Monthly Archives: May 2014

On the Road with Lolita and Humbert Humbert: A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play

The most notorious road trip in American literature, live on Twitter!

24 hours only: THURSDAY, JUNE 5, 2014 (anywhere in the world)

Follow @LolitaRoadtrip, use hashtag #lolitatrip for details and updates

Join our Stanford Literature and Transgression class as we take to the road with two of American literature’s most famous characters, Lolita and Humbert Humbert. Follow and interact with them as they travel through America, meet many strange and interesting characters (some of whom may be on the run themselves), and stop at notorious sights and watering holes along the way. Embody your favorite character from Nabokov’s novel or tweet as an author or character of other scandalous literary works or films (road movies!), popular culture or history, or make up memorable characters of your own.

Make sure you include your character’s name at the start of each of your tweets so we know who “you” are. Feel free to switch your persona, include links and visuals, be creative and engage others directly. Make sure you include that hashtag so we see your tweet!

Sample tweets:

  • LOLITA: Daddy-O is getting on my nerves again about enchanted hunters and stuff. I’d rather hunt for cute clothes. #lolitatrip
  • MOTEL OWNER: Why did they not ask for a rollaway? Better keep my eyes on this guy. #lolitatrip
  • EMMA BOVARY to Lolita: I know of a really lovely county fair nearby. Worth a stop! #lolitatrip
  • Milton’s SATAN: Getting ready for you any day now, Humb. Hear you’re a smooth talker like myself. Enjoy that evil #lolitatrip while it lasts!
  • HAROLD (from Harold and Maude): You’re so young. Not my thing. #lolitatrip
  • RYAN GOSLING: Hey girl, look here … #lolitatrip

 More details:

Lolita is a 14-year-old, fully social-media-savvy teenager. She has a smartphone, secret thoughts and agenda, and lots of contact with other people as she travels with Humbert Humbert. She visits internet cafes, chat rooms, may sometimes even “borrow” strangers’ phones. She loves comics, fashion, pop culture, so she often also posts visuals or links to stuff she likes. Humbert Humbert is a true technophobe, so he mostly has no clue about Lolita’s electronic life as they travel–which may be one reason why he truly doesn’t know her. Through the Twitter role-play, we get a privileged insight into Lolita’s character and thoughts via her tweets, instant messages, and postings. Don’t forget that she may also be into emoticons …

You can invent new characters or expand existing ones in Nabokov’s novel, even dead ones (e.g. Charlotte Haze, the brawny mechanic who talks to Lolita at a gas station, a hotel chambermaid who makes up HH’s and Lolita’s room, a former student of HH’s, someone at a restaurant who looks at Lolita and HH and wonders what they are doing, etc.)  Is anybody back home wondering about Lo and her stepfather? Had she confided in any friends at school or camp? Are any friends, moms or teachers suspicious or worried?  What’s happening to the Hazes’ empty house?

Other characters, authors from literary texts, or authors or ideas from theoretical texts about transgression also tweet. E.g., what commentary or advice would Madame Bovary, Bataille, Madame Edwarda, Herod, Satan, or Sam Delany have for Humbert Humbert or Lolita? How would “the Limit” tweet? What would “Transgression” say?  How would “Carnival” chime in? etc.

Suggestions for intertextual tweeting:

Some transgressive works that our Stanford class has read and discussed as a class this quarter (besides Lolita) and that may enter our mix of tweets include the following–but feel free to add your own books, movies, or favorite authors to our transgressive road trip!

  • Ibsen’s Ghosts
  • Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  • Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost (Satan passages)
  • Wilde’s Salome
  • Bataille’s Madame Edwarda
  • Excerpts from Joyce’s Ulysses, Samuel Delany’s Hogg, Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
  • Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (and Valentine de Saint-Point’s Futurist-Feminist response)
  • Ionesco’s The Chairs
  • Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

 

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Some Things Better Left Unsaid: Self-Censorship in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel uses autobiographical narrative to broach a number of traditionally “transgressive” topics: LGBT issues, (possible) suicide, sex with minors. But, as is the case with any autobiography, there is an inherent tension between what is remembered and what is forgotten; what is made explicit and what is left as subtext. Bechdel self-describes as a “careful archivist of her own life,” yet in the graphic novel chronicles her acts of censorship in her early diaries. Surprisingly, Bechdel is able to use censorship to negotiate her identity as an act of self-fashioning. However, it seems as if the instability of these early narratives becomes manifest in her relationship with her father; she is not able to use language to connect with him in the way she would like.

Bechdel’s attempts to narrativize her life began at an young age; she explains that around ten, she began a diary during an “obsessive compulsive spell” (140). These early diaries—first a calendar, then an agenda—were meant to record her daily activities. Yet Bechdel felt unsure if she was able to accurately portray these events. As a result, her diaries became littered with phrase “I think” (141). Bechdel attributes this to a kind of “epistemological crisis;” she asks, “How did I know that the things I was writing were objectively true?” (141). To counteract this, Bechdel sought to exorcise the subjective narrative element from her diaries by blotting out the “I thinks” that began each sentence. However, this proved to be an insufficient solution. She then began drawing a lambda-like symbol as a shorthand for the phrase “I think” (142). This was then placed over specific names or pronouns, then over entire passages, as a kind of “amulet”  (142).

Bechdel’s habit became so compulsive that her mother took over writing in her diary for her. At some later point, she regained the ability to write on her own again. However, instead of fixating on concrete events or actions, Bechdel’s entries now focused on recording her subjective thoughts and emotions. As Bechdel explains, “When I was ten, I was obsessed with making sure my diary entries bore no false witness. But as I aged, hard facts gave way to emotion and opinion” (169). Bechdel began to frequently incorporate ellipses to denote uncertainty in her narrative. In addition, she began to use code words to replace words she viewed as transgressive: “n-ing” became synonymous with either menstruation or masturbation (169-170).  

I argue that Bechdel’s act of self-censorship in these anecdotes reveals much about her personal psychology. I want to suggest that in these examples, censorship primarily functions as a coping mechanism. In the first case, it allows Bechdel to play with symbols in a way that gives her access to a liminal space between objectivity and subjectivity. She gains authorial power by being able to blot out or cover words, and in a sense, becomes the arbiter of what is real and what isn’t. Furthermore, censorship allows her self-narrativize in a way that enables her to explore her identity—as a female-bodied person, as a sexual, adult  being—without making these changes entirely concrete. Bechdel is able to come to terms with her developing body by negotiating how she presents herself in her own narrative.

This seems to suggest that censorship is not always a negative act; an absence does not always translate into a loss. In Fun Home, Bechdel actually transforms censorship into a method for artistic self-fashioning. However, the idea that censorship is positive is troubled by Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her father. Bechdel strongly identifies with her father—particularly after she find out he is gay as well—but he remains inaccessible and enigmatic throughout the graphic novel. In this sense, Fun Home is Bechdel’s attempt to locate her father in her narrative, as well as construct her own identity through narrative.  

I want to suggest that the distance Bechdel feels from her father, Bruce, is created by his acts of self-censorship. The most telling example of this is when Bruce writes a letter to Bechdel in response to when she comes out as a lesbian. Instead of confiding to her that he is also gay, he talks around the subject in veiled language, alluding to the difficulties he faced growing up isolated from any sort of queer community. Eventually, Bechdel’s mother reveals that he is gay. Why would Bruce consciously choose to withhold this key point of identification from Bechdel? As she explains, “He thought that I thought that he was a queer, whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was too” (212). Bruce relies on censorship to reveal what is unsaid; by cloaking his words in this manner, he simultaneously allows what is and what isn’t to coexist.

Nevertheless, this liminality comes at a price. Bechdel misses the subtext, and Bruce’s message is not conveyed. Instead of talking to each other in the same language, Bechdel and her father are reduced to talking past each other. Though Bechdel desperately tries to reach her father, he inevitably remains cut off. Bechdel later compares this miscommunication between her and her father to the missed connection between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses.  

Ultimately, this comes back to the Foucauldian idea that language cannot express transgression. However, Fun Home is not just a novel—is Bechdel able to say more through her multimedia presentation? For her readers, possibly; for her father, I fear it is too late. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Fun Home is transcendent by its mere act of creation; through her narrative, Bechdel is able to go beyond the bounds of mere reality and re-negotiate the way she interacts with her world.

[948]

– Alcibiades

 

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Literary Transgression: Breaking Down Genre in Fun House

Although Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun House documents the author’s (and her father’s) various transgressions, what I found most transgressive involved the interaction between genre and content. Bechdel’s transgression is two-fold. She uses the graphic novel as a way to deal with darker topics like death, suicide, and repressed sexuality, but even more compelling, she uses it as a space for memoir. Furthermore, she transgresses the memoir aspect of her novel by relentlessly intertwining reality with the literary. By subverting content traditions, Bechdel mirrors both the abnormal nature of her childhood and reveals the inherent difficulties in constructing a life narrative.

 

Usually when I think of a graphic novel I don’t expect reality. There are many graphic novels that deal with darker topics, but even then, the comic strip resemblance and the cutely drawn pictures belie the darker underbelly of these works. A great example of this is on page 137. The picture is of Bechdel sweetly kissing her teddy bears, but once the words are read, we realize that it’s a depiction of her OCD. This mirrors Bechdel’s childhood. In many instances in the present Bechdel relives and rethinks instances of her past where what seemed innocent was in fact a representation of something much darker. Her babysitter becomes one of her dad’s lovers. Trips her family took in the past become moments when she could have realized her dad’s transgressions. Alison Bechdel isn’t the first writer to bring darkness to the graphic novel; so instead, it’s the way that she uses it as a space to talk about the past that holds my attention. The graphic novel is a form associated with fantasy and fictions. Drawing up new worlds both in the practice and in the writing. The form allows Bechdel to draw up a new world in her own life narrative. By bringing memoir and the graphic novel together, Bechdel is able to leverage the possibilities of the graphic novel to tell a story that better represents her life narrative. The graphic novel allows Bechdel to jump back and forth through time, escaping the linearity that would keep the reader from truly understanding the story that she’s trying to tell. We start at her childhood, experience her father’s suicide, and then move back and forth between childhood and college years all the while being aware that the story is a retrospective (as in the writing is happening in a different temporal space than the actions of the narrative). By transgressing the traditional content of the graphic novel, Bechdel creates a new space that increases understanding for herself and her readers.

 

Bechdel also intertwines reality and the literary. She constantly views her life through literature or by using the life narratives of great literary figures. Bechdel does this so frequently, that there are moments where the literary and reality seem to be inseparable. In fact, there were a few moments where I had to reread to make sure that I understand the differences between the literary reference and the actual event. On the last page of the graphic novel, the interaction between the literary and reality is used to represent her father’s suicide. Bechdel compares her father to Icarus, saying “he did hurtle into the sea of course” with a depiction of the truck that killed him. This intermingling of the fiction, life narrative, and reality allow Bechdel to express the difficulties of creating a life narrative. She talks about this explicitly when she remembers her diary writing. At first, she was obsessed with the truth. Everything written in her diary was reality. As time passed, however, her emotions began to get in the way of reality. Moments took on metaphors. She began to omit certain events. Her memory could not hold on strongly enough to overcome her shame. When you look back at your life, you construct a narrative that is both reality and fiction. Pretending to play “plane” on Bechdel’s father becomes a memory associated with his suicide. Looking at GQ magazine becomes a precursor for her sexuality. This is what makes constructing a life narrative so difficult; you cannot separate fiction from reality. Perhaps in this way Bechdel isn’t subverting the graphic novel form at all. Maybe she is accepting that her memoir is fantasy.  

 

-Queen MAB

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Multiplicity of Narratives in the “Fun Home”

In “Fun Home,” Anne Bechdel utilizes the medium of the graphic novel to explore simultaneous multiple narratives through the combination of text and image. In many of these passages Bechdel draws on classical tropes and literature to overlay academic theory on the narrative events of Bechdel’s life. The medium of the graphic novel extends literary modes of story telling with the addition of a visual image and allows Bechdel to complicate her story through multiple narratives. For example, Bechdel commonly uses a dissonance between the narrative captured in the text and the events of the visual and spoken dialogue below. On page 12 and 214, the juxtaposition between the caption and the drawn narrative is captured through a dissonance of the classical tropes in the text and the realistic narrative depiction of Bechdel’s life in the visuals. The textual classical imagery can be viewed as a metaphor for the real life depiction of the visuals.

For example on page 12, Bechdel writes “Indeed, the result of that scheme–have-bull, half-man monster–inspired Daedalus’s greatest creation yet. He hid the Minotaur in the labyrinth-a maze of passages and rooms opening endlessly into one another…and from which, as stray youths and maidens discovered to their peril…escape was impossible. Then there are those famous wings, when Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?” (12). This passage describes a classical illusion to Daedalus, responsible for placing the Minotaur on Crete and the death of his son when the wax on Icarus’s wings melted near the sun. These illusions both ground Bechdel’s father as a father figure like Daedalus, but also identify him with schemes that are often harmful for children. During this verbal narration and caption of classical illusion, Bechdel tells a narrative through images of Bechdel getting in trouble for opening a stopper of alcohol. In the resulting frames, Bechdel attempts to “find a way out” of her house just like the classical children try to find their way out of the maze. She then walks next to dead cornfields until she comes back home in a “failure” of escape just as Daedalus is upset over the “design failure” of the wings. We also see Bechdel questioning whether her father cares about her, whether Daedalus was “really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea.” In this passage of the graphic novel, the multiplicity of the form allows Bechdel to tell multiple narratives, both classical and autobiographical, which ties together academic thought and home-life in a metaphorical relationship.

We see a similar use of classical imagery being overlaid with another layer of narration of Bechdel’s life on 214 as she depicts a sexual act through a classical lens. In this passage, Bechdel uses Odysseus as her main classical figure, writing, “Veering toward Scylla seemed much the safer route and after navigating the passage, I soon washed up, a bit stunned, on a new shore.  Like Odysseus on the island of the cyclops, I found myself facing a ‘Being of colossal strength and ferocity, to whom the law of man and god meant nothing.’ In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared. Yet while Odysseus schemed desperately to escape Polyphemus’s cave, I found that I was quite content to stay here forever.” In this passage the visual narrative goes deeper than this ‘higher’ level of language rich with classical references. The actual images show Bechdel about to give oral sex to her girlfriend. With the bottom left picture showing her contemplating this action, the “thing I feared” it moves to her closing her eyes and enjoying the activity as she is now “content to stay here forever.” With oral sex depicted through classical images, the act of gay sex assumes an academic register. These multiple registers of narrative accentuates the multiplicitous nature of the graphic novel and the hints of humor, irony, metaphor, that can be observed through the difference between textual and visual narrative.

The dissonance between visual images and written ones is also utilized to provide an unspoken backstory in the novel. On page 139, Bechdel described her process of reading Dr. Spock in order to understand her mental disorder. She says, “I continued reading, searching for something more concrete.” The irony in this scene is that Bechdel narrates a very concrete basis for her mental problems through the visual medium below her text. In this second narrative her parents are having a violent argument, representing what is assumed to be one of many childhood memories of a broken marriage. This background activity in many ways explains Bechdel’s mental trauma better than Doctor Spock, creating a level of irony as Bechdel is in fact looking in the wrong place, down at her book instead of up at her parents argument to pinpoint her mental problems. The words of Doctor Spock are inadequate to explain her problems much because his book is in a written medium and therefore is plagued by epistemological questions. Instead the visual representations appear to be closer to her life.

These examples of narrative complication with multiplicitous media is also incorporated to Bechdel’s own epistemological problems. In her childhood journals, it seems that words are not enough to properly describe her life. Instead she resorts first to write the words “I think” after every noun, and then to write over each noun with a “curvy circumflex” (142). This epistemological problem of “language failure” draws Bechdel to another medium that has the dual communicative element of the above passages. She says that “The best thing about the wind in the willows map was its mystical bridging of the symbolic and the real, of the label and the thing itself. It was a chart, but also a vivid, almost animated picture” (147). Here, a visual map is able to catch more of the “real” than her diary was of describing her inner feelings. Indeed, to Bechdel, the dual narrative quality of the graphic novel allows her to explore more fully her autobiographical life than the  written word allowed her to do in her youth.

-Nora

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Images as “Evidence?”- Using Photographs in a Tragicomic

by Sultan Jahan Begum

The most distinctive aspect of Bechdel’s Fun Home is her imaginative and careful use of images to simultaneously support and digress from the textual story. The words are undoubtedly the primary story- without text, it seems plausible that Bechdel’s pictures wouldn’t make sense. While her images compliment her words at times, in other instances the pictures tell a slightly different story. For example, when describing herself as Odysseus scheming to escape Polyphemus’ cave, Bechdel sketches the first time she gives oral sex to a woman: “In heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared.” (214) Thus, Bechdel’s use of images as narrative constructs a parallel narrative to her text.

Fun Home is simultaneously a few types of genres, including graphic novel and autobiography. Yet Bechdel feels the need to supplement her theories about her dad’s suicide and her family’s influences on her nature with what we might think of as “evidence.” While memoirs may be largely fictional or subjective, since they are based on an individual’s memory, Bechdel includes maps, letters, diary entries and photographs to contribute to the various ways she remembers the past. The use of images as narrative makes itself known in a less obvious way, through Bechdel’s use of images within images, particularly the photographs on pages 100-102.

To think about this further, we can understand images (like text, but through a different medium) as capturing both events and mentalités. Photographs are capable of capturing fleeting moments in a way that paintings, for example, cannot. The two-page photograph of Roy on pp. 100-101 is out of focus, blurry, a characteristic which suggests it may have been taken quickly, perhaps because Bechdel and her brothers were entering the room. On one hand, this photo serves as “evidence” of her father’s homosexuality in a way that Bechdel’s mother’s complaints or her father’s roundabout discussion of his own homosexuality cannot. The photographer is undeniably her father, who captures Roy with the same eye that he uses to furnish a room in their Victorian. There is both aestheticism and eroticism in the scene, with the distance between the photographer and subject collapsing any philosophical distance between erotics and aesthetics and thus the photo is an expression of an event and a mentalité.

Juxtaposed with the other photographs found in an enveloped labeled “Family” in Bechdel’s father’s handwriting are a series of three negatives. The first three are “appropriately” of the father’s family- his children playing at the beach. The fourth is the negative of Roy. All four negatives are connected on one strip, just like the comic strips Bechdel uses to tell her story throughout. The juxtaposition between the father’s children and the object of his sexual, erotic and aesthetic affections is jarring at first. Bechdel leads the reader through Proust’s “sweeping metaphors,” which are at first presented as binaries- “bourgeois vs. aristocratic, homo vs. hetero, city vs. country, eros vs. art, private vs. public.” In a move typical to transgressive literature, at the end of the novel the binaries converge “through a vast network of transversals.” Thus, Roy is indeed family. He is part of the underground, unspoken gay community of which Bechdel’s father is a card-carrying member. Roy is the children’s caregiver, which naturalizes him into the nuclear family- and thus the series of photographs- even more, perhaps even in a heteronormative way.

Finally, these photographs reveal the spaces in which they were taken. These spaces are decidedly intimate, regardless of whether they reflect a public beach or a hotel room. The photographer’s eye goes to that which is important, even loved. The juxtapositions and binaries dissolve into a “natural” series of photographs of family, illustrating what cannot be articulated in words or text yet subtly making the father’s inherent homosexuality not only true, but natural. As a digression, it strikes me that this similar “convergence of binaries through a vast network of transversals” parallels the gay movement Bechdel discusses in the later chapters, which struggled to expose the normalcy and ubiquity of homosexual love and desire as something that was not outside the norm but rather encompassed the norm.

Thus, Bechdel’s use of photographs as a type of “evidence” speaks directly to how images in Fun Home can construct a parallel yet sporadically digressive narrative to the text. Bechdel’s use of “evidence” in the forms of letters, diary entries and photographs toes the lines between memoir and novel, autobiographical and fictional. The question is not whether these pieces of “evidence” are real or fictional, but rather what work they do within the tragicomic. For me, the various uses of narrative, both textual and illustrative, evoke fascinating and enthralling narratives.

Words: 774

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Fun Home as transgressive lit?

Tim Dean’s work, “The erotics of transgression” laments the exhaustion of the category of transgression. He writes, “The vocabulary of transgression has permeated academic discourse to such an extent – influencing not just lesbian, gay and queer studies but the humanities and social sciences more broadly – that much of its original force has been blunted.” Reflecting on transgression as both an idea and a philosophical concept, Dean explores the writings of Bataille and Foucault, and attempts to reclaim transgression as a useful category of analysis (66). 

Dean is particularly interested in the notion of the erotic. If we are to take Tim Dean at his word, “it is eroticism (rather than sexuality or sexual identity) that remains inextricable from transgression,” then he invites us to reflect on the extent to which Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home constitutes transgressive literature (69).

Alison Bechdel’s perfectly titled Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, invites the reader to begin dissecting at the very cover. It is unclear whether Bechdel is underscoring the fact that her story is both tragic and a comic strip, if she is implying that the irony of her story is both tragic and comedic, or both.

What then constitutes the transgressive elements of Bechdel’s work? As Dean established above, non-normative sexualities have ceased to function in discourse on transgression. The boundaries that once demarcated acceptable and permissible sexualities, for the most part, have retreated. The sexuality of father and daughter alike, instead, provide the context for an ironic tale about family, identity, art, and communication.

One of the more poignant aspects of the story is the way the father and daughter communicate through the medium of literature, much of which has been called transgressive. The literary metaphors they utilize provide a kind of grounding for their own understanding of who they are. It provides a language for sentiments that are, in some ways, unspeakable. At times, father and daughter lack the ability to communicate in real life terms; instead, they utilize the common language of a shared literary canon. 

The real potential for locating transgression within this tale is situated within the family. There are shared cultural ideas about what a family is supposed to be. Husbands and wives are to behave in a certain way toward one another, as are parents and children. Ideally, the family functions as a unified and supportive socio-economic unit, though in reality, families often function as sites of tension and conflict. The Bechdels are certainly a family that operates despite conflicts of interest, though I would argue that there is still a great deal of love, support, and care within the family. But would this count as transgression or are the Bechdel’s simply dysfunctional? I would claim the later.

The father’s suicide is arguably the most problematic and the only place where we are able to locate a transgressive act. The choice of exit from one’s life is a limit that the living often cannot accept. But this begs the question, for whom is the father’s suicide transgressive? To the daughter/author or the reader? The author harbors no anger or resentment at her father’s choice. The ambiguity of his suicide, the lack of a suicide note, the fleetingness of all of it, leaves it open-ended, like a conversation that is still taking place and is playing itself out on the pages before us. The memoir provides a medium for the author to come to terms with her father and her own identity, to think about the role of the father in her own life, and to reflect on her father’s life choices that seem so very different from her own. Even after his suicide, she suggests that the legacy of his role in her life permitted him a kind of enduring presence long after his death. In concluding, she writes, “He did hurl into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). Bechdel articulates here that her father’s life choices and suicide were not beyond the bounds of her limits, leaving the readers to grapple with our own sense of limits and transgression.

Lastly, the graphic novel format that Bechdel utilizes is indispensible to her story and tone. It provides the novel and her wit with a type of light-heartedness that in no way takes away from the personal and serious story she is narrating. It is a genius articulation, communicating her story and personality so clearly to the audience, and such a pleasure to read. The form lends itself well to a story that could be interpreted critically and coldly, but is afforded a kind of lightness through the visual representations of the stories that are being narrated.

– Madame Oshey

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Dad and Daughter

In Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, there is an insistent parallel between Bechdel’s life and her father’s that occasionally comes to light. The most pointed comparison occurs at the end of chapter 4, when Bechdel finds a photograph of her father at university where “He’s sunbathing on the tarpaper roof of his frat house just after he turned twenty-two” (120). The picture itself is redrawn in a way that distinguishes the photographed version of Bechdel’s father from the cartoon version of him in Fun Home. Since it is in a more realistic style than the other cartoon artwork in the book, it both stands out and is hard to compare with the more simplistic depictions of the father. Without descriptions announcing that it was a picture of her father the reader would find it difficult to tell who is in the photograph. This dissonance between the physical features in the photograph and the book is expanded through the heavy shading with crosshatched ink lines on her father’s face. Sunglasses further block his expression from view and hide his features. This moment stands out because of the break in art style, but it is Bechdel’s attempt to force a comparison between her father’s life and her own that makes the page stand out.

At the end of her description of the setting in the photograph, Bechdel asks readers, “Was the boy who took [the picture] his lover?” This question reinforces the instance Bechdel draws from her own life: another photograph that is darkly lit, with crosshatched lines. She connects this photograph directly with the previous by continuing her train of thought and stating, “As the girl who took this polaroid of me on a fire escape on my twenty-first birthday was mine?” In order to know what “mine” refers to readers must look back at her final line describing her father’s photograph, where she muses, “Was the boy who took it his lover?” The connection Bechdel draws between the two lovers—one real and one hypothetical—is one of the stronger instances of Bechdel’s own biases coming through in her work. Bechdel attempts to reinforce a connection with her life and her father’s through these two photographs. Two photographs that have eerie similarities without idle speculation about her father’s love life. Bechdel even admits that the technical aspects of the photographs are similar: “The exterior setting, the pained grin, the flexible wrists, even the angle of shadow falling across out faces…” (120). The concrete similarities of the exterior setting, angle of shadow, and twenty-first and twenty-second birthdays, however, and quickly supplanted by Bechdel’s own interpretation that seems grounded not on the image itself or on body language, but on Bechdel’s own desire for similarity. Bechdel asserts that she and her father both had a “pained grin” on their faces. While I do not doubt Bechdel’s ability to read her own body language and recollect about her experiences, Fun Home is filled with details of how she misread her parents’ emotions and actions. At one point, she even points out that, “could [our family] not be even more accurately described as a mildly autistic colony? Out selves were all we had” (139). In this home where each family member is isolated and follows their own artistic pursuits to the point of some social dysfunction, the belief that Bechdel is reading her father’s facial expression accurately or without a heavy bias of her past experiences and knowledge of him seems unlikely.

Even the framing of her discussion of the initial comparisons of the two photographs is based on the hypothetical that “the boy who took it” could have been her father’s lover. This hypothetical allows Bechdel to draw a direct comparison with “the girl who took this polaroid of me.” She does not focus on the obvious comparison point: photographs after early twenties birthdays, but instead on the imaginary and real lovers they have in common. This forced comparison at this time almost comes across as a desperate attempt to find similarities between their two sexual orientations. Yet many of the depictions of her father’s sexuality highlights its difference from her own. He is continually having brief sexual encounters with underage boys while Bechdel is having sexual relationships with women her own age. Her father hides his encounters as much as possible while Bechdel has an urge to tell her parents as quickly as possible through letter (58). While both have some aspect of queer sexuality in common due to their sexual attraction to their own gender, they also go about acting on it in entirely different ways. Bechdel even highlights their different approaches when she reflects upon how quickly she came out to them. She ponders, “Why had I told them? I hadn’t even had sex with anyone yet. Conversely, my father had been having sex for years and not telling anyone” (59). It is odd and difficult to understand Bechdel’s desperation to compare her own past experiences with gender transgression and queer identity with her father’s. Bechdel seems so intent on forcing her father’s life to fit into the mold of her own that she does not always point out the significant differences in their life experiences.

By Chip Delany

Word Count: 866

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Rites of Passage and Transgression in Fun Home

Having finishing Fun Home, I’m struggling to find its transgressive element. The comic book style is certainly novel, but not necessarily transgressive, especially when compared to the narratorial style of Madame Bovary, which earned the book an obscenity trial. An argument might be made, I suppose, for the author’s “transgressive” way of dealing with identity. I might argue that her use of literary, mythic, legal and cultural narratives to riddle out the complexity of her young self “transgresses” against contemporary, monolithic identity categories, which tend to utilize sweeping and uniform definitions, reducing vastly different experiences to single traits. This seems like a weak definition of transgression and a tenuous analysis of contemporary political uses of identity categories.

So, failing to see the deeper function of transgression in the text, I’ll focus my post on instances where the narrator feels that some transgression is being committed. One instance of this comes in chapter 2, when the narrator sees an undressed corpse for the first time. Though the sight of the naked man with a gaping chest surprises her, she “studiously betray[s] no emotion” (p. 44) and leaves the room. Here, it may not be that a transgression is being committed, per se, but she experiences the situation as being a rite of passage, imaginably not unlike the rites of passage her father later teaches her in his English class (p. 198). She explains that the situation “felt like a test” (p. 44) to see how she would react. Though there is perhaps an element of sexual transgression (this is the first time she has seen a grown man’s genitals), the mutilated body dominates the  scene, indicating that it is the subject of the rite of passage. Her father calling her into the room presents her with a new limit, the experience of which creates a number of things. First, the explicit and grisly recognition of mortality creates in Allison a powerful memory. Her father seems to be initiating her into another class of world-weariness in which she has confronted death and gore. Second, it adds to the unspoken tension that Allison experiences with her father throughout the novel, simultaneously deepening their relationship and making it more complex and confusing.

So, like our discussions of transgression in which transgressors interact with some limit in order to produce a new experience, thought, morality, etc., Allison’s rite of passage introduces both a new dynamic into her relationship with her father and into her personal experience with death and mortality. Thinking about the book more generally, a number of examples of similar rites of passages come to mind, including her being let in on the secret of her father’s homosexual affairs (appearing first on page 59) and her mother’s frustrations with her father (e.g., p. 216). As her mother reveals her frustrations, Allison realizes “it was the first time my mother had spoken to me as another adult” (p. 217). Framing this conversation as a certain rite of passage into adulthood paralleling the rite of passage that her father put her through with the cadaver shows one type of limit in Fun Home, namely the limit that serves as a threshold to be crossed to enter the adult world.

But there’s another type of limit in Fun Home, or, at least, a parallel structure in which an external source provides Allison with an opportunity for self-discovery. Her discovery of queer texts and the way they help her to come into her own lesbianism create a different set of rites of passage. In this set, unlike in the first, Allison experiences the discovery of these texts and their influence as personal rather than authoritatively handed down. These sources help Allison discover the existence of sexual possibilities that she didn’t know existed. Though they come from external literary sources, the fact that she discovers them individually and seemingly talks very little about them with others emphasizes the role they play as individual sources for personal growth.

This novel is about coming of age and the complex relationship between the thoughts and experiences that come from authoritatively contrived rites of passages (like those her father intentionally puts her through) and those that one uncovers for herself. In both of these situations, the limits that are crossed allow for individual growth and for the deepening of relationships with others. The notion of “the limit” is especially important in talking about transgression, and, in the case of Fun Home, the presence of these thresholds, though certainly not acting as ultimate or even extreme ones, demonstrate that growth into adulthood and self-awareness requires that they be transgressed and intimately interacted with.

Posted by ER

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Violent Transgressions: Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”

“I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which out to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world’s literary memory. [ . . . ] I should myself be glad to disown it for various reasons, but this is not permitted.” (Burgess ix)

 Burgess 2

 So Anthony Burgess’s begins his introduction to his most widely read – though apparently somewhat unendorsed – work, A Clockwork Orange. Taking a grudging responsibility for the book, Burgess cites Stanley Kubrick’s film version as the reason for the enduring fame of what was meant to be a more offhand work of art. In fact, Burgess considers A Clockwork Orange “too didactic to be artistic,” a statement that I will address more fully later in this presentation (xiv). Despite the dismissive remarks, the novel remains a compelling work of transgressive literature. Published in 1963, A Clockwork Orange depicts a near-future society overrun by young gangs who commit violence and sex crimes at night. Alex, the protagonist of the story, leads one such gang on a merry rampage through the city, alternately beating and raping the victims they come across and causing general mayhem. According to Burgess, the premise for the novel was inspired partly by the delinquency of 1950s and 1960s Britain, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and the rise of the science fiction genre at the time. On his motivations for writing the novel, Burgess says in an interview:

“I heard talk in the 1960s of the possibility of getting these young thugs, and not putting them in jail – because jail is needed for professional criminals – but rather putting them through a course of conditioning. Turning them in effect to clockwork oranges: no longer organisms full of sweetness and color and light like oranges, but machines. I feared this, and that’s why I wrote the novel. I feared the possibility that the state was all too ready to take over our brains and turn us into good little citizens without the power of choice.”

The “clockwork orange” acts as Burgess’ metaphor throughout the book. A human, however deplorable and however immoral, is an orange full of the sweetness, color, and light that comes with agency and free will. Take that agency away and the human becomes inorganic: a machine, with no ability to determine his own life. That the state could turn humans into “clockwork” is the concern that drives the novel.

Burgess’ narrative is written from Alex’s first-person point of view, a voice Burgess himself describes as “supremely confident, absolutely cold-blooded, yet with a strong sense of irony and humor” (Anthony Burgess Speaks ii).

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This mix of reproachable morals with charismatic liveliness renders Alex a truly conflicting character: while readers are disgusted by his actions, they also find themselves laughing with him or sympathizing with his plight. When Alex is captured by police, jailed to the point of boredom, and finally put into a mysterious rehabilitation program, for instance, his young, dynamic voice engages readers in the ups and downs of his imprisonment. The crux of the novel, perhaps, comes in the rehabilitation program. There, the state’s new scientific, quasi-psychological procedure ensures that Alex can never choose to commit crime again. In divesting him of the ability to make moral choices for himself, the plot taps into the anxieties around excessive state control, engineering human consciousness, and the state of individuality in an scientifically progressive society. These themes prompt the Norton edition of the novel to market Burgess story as the “frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom” (xii). Good and evil, individual and state, and choice and compulsion all lay at the heart of the novel’s intellectual thrust. Burgess’ motivating stance against excessive government control over individuals – specifically young delinquents like those in 1950s Britain – orients his novel in favor of individual freedom. With his murdering, raping protagonist, then, Burgess pushes audiences to confront – and even support – an extreme case of human freedom in action.

Here, I will examine three specific aspects of the story in order to develop my own view on the novel’s transgressive work. First, Burgess’ portrayal of morality throughout the text: specifically the biological, bodied understanding of moral inclination he develops. Second, his use of language – and the process of language acquisition – as a means of indoctrinating readers into the social psychology of the characters in the novel. And finally, I will return to Burgess’ preface and examine the claim that the novel is, in fact, “didactic.” I will explore how understanding the novel as having a moral lesson affects our perception of it as a transgressive work of art.

In Clockwork Orange, Burgess understands moral conscience not as universal or rational but as tied to an individual’s biology. See the conversation between Alex and his doctor at the rehabilitation center. The doctors have just forced Alex to watch a series of violent films after injecting him with a drug mixture that makes him feel sick to watch them.

‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr. Branom. ‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it.’ [ . . . ]

‘But,’ I said. ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before. I used to feel like the very opposite. I mean, doing it or watching it I used to feel real horrowshow.’ (121)

That Alex’s body is learning rather than his mind speaks to the biological rather than rational understanding of moral behavior here. In Burgess’ novel, a character can be presented with all the rational arguments and theology in the world (certainly the prison priests use this method), but moral decision in the end will be based on bodily principles of “sickness” and “feeling” rather than truth or religion. The consequences of locating the moral compass in the body rather than the mind means that good and bad become arbitrary labels for a deeper, more convincing impulse: pleasure and pain. Alex naturally feels “horrowshow” (slang for great, energized, or joyful) when engaging with violence. Raping and beating, violence and mayhem give him a visceral bodily pleasure. When raping the two young girls that follow him home to his apartment, for instance, Alex narrates his experience in these following words:  “ . . . then the lovely blissful tune all about Joy being a glorious spark like of heaven, and then I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas” (51). With tigers leaping and Joy playing in the background, the scene carries an unmistakable enjoyment in what traditional morality would find repulsive. Burgess’ biological orientation of morality, then, has the effect of transcending traditional moral systems by seeming to transcend the rational (or controllable) all together. The compulsion of the body takes over everything. It renders the traditionally “bad” in fact tangibly “good” and the traditionally “good” into something undesirable.

It makes sense, then, that Alex laughs when journalists fret over the epidemic of “badness” in youth. See his reaction to the newspaper: “This biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?” (44). He mocks the journalists who fret over immorality. Alex, by contrast, accepts the inclination towards badness – like the inclination towards goodness – as natural: not a mistake, problem, or mental malformation. As such, Clockwork Orange presents a transgressive view of morality that defies conventional moral education or religious tradition. Rather than understanding humans as inherently inclined toward rational moral principles, Alex and the novel reveal these principles to be arbitrary. They are reducible to words, which are themselves insubstantial next to the natural, biological inclinations of the body. Consequently, a person like Alex can not only be inclined towards crime, but relish it – and have that be a normal, even supportable state of being.

Language is also a central experience of reading A Clockwork Orange. Using a combination of Slavic and deconstructed English words, Alex and his friends develop a slang called Nadsat. It sounds like this:

Online tutorials on the language have also been made:

While tutorials like the one above define the words they use, no such glossary or dictionary appears in the book. Instead, the reader undergoes a process of language acquisition, whereby she learns Alex’s slang over the course of the story, simply by hearing him speak. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Rosenblatt develops a relevant notion of “efferent” reading. Efferent reading, she argues, is an interpretive methodology in which readers derive something “materially” from the reading experience (like a language skill) (52). Rosenblatt devotes attention specifically to verbal “symbols” in literature and how they might contribute information, concepts, and guides-to-action that the reader is left with once the book is over (27). Borrowing her idea of material gain, then, I argue that the language-learning process of Clockwork Orange gives its readers a unique kind of “information” and set of “concepts.” See, for instance, a moment from Alex’s narrative: “There were real oozhassny animal type vecks among them, one with his nose all ate away and his rot open like a big black hole. [ . . . ] One of them made a jump on to my back, and I had a real nasty bit of drasting with him.” (78) Several words here – oozhassny, veck, rot, drasting – are either used in an unfamiliar way or are not part of standard English at all. Still, by reading the context of the scene, it is possible to discern the broader connotative meaning of each word. Oozhassny, for instance, is paired with “animal,” triggering the association between the two and giving oozhassny an animalistic, bestial meaning. Similarly, Alex has a “drasting” with a man after being jumped. The aggressive move that provokes the word, along with the accompanying description of “nasty,” leads to the assumption that “drasting” means a kind of fight or beating. A reader would pick up on these vague meanings and the narrative, by using them repetitively, can then reinforce and confirm (or change and adjust) the reader’s intuitions. The two work in tandem to inculcate the reader with a new, functional vocabulary.

That these words can only be defined contextually and connotatively – via vague associations and assumptions – is important. In such a mode, language can resist the more oppressive, structured mode of institutional or state language. There is no “official” definition, so to speak, of the words Alex uses – instead their meanings can only be gleaned from casual, on-the-ground use between friends. David Sisk argues that this slang therefore gives Alex and his crew a space of linguistic freedom from a more conditioned society (Sisk 280). I argue, however, that in building this space independent of society, Alex’s language has an additional effect: it renders the reader complicit in this alternative social community. Note that to understand the language Alex uses, the reader must engage with it in an active, interpretive way. This strain toward understanding, then, inherently involves a strain toward inclusion: as the reader learns the language and acclimates to Alex’s slang, she inadvertently becomes a member of his linguistic circle. As such, not only does the reader experience a sense of connection with the narrator, she, like Alex, resists the more conditioned state of society. On a subconscious, linguistic level, then, A Clockwork Orange draws its readers into the transgressive agenda of its narrator.

Finally, the author’s introduction to the novel deserves addressing. Anthony Burgess claims there that A Clockwork Orange carries a moral lesson, and that it is “too didactic to be artistic” (xiv). In fact, one of his heaviest grievances against Stanley Kubrick’s film is the way it leaves out the last chapter where Alex exhibits some redemptive qualities. In Burgess’ words: “[In chapter 21] my young hoodlum comes to the revelation of the need to get something done in life – to marry, to beget children, to keep the orange of the world turning in the rookers of Bog, or hands of God” (xii). Alex’s moral revelation at the end takes his radical behavior of the past and funnels it into a life of social acceptability in the future. He wants a family, a wife, even a child, and finds himself bored with the mayhem of his youth. According to Burgess, this transformation is what gives the novel its claim to being “genuine fiction,” for it shows “the possibility of moral transformation” (xii). But assuming moral transformation, or wisdom, or redemption is what makes a novel “genuine” represents a view that harkens back to somebody like Matthew Arnold. Arnold, after all, was a key Victorian proponent of the belief that the value of art lay in its ability to affect moral or social improvement in the viewer (Arnold 7). In a strange double move, then, Burgess ascribes to an Arnold-esque didacticism while also refusing it – in that he admits that his novel cannot be called “artistic” because of this very morality.

As a work of literature, then, A Clockwork Orange becomes transgressive in its treatment of language, morality, and individual freedom but more conventional in its overall “moral message.” Interestingly, however, if one took the author’s introduction out of the picture, the so-called moral ending can be interpreted differently. Alex’s conversion could be read as disingenuous or simply as unbelievable. While author’s interpretation may be the most authoritative, there is room in every work of art to reconsider its meaning – as Kubrick does – in one’s own interpretive light. In spite of Burgess, then, Clockwork Orange, may be “artistic” after all.

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 [ALA]

Works Cited

“Anthony Burgess Discusses A Clockwork Orange,” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 September 2010. Web. 23 May 2014.

“Anthony Burgess Speaks: 1972 (ii),” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 15 February 2011. Web. 23 May 21, 2014.

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. Print.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. Print.

“Clockwork Orange Dissent among droogs,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 16 January 2013. Web. 24 May 2014.

Davis, Todd, and Kenneth Womack. “‘O My Brothers’: Reading the Anti-Ethics of the Pseudo-Family in Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’” College Literature 29.2 (2002): 19-36. JSTOR. Web. 24 May 2014.

“Nadsat,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 15 November 2011. Web. 24 May 2014.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

Sisk, David W. Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias, Westport: Greenwood, 1997. Print.

“The Ludovico Technique,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 27 October 2013. Web. 24 May 2014.

 

 

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Normalizing The Obscene: Kathy Acker’s Transgression.

When we read any kind of fiction, we are meant to suspend our disbelief and enter the world that the author has created. For a time we allow the author to alter the way we think even as our own notions make intermittent appearances. For the most part, authors tend to align themselves with the morals and beliefs of the society they inhabit, making it easier for the reader to enter the world the author has created. In some cases, however, the author creates a completely new world both in representation and in morality. In Lolita, for example, the reader is stuck in the narrator’s head, forcing the reader to look at the fictional world from his moral view (albeit frequently disagreeing or questioning his views).  In Kathy Acker’s “Rape By The Father” we are put in a situation where the author does not attempt to take us out of our own world, but instead infuses the obscene with the mundane; this act normalizes the obscene forcing the reader to reconsider ideas about the appropriate, the beautiful, and the normal.

            One of the first instances of this is on the first page of the story. The narrator introduces her grandmother by beginning with the extremely mundane and working towards the jarring or obscene. The description beginning with the phrase: “she’s my father’s mother” ends with the statement that “she wasn’t going to prostitute her whole life.” The narrator flippantly presents the information as if every grandmother makes that decision at some point in her life. Acker shakes the reader out of the mundane. The reader no longer knows whose world they are occupying. Is Kathy Acker creating a new moral world where having a prostitute for a grandmother is completely normal? Or is Acker helping us morally recalibrate our world. It also has to be noted that once the narrator mentions this, she does not take time to qualify the statement or explain. The grandmother is a prostitute and the reader has to accept it and move on. This occurs again as the narrator moves into a description of a young boy named Alexander. The narrator describes Alexander: “This boy, almost as beautiful as a strand of my grandmother’s cunt hair…” The sentence occupies a weird space because it is at once jarring but in a moment that you could miss if you didn’t read carefully; in fact, the reader might be in such disbelief that they didn’t believe in what they saw. In this description Acker forces the reader to consider the obscene as beautiful. Acker does not allow the reader to question whether the grandmother’s pubic hair is beautiful. We have to accept it or remain separate from the world of the novel, a world where perhaps pubic hair is beautiful. The entire premise of the excerpt ascribes to this method of transgression. The excerpt is titled “The Rape By the Father.” The title is disturbing, and instantly jars the reader out of their world. The reader is primed for a transgressive text, but when it begins the narrator launches into a description of her grandmother (a highly maternal, benign figure). The obscene and the normal are not contrasted but flowing into one another.

These moments are transgressive because the narrator puts them alongside the overall normalcy of the story. The reader cannot separate the obscene from the normal. This normalizes the obscene, an act which in and of itself is transgressive. The reader has to consider the closeness of the mundane and the obscene as well as the beautiful and the obscene. By the end of the excerpt, I’m not nearly as struck by the obscene in the novel. I look at it as a normal part of the story. Acker succeeds in forcing me to reconsider and recalibrate.  

 

-Queen MAB

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