The Dangerous Disease

I think we tend to engage in a bit of managerial task delegation when it comes to the great works of humankind, or at least, in the ways that we label them. We draw neat lines in the sand and send Newton and Wordsworth to their own respective corners; we funnel skills sets into plainly marked professions and are content to never let them touch. We ask the poets to dream, entreat the writers to imagine, beg the artists to create. And we know they will, because that is what they do, and it is in the same vein of knowing that we leave the measuring, the discovering, the facts of the world to the mathematicians and the scientists. And in doing so, we perform the greatest slight of hand known to every magician to ever walk the stage: we split a human being apart.

That is to say, we forget the intrinsic overlap between the one who paints the world and the one who examines it. A scientist does not merely observe, he imagines. And, crucially, he creates, because what the scientist and the artist and the mathematician have in common is that they must find ways to communicate their bits of knowledge and truth with the rest of the world, and the way is almost always language. And while this is not inherently harmful, the language used by a wide majority of the scientific community is indeed overwhelmingly detrimental to minority groups, due largely to the fact that the rhetoric of this field was coined by the white male elites who had near exclusive control of it for most of its lifetime.

Hunting down said language (and said white male elites) doesn’t require too much work. After all, white men have consistently remained in a seat of power in this field since its birth: scientific racism actually calls upon physical bodily measurements to determine intelligence and competence. It is unsurprising that the men who possessed the power to write and therefore create the world did so with their own image in mind, to grant as much favor upon themselves as possible. Indeed, looking back to the classical thinkers gives us an idea of the long-standing nature of these concepts: Roman writer, architect, and engineer Vitruvius (70–25 BC), writes candidly that

“… those races nearest to the southern half of the axis are of lower stature, with swarthy complexions, curly hair, black eyes, and little blood, on account of the sun. This poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword … On the other hand, men born in cold countries are, indeed, ready to meet the shock of arms with great courage and without timidity.”

This sheds some light on exactly how pervasive these physically dependent ideologies are in the scientific world, and how long they have been working against the efforts of minorities to stand on equal footing. To get a more modern look at this phenomenon, Donald McNeil Jr.’s Zika: The Emerging Epidemic makes for a relatively quick and interesting read, covering the events of the Zika outbreak up until the book’s publication last June. Here’s the gist of it: the Zika virus was discovered in a monkey in Uganda in 1947. No one really bothered with the disease for a long time, even when cases started sweeping across island nations in the Pacific, mostly because it was relatively mild and didn’t seem to have any long term health risks. It wasn’t until August 2015 that doctors in Brazil began noticing high rates of microcephaly in the country’s hospitals, and it wasn’t long after that before the real threat of the disease revealed itself: its ability to cross the placenta and attack unborn fetuses. Since then, a number of precautions have been implemented to try and slow the spread of the disease, but scientists aren’t really sure where it’ll go from here, although this doesn’t stop McNeil from positing his own advice to the concerned readers (mostly, stay inside and stop getting pregnant).

The most immediate manipulation of language in this book feels quite unobtrusive to us until we consider it from a distance: the personification, and indeed, characterization, of the Zika virus. It starts when McNeil moves from “the Zika virus” to simply “Zika,” giving a distant and encompassing noun the feel of a singular proper one. Assessments about the nature of the disease move away from the abstract and towards descriptive quantifications of a single individual, as in the following example: “The more we learn about Zika, the scarier it gets” (18). Which reads more like a line from a novel about a zombie apocalypse than an account of an insentient mass of viruses. McNeil does this consistently in the book, and compounds it by attributing complex emotions and intentions to the virus, as well as a myriad of adverbs that coagulate into a bizarrely strong sense of what can almost be called character development. It doesn’t simply enter the cell; it hijacks, “like commandos invading a town and converting its car factory into a bomb factory,” covered in “sinister” spikes and hunting down new victims (23). And, conversely, that’s exactly what McNeil presents the cells to be: victims. They are under attack from the “aggressive spread” (53), the manifestation of helplessness at the hands of the merciless, the powerful, Zika.

In short, McNeil is using subtle word choices to effectively morph the Zika virus into the antagonistic star of a horror story. But this is not unexpected, nor, I would say, avoidable. Scientists must sort through infinite resources when preparing to write on a subject, and in deciding how to convey their selected information, they are invariably creating a narrative. Here we see science not as a pure stream of all that is true in the world, but as a sculpted pond reflecting our own faces back at us. This is the mystery debunked, how one set of data (say, for example, global temperatures over the past 100 years) can be the pinnacle of two very different conclusions (global warming is cyclic versus global warming is catastrophic). This is where the scientist becomes the inventor.

But such inventions are born out of necessity; not only because of the infinite variability of language as a whole, but also because scientific language is charged with the task of turning the physical world, the tangible, into the abstract. J.R. Martin and M.A.K. Halliday present this idea in their book, Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power, which examines the relationship between science and linguistics:

“The language of science is, by its nature, a language in which theories are constructed; its special features are exactly those which make theoretical discourse possible. But this clearly means that the language is not passively reflecting some pre-existing conceptual structure, on the contrary, it is actively engaged in bringing such structures into being. They are, in fact, structures of language, as Lemke has expressed it, ‘a scientific theory is a system of related meanings.’ We have to abandon the naïve ‘correspondence’ notion of language, and adopt a more constructivist approach to it.” (Martin, Halliday, 9)

That is to say, the mere fact that there is no one way to interpret or organize the world is indicative of the imprecise nature of scientific language. The scientist can never simply describe the world as it truly exists outside of linguistic interpretation. Instead every account is, at its core, a theoretical construction, which only comes into being by its enunciation. To observe the world is to interpret it. To describe the world is to create it.

It is this ability to mold reality that gives scientific language such weight, and why we must continually examine our use of such language. In that spirit, let us return again to the language of McNeil’s Zika. Although we have already established the inevitability of the creation of a narrative structure, we have not yet looked at how McNeil uses this particular narrative to impart meaning. I think a worthwhile place to start would be in examining the repeated emphasis on the virus’s origins in Africa. Not only is this the metaphorical birth place of the virus, but its childhood home: “It no doubt circulated there for centuries” (32). The problem here lies in the portrayal of the virus as the villain: if we accept this, then we are also accepting an African nationality for said villain.

Following our identification of a villain, we move imperatively to investigate the nature of our victim. McNeil specifies the aggressive and harmful nature of the virus when it moves into what is scientifically categorized as “naïve” territory (28). The word naïve calls forth the image of an innocent, unaware of the dangers of the world; this is the victim, the foil to the virus that actively seeks to cause destruction. On the cellular level, this victim is the host cell’s DNA; on the biological level, it is the unborn fetus; on the conceptual level, it is the American public, for whom McNeil expresses the greatest concern about the “impeding threat” (55).

In further distinguishing the characterization of both the villain and the victim, we can look to the surprisingly consistent rhetoric that McNeil uses to detail the nature of the relationship between the quasi-characters. When speaking of the mosquito known to carry the Zika virus, McNeil repeatedly emphasizes “how hard it was to kill Aedes aegypti because it bred and lived indoors with its victims, as cockroaches do, not off in the swamps, as some other species did” (84). The parallel between the mosquito and the cockroach carries no structural or informational significance, but serves to further encapsulate the villain-virus as something loathsome and repulsive. Mention of the swamps smacks of imperialistic literature caricaturizing African natives wallowing in overgrown wilderness, such as in Heart of Darkness: “Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him.” The victims, in contrast, are intrinsically more civilized by the mere virtue of living indoors. Interestingly enough, McNeil seems to fashion a sort of motif out of the “air-conditioned homes,” referring to them multiple times in the book as the safe space made inaccessible to the villain-virus, which (I’ll just be blunt about it) has developed into the image of a violently aggressive African savage on the hunt for unsuspecting American victims.

And this is where scientific language becomes harmful. McNeil’s narrative makes it easy for white Americans to cast themselves into the roles of the wronged innocents and simultaneously associate the black “others” with stereotypical lines of aggression, fear, and blame. The identification of an out-group, of someone to blame, provides a sense of control over a situation where we find ourselves feeling both frightened and powerless. We don’t have to look farther than the results of the latest election, into the “silent majority” of disgruntled and disenfranchised lower-class white individuals, to know that this is a narrative of deep familiarity. It has been recurrent from the conception of our nation; since then, we have sought to cast it out of the impressionistic and interpretive aspects of our culture, but have made little forward progress in removing its deep roots in scientific language. But we cannot afford to stand in place any longer. For as long as we continue to employ scientific language that stands on the backs of minority groups, we will continue to build a reality that holds true to these narratives. But if we ever hope to reach any semblance of equality, we must push consciously in reverse, making space for the narratives yet unheard. We must allow the powerful language of scientific construction to spill forth from the lips of the oppressed, and thus rebuild the world that we have long accepted. One block – one word – at a time.


Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1902. Print.

McNeil, Donald. Zika: The Emerging Epidemic. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. 2016. Print.

Martin, J.R., & Halliday, M.A.K. Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1993. Print.


The Dark Side of Darwinism

Charles Darwin, nineteenth century English naturalist, is known as one of the most brilliant minds in history. He was a curious intellectual and a brave adventurer, well-liked by those who knew him personally and greatly revered in the scientific community. His 1859 and 1871 books, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, enlightened the world with a transformative understanding of life that became the foundation of modern biological thought. But there’s a darker side of Darwin, a side that perhaps calls into question his prized intellect and cherished legacy. Darwin’s writing was racist, and discriminatory beliefs and practices follow directly from his theories. If you’re a lover of evolution or biology major like I am, you may be tempted to reject that claim. But hear me out: Support for the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist may come from where you least expect it.

I’d only heard of Darwin’s dark side in passing, and I’d always assumed that Darwin’s critics were driven by ignorance or ulterior motives. But as I scrolled by debates online about Darwin’s theories, I noticed something peculiar: Darwin’s defenders most often cited his abolitionist identity, notes from his diaries, or quotes from people who knew Darwin. His accusers, on the other hand, often directly cited text from The Descent of Man. Conclusions drawn from the authorial approach to the question, in which defenders focused on proving that Darwin himself was not a racist, starkly contradicted conclusions drawn from the approach of consulting Darwin’s text itself. I’m familiar with Darwin’s theories, but I had never actually read his books; I suspect the same is true for most of you. However, I found that to determine whether or not Darwin’s theories are racist, the text of his books is revealing and conclusive. Information outside the text of The Descent of Man can help us understand the man behind the pen, but it does nothing to soften the brutal racism and white supremacism found in the text of his theory.

Although best known for On the Origin of Species, Darwin does not address human evolution and race until his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in which Darwin applies his theories of natural selection to humans and introduces the idea of sexual selection. Here his white supremacism is revealed. Over the course of the book, Darwin describes Australians, Mongolians, Africans, Indians, South Americans, Polynesians, and even Eskimos as “savages:” It becomes clear that he considers every population that is not white and European to be savage. The word savage is disdainful, and Darwin constantly elevates white Europeans above the savages. Darwin explains that the “highest races and the lowest savages” differ in “moral disposition … and in intellect” (36). The idea that white people are more intelligent and moral persists throughout. At one point, Darwin says that savages have “low morality,” “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and “weak power of self-command” (97). Darwin’s specific consideration of intellectual capacities is especially alarming. He begins with animals: “No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes,—what is death or what is life, and so forth” (62). His remarks soon expand to humans. “How little can the hard-worked wife of a degraded Australian savage, who uses hardly any abstract words and cannot count above four, exert her self-consciousness, or reflect on the nature of her own existence” (62). Darwin writes that Australians are incapable of complex thought, and insinuates that they are akin to lower animals: His perspective on non-European races is incredibly prejudiced and absurd. Modern evolutionary scholars and teachers tend to ignore or omit that component of Darwin’s theory, but it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. For example, Rutledge Dennis examined Darwin’s role in scientific racism for The Journal of Negro Education and found that in Darwin’s world view, “talent and virtue were features to be identified solely with Europeans” (243). White supremacy is clearly embedded in The Descent of Man, regardless of Darwin’s brilliance or the accuracy of the rest of his theory.

Darwin makes a disturbing link between his belief in white supremacy and his theory of natural selection. He justifies violent imperialism. “From the remotest times successful tribes have supplanted other tribes. … At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations” (160). Darwin’s theory applies survival of the fittest to human races, suggesting that extermination of non-white races is a natural consequence of white Europeans being a superior and more successful race. Further, Darwin justifies violently overtaking other cultures because it has happened regularly throughout natural history. The arc of Darwin’s evolutionary universe evidently does not bend toward justice: He has no problem with continuing the vicious behavior of past generations. Claims such as those made evident in the title of a 2004 book, “From Darwin to Hitler,” may not be as alarmist as they seem.

Not only does Darwin believe in white supremacy, he offers a biological explanation for it, namely that white people are further evolved. He writes that the “western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization” (178). Darwin imagines that Europeans are more advanced versions of the rest of the world. As previously mentioned, this purported superiority justified to Darwin the domination of inferior races by Europeans. As white Europeans “exterminate and replace” the world’s “savage races,” and as great apes go extinct, Darwin says that the gap between civilized man and his closest evolutionary ancestor will widen. The gap will eventually be between civilized man “and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (201). Read that last line again if you missed it: Darwin’s theory claims that Africans and Australians are more closely related to apes than Europeans are. The spectrum of organisms is a hierarchy here, with white Europeans at the top and apes at the bottom. In Darwin’s theory, colored people fall somewhere in between. Modern human is essentially restricted only to white Europeans, with all other races viewed as somehow sub-human.

The text of The Descent of Man clearly contains a racist and white supremacist ideology, but not everyone who reads Darwin’s theory believes that the text tells the entire story. Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue against the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist in their 2009 book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. As the title suggests, Desmond and Moore claim that Darwin’s intent in studying evolution was actually to bolster the abolitionist cause. “Darwin’s starting point was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’” (xvii). In response to Darwin’s defectors, they say that “the real problem is that no one understands Darwin’s core project. … No one has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fueled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins” (xix). How can Desmond and Moore claim to know Darwin’s intent? They reached their conclusions after an exhaustive search through “a wealth of unpublished family letters and a massive amount of manuscript material,” and use “Darwin’s notes, cryptic marginalia (where key clues lie) and even ships’ logs and lists of books read by Darwin. His published notebooks and correspondence (some 15,000 letters are now known) are an invaluable source” (xx). Using these sources, Desmond and Moore attempt to make a substantial case against the idea that Darwin was racist, citing evidence such as the diary that Darwin kept during his Beagle voyage. Darwin writes of slavery, “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 183). Darwin often wrote thoughts that don’t quite align with the ideas in The Descent of Man. In his theory, Darwin suggests that it is natural for more successful races to dominate over others, and speaks comfortably of white Europeans exterminating other races. However, he wrote in his diary that “the white Man … has debased his Nature & violates every best instinctive feeling by making slave of his fellow black” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 115). Desmond and Moore view Darwin’s later contradictions of his racist ideas in The Descent of Man as reason to interpret the text of Darwin’s theory cautiously.

Desmond and Moore also offer details of Darwin’s life that they claim are incongruent with his purported racism. Darwin came from a family that fought to emancipate Britain’s slaves, and many of his friends and readers were abolitionists as well. As a young man, Darwin took lessons in bird-stuffing from a local African American servant. Desmond and Moore write, “Evidently the sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old saw nothing untoward in paying money to apprentice himself to a Negro, and the forty or so hour-long sessions which he had with the ‘blackamoor’ through that frosty winter clearly made an impact” (18). Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s willingness to associate with African Americans as evidence that he was not prejudiced. Finally, the authors bring up a story that is actually mentioned in The Descent of Man. When Darwin writes of similarities he has noticed between savages and himself, he mentions “a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate” (232). Again, Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s personal experiences with colored people as evidence that he is not biased against them; further, they believe this information should influence our interpretation of The Descent of Man.

A final argument made in favor of Darwin blames the time period in which he wrote. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education writes that “Darwin, like [Abraham] Lincoln, believed in white supremacy, but he was far more enlightened and sympathetic to blacks than most white men of his time” (39). In this view, The Descent of Man must be considered within the context of its conception, namely a period and location in which white supremacy was the norm.

The external information supplied by Darwin’s personal notes, experiences, context, etc. adds to our understanding of Darwin himself, but it cannot change our understanding of his theories. The question of whether Darwin was a racist man is separate from the question of whether his theory was racist, and the answer to the former question has no bearing on the latter. The text of The Descent of Man is undeniably racist, and readers only engage with the presented text: They don’t know what Darwin wrote in his diary, whether his family supported abolition, or how much he interacted with African Americans, nor should a reader have to know these things in order to correctly interpret the text. The Descent of Man exists separate from its author and context. Claims that readers should not take the racism in Darwin’s theory literally in light of external information reject the nature of literature. As Roland Barthes says, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148). Barthes’ argument is especially salient in this case because The Descent of Man was written so long ago, and Charles Darwin is long dead. Darwin and the context in which he wrote his theory have long passed, but the text lives on and will continue to exist as an independent entity that deserves to be interpreted as such.

Thus, the value of considering contextual details depends on which question we are asking. When wondering about Darwin himself, a full range of sources is applicable. However, when determining whether Darwin’s theories contain dangerous racial ideology, the alarming text of his theories cannot be at all softened or explained away with outside information. Now I understand why I’ve never been asked in a biology class to read the original text of Darwin’s theories: Our contemporary reverence for Darwin’s gentlemanliness and the pure scientific brilliance of his theories is an overly optimistic illusion that shatters upon a closer look at his publications.




Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang, 1978.

“Blacks Less Likely to Accept Charles Darwin’s Dethronement of Mankind.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, vol 21. CH II Publishers, Autumn 1998. USA.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. John Murray, 1871. Albemarle Street, London.

Dennis, Rutledge M. “Social Darwinism, scientific racism, and the metaphysics of race.” The Journal of Negro Education, 64:3. Howard University Press, 1995. USA.

Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Penguin Group, 2009. London.

Lyrics as Literature

Last month, the New York Times proclaimed that a committee of Norwegians had “dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature” by offering a Nobel Prize to musician Bob Dylan. To the shock of some and the approval of others, the choice “[set] off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels” (Sisario). Disbelief at the negativity of the reactions was compounded when many critics justified the decision purely because Dylan had also written prose, because he made references to scholarly works in his songs, or because his lyrics could potentially be read as poetry on their own. Such justifications are an insult to music; they suggest that words made sonorous no longer qualify for our time, study, and thought in any serious capacity. Media of such critical importance and popularity should not be undersold with suggestions that it only achieves literary merit by replicating a different art form. Stretching the boundaries of literature into the realm of sound does not diminish it but instead provides greater emotional access to the words. Music adds a new dimension which pure writing simply cannot achieve.

If words can gain literary merit by becoming musical, songs from a less “literary” artist than Bob Dylan should be able prove this benefit. Mumford and Sons, a folk rock band which found widespread success in its three albums from 2009, 2012, and 2015, provides a particularly fitting example. Lead singer Marcus Mumford has said that music is written when “you can’t really express how you’re feeling, so you write it down with poetic license and vent as much as you want” (Patterson). The importance of his statement is its implications. He claims that writing lyrics helps him express what he doesn’t know how to express; how can you express in words what you don’t know how to say in words? Another element must be introduced to offer a richer expression than plain writing. That is where the musicality of the work comes into play.

In the same interview, Mumford revealed that “We’re just writing songs that ask questions.” Asking a question can be done with only pen and paper, but melody adds a previously unaccessible layer of meaning. This tendency of songs to pose questions encourages two objections to their qualification as “serious literature.” First, unlike a novel or a biography, pop songs simply do not have the space to write out every detail of the arguments and stories they attempt to tell. Second, the nature of music is more crowd-seeking than the average sonnet. The pressure towards popular themes has supported the mentality that songs are not worth the same consideration as poems, which can be shorter without having their integrity questioned. If music is truly a feature of language, neither of these complaints should stand.

Brevity alone is not a disqualification from literary merit. The very existence of haikus shows that short works have been considered worthy of analytical reading. In music, the scarcity of words tends to leave open extensive interpretation, more so than in novels or biographies which can employ their length to offer more specific and in-depth statements. “Ditmas,” a short, bright track from Wilder Minds, opens with just the sort of vagueness scorned by those critical of musical prestige. The first verse sings of “a life lived much too fast to hold on to,” surrounded by obscure references to some time, someone’s past, and an unspecified “I” and “you.” Since it is unclear what exactly the subject is, the verse could be applied to an unlimited number of stories. Those who suggest that this interpretive gap devalues music ignore the history and implications of this obliquity.

The genres of song lyrics (not always considered literature) and lyrical poetry (almost always considered literature) were not always so distinct. Indeed, the blurred lines between the two are what legitimize the excuse that Dylan’s work could be accepted as literary due only to its “poetic nature.” Scholar Mark Jeffreys explains that the history of this schism created “the modern lyric…at the intersection of a fading Petrarchism and a rising admiration for the epigram” (120). He follows the path of short styles from historical epigrams and inscriptions to today’s modern work. Of particular importance was the shift of epigrams from purely written words to “emblem books,” where they were accompanied by visuals to fill out their stories. In their wake was “a lyric poetry that had not only acquired epigrammatic tendencies towards terse suggestions and tight closure, but also a self-referentiality and obliquity” (125). Short forms, in their reliance on images, became even less specific. Once the pictures faded out, the language was too obscure to understand what was actually being talked about. Brevity became a problem because once sophisticated authors moved away from images, they had neither excessive words nor pictures to fill in their works’ newfound conciseness.

Into this void entered sound. Lyrical writings were now better equipped than ever for the “tradition of lyric as a poem to be sung” (120), because something had to fill the interpretive gap left by the emblem books. Still, this practice of excluding portions of the narrative has left marks on current music. All “Ditmas” offers are fragments of a story: “one reminds the other of the past,” “I had been resisting this decay,” “The world outside just watches.” Never does the band give solid reference points to what happened in the past, what is being resisted, or what is being watched.

Such vagueness has been exploited as one of music’s weaknesses; it can’t be literary if the author doesn’t explain what he is talking about. But this gap does not degrade significance. It can instead be a door into understanding a work. Jeffers suggests that “No one can write in short forms without being forced to make a host of assumptions about what one’s audience will know or be able to ascertain from the barest textual information” (129). Such assumptions are necessary when words are too limited to offer explicit meanings for every lyric. These assumptions are what turn some critics away from music, as they feel that so little can be gained from a line like “I’ll never wear your broken crown,” the refrain of a disputed set of lyrics with grim religious undertones and spirited instrumentals from Mumford’s second album. The interpretation is left open; the listeners are on their own to parse the meaning of the pronouncement, since again the “I” and “you” are unspecified, as is what sort of crown we’re discussing and just how metaphorical it is. Speculations range as to what that line references, but that is precisely the point. While reality shows the writer to be the son of an English clergyman who refuses to call himself religious (a reading which reveals what the writer was likely to have meant), Mumford did not assume that his audience would be aware of this. When asked about the song, he left it at “I’m never gonna tell you who or what it’s about” (Patterson).

But even if he didn’t want his explicit story dragged into everyone’s interpretation, he does make assumptions about the society that would hear his music. A song with lines like “I will not speak of your sins” and “How dare you speak of grace” assumes an audience with enough awareness of the connotations of sin and grace to understand the religious implications. His religiously worded song with a less-than-religious mood presumes a society that to some extent understands the significance of the biblical references in a non-biblical context. The expected understanding of the song thus reveals what assumptions the author presumed the reader would have; as in short poetry, this expected background knowledge makes lyrics a useful lens with which to look at the culture in which they were written.

This lens explains why “songs receive little critical attention until they have lost their audience and become historical curiosities” (131). Critics who concede that songs can have literary meaning once we want them for this more historical pursuit can accept that understanding old songs offers a window into old cultures. Yet this same critical attention is refused to more current works. Songs offer an expectation of what their audiences will identify with; people’s responses to them are a critical cultural indicator, particularly in an age when information about who listens to what music when is so readily available. Classifying current music outside the realm of literature is thus problematic because it ignores current culture. If music can be used after its time to distinguish cultural patterns, there is no reason to not extend that study to the current time, for the same reasons we study current books as well as historical ones.

However, up until now we’ve ignored the hallmark of music: sound itself. While plenty of people do love and study poetry, today’s poets do not reach anywhere near the popularity and esteem of today’s musical artists. What makes them different is the complexity added by the language of music itself. Evidence of this essential difference lies in its effects.

The source of music’s peculiar grip on people is not a new question. Roger P. Phelps goes into detail on such studies in “The Psychology of Music and Its Literature,” which offers an overview of psychological musical papers since the 1920s when the question started to be approached by contemporary methods. The field encompasses “aesthetics, acoustics, measurements, performance, and therapy” (114), and there “is still a great need for considerable research” (125) in such fields. Even though these studies have yet to reach conclusive answers on every effect of music, Phelps at least manages to show that music certainly does have unique effects on people’s minds. Dozens of authors are cited who look at why music might change moods and mindsets, its practical uses for therapy, and its origin in aptitude or training. There is something for all of these writers, psychologists, historians, and musicians to try to understand about music.

Few of us can deny having felt that effect, that something different. The first impressions of “Ditmas” focus on the fast beat, the happy key, the soaring vocals; attention lies in the emotions projected into the song, not the words written through them. The full script forces amendments to that fully optimistic interpretation, but does not destroy it. Mumford’s words may be what his song is built on, but they do not define its meaning alone. The line “so I cry / as I hold you for the last time in this life” would in most contexts be heartbreaking, because the words evoke a picture of the speaker being torn from someone he cares about. Empathy does not let the listener ignore the melancholy undertones of final and heartbreaking goodbyes; the instruments behind the line do. They refuse to fall when the theme falls. “Broken Crown” uses this additional tool as well. In this case, it augments the angry words with angry noise instead of the juxtaposed emotions present in “Ditmas.” Here is the dexterity so valuable to be gained in music. Sound becomes a new tool for the author. Their words are now received in a mood partially induced by whatever background noise with which they decide to pair the words.

Mumford may write questions in the lyrics themselves, but as a songwriter, the words are no longer his sole tool in pondering those questions. He gets to give the question more; he decides how it is said, in both tone and volume; and he decides what else is happening while it is said, discord or harmony. Music allows its writers more choice, a means of expression beyond simple words.

While the brevity of music imposes limits on how much a lyricist can express, the musical qualities themselves provide a means of further exploring the work in a way inaccessible to the purely written word. As with any literature, the audience will have its own interpretation of the writer’s work. The pure author- the novelist, the historian, the scholar- has only words with which to shape this impression. Music offers another way to express, another way to shape the audience’s experience. And its way is far less constrained than a book’s. No matter how creative or experimental a writing style is, identical sounds will not accompany every reader’s experience with story. Music’s features offer a tone unbound completely by language. This freedom allows musicians much easier access to people’s thoughts and emotions, instead of just their logical thinking patterns. Even though musicians have less ability to shape their audience’s thoughts with logical explanations and definitions, they trade the length in for an even more powerful tool: the ability to shape emotions and feelings in a much more immediate way.

Martin Heidegger is one of the many philosophers who has considered language’s role in our loss of touch with the world. His solution is poetry. Lyrical music can be a saving grace for much the same reason. It offers us words without the same analytical mindset books sometimes force upon us. Because musical words are presented with background noise, with a feeling and emotion behind them, we can hear “Ditmas” and experience the happiness without getting caught up in the sad words; we can hear “Broken Crown” and feel the anger without needing the entire explanation behind it. The specifics of the lyrics offer some insight on what the songs might mean, but language is no longer alone in defining what the work will offer. Words become one aspect instead of the entirety; and in this way they lose their monarchical power over our reactions to text. We no longer understand words purely on a basis of their definition; we can now hear the emotions behind them, a dimension unique to music.

Works Cited
Jeffreys, Mark. “Songs and Inscriptions: Brevity and the Idea of Lyric.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 36, no. 2, 1994, pp. 117–134.
Mumford and Sons. “Broken Crown.” Babel, Markus Dravs, 2012,
Mumford and Sons. “Ditmas.” Wilder Minds, James Ford, 2015,
Patterson, Sylvia. “Mumford & Sons: ‘We’re Fans of Faith, Not Religion.’” The Big Issue, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Phelps, Roger P. “The Psychology of Music and Its Literature.” College Music Symposium, vol. 15, 1975, pp. 114–125.
Sisario, Ben, Alexandra Alter, and Sewell Chan. “Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining the Boundaries of Literature.” The New York Times. N.p., 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Broken Crown

“How to Be an Other Woman” and Stories that Teach Mistrust



There is something to be learned from textbooks.  At the end of a chapter, if you were paying any attention, you will have read something discrete– pieces of information that you can synthesize and summarize into a single declarative: “I read about partial fraction decompositions” or “the life cycle of ferns” or “the Trail of Tears,” and this short and sweet encapsulation feels satisfying to possess.  You can prove you’ve read about something because it is finite in scope as an event or theorem.  But more than once I’ve been stumped by the question “what is it about?” when asked for my favorite book or recommendation to read on a plane, or when just talking about a novel in conversation. What is it about? I can tell you why I like it and think it’s worthwhile, who it’s by and her other works, the themes and the characters and the plot. But was that what it was about, or was it just the matrix in which whatever it was about took shape? Professors and teachers of English assign works of literature for the same purpose that teachers of other disciplines assign textbooks: there is something instructive, something to be gleaned.  So, surely, we must be able to say what we’ve read at the end of a story.  I’m going to illustrate the complexity of addressing this task for a particular piece of writing, “How to be An Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore to show how, unlike textbook writing, literary truths are shaky when the whole meaning of stories in literature can shift in a single phrase.

There are select occasions when assessing the truthfulness of a story is meaningful at all.  Only in the cases of biography or genres where we expect accounts accurate to reality, as in science textbooks or newspaper articles, and in these we are explicitly told as a feature of genre that the portrayals are true. The brunt of the content in these works is statements, which can be externally cross-referenced to verify or debunk.

Creative fiction cannot be assessed in this same sense. Prior to J.L. Austin’s work, the common belief among linguists was that statements could be defined as any utterance that could be proven true or false; Austin in How to Do Things with Words establishes a category of utterance which, although conventionally designated as statements, didn’t in fact have strict boolean values, which he termed “performative” speech acts (6).  Statements such as “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I order you to stand,” and “I name the child Charles,” can either be “happy” or “unhappy” depending on the “felicity” of the conditions in which they’re uttered; conditions for “felicity” are unique to the utterance, but typically require a speaker imbued with requisite authority (a doctor has not the credentials to marry), and certain appropriate circumstances (one cannot really order someone already standing to stand, nor name a child Charles when the object to be named is a dog) (14).  Performative speech acts are by nature metalinguistic utterances which declare the actions they themselves currently perform.

“How to Be an Other Women” is a story which we can treat as something like a performative speech act. Told in the second person as a series of imperatives, the story is framed as a step-by-step guide on how to be a mistress, but not in generalities.

What weather,” you hear him sigh, faintly British or uppercrust Delaware.

Glance up. Say: “It is fit for neither beast nor vegetable.”

It sounds dumb. It makes no sense.

But it is how you meet.

You the reader are conducted through the story as Charlene, a young woman, college graduate yet menial secretary, who falls in love with and has an affair with a married man. The instructions (authorial? divine?) which form the body of the story are at the same time dealt as they are enacted by “you” (3).  You are reading Madame Bovary on a bus; “Return to your book. Emma is opening her window, thinking of Rouen” (4). The simultaneous declaration of the action and its treatment as ‘having happened’ or ‘happening’ in the story constitutes performative acts; similarly, the “you” of the text represents both you the reader and you Charlene– meaning there can be no boolean value to the question “are you Charlene?” since it is simultaneously false and true. The story is an experience of your life lived in real-time. 

If veracity were key, this story would have no merit because we know the “you” of the text cannot possibly be referencing us, since in our real lives we’re reading the story.  The relationship to the reader is a peculiar one in which the very act of reading enacts a series of imperatives that unfolds the story before you; to read the story makes it true.

In the cases of science or history papers, logical argument and fact are surface-level information. This type of knowledge is what is readily available–the happenstance of an event, the formula of a chemical compound.  While not necessarily easily intelligible, meaning here isn’t veiled from view.  But stories have no obligation to tell you what the truth is explicitly nor implicitly.  Even in the most overt example of parable, where the intention is to clearly illustrate a moral, the meaning of something as digestible as Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare” has been lost. Originally, Hare’s hubris is what lead to his defeat, napping after seeing Slow and Steady (the tortoise) so far behind.  But over the years, the line “Slow and Steady wins the race” has assumed the role of moral, converting “Slow and Steady” from a proper noun to an ascription of virtues.

Because knowledge is coded, each piece throughout a story is not necessarily recognizable by the same reader; Charlene quips that “the unexamined fly is not worth zipping,” a pun which can only be understood if the reader is familiar with Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living” (10). And such knowledge or truths can range from something as frivolous as a pun to the entire meaning of the story.

Our story is replete with references to the insecurity of an “other woman’s” identity.  You “philosophize,” declaring, “you are a mistress… part of a great historical tradition” that normalizes your degradation and even esteems it (16). You “wonder who you are,” “gaz[ing] into the mirror at a face that looks too puffy to be yours,” “then look quickly away, like a woman, some other woman, who is losing her mind” (8, 12).  In defining yourself an “other woman,” your identity is shaped completely by what you aren’t: his wife–the woman.

So when in the penultimate page you discover that all along the woman he convinced you is his wife is actually a mistress herself, it becomes evident that there is no way to know the truth in this story; “Patricia is not his wife. He is separated from his wife; her name is Carrie… Patricia is the woman he lives with” (21).  Whatever sense of identity you felt by having a set category as “other” is now meaningless. Already you were living the lie of a mistress, wherein your very existence is a subject to be hidden and denied.  You are an other woman in an ignominious line of other women.

At the same time, you are confounded by the identity of the man you love.  What little you did know of him, what little he shared of his “dust, eat, bicker” relationship with his so-called wife were lies. He is suddenly remote and foreign, asserting in his defense that what he has “always admired about you is your strength, your independence,” so trite and meaningless a line, a canned phrase that reeks of use and reuse (21). Yet in some ways you are “other” as in exceptional; you know of Patricia while she seems to have no knowledge about you; months later he still “calls you occasionally at the office to ask how you are” (18, 22).  You still answer his calls.  Your relationship and your identity remain ambiguous.

Logician Charles Pierce argued that “pictures alone can never convey the slightest information… it leaves the spectator uncertain whether it is a copy of something actually existing or a mere play of fancy” (7).  We must treat literature like a picture. Because it has no necessary binding to some real world analog, seeing any one word appear in the text means nothing by itself. Each subsequent sentence can complicate or negate something previous. We think we’ve found out how to be an other woman, that “it essentially means to put your shoes on the wrong feet,” that “it is like constantly having a book out from the library” (5). To be a mistress is to be something as awkward and unnatural as misfitted shoes, as out of place as an overdue library book–an error to be righted as soon as he comes to his senses. Being an other woman involves constant paranoia, obsession, and ultimately settlement for whatever scraps you can scrounge; “On the street, all over, you think you see her… Every woman is her. [But] remember what Mrs. Kloosterman told the class in second grade: Just be glad you have legs” (12, 13). But our truths crumble when confronted with an incompatible reality, when our understanding of “other” is revealed to have been erroneous all along, and the tenuous means of coping on which we had come to rely is rendered useless.

The conclusion is a form of twist-ending tantamount to the adventure in “A Wizard of Oz” all being a vivid dream. An abrupt and story-altering end revelation is a common trope in film and literature, including “Shutter Island,” in which events are revealed to have been a ploy to remedy the insane protagonist, or Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil which in the final pages emerges as an allegory for the Holocaust.

So we find that literary truths can be unstable.  While its title has us believe we’ll emerge from the other side having learned, the story sets up our beliefs in order to knock them down. “How to Be an Other Woman” embodies literary instability by turning the truth on its head, leaving us to answer our original query: what was it about? with the reality of finding more questions than answers.

Works Consulted

Aesop. “Story Arts | Aesop’s ABC | The Tortoise and The Hare.” Story Arts | Aesop’s ABC | The Tortoise and The Hare. Story Arts, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962. Print.

Moore, Lorrie. “How to Be an Other Woman.” Self Help. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.  Print.

Peirce, Charles. Peirce Edition Project, ed. 1998. “What is a sign?” and “Of Reasoning in General,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 4-26.

1491: A Mirror and A Hope

If you went to an American elementary school, chances are good that you have heard the story of the first Thanksgiving. For those who are unaware, the story goes like this. The “Pilgrims”, a small group of Puritans facing religious persecution in Britain, bravely set sail for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. A down to earth, religious, and moral community, they staked out a settlement in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1620. All does not go well for the Pilgrims, at least in the beginning. Sadly, more than half die in during the first winter. But then, in a great act of eternal provenance, an Indian named Squanto appears with his tribe. Despite a shaky start, the two groups of people learn to cooperate, and the Indians teach the Pilgrims how to live off the land. That year the Pilgrims reap a bountiful harvest and hold a great feast of Thanksgiving with their new Indian friends. And there ends the Thanksgiving narrative, a story of reconciliation with nature and with fellow man.

The book 1491 by Christopher Mann tells another story of America. It is the story of advanced Indian[i] civilizations actively shaping their environments, of great architectural projects and political intrigues, of grand cities and ingenious technologies, all before the encounter. Mann states “Western Scholars have written histories of the world since at least the twelfth century”, sometimes “tipping their hats to non-western accomplishments in the sciences and the arts” (Mann 26).  His goal: to give America a history of its own. His story seems completely different than the Thanksgiving narrative above. It is, or at least it tries to be, a “scientific history”. Characterized by its archaeological and anthropological evidence, the New York Times Book review writes of 1491 as “in the best scientific tradition, carefully sifting through evidence, never jumping to hasty conclusions”[ii]. It is easy to assume that the 1491 is objective in is its history, while that is unlikely for the Thanksgiving story. Yet the Thanksgiving narrative and 1491 prove to be surprisingly similar.

It all starts with the title, 1491. This may seem like an odd place to begin. 1491 is not 1620 after all. But the two dates perform a similar function in framing their respective stories. In 1491, the title sets parameters on the text. Mann directs his focus not on a post-1491 tragic narrative[iii], but on the growth of Indian societies before this date. Robin Stryker, writing on the use of time in narrative, argues that “Many of the temporally and specially bounded causal explanations constructed by historical-corporativists rely heavily on the notion of time as context”[iv] (Stryker 3). In respect to historical narrative, this indicates that the date 1491 helps shape the story the book chooses to tell. The narrative depends on temporal boundaries to establish its context. Thus, while 1491 includes evidence from the post-1491 era, and acknowledges the tragedy of the Indians fall in the beginning of the book, its primary focus is on the pre-Columbian world, one of prosperity and civilization.

The world of 1491 is full of achievement, achievement that very often draws parallels to that of Europe. There is Cahokia, “the greatest city north of the Rio Grande” “comparable in size to London, while on a landmass with Paris, Cordoba, or Rome” and whose citizens “invented every aspect of urban life for themselves” (Mann, 259). They built “grandiose construction projects”, a gigantic structure called Monks Mound, a “Slab of Clay about 900 feet long” that required significant breakthroughs in the engineering clay to construct soundly (260).  As readers, we think of the great structures of the Old World for comparison.

1491 speaks of great political intrigues and battles, which also draw equivalencies to those in the Old World. The Maya civilization is a clear example. In Mann’s characterization, warring states and rivalries constantly vie for supremacy through intense dynastic rivalries. Between the two great city states of Mutal and Kann, there was an intense series of wars, a “strife that lasted 150 years, spread across the Maya heartland, and resulted in the pillage of a dozen city states” (245). It does not seem too much of a reach to draw parallels between this Maya struggle and the great Imperial Rivalries of Rome and Carthage, or Athens and Sparta. Mann does just this, proposing that the Maya lived in a world where “A sophisticated and widely shared culture flourished among perpetual division and conflict”, that “resembles many in the Old World-Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy” (271). Again, we see the comparative aspect of the novel at work. The New World becomes a mirror of the old.

These are far from the only examples of Mann’s parallelism between pre-Columbian America and the Old World. His characterization of an Inka secession crisis, where Inka King Thurpa Inka “selected one son but then changed his mind on his death bed and selected another…leading to a melee” (76) is not an unfamiliar story to the reader well acquainted with European history. Nor is it surprising that “among his first official acts was killing two of his own brothers to avoid future family problems” (76).

But none of these examples draw so explicit parallels as Mann’s description of the Iroquois Confederacy. Speaking on individual rights, Mann states “an overwhelming number [of proponents for individual rights] have been inspired by the American example—or as it should be perhaps be called, the Native American example” (330). It seems the Iroquois society was based upon “the consent of the governed” and other liberal ideals, and that “compared to despotic societies that were the norm…..Haudenosaunee was a libertarian’s dream” (332).  In the same stream, he argues that “It [Iroquois society] was also a feminist dream” citing the fact that clans were “largely governed internally by female clan heads” and that “Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality” (334). But he does not stop there. Mann goes on to suggest that “the Haudenosaunee exemplified the formidable tradition of limited government and personal autonomy shared by many cultures north of the Rio Grande” and that “the framers of the constitution….were pervaded by the Indian ideals and images of liberty” (333). So, Mann not only makes Indian and European-American societies look similar, but is directly linking them through a liberal political philosophy. He closes with a question to his non-Indian audience, “Imagine somehow meeting a member of the Haudenosaunee from 1491. Is it too much to speculate the beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair, and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors” (337)?

Mann clearly draws parallels between the societies of pre-Columbian America’s and those of Old World, framing history in such a way as to emphasize similarities, and not differences. But this way of telling the pre-Columbian narrative is not innately correct. In fact, it could be argued—and a great many Native American philosophers do—that this method of telling is profoundly incorrect. Marilyn Notah Verney, in American Indian Thought[v], brings up the notion that “We [Indigenous People] get lost in the everydayness of Euro-American culture (Others) and its philosophical framework” (Waters, 137). It seems that this idea is incompatible with an author such as Mann—who writes about Indian societies in a profoundly Euro-American framework—who implies, and even openly argues that there exist great cultural and philosophical similarities between these two societies. Whatever the case, it is essential to consider the parallels brought up in 1491 are subjective, a narrative choice which has an intended effect on the reader.

This effect becomes clear. 1491 implies a universality concerning humanity, a certain togetherness. The reader (more so if they are from the books Western audience) begins to see Pre-Columbian society as something similar, something relatable. Mann frequently proposes the idea that we not only can, but should stand to implement the ideas of Indian societies: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern Nations must do the same” (326). Given the attempts to connect Western European ideals to those of the American Indians, a conclusion comes naturally. No group is inherently malevolent, not Western society, and not the pre-Columbian Indians. Different societies can learn from each other.

In effect, Mann is shifting the argument. Much as in the Thanksgiving story, the narrative is no longer European versus Indian. Instead, Mann clears room for what he believes to be the real issue, the relationship between man and nature. He sees pre-Colombian history as a lesson for the future. Not just a political lesson, but an environmental one. And like in the Thanksgiving Story, the settlers from Europe have something to learn about living off the land from the Indians.

Again, we return to the Mayans, who according to Mann, were environmental administrators. Living in a region with naturally toxic groundwater, they paved over their “geochemically hostile” landscape, creating a network of “artificially habitable terrestrial islands” (272). The Mayan people were far from the only society in the America to do manipulate their environments. Cahokia and its people diverted the Cahokia Creek both for the purposes of irrigation and to increase the ease with which lumber could be transported. The people of the Amazon embarked on a long-term transformation of the amazon rainforest, until a large portion of the trees bore edible fruits. It seems correct to say “Native Americans’ interactions with their environments were as diverse as Native Americans themselves” and that “Indians were superbly active land managers—they did not live lightly on the land” (248).  Mann praises this idea of environmental management, pronouncing that modern nations should follow the Pre-Columbian civilizations, and “not set our sights on rebuilding an environment from the past but concentrate on shaping a world to live in for the future” (326). He is proposing that contemporary Amer-European society modifies its viewpoints, to achieve a reconciliation of identity and idea that could end up being its salvation.

So we find that the First Thanksgiving and 1491, while very different stories, are profoundly similar in narrative structure. In Metahistory, Hayden White identifies different models of historical narrative.[vi] In this case the most apt narrative style to describe both is that of a comedy. That is, Mann is telling the story of political intrigue and environmental management, of the building of great architecture, great cities, and complex philosophies. But more importantly, he is telling that story in a positive way. 1491 is a story glorifying pre-Columbian Indian society, and by likening it to the Old World, it is in effect glorifying both. Therefore, 1491 is a story in which everyone is portrayed in a similarly positive light. Thus, “Hope is held out for the temporary triumph of man over his world by the prospect of occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural worlds” (White 9). There is the potential for reconciliation between the western world and the pre-Columbian one, between humankind and nature. Additionally, 1491 takes seriously the forces which “oppose the effort of human redemption”, while allowing the possibility for a “victory of man over the world of experience” (10). It tells of the difficulties of managing the environment, but gives explicit openings through which it can be managed in the future. It is not set in place that humankind will triumph, and Mann acknowledges these difficulties, but in the end the message of the book is positive and optimistic.

The interesting thing is, even with its time frame set, 1491 didn’t have to be a comedy. Many of the societies in the book collapse long before the encounter, not in small part due to the mismanagement of their environments. Both the Maya and the Cahokian cultures collapsed long before Columbus, for this very reason. Mann understands this, and does not believe that these collapses should be glossed over: “Grant the Maya the dignity of assigning them responsibility of their failures as well as their successes” he states (Mann 279). He could certainly draw the conclusion, with the same base of facts, that these attempts to manipulate the environment were travesties, that they are symptomatic of the failures of humankind, and that “man is ultimately a captive of the world rather than its master” (White 9). Nobody would be on the moral side, and the book would become far different.[vii] But Mann consistently sees these failures of as insignificant blips in the upward march of pre-Columbian Indian society. “Native Americans have been managing their environment for thousands of years”, he states (Mann 314). He presents the demise of Cahokia and the Maya as rare mistakes, and argues that “by and large they (the Indians) modified their environments in stable, supple and resilient ways” (314). It is not that this is a wrong way of writing the narrative of pre-Colombian societies, but that there is no objectively right way of writing about it, because it will always be just that, a narrative.

Despite being labeled as such, 1491 cannot be, nor should it necessarily try to be, a scientific history. By understanding 1491 as narrative—and a comedic one at that—the book becomes far more interesting. Understanding 1491, understanding history truly becomes a task of understanding how a story is told, and why it is told in that way. History is no longer just a chronological memorization of facts and names. Narrative gives history coherency; it certainly makes 1491 a stimulating read. In the end, it gives a renewed meaning to why so many of us learned the story of the first Thanksgiving all those years ago.

[i] Mann justifies the use of the word Indian, stating that “Every native person that I have met, I think without exception, has used “Indian” rather than “Native American”.

[ii] Baker, Kevin. “‘1491’: Vanished Americans – The New York Times.” The New York Times. October 9, 2009. Accessed November 13, 2016.

[iii] Eg: conquistadors and expanding white settlers drive back the disease weakened Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands. The Indians fight back valiantly but are defeated by a combination of trickery, numbers, and technology. One by one, all the great Indian nations submit, their cultures and people marginalized.

[iv] Stryker, R. “Beyond History Versus Theory: Strategic Narrative and Sociological Explanation.” Sociological Methods & Research 24, no. 3 (1996): 304-52. doi:10.1177/0049124196024003003

[v] Waters, Anne. American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004.

[vi] White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

[vii] Under Hayden White’s distinctions, this would be indicative of a satirical narrative

The Fictional Author


I have never met Tim O’Brien, yet if you asked me to describe him in a few words, I could. This is no result of extensive research of the man. If I wanted to know factual information about Tim O’Brien, I could pick out a biography on any of the plethora of biographical websites online and read what they have to say about him . Or I could even pick up a book by the man himself, as has written a few wrote many non-fiction accounts of defining events in his life. But I did not do either of those things. All I did was read a couple of his fictional stories, yet I feel as if I can give as good a description of him as any a biography. Does this mean my description of him should be discounted, simply because I have not read his actual biography? Should we discount what an author’s fictional work says when searching for understanding of who a person was or is?
Generally, when I read a novel, I do not approach it with extensive knowledge of who the author is and rarely do I ever put in an effort to research the background of the book. If I do have any pre made assumptions, they often are not conscious, perhaps the result of some deep subconscious associations with the cover picture or the authors name. Yet, I seem to end every novel, fiction and non fiction, with some new aspect of understanding of the author. This is not always easy to grasp, but once discovered it is not hard to believe that all literary texts reflect an author’s character to some extent.
I am not one to encourage the use of the cliche “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. However, when it comes to literary analysis, from reading for the purpose of critiquing to just reading for entertainment, it is almost always inevitable that the reader will form some idea about the character of the author, true or not. Maybe I do not judge a book by its cover, but can I judge an author by the cover of the book, or the title of the book, or the content of the book?
This was certainly the case with one of my personal favorite literary works, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. To start things off, it is very important, crucial really, that the book is understood to be a work of fiction. That is, the publisher themselves made it very clear to categorize the book into the genre of fiction. Upon first reading the book, however, this is not completely apparent. The reality is, the book is not as clearly a work of fiction as those who have not read it would believe it is. The fact that O’Brien uses his own name for the main character and that he elaborates on the horrors of war in such vivid first person detail, makes it hard to believe that they are all fabrications of his mind. It is paradoxical, really, that some prior knowledge of O’Brien can actually lead the reader to make the wrong assumptions, thus interfering with the reading of the book as a whole. For example, knowing that O’Brien actually did fight in the Vietnam war, but not knowing when or where he was, leads readers such as myself to fall under the impression that the novel is actually a memoir.
Of course, the complexities between a book being deemed fiction or non fiction are a bit more complicated than just reading a genre label on the back of a book. As Tim O’Brien put it in an interview with Port City Daily, “The line between fiction and non-fiction is not as absolute as we think in our common-sensical world.” (Snow) It turns out that many works of fiction have some truth, or non-fiction, ingrained in them. One such thing is often the beliefs of the author. Ultimately, it is hard to figure that the book is, in our understanding of the word, fiction, without doing some extensive outside research, or reading the fine print on the back of the book (which few do.)
Viewing O’Brien’s book as a true memoir inherently leads the reader to make assumptions that the text reflects significant aspects of his person. That, after all, is one of the most central purposes of a biography or memoir: to expose some characteristics of a person. Every scene of the book seems to define him to a different degree and reveal the varying traits of his character. Upon early inspection The Things They Carried can be easily misinterpreted as O’Brien’s description of his past experiences during the Vietnam War; such as his experience with the draft and his witnessing of death during battles as well as his time spent in makeshift recreational room and finally his adaptation to life upon returning home. We learn exactly when the narrator tells us. That is, we learn about his fear of being shamed for running from the draft, his deep love for a sick girl, and his emotional damage cause by witnessing a close friend of his die.
Not only does this method of reading as a memoir produce some vividly different understandings of the novel than reading it as a work of non-fiction would, the lack of a divide between the author and the narrator also serves as a comfort when analyzing the author. The fact that O’Brien narrates his own seemingly true biography, makes it easy for the reader to make assumptions about his personality in real life. As Norman Friedman excellent articulated in his “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept”, ”We cannot be the worse for the wisdom of these big men, these large souls [the Victorian novelists]. But, for better or worse, the fashion has changed; we like fiction unadulterated; we like the sense of taking part in an actual, a present experience, without the interference of an authorial guide.(Fried man 28)” When the author and the narrator become the same person, we become more comfortable making conclusions about the author based on the text. We do not need a guide, as we are not learning through hearsay, but from an original source.
Though our initial impressions, based off the idea that The Things They Carried might have been a non-fiction work, of O’Brien’s character may have been misperceived, we still made an attempt to understand the author through his written work. In fact, some of the assumptions that we made purely off what the text said, like O’Briens uneasiness with the draft, is not far off from what the reader comes to understand about O’Brien when he is revealed to not be the narrator of the book. This is because as an author, O’Brien is revealed in the text regardless of the fictional nature of the book. Helene Cixous put it eloquently in her piece “The Book as One of Its Own Characters”, “ Between authors and books, not everything can bet taken for granted. At the point where the author (“I”) thinks s’he can close the door on a chapter, the book puts its foot in the door.” (Cixous 403) Although the author is often a separate entity from the characters in there own novel, the novel still manages to capture some image of the author within it.


If only understanding the role of Tim O’Brien in his own book was achievable by reading under the assumption that he is recalling events.The reality of things, of course, is contrary to this all. While reading the book as an autobiography would be more satisfying, at least to those, myself included, who support Norman Friedman’s belief that readers prefer a connection between author and narrator, abolishing the need for a guide, reading the book as a fictional work still gives us a very good view to O’Brien’s character.
Upon understanding that the narrator is not the author, The Things They Carried becomes a conglomeration of various stories written from the perspective of a man who happens to share the same name as the author, Tim O’Brien. It is a peculiar idea, but O’Brien quite literally uses himself as a fictional character in his own novel. That is, he creates a fictional version of himself to be the narrator. It is important to keep in mind, that while both, the author and narrator, share the same name, they are not the same person. The author did not genuinely have the experiences that the narrator claims to have. Even though the novel is a fiction, O’Brien does manage to reveal certain aspects of himself within the context of the story.
Even though the novel is a fictional work, O’Brien does manage to provide grounds by which the reader can make assumptions about certain aspects of him within the context of the story. As Steven Kaplan has written in his “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried”, “Tim O’Brien takes the act of trying to reveal and understand the uncertainties of war one step further, by looking at it through the imagination.” (Kaplan 44) That is, O’Brien’s imagination and opinions on war is exposed throughout the novel, although he is not necessarily narrating the book. Most obvious is while we know that a lot of the specific events mentioned in the book did not actually happen to O’Brien himself there is a certain understanding that the events are inspired by true moments in author O’Brien’s life. The intention of writing the book can be interpreted as mutual between the fictional narrator O’Brien and the author O’Brien. As both the character and the author were in Vietnam and shared similar experiences, it is only natural to wonder how the events portrayed in the book experienced by the narrator reflect what O’Brien the author really went through.
In addition to the shared general war time experiences, like being around death and having significant moral conflicts, a characteristic of O’Brien the author is exposed when the topic of truth comes up in the novel. The distinction that the narrator offers between story truth and happening truth is characterized as the former being a more valuable representation of what reality is like. Story truth offers true possibilities, even if what the story refers to did not actually happen. It does not have to be true, it just has to have potential to be true. Happening truth, on the other hand, is overly limited to one reality, while story truth describes a universal truth. This opinionated distinction, while offered by the fiction narrator O’Brien, is unanimous with the beliefs of the writer O’Brien. This is proven when analyzing the draft scene in The Things They Carried. There is a moment where the narrator almost avoids the draft by running away to Canada. The “story truth” of the narrator’s experience reflects O’Brien the author’s internal uncertainty about how to respond to the draft, which was later revealed by an interview With Larry McCaffery. The fear of exile experienced by the fictional O’Brien is directly parallel with that of the author, who also battled with the question of “living exile”, that is, to live isolated from society out of shame for letting down his country. “I couldn’t face that”, O’Brien the author admitted, “To live in Canada or Sweden for the rest of my life was a frightening prospect”. (McCaffery 133)
The two very different ways of interpreting the book, as a fiction and as a non fiction, can naturally lead to the formation of different interpretations of the text. It is intuitive that the predisposition of readers will affect the outcome of how the text is to be interpreted. With that in mind, we begin to realize that the author is thus fair game for interpretation as well. While the reading and interpretation of The Things They Carried can, and often does, change upon finding out the book is a work of fiction, we are still able to tease out some information about the author, as exemplified by the analysis above.


So is this simply a matter of a shared name between a character and the author inspires assumptions about the author? Or doe it perhaps transfer the power of the text to reveal something of the author? Not quite. Such hidden”biographies” are not unique to O’Brien’s novels, nor are they limited simply by a name change of the protagonist. Kaplan, in his “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” brings up an example of The Heart Of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad as a similar example. He writes, “similar to the pattern used by Joseph Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, so incisively characterized by J. Hillis Miller as a lifting of veils to reveal a truth that is quickly obscured again by the dropping of a new veil (Kaplan 47) This “truth” is the truth of what the author often ends up sharing about themselves, intentionally or not.
What does this say about literature? Well, for one thing, the author cannot escape being a part of the fiction. Whether the author means to write a piece of fiction or to truly write an autobiography, we find ways to interpret the text as a reflection of the author. What is important to note from this, and may certainly present itself as an atypical approach to understanding the author within the context of their text, is that it is inevitable that we come to understand the author through his writing. Even if the reader has not read a biography of the author, the writer is still reflected in the book. Readers are this able to make interpretations of the texts and come to conclusions, accurate or not, about the author, as they are up for grabs in the text. Thus, the author, turns into something like a character. They might try to hide behind a veil of text written from the perspective of a fictional character, but ultimately the author is exposed by the reader.


Snow, Hillary. “Interview: The Big Read author Tim O’Brien on ‘The Things They Carried’ and finding truth in fiction”. Port City Daily. January 13, 2014.

Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” PMLA. Vol. 70, No. 5. Modern Language Association, 1995.

McCaffery, Larry, and Tim O’Brien. “Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Chicago Review, vol. 33, no. 2, 1982

Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried. Vol.35, No.1. Critique. 1993.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Book as One of Its Own Characters.” New Literary History, vol. 33, no. 3, 2002,

Nonsense and Moonshine: The Language of Raymond Carver

To say and to speak are not identical. A man may speak endlessly, and all the time say nothing. Another man may remain silent, not speak at all and yet, without speaking, say a great deal.
— Martin Heidegger

If you haven’t seen the movie “Ratatouille,” stop reading this post. Because, one, you won’t appreciate the delicious reference I’m about to serve you. Two, you’re less inclined to believe that a Disney movie is the appropriate way to introduce a principle of literary theory. And three, there’s a gaping hole in your childhood that needs addressing—immediately.

If you’re still here, fly away with me.

The city is Paris, the restaurant Gusteau’s. Linguini, after a night of culinary success, joins Head Chef Skinner in his office to split a bottle of wine. What seems to be a toast to Linguini’s achievements is, in fact, an interrogation. Skinner, having grown suspicious that Linguini is engaged in a strange pact with an extraordinary rat, tries to get the young chef drunk. He wants Linguini to slip up, to admit something he’s been hiding. He wants to hear the truth.

What I want you to believe is that this is what good readers are doing all the time—they are interrogators. They look beyond arguments and examine language more closely. And, by the end of their inspection, they’ve uncovered the rat in the chef’s proverbial hat.
Whereas a gin and tonic loosens someone’s tongue, literary analysis tunes the ear. That is, like drinking, paying attention to language is a path to revelation, a tool for exposing that which a speaker wishes to keep from you.

You’ve probably noticed how writers can sometimes have suspect intentions—read it in the underlying sexism of a Victorian novel, heard it in the hateful rhetoric of a Trump speech. But is even our most mundane language subject to the scrutiny of literary analysis? Sure, we can find the racism in Kipling’s poems, but could we hear it in the way he said “hello?” What can we learn from interpreting the language of our ordinary lives?

A work that’s going to help us explore this question is Raymond Carver’s short story, “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off.” To this you might want to say, “Paul, you just said we were going to look at everyday language. Why are we looking at literature?” And that’s a good question. Carver, though, is obsessed with the quotidian. One critic has called his work “hyperrealism,” another, “superrealism,” and a third “post-Vietnam, post-literary, post-modernist blue collar neo-early-hemingwayism” (Nesset, 30). Carver’s work is meant to resemble real-life and “The Third Thing” is a great example of this: it is set in a rural community in the Pacific North West, has three farm-type, main characters (Jack, Jack’s father, and Dummy—a mentally disabled neighbor), and centers its action around nothing more than an unusual fishing trip.

It is a story about the everyday lives of working class people, people like Jack, the narrator, who are often tragically inarticulate, who “[don’t] know… what to say (Carver, 103). If we can find literary meaning in what we might call the least literary of language—language that is colloquial, terse, and simplistic—then Carver has shown us something interesting: that we can find often unseen truth in not only intellectualized, polished work but in the language all around us as well.

But first, a fundamental question: where is the line between what language states and what it hides? The simplest answer is in the difference between connotation and denotation. In short, every word has baggage—alongside definitional meaning (denotation) is the feeling that a word invokes, the associations it ascribes (connotation). “The Third Thing” is a clear example of this distinction in the split narrative that it offers. In a denotative sense, “The Third Thing” is an American bildungsroman. A boy learns to drive, goes fishing with his father, and experiences death for the first time. But if we look closer at the language, if we analyze the packaging of this home grown, American narrative, we find something darker, something unexpected, a murky spot in the middle of our literary lake. Take, for example, the way in which other men “kid” (90) Dummy because of his appearance, his disability, and, most notably, the infidelity of his wife. The language is important here: the other men don’t poke fun at Dummy, they “kid” him. That is, they infantilize him. Dummy is considered sexually immature because he can’t control his wife. In this way, we begin to see the connotative argument the story is making—growing up means becoming a man and becoming a man means controlling women. Not quite as apple pie-picket-fence-American as it seemed before.

Carver’s writing exemplifies the way in which metonymic meaning permeates our everyday language. Metonym, alongside metaphor, is a fundamental figure of speech. Whereas metaphor communicates meaning by comparing two things, metonym presents one word and allows meaning to pass through the connotative qualities of that word. It is the way in which the men are only “kidding,” not telling Dummy explicitly that he is like a child; the meaning is hidden in the association.

On top of this, Carver’s subscription to the “Theory of Omission” (a philosophy of fiction writing that demands the omission of all unnecessary narrative elements) further reveals the ways in which meaning is hidden in our everyday language. The laconic writing of “The Third Thing” leaves most of the narrative unsaid; the work is “silent” on many of the issues that it raises. It is never expressed, for instance, why Dummy is so obsessed with the fish that he breeds in his pond. Jack, the narrator, doesn’t explain why his father insists that he fish in Dummy’s pond and why that act is so devastating to Dummy.

Silence, though, is at the center of fiction. A work can’t recreate the world, it can only appeal to our metonymic understanding of language, appeal to the associations we readily make, to fill in the gaps of a story (Nakjavani, 49). Carver takes this idea a step further. By writing about characters that struggle to express themselves, he draws special attention not to the words his characters say, but to how those words are an avenue into the unutterable—an unutterable realm that we, as readers and listeners, have access to. We hear the unsaid when Jack’s dad remarks of Dummy, “You’d reckon the fool was married to them fish, the way he acts” (94). We realize that, to Dummy, the fish are a substitute for femininity. We see how the fish are the foundation of Dummy’s masculinity: he can control them and keep them from other men—unlike his wife. We, again, discover meaning below the surface when Jack goes to fish on Dummy’s pond. He notes that the “[fish] were asking for it,” invoking the language of rape, turning the simple act of fishing into sexual assault. an ultra-masculine rite of passage. And our subterranean suspicions are confirmed when Jack, fishing “pole” (97) in hand, describes himself as “shaky with excitement” (97)—evoking thoughts of virginity and sexual conquest. Literary analysis lets us see this scene for what it truly is: an ultra-masculine rite of passage. The silence of language makes ideas that are too taboo for Carver’s characters to mention available to us as readers.

Moreover, when people have the least to say, it is the literary qualities of their words that carry the most meaning. What little language we can hear in the story and the silence it guides us to (that is, the unsaid meaning that it guides us to) reveal the values of Carver’s characters: to be a man is to dominate woman; in order to become a man, Jack rapes Dummy’s symbol of femininity and, in the process of doing so, emasculates Dummy.

What we learn from reading Carver is that there is literary language all around us, even if we’re not aware of it. When Jack looks back on the story he’s told us, he isn’t quite sure what to make of it. He can’t pin down what eventually caused Dummy to murder his wife and commit suicide, he isn’t sure what really caused his dad’s life to say “so long to good times and hello to bad” (103). All he knows is that for some reason that day fishing on the pond changed them all. But we, the readers, see what really happened. We know that it was Dummy’s failing masculinity that led him to end his life, that is, his inability to control femininity. And we see that it was Dummy’s death and the realization of his own corrosive, hyper-masculinity that shook Jack’s father’s identity. Carver shows us the brutal reality hidden in the silence of our everyday actions; the cultural forces (sexism, hyper-masculinity) that are at play in our lives and alive in our language. It is metonym—that pair-less association—that allows us to say things without saying them, to quietly further our own causes, to hide our true intentions, most often from ourselves.

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Nakjavani, Erik G. The Aesthetics of Meiosis: Hemingway’s “Theory of Omission” Diss. 1985.
Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio UP, 1995.

“Milton’s Paradise Lost: Author and Book as Concomitant Experience”


“Milton’s Paradise Lost: Author and Book as Concomitant Experience”

By Victoria Wang

Prompt: 8. When we read a novel or poem, the author is, in a sense, part of the fiction. The author, this is to say, possesses an image or reputation. It doesn’t matter whether this image is correct or not; it’s a kind of literary effect alongside a given novel’s other literary effects. Readers bring to many books things they at least think they know about their authors, and this author-image will frame how they read in ways that we as literary critics and historians shouldn’t just ignore.

The author is not dead. More precisely, the author as sole creator of a text’s truth has diminished, but the author as image and description is well and alive (Foucault 121).  In his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” Barthes states, “The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book; book and author stand automatically on a single line divided into a before and an after” (145). However, the Author need not be an anchoring antecedent on his or her book. One can believe in the Author yet conceive of book and author as existing simultaneously. If we view the Author as more of an author-persona than an author-person, an analysis incorporating the author does not purport to capture some unassailable, singular reality about the historical figure’s intentions or psychology (Walker). Rather, the analysis takes into account the fact that the lives of authors are often public knowledge in the same way their books are. It acknowledges that many readers have at least a rudimentary conception of the author (at the very least, a proper name) that will frame how they read the book. Thus, the author does not come before the book; most often, he or she comes attached with the book.

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Politics and the Pen: A Subversive Reading of the Aeneid

By Emma Lezberg

aeneidFifth century grammarian Tiberius Claudius Donatus didn’t think highly of his son’s teachers. These instructors, he complained, were barely scratching the surface of the most eminent of Roman classics: Vergil’s Aeneid, the epic poem that chronicles the events leading up to Rome’s founding. So Donatus set out to write the commentary Interpretationes Vergilianae, attempting to prove that every line in the poem praises the emperor Augustus. Aeneas, the epic’s hero, was widely interpreted as the literary embodiment of Augustus. As long as the poem spoke only highly of Aeneas, Donatus’s task would be easy.

Not everything in the epic, however, seems to praise Aeneas. Aeneas climbs a crag? That’s praising his physical fitness. Aeneas seduces a widowed queen? That’s praising his looks and charm. But what about when Aeneas meets his mother Venus, disguised as a huntress, and doesn’t recognize her? “Well, he doesn’t rape her” is the best Donatus can come up with (Starr 164-165).

Donatus’s assertion that everything in the Aeneid praises Aeneas—and, by extension, Augustus—results in a “flattening” of the poem (173). His theory does not allow him to accept the most textually supported interpretations, and it blinds him to many fascinating aspects of the epic. For example, Aeneas’s seduction of the queen may not actually praise our hero, and interesting implications arise if we acknowledge that possibility. Otherwise, this narrowed view forces the commentator to read only “to find an answer he already knows, not an answer he has yet to discover” (162). Instead of reshaping the poem to align with some presumed intent, scholars should allow the epic to sing for itself. For the Aeneid, they will find a poem that does not portray Aeneas and Augustus as perfect, but questions the morality of empire and the divinity of Rome’s leaders.

Donatus was correct about at least one thing: most scholars agree that Aeneas should be read as the literary embodiment of Augustus. Aeneas founded Rome; Augustus was attempting to re-found it. Both Aeneas and Augustus are referred to as “son of a God”, and Augustus is portrayed as a direct descendant of Aeneas. Every other well-known writer in Augustan Rome (e.g. Horace, Livy, Ovid) also used mythological characters as representations for the emperor. There is good reason, then, to entertain the possibility that Aeneas represents Augustus. What many modern scholars do not agree with, however, is that either is portrayed as faultless. Analyzing the poem without presuming intent allows a reader to notice some peculiarities.

First, the demigod Aeneas is not the perfect hero. He breaks down and loses control at times; he remains utterly insensitive at others; he is not always quick to recognize the causes of events unfolding around him; and he does not live up to his epithet pius Aeneas (“dutiful Aeneas”).  Second, the epic depicts Aeneas’s antagonists as worthy of praise and sympathy, more victims than villains. Third, it lauds the contemporary foes of Rome more sincerely than its statesmen. Let’s start with Aeneas’s shortcomings and work our way down the list.

We first meet Aeneas in a moment of crisis. As captain of a ship, he finds himself in a severe storm, and “all things threaten instant death to the men” (I. 91). Our hero responds in a notably non-heroic way:

At once the limbs of Aeneas are relaxed [go limp] with cold; he groans, and, stretching both palms to the stars, says with such a voice: “Oh three and four times blessed, those who chanced to die before the faces of their fathers beneath the high walls of Troy! O Diomedes, bravest of the race of Danaeans! Could I not have fallen on the Trojan plains and poured out this spirit by your right hand, where savage Hector lies by the weapon of Achilles, where huge Sarpedon lies, where so many shields and helmets are snatched up under the waves by the Samois, and brave bodies roll?” (I. 92-101).

aeneas-shipwreckDonatus had asserted that Aeneas was semi-divine and thus “devoid of every fault,” unaffected by the fears and urges of mere mortals (Starr 161). That is not the man we are meeting in this passage. He is not taking pains to reassure his men or lead by example. Instead, he sounds how we humans might feel in such a situation: thoroughly terrified. Aeneas even admits this himself, contrasting the bravery of the soldiers at Troy with his own cowardly comportment in what he thinks will be his last moments. His “woe is me” lament humanizes him, which is exactly what Donatus is combatting; rejecting Aeneas’s measure of divinity exposes him to potential criticism as the epic progresses. Skeptics might point out that Aeneas soon regains control of himself and delivers an encouraging speech to his men, “pretending[ing] hope with his features and push[ing] down the pain deep in his heart” but he does so only after they have safely landed (I. 209). During the most calamitous moments, he is just as paralyzed as most people would be.

aeneas-dido-pyreWhile his bravery disappoints in this case, at other times his judgement and perception are what fail him. When Aeneas escapes the storm and lands in Carthage, he seduces the Carthaginian queen Dido and moves into the palace with her; she believes they are married. Then the gods order him to continue his journey. Aeneas handles the situation terribly, initially hiding his departure from Dido and then justifying himself with the impersonal argument, “It is right for us too to search out a foreign kingdom” (IV. 50). She, despairing, asks him point-blank, “Does my love not hold you, nor my pledge I once gave you, nor the promise that Dido will die a cruel death?” (IV. 307-308, emphasis added). Later, when Aeneas meets her in the Underworld after she has committed suicide, he has the audacity to say, “Alas, was I the cause of your dying?… I did not think my leaving there would ever bring such grief to you” (VI. 457, 462-463). He is either lying through his teeth or had truly been an imperceptive fool. Then, while back on the open ocean, personified Sleep bewitches his helmsman Palinurus and throws him overboard. When Aeneas realizes his helmsman has been lost, he laments, “Oh, far too trusting of the calm sea, and the sky, you’ll lie naked, Palinurus, on an unknown shore” (V. 870-871). Once again, Aeneas has completely misread the situation. His friend had not trusted the sea; he had resisted Sleep, saying, “Do you tell me to trust the sea’s placid face…I whom a clear sky has deceived so often?” (V. 48, 51). Aeneas knows that the gods have been harassing his crew throughout the journey; why, then, is he so quick to blame his helmsman?

The most telling of Aeneas’s failings, of course, comes at the very end of the epic—we’ll get to that soon enough. First, let us put aside our hero for a moment and delve into the antagonists.

While Aeneas at times appears cowardly, unfeeling, or imperceptive, his antagonists are surprisingly sympathetic. His main foe is Turnus, a young warrior from Latium who had been betrothed to the maiden Aeneas is now to marry. Turnus—described as “most handsome” and “of powerful ancestry”—has been cheated out of this marriage through no fault of his own (VII. 56). When he rallies his troops against Aeneas, it is not of his own free will but because of divine meddling. “Brave Turnus,” as is his oft-repeated epithet, leads his men into battle and has earned their respect; his “confidence never wavered,” and his impressive routing of the Trojans is described in detail (IX. 126). His rousing speeches are just as well-crafted and eloquent as Aeneas’s (IX. 123-158; X. 276-282; cf. I. 198-207). Turnus’s one moment of hubris comes when he kills a young warrior named Pallas and steals his engraved belt, but it is not as if Aeneas too doesn’t have his frenzied moments in battle. Besides, Aeneas had promised Pallas’s father that he would protect him from such a fate. To end the bloodshed, Turnus eventually proposes single combat with Aeneas, and it is fate that decides the victor rather than any failing of Turnus’s. At worst, Turnus is a slightly arrogant warrior who picked the wrong fight; at best, he’s a courageous man unjustly robbed of his bride and his people by a cruel divine agreement.

Queen Dido is an even more sympathetic character. The queen is not only “most beautiful in form” but also an excellent leader, “assigning the labor of works in equal parts” among her citizens, “pressing on for the work for the future kingdom” (I. 496; 503-508). She is chaste, having been faithful to her late husband for years. Her relationship with her sister Anna is touching. And she does not fall in love with Aeneas of her own accord but is enchanted by Cupid, thus absolving her from any blame for her irrational actions. A modest shift could have easily spun this into a panegyric of Aeneas: simply portray Dido as another Circes, an attractive but deceptive witch. Instead, “Dido quickly emerges from the role of a temptress designed as a last snare to trap the hero, and becomes a woman who reveals human laws paramount even to divine ordinance” (Frank 182). Dido’s case is compelling and Aeneas’s decision to leave her cruel, even if it stems from divine command.

Here a potential counterpoint must be refuted:

Many modern critics have felt that Virgil’s sympathy for losing sides is so great that it obscures the main issue. So nobly, it is said, are Dido and Turnus portrayed, that the character of Aeneas is insipid in comparison: Dido and Turnus are human, but Aeneas is only the servant of Fate. This is a modern point of view, and it ignores a very different attitude in Virgil’s own day. Aeneas represents the Stoic ideal…of the man who presses on regardless (Grant, 196).

This would be a valid point if Stoicism, a school of philosophy that promoted indifference to pleasure and pain, were the only prominent school in Rome. Just as prominent at the time, however, was Epicureanism, which extolled pleasure as the ultimate good. The Aeneid is “full of Epicurean phrases and notions,” including reminiscences of the Epicurean Lucretius, and Stoic sentiments are few and far between (Frank, 183). One telling example of an Epicurean thread is the representation of the Gods and Fate in the poem. Stoicism requires that Jupiter be equivalent with Fate, whereas Epicureanism dictates that the gods be subordinated to it. The latter is clearly the Aeneid’s interpretation: the gods (Juno, Venus, even Jupiter) are constantly plotting to bend Fate and are frustrated by their inability to do so. The epic’s preference for Epicureanism suggests that Aeneas’s coldness is to be viewed not as a virtue, as Stoicism would see it, but as a vice.

If the text were justifying Aeneas’s actions—and by extension, Augustus’s—as necessary for founding an empire, why make Aeneas anything less than the model hero, and why make the two characters who oppose Aeneas, the two to whom he does the most harm, so sympathetic? The poem’s portrayal of Aeneas’s enemies as victims questions whether Rome’s leadership is really as faultless as it would have its citizens believe, and whether the Roman Empire should really be bought at such a price.

Which brings us, finally, to the end of the epic. When Aeneas is in the Underworld, he receives advice from his father’s shade. In a moment of gravity, his father tells him, “You, Roman, remember to rule the people with power (these will be your arts), to establish the tradition of peace, to spare the defeated, and subdue the proud” (VI. 851-853). Aeneas, the one who carried his father on his shoulders out of burning Troy, is pius Aeneas, loyal to his family and respectful of his elders. It is expected that he will take his father’s advice to heart: teach the arrogant a lesson while also showing restraint.

He leaves the Underworld, however, not through the gate of horn but through the gleaming ivory gate, by which the Shades “send false dreams to the upper world” (VI. 896). Some commentators take this to mean that Aeneas’s dream of a glorious Roman empire, or perhaps all of Aeneas’s actions, are somehow “false” as well.

In the last scene of the epic, Aeneas has defeated Turnus and has him prostrate on the ground, begging for mercy:

[Turnus] lowered his eyes in submission and stretched out his right hand: “I have earned this, I ask no mercy,” he said, “seize your chance. If any concern for a parent’s grief can touch you (you too had such a father, in Anchises), I beg you to pity Daunus’ old age and return me, or if you prefer it my body robbed of life, to my people. You are the victor, and the Ausonians have seen me stretch out my hands in defeat: Lavinia is your wife, don’t extend your hatred further” (XII. 930-938).

aeneas-and-turnusThe text even mentioned Anchises, as if to remind Aeneas of his father’s former advice. Turnus has lowered his eyes “in submission” and stretched out his hands “in defeat”: he is the epitome of a conquered, humbled man. Aeneas, however, does not spare the defeated. He notices his friend Pallas’s belt on Turnus’s waist, and, “blazing with fury,” stabs him to death (XII. 946).

This is not pietas, the sense of duty the hero’s epithet had promised. This is the exact opposite: furor, unrestrained violence. Pius Aeneas, it turns out, cannot control himself, a realization incompatible with Donatus’s depiction of a perfect Roman leader. Rather than portraying Aeneas as flawless, an assumption clearly not supported in the text, the poem is suggesting that power has eroded his moral foundations, resulting in great human suffering. Once that has been established, it doesn’t take a great leap to suggest that Rome itself, and Rome’s current leader, may be flawed as well. Could Augustus, Aeneas’s real-life counterpart, have also gone too far and compromised his own morality?

But all the evidence examined so far is indirect, extrapolating from the notion that Aeneas represents Augustus. It only takes a reader twenty lines, however, to find the first concrete reference to contemporary Roman politics, and its insinuations line up neatly with those described above. The epic opens not in Italy, but in a city on the Libyan coast called Carthage:

There was an ancient city (Tyrian colonists held it), Carthage, long opposite Italy and the mouths of the Tiber, rich in resources and most fierce in the pursuits of war; Juno is said to have cherished this one city more than all lands…here were her arms, here was her chariot; if in any way the fates would allow it, the goddess both hoped and cherished this to be a seat of power for the nations. But indeed she had heard that the offspring was derived from Trojan blood, which, one day, would overturn the Tyrian castles (I.12-20).

aeneas-carthageWhat is so noteworthy about this opening is that Carthage is not just any city, but Rome’s archenemy, its rival in three costly Punic Wars. Rather than vilifying Carthage, however, the city is held up as the goddess’s favored place: she had even chosen to keep her prized possessions there. Romans, on the other hand—“the offspring derived from Trojan blood”—were the conquerors who would despoil a goddess’s most sacred city. This passage does not just demote Rome as unimportant compared to Carthage; it vilifies Rome.

Later on, the epic narrows to discuss Augustus, his uncle Julius Caesar, and other contemporary Romans. Caesar’s bitter enemies are portrayed rather favorably, “though there were many who held it treason in that day to mention rebels with respect” (Frank 174). Cato the Younger is called “great Cato” and said to be worthy of praise; Caesar and his rival Pompey are named together as perpetrators of civil war, with no preference indicated between them (VI. 841; 829-832). When Aeneas hears a description of who had been thrown in Tartarus, pursuing civil war is listed among the top offenses that merit eternal hell—perhaps a subtle jab at Julius Caesar and Augustus, both of whom had waged costly civil wars.

These might be easy to overlook if, when the text finally got to Augustus, the praise were over-the-top. Yet this is not the case. Augustus is mentioned when Aeneas comes across his shade in the Underworld:

This is the man, this is him, whom you so often hear promised you, Augustus Caesar, son of a God, who will make a Golden Age again in the fields where Saturn once reigned, and extend the empire beyond the Libyans and the Indians… Even now the Caspian realms, and Maeotian earth, tremble at divine prophecies of his coming, and the restless mouths of the seven-branched Nile are troubled (VI. 91-100).

The beginning of the panegyric sounds good: Golden Age, extending the empire. But if extending the empire were so glorious, why does the text go on to say that the very earth and the life-giving Nile tremble at Augustus’s approach? The foundations of Roman society lay in agrarianism. In traditional mythology and augury, the earth was calm and productive when the world was at peace. When the earth “trembled,” troubling events were to come.

It is also noteworthy that Augustus is included as only one of a long line of Roman leaders, and is grouped with the kings of the Roman monarchy (Frank 176). Romans in the Republic held an entrenched public fear of monarchy, and Julius Caesar and Augustus were criticized for attempting to consolidate the power of a king (for Augustus, at least, these fears were quite well-founded). Thus, Augustus’s placement amongst kings in the epic plays off these fears and subtly rebukes him even amidst praise. Aeneas, too, is referred to as “king” many times—four just in Book One—underscoring this point (I. 38; 544; 553; 575-578).

All this textual evidence contradicts the message Donatus ascribes to the Aeneid. Not everything in the poem praises Aeneas, Augustus, or the Roman Empire. Much of it suggests the exact opposite, and it is precisely by rejecting any set “intent” beforehand that all these aspects reveal themselves. Otherwise, the poem flattens. In Donatus’s reading, Dido is portrayed as chaste and talented only so that she can be “good enough” for our hero. Turnus is brave and capable only so that defeating him becomes more impressive. The ending of the epic loses much of its depth and its connection to Anchises’s advice, reduced only to a parable of the value of loyalty: if someone kills and robs your friend, you should under no circumstances offer him mercy.

It is also important, however, to note that while many aspects of the text do criticize the Augustan regime, not all do. The depiction of Augustus on Aeneas’s shield in Book Eight is genuine praise (XIII. 671-731). Except for the few cases mentioned, Aeneas is brave, capable, and respectable, but there would be no exceptions if he were truly divine. Precisely by not allowing any set intent—whether praising Augustus or undermining him—to influence our reading, we can notice the layered, somewhat contradictory nature of the poem’s claims.

But, for argument’s sake, what do we know about Vergil’s actual intent? Could Donatus have been right that Vergil was aiming to praise Augustus, even if, as we’ve seen, he didn’t always do so? Or, as some modern scholars have suggested, could Vergil have been secretly subversive, a rebel fighting the injustice of empire with his pen, an apologist undermining his own propaganda?

vergilWe know that Augustus and Vergil were fairly close acquaintances. We know that in Vergil’s Georgics, published ten years before the Aeneid, he had written, “Soon I’ll prepare myself to speak of [Augustus] Caesar’s fiery battles, and take his name forward, famous” (III. 47). We also know that Vergil was watching Augustus amass more and more power during those ten years. Conspiracy theorists point out that in 19 BCE, right after Vergil had finished his draft of the Aeneid, he took a trip to Greece, the place Roman authors went when they wanted to leave town for a while. On the way, he coincidentally ran into Augustus, and Vergil grew ill and died the next day. (Augustus loved to use poison to dispatch his enemies.) Vergil had asked in his will for the Aeneid to be burned: was this because he hadn’t put his finishing touches on the poem or because he could no longer bear to publish a work that would serve as propaganda?

It is impossible to answer these questions with any degree of certainty. Yet fortunately, we need not know Vergil’s intentions to appreciate his epic. Even if we did know them, it would in no way smooth out the intricacy of messages in the Aeneid, some praising but many criticizing the Augustan regime—which, of course, is what makes the poem so realistic and so relevant. There are excellent characteristics of Aeneas’s leadership and there are situations in which he falls short. There are advantageous aspects of empire and there are oppressive aspects. Heroes are not always perfect; enemies are sometimes laudable. Reading through the lens of any specific intent does not allow for such complexity, and it just this multidimensionality that makes the Aeneid a masterpiece.



Frank, Tenney. Vergil, a Biography. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. (link)

Grant, Michael. Roman Literature. Cambridge: U, 1954. (link)

Starr, Raymond J. “An Epic of Praise: Tiberus Claudius Donatus and Vergil’s ‘Aeneid.’” Classical Antiquity, vol. 11, no. 1, 1992, pp. 159–174. (link)

Vergilius Maro, Publius. Aeneid. 19 BCE. (Translations used included and, though some passages I modified to better reflect the literal Latin.)

History and Hesse

History and Hesse

            My dearest coddled Millenial, if you weren’t aware, this is what Herman Hesse thinks of our generation:

[The Age of the Feuilleton] appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture… It was, according to Ziegenhalss, an era emphatically “bourgeois” and given to an almost untrammeled individualism. (10)

I forgot to mention, though, that Hesse is writing from the perspective of a twenty-third century scholar who’s taking his stock on the general development of intellectually history over the past 500 years. That said, I still think there are some grounds for offense here, or at least for some disagreement.

We have museums in every city, music in our streets and theaters. Art is free and open to all. Bob Dylan just won a Nobel Prize for Pete’s sake. Don’t try and tell me we can’t put culture in its proper place (dissenters hold your peace). As to the “bourgeois” claim, our neoliberal framework of stratified economics, expensive legislation (read: campaign financing and lobbying run amuck), and intellectualized technocracy appears to be anything but middle class. And last, as far as “untrammeled individualism” goes, well, Herman, I think you might have us there.

But why is it that we can have such opposing views on the status of our time? Are we not looking at the same thing? To ask a more general question, why is it that historians can hold defensible yet opposing views of historical issues? Is history a purely relative matter? Dare we say that history is in the eye of the beholder? Surely not. Stand up, Millenials. Prove him wrong. Show us that history has lessons yet to tell. Do it for our generation, my fellow spoiled brats.

A book that we’re going to find useful in answering this question is Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. And what makes this book so relevant to our question is its genre: fake historical fiction. Please suspend disbelief for a moment, there is a way out of this double negative. Historical fiction is a genre in which plot takes place in the past. That is, a work of historical fiction takes established history and fictionalizes it, allowing us to analyze historical figures more closely, to understand historical narratives more deeply, and to learn in ways we possibly couldn’t without fiction. The Glass Bead Game takes this genre one step further: it pretends to be written by historians of the future. That is, the history these characters write about doesn’t actually exist yet. In reality, it’s a possible future, while in the book, it’s already the past. This unconventional framework let’s us directly address the relationship between fact and fiction. Which is to say, the book itself is a question of history. It asks what we value more, facts or the stories we tell to relay those facts.

But before we jump into that let’s ask the fundamental question: why is history not simply a relaying of past events, why is their historical disagreement in the first place? Well, we have to acknowledge that whenever we write history we are bridging a gap – the gap between events that actually happened and language. Please sit down and welcome to Literary Theory 101. As much as we might hate to admit it, language cannot express things in themselves, it is only a way of describing our perception. And this goes for the past as well. So, let go of that ideal. It’s not out there. All we have is what we think we know and our best guess at expressing it.

But there’s still a bigger question at play because historians do more than just name events – they tie them together. And they can tie things together in whatever way they want. The Glass Bead Game is a great example of this. Early on in the book, our fictional historians state what they deem valuable in historical investigation:

We moderns are not interested in a hero’s pathology or family history, nor in his drives, his digestion, and how he sleeps… For us a man is a hero and deserves special interest only if his nature and his education have rendered him able to let his individuality be almost perfectly absorbed in its hierarchic function without at the same time forfeiting the vigorous, fresh, admirable impetus which makes for the savor and worth of the individual. (5)

What our fictional friends are saying is that they have a historical worldview to which they subscribe. To them, the individuals who matter most are the ones who can discover their purpose and submit to it. They are the heroes of our story. No time for rebels, no need to investigate the idiosyncrasies of our characters, we only need to understand how individuals successfully interact with hierarchies. The theme is individuality vs. unity and that’s the framework around which we build our story. The lesson is clear: when we make history we make narratives, and it is these narratives, not events themselves, that determine our conclusions. Let that sink in. It’s not that through history we make stories, but that through our predisposition for storytelling we make history. Literally make it. The historians in The Glass Bead Game know what story they’re going to tell before they’ve told it.

This point goes further. When we subscribe to a narrative, we shape events to fit our historical mold. We can see this again with our academic amici in the Kingdom of Castalia. The life of Joseph Knecht, the protagonist of their story, is defined by the dialectic between individuality and compliance. Take, for instance, his decision to step down from the position of Magister Ludi (the most renowned title and important role in Castalian society). Another set of fictional historians could easily view this as disastrous moment in the history of the kingdom and thus delimit it in terms of its political consequences. Yet, our fictitious fact finders understand the event as a personal struggle, and therefore define the moment in terms of its relation to Joseph, its impact upon his life, and its value as a symbol of individualism and growth. Yet, both sets of thinkers would be talking about the same event strictly speaking. Historians place markers on the continuous flow of time, they define the boundaries of causality, and shape real moments in the past to their fancy. Moreover, their pre-established beliefs provide not only the structure for the story they want to tell, but also the evidence.

Up until this point we’ve been thinking about history from the perspective of those who write it – the ways in which historians fashion narratives and why this makes history literary and even fictitious. But on the other side of this equation is a very important audience: you and me, the readers of history. And from this vantage we have to introduce a new question: as readers, how do we tell the difference between history and fiction?

The honest answer is we can’t tell the difference because we read both genres in the same way. History is based on real events but translates those facts into verbal propositions, and literature is nothing but verbal propositions. How on earth, then, are we the readers (and feeble, millennial readers at that) to be expected to tell the difference between a work that claims to be historical and one that claims to be fictional? The most common difference between the two genres is one of style, but there’s nothing stopping a piece of literature being written with a historical focus (as The Glass Bead Game shows) nor a work of history being written in a traditionally literary sense. The greatest difference to us, the readers, is that when we read history we put our faith in historians, even though historians have failed us before. We forget about the gap between language and the past, the deterministic power of narratives, and the moment morphing ability of discretion.

And The Glass Bead Game really does make this point clear. By acting as if the plot of the book is real historical material, Hesse’s novel teaches us real historical lessons. The book analyzes the rise and fall of a non-existent civilization, it evaluates the history of western intellectualism from its post-creative viewpoint, and it explores the relationship between individuals and hierarchical powers through fake institutions. Which is all to say that we don’t actually have to know any historical facts to learn historical lessons. Fake history can provide the same foundation to narrative as “real” history. The narrative trumps all. And so both history and literature, in this way, say the same thing: “if you’re willing to accept our terms here is what we have to offer.”

At this point does history really retain any merit? When history becomes like literature our concern is no longer with truth – we let go of the true historical object as soon as we put pen to paper, as soon as we spoke, as soon as we even considered speaking. Good history is now a matter of “consistency, coherence, and illuminative power” (4) as Hayden White put it. Our concern is less with the events that happened and more with how we present what happened to happen. That is, things could’ve happened differently and we could still present them according to our agenda.

The Glass Bead Game, though, offers an interesting escape to this historical problem. The book ends by telling the story of Joseph’s escape from Castalia in a highly literary style in a section called “The Legend.” This chapter is scattered with verse, poetic language, and surreal imagery. The idea being that the now mythical story of Joseph’s final flight from academic hierarchy was one so well know that there was no point telling the story any other way.

This unique approach offers a new perspective on the value of history because instead of demanding that the reader believe its verbal claim, the story panders to its audience. The history-as-myth approach submits to the power of narrative and in doing so reveals what an audience believes in and what they value. This style of history admits to its fictive nature and uses this to its advantage. We see history not as a deceiver but as a window into a culture’s ethics. And so, history, although dressed in new clothes, remains a valuable source of knowledge, if not so much in what it says but in what it reveals about its believers.



Hesse, Herman. The Glass Bead Game (London: Vintage 2000, 1970).

White, Hayden. Metahistory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).