valera, revolutionary and later Taoiseach (Prime Minister); and literary figures William B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde directly (410). For these early elites “gaelic language and culture, Roman Catholicism and the rejection of modernity were constitutive to identity” (417). Kornprobst argues that immediately following British occupation, Irishness was created with the understanding that to be a nation was to be homogenous, unique, and fighting against intervention by colonialists, however the elites of the nation began to see plurality in identity and motivation as non-threatening to the Irish state beginning in the 1970s (417)

The useful past of Kornprobst argument in conversation with Gilmartin, is his belief that elites recognized the “uniqueness” and “difference” of the Irish population to the English colonizers. The elites therefore inact rhetoric reinforcing this difference, even though the Irish population had taken aspects of English culture and restructured them to make them distinctly Irish—as Gilmartin argues that the lower classes did with the english language. These articles highlight the importance of language and commerce in the creation of culture, yet challenge the concept of a “worldview” that is central to the nation-state. Both pieces present academic elites who wish to impose an episteme on the greater population, without understanding the full nuances of local identities. Moving forward, their works will be useful in understanding how this tension gets translated to the page, using language not created for or by the literary elite.

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Gilmartin, Elizabeth. “The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict,” Victorian Literature & Culture, vol. 32, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-16

Kornprobst, Markus. “Episteme, nation-builders and national identity: the re-construction of Irishness,” Nations & Nationalism, vol. 11, no. 3, 2005,  pp. 403-421.

The Language of Belonging

The need to belong, and be part of an “in” group, is something every person has felt. This longing becomes complicated when the power dynamics of empires and social hierarchies come into play. The relationship between former colonizers and the formerly colonized during the 20th century demonstrates this nuances and difficulties of this desire.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), follows the experiences of a young houseboy adjusting to University life after leaving a rural village, his master’s lover who becomes a sociology lecturer at the University of Nsukka, and her twin sister’s lover, an English writer who moves to Nigeria to learn about Igbo-Ukwu art. Throughout the chapters that center on Richard, the Englishman living and writing at the University of Nsukka, the narrator emphasizes the tension between him and Major Madu Madu, a close friend of his lover, Kainene. The tension between Richard and Madu finds equilibrium as the two battle over their opposing identities.

During their conversation on whether or not a second coup is probable at Kainene’s parents’ home in Lagos, the two men engage in a linguistic battle of sorts. Richard responds to Major Madu’s denial by saying: “I went to Zaria last week, and it seemed that all everybody was saying was second coup, second coup. Even radio Kaduna and the New Nigerian” (Adichie, 172). It is important to note that Richard said this in Igbo, to which Major Madu responded: “What doe the press know, really?” in English (Adichie 172). Richard believes that Madu responds to his Igbo in English in order to force the conversation back into English (Adichie, 172). This choice in dialogue, happening across languages, highlights a social interaction that places Madu firmly within the “in” group and Richard firmly outside of it. This shift, in which Madu refuses to engage in his own language with the foreigner—who is able to move to Nigeria as a result of his country’s conquest and destruction of the region—forces Richard to revert to the language of a colonizer.

The allusions in this passage to the media also underline the tension between the men. Richard is an academic, who believes in ideological debate and the importance of information. By mentioning “radio Kaduna” and “the New Nigerian,” Richard is presenting his sources. He makes an argument based on media-supported reports and statements. These specific sources also demonstrate Richard’s desire to integrate fully into Nigeria and Igbo culture, because he is using local sources, instead of the “Colonies Magazine” which offered his first look into Igbo art and culture. Madu, on the other hand, dismisses the media due to his position in the army. He knows that there is information that the press does not know, and understands that the press is looking for stories and therefore capitalizing on the tension that he claims has always been present.

This scene is punctuated with a letter from Richard’s cousin, following the outbreak of the second coup. The passage begins with: “Is “going native” still used? I always knew you would!” (Adichie 172). The narrator makes note that “Martin had… that superior smile of people who were born to belong and excel” (Adichie, 173). This passage highlights the condescension of the British towards the Igbo in Nigeria, but also establishes that Martin—the image of the British “in” group—does not believe that Richard ever belonged to the English as it was. Therefore the writer navigates his interactions with Madu with the understanding that his own nationality does not uphold his English-ness.

 

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Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc, 2006.

The Youngest Child on the Derailed Train

A family that is just as fractured as the narrative written about them, the Sai’s in Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go are each learning how to rebuild the bridges between them following the death of their father, Kweku. In the opening section, flashbacks triggered by sensations during Kweku’s death (sight of his first wife’s statue, the feeling of grass on his feet, etc.) create the portrait of a family striving for success, and the pressures that such a pursuit puts on their relationships.

During the birth of their fourth child, later to be named Folasade, after her mother on accident, Kweku experiences a protectiveness and recognition of beauty that he had not at the birth of his other children (Selasi 17). Folasade (Sadie), was born ten weeks too early, and had been taken to the NICU, where her nurses believed she would not survive (Selasi 12). Born nine years after the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, Sadie was unplanned and “impatient” to enter the world (Selasi 15). Kweku’s oldest son, Olu, believes that he will be able to save Sadie, because of the  childhood belief in one’s parents and Kweku’s reputation as a genius surgeon (Selasi 15).

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Years later, Immediately following his wrongful termination from Brigham hospital in Boston, Kweku continues to perform the role of Surgeon and Bread-winner amongst his family, by pretending to leave for work every morning at the same time (Selasi 65). He repeats the motions of dressing for work, and calling Goodbye to his wife and children on the way out (Selasi 65). “‘Bye!’ they called back. Three contraltos, one bass, Sadie’s soprano “I love yooou!” just a second delayed, breezing only just barely out the closing front door like a latecomer jumping on an almost-missed train” (Selasi 65). By comparing Sadie’s love to a “latecomer jumping on an almost-missed train,” Selasi foreshadows the the impending departure of Kweku while creating the image of an unasked for connection. The train was already in motion, moving forwards towards its destination, and Sadie’s voice ran to catch it. The action is hers, as the train never intended to slow down. “Almost-missed” implies the urgency of the action, and releases the breath of  near-miss. The term “breezing” indicates a light and airiness to the words themselves. It is love without the weight and gravity of Kweku’s relationships with his other children. Her voice is the soprano, and therefore the higher, lighter, and more innocent of the chorus. This metaphor illustrates Sadie’s relationship with the rest of the family, while indicating her character from a young age.

The fact that Sadie does not say goodbye is also significant. The rest of the family creates a chorus with the word “Bye!” while Sadie states a reminder of her love for Kweku. There is innocence in the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessary. It indicates that she does not believe that her father would not come back. While they do not realize it at the time, the rest of the Sai children have the opportunity to say goodbye to their father, while Sadie never does.

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Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. New York, Penguin Books Inc, 2014.

Shannon Nolan: Reading List

Key-Terms

Nation-building

Language/Linguistic Theory

 

Theoretical Works

Kornprobst, Markus. “Episteme, nation-builders and national identity: the re-construction of Irishness,” Nations & Nationalism, vol. 11, no. 3, 2005,  pp. 403-421.

Stević, Aleksandar. “Stephen Dedalus and Nationalism without Nationalism,” Journal of Modern Literature (JML), vol. 1, no. 1, 2017, pp.40-57

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. United States: Random House, 1996.

Ferris, Ina. The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Gilmartin, Elizabeth. “The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict,” Victorian Literature & Culture, vol. 32, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-16

 

Journals

ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature (University of Calgary)

Eire-Ireland (The Irish American Cultural Institute)

 

Reflection

I approached this project interested in the intersection between the suppression of language and the building of national identity through literature. What does it mean to write in a language that was not created for your cultural and societal context? A language that has altered the way that a group interacts, thinks, and feels because they must adopt the world view attached to the linguistic system?

Irish literature became an interesting place to begin when one accounted for the national movement to re-introduce Irish as a living language. Writers of the late 19th, and early 20th centuries, such as Joyce and Yeats, debated the practicalities and need for such a re-introduction. Understanding this debate within the context of the building of a national literature then became important. In few other countries, currently writing in English, was there such a massive destruction of language.

Following my meeting with Professor Seiler, I began to think about the English writers, who had returned to London following the revolution, who wrote about or within their Irish experiences. Professor Seiler recommended the works of Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote The Last September, as well as several other novels and a series of Gothic short stories. I connected the Gothic tales to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which has been read as a fear of reverse colonization on the part of the British. Stoker’s position as an Irishman makes his authorship of this novel touchstone of the English Gothic fascinating to me.

From here I am unsure which path my research will follow. I don’t know if I would like to sit in the linguistic realm, or branch out to discover more in the realm of folklore and the Gothic. Narrowing down my interests so that a primary text will be easier to settle on should most likely be my main focus. Regardless, the relationship of Ireland to the english language feels like an important place to start.

Masculinity and the Public Self

As individuals, we are all the products of the circumstances we were raised in. For Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), these circumstances are that of his clan in Umuofia, and his childhood home, headed by Unoka – who is notably irresponsible and lazy. However, attributing all of Okonkwo’s behaviors and actions to the environment he was raised in, overlooks the nuances of his decisions and diminishes his agency. In “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart,” Solomon O. Iyasere argues that Okonkwo is not simply the product or embodiment of his clan’s values, but that both the clan and Okonkwo possess more intricacies than such a reading would allow the reader to have (371). Instead readers must understand the clan as both a rigid structure that is attempting to maintain “serenity, harmony, and communal activities,” and a group of individuals who can hold “personal doubts and fears” about the traditions they uphold (Iyasere 372-374).

Private Or Public Directions On A Signpost

As a result of this desire to maintain peace, Iyasere argues that the clan must find balance between masculine and feminine attributes (Iyasere, 380). He presents the death of Ozoemena, “a willed response to her husband’s death” after a long life together, as the “symbolic dramatization of the union between the masculine and feminine attributes essential in a great man” (380). Okonkwo is unable to reconcile the feminine and the masculine within himself – as a result of his father’s extemely feminine actions – and therefore creates a public self which is violent, immovable, and inherently masculine (Iyasere 380). His public self commits the murder of Ikemefuna, even though the boy calls him his father, while the private, feminine, self, runs to the aid of Ezinma (Iyasere 379-380). Later his drive for violent solutions is what leads Okonkwo to take his own life (Iyasere 385).

The inflexability that results from his insistence on masculine action – in this instance, the destruction of the Christian church – is evident in the moments before Okonkwo leads his clansmen to meet the District Commissioner. Directly beforehand, Okonkwo addresses his fellow leaders:

“Okonkwo warned the others to be fully armed. ‘An Umuofia man does not refuse a call,’ he said. ‘He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked. But the times are changed, and we must be fully prepared’,” (Achebe 109).

This speech demonstrates the rigid expectation he holds for his fellow men, by saying “an Umuofia man” must behave in a certain way. Locating the type of man and masculinity within the clan reinforces a sense of superiority that their actions must attempt to live up to.This is not a “white man” or a Mbainto man, but an “Umuofia man,” and that distinction means something. Using dialogue to present this moment, when the narrator could have described the interaction instead, draws attention to the fact that this is Okonkwo’s perspective. It is one man’s opinion. It also demonstrates Iyasere’s idea that Okonkwo will uphold rigid lines of masculinity in public. In this scene, Okonkwo is addressing five other men, in a matter related to the potential well-being of the clan. He is performing in the public sphere and must therefore project an image of strength.

While our protagonist is upholding rigid masculinity through his verbalized expectation of men, this moment complicates Iyasere’s reading of the text. Okonkwo presents the expectation that his fellow men respond to the request of the District Commissioner for a conversation, but through parallel structure declares that, “he may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked” (Achebe 109). In his public self, Okonkwo is demonstrating flexibility. There is no expectation that a man must respond to the requests of another hostile man with violence, or a stern hand. He may respond how he chooses. While Okonkwo presents expectations for conduct, this final response is one that only the individual can make – just as he may follow his rigid definition of masculinity, while acknowledging that his decisions are his alone to make.

 

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Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 370-385.

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The Autonomy of Musical Instruments

With the influence of movies, the modern student often thinks about what their life would be like if they had a personal soundtrack playing at dramatic moments throughout their days. They walk around imagining exactly which song would match their pace, setting, and emotional state. The characters of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), never have to wonder what this would be like for two reasons. The first of which is that modern film plays no part in the narrative – where storytelling, which sometimes includes song, is the closest equivalent of the medium. The second, is the existence of the drums and flutes which mark important moments for our protagonist, such as the wrestling festival where he gains his fame, the trials where he represents an ancestral spirit to provide judgement for the a quarrelling married couple, and the moments before his adopted son’s death by his own hands.

In his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, released on the anxious eve of  decolonization in Nigeria (Gikandi, 298),  Achebe centers his narrative on the family of Okonkwo, a greatly respected warrior and wrestler from Umuofia during the the years prior to colonization. Part One of the novel begins with the story of his father, a flutist who is unable to provide for his wife and children, before shifting to the son as he sets out at a young age to build his farm and family. Through a series of flashbacks and non-linear story-telling, the reader is given insight into Okonkwo’s family, where his three wives care for their seven children – one of which has been coming and going from the earth cyclically – and the child that the village was given as retribution for a daughter of their clan’s death in a neighboring market (Achebe, Part One). These scenes are juxtaposed with those of the greater village, where there are weddings, festivals, trails, and funerals abound (Achebe, Part One).

Directly following the recounting of a celebration for the marriage of Okonkwo’s friend’s daughter, the narrator begins the next anecdote with the jarring description of the drum waking up the entire village  (Achebe, 71). “The first cock had not crowd, and Umuofia was still swallowed up in sleep and silence when the ekwe began to talk, and the canon shattered the silence” (Achebe, 71). Beginning the description of the morning with the alliteration of “still swallowed up in sleep and silence” creates a sense of monotony and calmness as the “s” rolls of the tongue softly. “Swallowed” implies a deepness to the silence that is not easily broken, as it invokes images of encapsulation in a stomach or other closed and distanced space. “The ekwe began to talk” disrupts the alliteration, drawing attention to the instrument itself, and while providing the instrument its own agency through personification. The instrument becomes a character in its own right due to its ability to talk, instead of simply a tool used by others. It chose to disrupt the morning peace. Several sentences later the noise of the drum is described through onomatopoeia with the noises “go” and “di” (Achebe, 71). These noises can be connected the the words “go” and “die” indicating the departure of a soul that these drums are meant to announce. In conjunction with the earlier personification, the drums are announcing the death and departure on their own accord.

The effect is that in which musical instruments hold their own autonomy, and are capable of commenting on life; speaking when they deem it proper. Approaching the rest of the section with this understanding, changes the moment in which the men of Umuofia take Ikemefuna out of the village to kill him under the guise of taking him home (Achebe, 36). Ekwe were beating from a distant village to bestow a title upon a man there (Achebe, 36). If the drums are separated from the intention of those playing it, if they can truly speak for themselves at the right moment, then these drums could be seen as part of bestowing a title upon Ikemefuna, who would not have had one at the time of his death.

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

Gikandi, Simon. “Achebe and the Invention of African Literature.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

“Log Drum Ekwe Nigerian (Igbo) 6″x12″.” YouTube, uploaded by richardolatunde, 19 May 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enNWmzyDcGc