Monday, September 8, 2014

Memory, Guilt and Chronesthesia: Manifestations of the Past in Faulkner and Morrison

Chronesthesia is defined as a form of consciousness that allows individuals to think about the subjective time in which they live and that makes it possible for them to mentally travel in such time. (Consciousness of Subjective Time in the Brain.)
We all know that people can spend a lot of time dwelling on the past and worrying about the future.  Rather than mulling over some jerk of a husband, or hoping to win the lottery, some people seem to be able to mentally project themselves into the moment as active participants, or as passive observers.   According to Consciousness of Subjective Time in the Brain, “this thinking… has metaphorically been referred to as mental time travel” (22356).  Mental time travel is also called “chronesthesia,” or “self-projection.”
            Regardless of whether we mentally travel through time longing to change the past or to visualize the future we want, we cannot do either without consequences.  Louis Dupré says in “Alienation and Redemption Through Time and Memory,” that “memory never copies the past:  it constitutes it as past by breathing new life into a bygone reality, and by placing it in a wholly new context.  Thus, memory mysteriously revives the past in a new time and a new space” (673).
            Someone once said that being unable to let go of the past is like carrying a dead body on your back.  It’s a burden, to say the least.  And thoughts are energy released; that energy has to go somewhere.  When you live in the past, you cannot exist in the present without being haunted in some way by memory.  The characters in the works of both Toni Morrison and William Faulkner are ruled by their memories, and both authors work to explore what that means and the detriment it places on one’s life.
Like too many blacked out starry nights.
            Sometimes we can be ruled by the past without being consciously aware of it.  Even if we’ve repressed a trauma, it’s always in the back of the mind, and at any time can be triggered.  In an interview with Angels Carabi, Morrison remarks about Paul D’s arrival in Beloved that, “Sethe begins to think about certain things…” (106).  Before he shows up, Sethe’s guilt is repressed, but it is nevertheless knocking around in her subconscious mind.   In “Ripping the Veil,” Wilfred Samuels says, “It is due in part to her successful act of ‘disremembering,’ of consciously obliterating her painful past” (Samuels, 99).
            In Beloved, Sethe says, “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running—from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth” (18).  This is untrue.  As we know, Sethe is in denial… she’s still running from her past.  “To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay” (51).
It's a struggle.
            This potential energy is released like telekinesis, which causes supernatural disturbances in the home.  The presence of Paul D makes it physically impossible for Sethe to keep forgetting, and as a result she unleashes her subconscious into a full-blown manifestation of her guilt, her memories and her past.  “In spite of her effort to beat back the past, she is unable to transcend it” (Samuels, 95).
            When we dwell on the past, we manifest whatever the past represents into the present.  In a sense, the emotions one felt, the decisions that were made—even a trauma that occurred—follows you from your past into your future and takes root, creating its own new existence.  According to Jean-Paul Sartre, “Consciousness can exist within time only on condition that it becomes time—it must become ‘temporalized’ as Heidegger says... the nature of consciousness implies… that it project itself into the future” (Sartre).  Whether that consciousness is manifested as an alcohol problem or an angry dead baby, the outcome can’t be good.           
            Sethe cannot keep the guilt over her past bottled up.  She has to face what she did, look at it clearly, and deal with it.  When she takes one step towards that, all hell breaks loose.  In “Time, Memory and Self-Remembering,” it is stated that “It must be finally admitted that the past is present not as a representation of itself but as presence” (4).  This can be seen as a memory manifesting itself into temporality, as is the case with Beloved, the memory of whom has been manifested as a semi-conscious being.
            In the interview with Angels Carabi, Morrison says, “I wanted a baby in human body, without past or future, having been killed so young and also to be the embodiment of the past… she was violently disremembered…” (106).  Having died so traumatically, the memory has become willful and “her physical presence is so persistent that she cannot be ignored any more, so they have to deal with her” (107).             
            One of the reasons we sometimes cannot accept and then let go of the past is our lack of understanding of what has happened.  The human mind is constantly trying to make sense of things; but, whether because of naïveté or ignorance, when one experiences trauma, it’s nearly impossible to understand why—especially if it’s at the hands of the object of one’s attachment, like a parent or a lover.  As Sartre said in his essay on Faulkner, “The mind’s own temporal perspective prevents it from ever exhaustively understanding its past” (Sartre).  No matter how much Sethe tries to explain what happened, Beloved is incapable of discerning the bigger picture.  Sethe herself is, too.
It's harder than it looks.
            Even though Beloved shows up appearing like a twenty year-old woman, “[her] behavior is for the most part that of a child, even an infant [emphasis mine]” (Samuels, 103).  She was killed as a baby—her consciousness voided from her body.  Without ever having the “opportunity to come into her own, to find a central self by moving beyond the stage of her infantile ego… Beloved does not differentiate herself from Sethe… her world is merged with Sethe’s” (Samuels, 104). 
            Nancy Chodorow says, in “Pre-Oedipal Gender Configurations,” that a clinical example of a “negative Oedipus complex in girls” is when they are invested in “their mothers… this attachment is dramatically intense and ambivalent” (472-473).  And because of Sethe’s guilt, “ever present as a reminder of the past is Beloved… the manifestation of her mother’s conscience” (Samuels, 94).  Sethe is so obsessed with her memory of Beloved, and that conscious manifestation of the memory is so attached to Sethe, we could even go as far as to say that their consciousnesses are merged, and it is Sethe’s inability to remove herself from the past that allows Beloved to again become temporalized.  She is, in effect, as an infant, projected into the future—her future as a woman, with the consciousness of a child, a manifestation of Sethe’s memory and guilt.
            In an article called “The Definitive Guide to Guilt,” from Psychology Today, Dr. Susan Whitbourne says, “The psychodynamic theory of Freud proposes that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we would experience if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were” (Whitbourne).  Sethe’s defense is justification—her excuse for killing her baby.
            In her interview with Morrison, Carabi says, “Sethe’s sense of guilt turns her into Beloved’s victim and their roles reversed,” and Morrison replies, “It’s herself she can’t forgive; so now she is not so sure of her deed” (110). She keeps making these excuses to Beloved, but really she’s making them to herself, and Beloved’s responses of “you hurt me” and “you left me” (256) are always indicative of Sethe’s guilty conscience. 
            The interviewer later prompts, “Sethe must confront her past to achieve self-knowledge to save her best thing, which is herself.  When this past is assumed Beloved can disappear,” and Morrison again replies, “Beloved has no place there now.  Sethe is now going to concentrate on taking care of herself, the beloved that is inside her which is her.  ‘She’ is the beloved, not the child.  The past is returned and buried again or gone” (110). 
            Once Sethe has dealt with her guilt, she can realize that what is done is done.  It is time to learn to forgive herself and move on.  The memories can go back to living in the past and no longer hold her hostage.  This isn’t just about guilt and memory, it is also about acceptance.  It’s not just about Sethe forgiving herself, it’s about accepting what she did without making excuses.  While she can forgive, there’s no way she’ll ever forget, but she has the chance of becoming a whole person again.  Morrison says, “if you just dwell on the past you can’t go forward.  If you confront the past there is a possibility to move on” (111).
            In the same interview, when talking about the characters in Beloved, Morrison says of the past:
“It’s always threatening to break out… If you are serious about not wanting to remember, if you try to contain it, hold it back, it takes activity; you have to work at preventing the past from coming through.  If you don’t work hard, it will come out in distorted ways.  You can’t let those memories come back until you are strong enough to deal with them” (114).
            In a perfect world, Sethe would have had therapy after she got out of jail—she should have been given the opportunity to face her demons in a safe place with someone who could help her work through her tragic past. 
            Song of Solomon is another case in point:  the watermark on the table can also be seen as a metaphor for manifested memory:   “The watermark, hidden by the bowl all these years, was exposed.  And once exposed, it behaved as though it were itself a plant and flourished into a huge suede-gray flower that throbbed like fever, and sighed like the shift of sand dunes.  But it could also be still.  Patient, restful, and still” (12-13). 
            The sometimes “patient, restful, and still” memories of Ruth’s past are all bottled up inside her and they are manifested in various ways.  “Long deprived of sex, long dependent on self-manipulation, she saw her son’s imminent death as the annihilation of the last occasion she had been made love to” (134).  It is that manifestation that drives her to protect the baby in her womb and eventually use breastfeeding him as a distorted way to relieve her sexual frustration.  Because Ruth has not faced and dealt with her past, it is robbing her of her present sanity.
            We can’t just ignore the past, like Sethe and Ruth, in the hopes that it will go away.  We can’t sweep our grief under the rug; we can’t cover it up with a centerpiece, like a stain on the kitchen table. We have to face it and deal with it before we can move on, like Milkman does.  At one point in Song of Solomon, he pees on Corinthians because he turns around before he has finished; “it was becoming a habit—this concentration on things behind him.  Almost as though there were no future to be had” (35).  Milkman is obsessed with the past—not just his past, but also the past of his family.  That of which he has no memory haunts him, because it distorts his sense of self.  When he looks in the mirror, his reflection “lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self.  It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back” (69-70). In order for him to go forward, he must first turn back.  This is why Morrison says, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (179).  Actively letting go of (not passively ignoring) the past is essential to moving forward.
            In “Unquiet Ghosts:  Memory and Determinism in Faulkner,” Lee Anne Fennell says, “it is memory, with its disregard for chronological time and its idiosyncratic and highly personal chains of association, that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead, and remakes family history” (35).  Fennell goes on to say that “remembered events may lie dormant for years and then emerge suddenly and vividly in response to a particular sensory impression or chain of associations.  It is this interaction with present experience that makes memory such a powerful, intrusive, and insistent force in the lives of many of Faulkner’s characters” (36). 
            Unlike Morrison’s stories, whose characters are sometimes literally haunted by their pasts but strive for a better future, “what is missing from Faulknerian time is not memory, but the concept of hope which would make contemplation of the future possible” (Fennell, 40).  While in Toni Morrison’s world people run from the past (slavery & racism) towards the future (freedom) with guarded yet open arms, Faulkner’s characters are paralyzed by their pasts, which leaves them stuck in the present. 
            Perhaps the first step in facing the past or preparing for the future is to try and live as simply as possible and start working on getting rid of all the extra baggage.  In The Bear, Isaac’s “leaving of the gun was not enough.  He stood for a moment—a child, alien and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness.  Then he relinquished completely to it.  It was the watch and the compass” (190).  Isaac’s letting go of the watch and compass is like stepping out of space and time and quieting his mind in order to see without obstruction.  It is then that Isaac finds the clearing and sees the bear.  “It did not emerge, appear:  it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him… then it was gone… it faded [emphasis mine]” (191), like a memory.  Way to work through it, Isaac.
            Finally, we come to Quentin.  This young man is basically time locked in the past.  He can’t get over his sister, he can’t shake his white southern guilt, and he’s afraid to move on, because to him forgetting his pain is equal to losing his sense of self.  According to Fennell regarding Absalom, Absalom! “The work of memory culminates in Quentin and Shreve’s cold dormitory room, where the highly personal meaning Quentin draws from the reconstructed story leaves him panting in the dark as he recalls a South he can neither forget nor disavow” (Fennell, 40).  Like Sethe, Quentin seeks freedom; he does this by going to University, and like Sethe, he not only can’t, but also doesn’t want to escape the memories.
            Shreve’s comments on Quentin’s relationship with the south are meant to help him with clarity.  He says:
  “You were not supposed to know when and why you left, but only that you had escaped, that whatever power had created the place for you to hate it had likewise got you away from the place so you could hate it good and never forgive it… that you were to thank god you didn’t remember anything about it yet at the same time you were not to, maybe dared not to, ever forget it’” (239). 
Unfortunately his words fall on deaf ears.  Fennell goes on again to say:
“But the influence of the memory of Sutpen is still not finished; it presumably continues to work on Quentin’s mind, interweaving itself with Quentin’s own troubling memories of Caddy as he moves closer and closer to suicide… despite all the pain that memory causes, Faulkner suggests that the prospect of forgetting is far worse… but if memory is a hedge against mortality and forgetting, it also exacts a price—the agonizing grief that the acknowledgment of loss entails… [Quentin Compson finds] the price of memory too high, he drowns himself and extinguishes the memories he alone held of his beautiful, lost sister” (46-47).
            In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin’s father gives him his grandfather’s watch and says, “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it” (76).  Quentin is afraid of the passage of time, because with it comes forgetting, and he doesn’t want to forget.  Quentin’s father hopes that the watch will keep Quentin in the present, instead of being fixated on the past, an obsession that ultimately drives him to suicide. 
            As complicated as it may be to read Faulkner or Morrison, it is no wonder their work is held in such high regard.  While Morrison’s stories can be hard on the heart to read—her characters suffer brutal realities at the hands of those completely bankrupt of common sense and compassion—novels like Song of Solomon and Beloved leave us with hope and understanding amidst our grief.  Faulkner’s characters aren’t as lucky—or at least not as hopeful; but sometimes that’s the reality.  Once a person is broken, sometimes he or she can never put him or herself back together again, regardless of any support or encouragement received. 

            When the past comes haunting, there are times when we can get a hold of ourselves, have a moment of clarity and really see what it is causing us to do to ourselves or our loved ones—and as G.I. Joe said, “knowing is half the battle.”  Faulkner and Morrison both understand this, and, in their own greatly differing ways, have approached the importance of the past in the hopes, I like to think, of leading us to the clearing. 
NOTE: All photos are my own and taken with either my Fuji Finepix SL1000 or my iPhone.
Chodorow, Nancy.  “Pre-Oedipal Gender Configurations.”  Literary Theory:  An Anthology.  Oxford:     Blackwell Publishing, 2004.  Print.

Dupré, Louis.  “Alienation and Redemption Through Time and Memory:  An Essay on Religious Time Consciousness.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 43. No. 4 (1975):  pp. 671-679.     JSTOR.  Web.  August, 2014.

Faulkner, William.  Absalom, Absalom!  New York:  Vintage International, 1986.  Print.

Faulkner, William.  “The Bear.”  The Portable Faulkner.  Ed. Malcolm Cowley.  New York:  Viking Press, 1946.  177-288.  Print.

Faulkner, William.  The Sound and the Fury.  New York:  Vintage International, 1984. Print.

Fenell, Lee Anne.  “Unquiet Ghosts:  Memory and Determinism in Faulkner.”  The Southern Literary Journal.  Vol. 31.  No. 2 (1999):  pp. 35-49.  JSTOR.  Web.  August, 2014.

Haight, David and Marjorie.  “Time, Memory, and Self-Remembering.”  The Journal of Speculative Philosophy.  New Series, Vol. 3.  No. 1 (1989):  pp. 1-11.  JSTOR.  Web. August, 2014. 

Nyberg, Lars, et al.  “Consciousness of Subjective Time in the Brain.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  Vol. 107.  No. 51 (2010):  pp. 22356-22359.  JSTOR.  Web. August, 2014.

Morrison, Toni.  Beloved.  New York:  Vintage, 1987.  Print.

Morrison, Toni.  Song of Solomon.  New York:  Vintage, 1977.  Print.

Morrison, Toni.  Interview by Angels Carabi (Toni Morrison’s Beloved:  ‘And the Past Achieved Flesh’).  Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos.  No. 2 (1993):  pp. 105-115. JSTOR.  Web.  August, 2014.

Porter, Stephen and Kristine A. Peace.  “The Scars of Memory.”  Psychological Science.  Vol. 18.  No. 5 (2007):  pp. 435-441.  JSTOR.  Web.  August, 2014. 

Samuels, Wilfred D. and Clenora Hudson-Weems.  “’Ripping the Veil’:  Meaning Through Rememory in Beloved.” Toni Morrison.  New York: Twain, 1990.  Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner.”  The Humanities and Fine Arts Digital Research Center.  University of Saskatchewan.  Web.  August, 2014.

Whitbourne, Susan Krauss, Ph.D.  “The Definitive Guide to Guilt:  The Five Types of Guilt and How You Can Cope With Each.”  Psychology Today, 11 Aug. 2012.  Web. August, 2014. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Creating a Monster: Elliot Rodger and the Spoiled Child Inside

Please forgive the stream-of-consciousness of this post - I wanted to get it up ASAP.  I plan on editing for content and spelling, punctuation, etc., as soon as I have more time.  I welcome all opinions and comments.  This is one of those situations where I truly believe we need to come together and discuss what is happening in our society.  Sharing feelings and ideas is the only way we can heal and make change.
I'm sure most of you have read by now that over the weekend 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, Santa Barbara City College student and son of second-unit director for The Hunger Games, killed six people and wounded 13 others in a murder spree before blowing his own brains out.

Unlike many other horrible events like this, we don't really have to ask ourselves, "why?" because we were left with a 141 page manifesto and an array of self-aggrandizing and social-shaming videos on Youtube.  

In the end he blamed all the hot women of the world for not having sex with him and all the men who are "undeserving" of those women for his murderous rationale.  

Maybe intuition told them that there was something wrong with him and to avoid him at all costs.  Most people can inherently sense when they are around a dangerous psychotic, even if said psychotic is acting polite.  

In fact, It's not likely this guy would have been happy even if he were getting laid.  He'd have issues if his lady wasn't giving him all her attention all the time or if he felt that she loved anyone more than him.  I can see him getting violent in a relationship if he didn't get his way.  Also, perhaps he shouldn't have limited himself to only obsessing over "hot" blonde girls.  Maybe there were some plain nerd gals out there secretly crushing on him, but he never noticed because he was so fixated on the ones who weren't attracted to him.  

I really wish someone had made him understand that women would have been more attracted to him had he had a real personality and character of his own.  It seems that he spent all of his time (when he wasn't isolating and feeling sorry for himself) affecting wealth and prestige - buying expensive clothing, driving around in a BMW and boasting about his life - instead of cultivating his personality.  I bet if he had gone on a date he probably would have spent all of his time bragging about all the countries he has gone to (most of which he barely remembers because he was so young), his famous director father and all the rich men his mother had dated (allegedly George Lucas being one of them).  There's this lame idea that ALL women care about is money and power.  Sure a lot do, but a lot don't, too.  

After reading his manifesto it seems clear that he was neglected by his father and spoiled rotten by his mother to overcompensate for their lack of interest in his life.  She apparently gave him everything he ever wanted and caved to all of his temper tantrums (which he knew would ultimately get him what he wanted).  His parents divorced when he was young and shuffled him around between them, constantly moving homes, cities, and neglecting him when he needed them most.  While his mother was coddling him, his father was pushing him away.  That can give some severely mixed signals.

In his early core years he was raised to believe he was more important than anyone and then as a teenager he was plunged into isolation - his father choosing his new family over his old, his mother never once stepping in when he was clearly becoming anti-social, while his stepmom forced him into awkward social situations that just fueled his anxiety.  His real mother allowed him to spend far too much time sinking deeper into his depression and hate, probably figuring that as long as he played his video game all day he would be out of her hair.

They created a sociopathic, narcissistic monster and then they washed their hands of him.  There are all these news stories out there saying how they tried to intervene.  This is laughable.  His mother saw a video her son made ridiculing women for not having sex with him, freaked out, called a therapist instead of her son, who in turn called a mental health place, who then called the cops.  See how totally removed from his life his own mother was?  This doesn't excuse his behavior - but clearly he was so mentally ill that he should have been institutionalized or SOMETHING. 

It is clear that Elliot Rodger was more than completely self-involved.  Throughout his manifesto he talks about trouble his parents went through – financial difficulties – that he took as direct assaults on himself.  He never once admits empathy or sympathy for anyone else’s plight.  He made everything about himself.  When his father lost all his money over a failed documentary and had to cut off child support to Rodger's mother and she had to move into a small house in Canoga Park, instead of being concerned for his father's failure, Rodger blamed his mother for moving them into such a low-class neighborhood. 

How could someone like that ever give love to another person in a way that would make them want to give him love back?  Did anyone ever try to make him understand that?  What did he talk about with his therapist?  Did the number of counselors he had spend all their time with him building up his ego, reinforcing his beliefs and validating his feelings?  I’ve seen it happen.  I have stopped seeing certain therapists after realizing that all they will ever do is try to make me feel like all of my decisions and choices are right so that I'll keep paying them – that doesn’t help!  Additionally if you go into therapy being dishonest, your therapist will never know that you need more help than you’re getting.  

Rodger's parents should have been in therapy with him.  He should have been institutionalized with daily group therapy sessions, I don't know - something proactive.  This guy kind of reminds me of a cross between Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver because of his complete lack of understanding of social intercourse with a woman and Patrick Bateman of American Psycho because of his deep seeded narcissism, racism and classism.

I just want to say to all the guys out there - if a girl doesn't want to sleep with you, that is her prerogative.  It doesn't mean she's evil and it doesn't necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you.  Do not assume at 22, with a limited world-view (even if you have been to several other countries as a young child) that what is happening now is the be all and end all of your existence.  And girls - the same thing applies to you.  

Try seeking a partner who shares common interests instead of focusing on a fantasy.  Not only do you have to be honest with yourself and others about who you really are (instead of pretending to be rich or whatever else you think is going to get you attention), but also you can't narrow your sites on one type.  If you do, your odds at finding love are going to sorely disappoint you.

And parents, if you make the decision to have children, they should ALWAYS and without fail be your first priority. If you know your kid is mentally ill and has voiced a desire to kill his or herself or hurt another, don't go on an international holiday, leaving them home alone.  Don't assume because they are in therapy that you get to wash your hands of the burden.  Go to therapy with them, put them in a group home, DO SOMETHING other than ignoring them and then wringing your hands when their suffering affects you.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Keep Calm and Head to the Highlands

This is my last essay from my last class of this semester, History of Western Civilization 1B.  We had to write a paper on a cultural experience and I chose our honeymoon in the UK.  I pulled a few lines from a previous entry I wrote when we got home.  I've unpublished that one because it's meandering and mopey, but this one makes me happy.  I hope you enjoy it.
            Last October, my husband and I went on our honeymoon to the United Kingdom.  I had never been anywhere outside of the United States (Unless you count a childhood trip to the Mexican border that I barely remember), and had always wanted to go to England and Scotland… Needless to say, I took my trip very seriously and spent several months before our departure preparing.
            Preparation consisted of reading several books on Britain – of course Rick Steve’s “Great Britain” was read and re-read.  As part of a wedding present, which also included money to spend on our honeymoon, some friends of ours gave us a book on “Eccentric London,” which was full of tasty tidbits of the darker and weirder side of the town.
All the murder by gaslight and gastropub locations you can handle.
            I could not tell you how many reviews I read on everything from centuries-old pubs to cozy bed and breakfasts.  I spent hours every day poring over everything I could find from Bath to York and from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye.  I researched Tube etiquette, how to keep from being seen as a dumb tourist (which totally didn’t work) and money conversions.  Reading all about how polite the Brits are considered to be, how quiet on the trains they allegedly are and how difficult and unnecessary it is to rent a car and drive yourself anywhere – all of my expectations were turned on their side as once we actually got there I experienced total culture shock.

Take us to our hotel, mum.
            I say “once” we got there and I literally mean that. 
            From the moment we stepped off the plane it was pushing, shoving, running with luggage while ghastly glares poured out of sullen and surly faces During the better part of the afternoon and evening the London Underground is a frightful place.  "Keep to the right!" the signs yelled, so I clung with all my might to the greasy rubbery handrail as I clutched my over-packed suitcase and struggled with my weighty backpack.
"Gerald is the man you murdered in the subway.
We thought it best you didn't see him as he's a fresh kill and still pretty messy."
            Things have clearly improved since Friedrich Engel was inspired to write The Condition of the Working Class in England, yet, still packed like sardines, many of the people of London seem to thrive on crushing physical oppression and the rushrushrushrush to wait like the rest of us.  And boy do they hate to wait.  Patience is not a virtue in dear historical London, where eyes will not meet yours unless in some sort of willful, expressionless staring contest - possibly a passive-aggressive action performed for the sole purpose of unnerving you.  But they wouldn’t dare tell you what they really think…
            The Londoners who crossed our paths (or vice versa) were “polite.” They would rather die than openly admit their feelings about anything.  They'll acknowledge your existence if they must, but they’ll do it with disdain, looking upon you with contempt.  Their cordiality is an affectation, it is mannered, and it is false.  Either that or I am way more uncool than I thought.
            One of the only Londoners whom we found delightful was a woman from the States.  We were invited to the British Museum by an archaeologist and curator who worked in the Canary Islands with my father-in-law, and we received the “backstage pass” version of an ancient Egyptian artifacts tour.  We saw a lot of very old and valuable items, but what stuck with me was the long hallway of Sekhmet statues.
Many Sekhmets
            Being that Sekhmet is the goddess of war and healing, her cult – suffering drought and hunger – figured if they created a statue of her (one for every day of the year) she would smile favor upon them.  I’m not exactly sure how many of them were made, but the British Museum has almost a hundred of them in their basement.  Each lioness-esque statue is anywhere between six and ten feet tall.  
            We also spent a lot of time on the trains.
I love a train station.
            Between the plane, the Tube and the trains, we spent a lot of time traveling.  While on the trains (or a van in one instance) traveling through the countryside (even though I longed to get out and hike through those golden hills) was magical.  What a way to see it all in a short amount of time!  I was looking forward to the next leg of our trip.
            Don’t get me wrong – I was enthralled with London’s architecture; the ancient history mixed with innovative modern designs was… magical, and my memory of the Thames will be forever locked away in my heart.  On our last day I was taking pictures on the Millennium Bridge across the river from the Tate; the air smelled sweetly of candy roasted cashews (for two pounds), and we swayed slightly and soundlessly, except for vapid voiced complaints about the ugliness of it all and our trite photographic desires. 
"You take for granted what is right under your nose,"
I called out to the shrill tinkle left mingling in the sweet frosty air.
            Once we got up to York the environment completely changed.  Perhaps, because it is a touristy place where people from all over Great Britain come to visit, there was enough diversity of personality types to give it a charm that London did not have.  (My husband blames the attitude of Londoners on their classic imperialist arrogance.)  That whole area - not just The Shambles - had some of the neatest streets and buildings I have ever seen (a close second to Edinburgh which is just, wow).
            We stayed two days in York at the most popular bed and breakfast I could find on  It was in a quiet area run by cheerful folks who had a massive Great Dane and provided a deliciously authentic English/Scottish breakfast.  We liked York and when we visit the UK again, we will be going back.
In all it's cute shambled glory.
            It was Scotland, however, where I left my heart.  I felt as if the land itself opened its arms and held me tight like old family I had not seen in years.  The wet and rainy Highlands seemed to weep endlessly and the energy of its people expressed a sort of melancholy joy that I immediately related to and by which I felt comforted.  They were witty and not as urbane as some Londoners, who came off as so properly affected.  The Scots were not only welcoming, but also they were warm, and kind and boy do they know how to cook!  (The only food that tasted good in England also came with a plateful of grease.)
But it tasted soooo good...
            The woods, thick and pretty, are painted with pink heather and wet bark so black that it makes the color of the leaves pop.  Moss covers all, which can be pretty slippery if you aren't wearing the right shoes (and I did take a pretty bad spill in Crofter's Woods), but when you're lying on your back looking up at all that majesty, it's pretty hard to quibble about a wee tumble.
            Edinburgh and Sterling are also quite high on my list of Places I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life.  Edinburgh reminded me of a much older, European Portland and Sterling is a lovely quaint town with a lively urban atmosphere.  Glasgow was neat, but all the child alcoholics tripped me out.  I cried when we left Scotland.

You would too...
            It took me the better part of a month to get over the jet lag and get used to being back in the States.  For a long time I was bitter towards London and the realization that no matter how much I researched the culture I could never have been prepared for how… different it was than what I expected.  And therein lies the problem, doesn’t it?  Expectations.  You know what they say about assuming… 

            All in all I must say I had an amazing time – I learned SO much (our trip to the British Museum deserves an essay all on its own) and I now understand with significance all that I had no idea I was so ignorant of before.  
NOTE:  All photos are my own and taken with either my Fuji Finepix SL1000 or my iPhone.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Unconditional Love and the Psyche: Moral Ambiguity in Wuthering Heights

            A reader of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights may find him or herself asking how an introverted young woman of little worldly experience could have come up with such a passionate and psychologically layered story - especially in the face of the various contradictory disclaimers made by her sister, Charlotte, who, after Emily’s death, made excuses in her grief-stricken state to silence what she, Charlotte, perceived as a barrage of criticism that came with the publication of the novel.  These disclaimers were unnecessary, however, because “literary critics repeatedly acknowledged its originality, genius and imaginative power – if they also complained about its moral ambiguity” (Murfin, 334). 
            What some readers may not know is that, while Brontë may have spent most of her life in Haworth, a small town in the Yorkshire moors of northern England, she also studied French in Belgium, was more educated than most of the men with whom her family associated, even had a stint teaching and for a time had plans with Charlotte to open up a school.  She could read and write in several languages – including Greek – she wrote poetry and stories from an early age and she had an innate understanding of the most bizarre aspects of human nature. 
            Along with an obsession she had with her father’s “Irish tales of violence and horror” (Robinson, 18), Brontë witnessed the emotional instability of her brother, and it is likely because of these things that she “cared more for fairy tales, wild, unnatural [and] strange fancies” (Robinson, 27).  This is clearly evident in her novel, Wuthering Heights, which centers around several characters, some of whom could be seen as aspects of one of the most important people in her life, her brother, Branwell Brontë.  It is “as if the novel, like an illustration of Freud’s ‘Das Unheimlische,’ were about ‘the danger of being haunted by alien versions of the self,’” only instead of herself, they are of her brother (Gilbert, 381).  Although possibly as a result of her repressed feelings, Brontë’s “strange fancies” emerged in a creative form – the act of writing. 
           Aside from her father, the closest man to Emily was her brother.  While Charlotte was away at school, Emily and Branwell were the eldest two of the surviving siblings, and they spent most of their days together.  Theirs was a yin-yang type of relationship, as “Emily and Branwell…were most to each other: bright, shallow, exacting brother; silent, deep-brooding, unselfish sister, more anxious to give than to receive” (Robinson, 45).  When his lover abandoned him for financial security and a good reputation, and he went over the edge and persisted in killing himself with alcohol and laudanum, “it was [Brontë] who, more than the others, became familiarized with the agony, and doubts, and shame of that tormented soul” (Robinson, 126). 
          Although Brontë acted as her brother’s unselfish guardian angel – consistently dragging him home from the pub after nights of drinking, saving him from dying in the bed he drunkenly set on fire in his sleep (Robinson, 127) and showing him patience when nobody else would – she was, perhaps unwittingly, storing up information to be used for several characters in one of the most studied books in literary history. 
           Branwell treated his family cruelly during this time, but Emily was forgiving and stood by his side with compassion when nobody else did; “it was she who saw most of her abandoned brother, for Anne could only shudder at his sin, and Charlotte was too indignant for pity” (Robinson, 147).  From the very beginning of Wuthering Heights, we can see the idea of forgiveness of one’s brother, as when Lockwood dreams of the “First of the Seventy-First” (Bronte, 41), which is an allusion to “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” in the Bible:
"Then Peter came unto him, and said, Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I shall forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times: but until seventy times seven” (NIV Bible, Matthew 18: 21-35).
If we look closer into Brontë’s life and at her relationship with her brother, we will find that, while Wuthering Heights may come off as morally ambiguous, Emily herself was a courageous and charitable woman who “had a place in her heart for all the wild children of nature, and to despise them for their natural instincts was impossible to her” (Robinson, 147).  It was because of this unconditional love Brontë had for Branwell that she was able to create a villain such as Heathcliff, a character too unnaturally cruel for some, but redeemed as a sort of Byronic hero for others. 
Heathcliff cares for nothing else other than a woman who left him for money and security.  As long as he lives without her he will suffer bitterly, poisoning everyone else around him in the process.  Heathcliff is ultimately found redeemable by many readers because of this unconditional love for Catherine, the woman he literally could not live without. 
Branwell, too, agonized over the woman he could not have and “Emily did draw upon her experience of her brother's suffering” (Robinson, 161).  In a letter that Branwell wrote about his ex-lover, he stated that his “own life without her will be hell. What can the so-called love of her wretched sickly husband be to her compared with [his]” (Robinson, 162)? Bronte reworks this statement deftly for Heathcliff, who says, “…existence, after losing her, would be hell,” and then, speaking of Catherine’s husband, Edgar, Heathcliff goes on, “…if he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years, as I could in a day” (Bronte, 141). 
Through further acts of displacement, Emily also creates the character of Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine’s brother, who likewise succumbs to severe alcoholism when he loses the woman he loves and, like Branwell, “died true to his character, drunk as a lord” (Bronte, 169).  Heathcliff’s son, Linton, could also be seen as a symbolic substitution who, like Branwell, was a small and sickly fellow who spent much of his time whining and trying to manipulate others with his ailments. 
Bronte’s whole life seemed to be devoted to her brother, and when he died she grew “thin and pale and [said] nothing” (Robinson, 222).  After Branwell’s funeral, Emily, who thrived in nature and who loved the moors as if they were a cherished friend, “never went out of doors” again (Robinson, 222).  All of the passion she witnessed, the emotional wreckage her brother became, the tragedies she lived through – these are the things that fueled Wuthering Heights, “not her inexperience, but rather her experience, limited and perverse, indeed, and specialized by a most singular temperament, yet close and very real” (Robinson, 157). 
There is not a whole lot known about Emily Bronte and the solitary life she led on those wild Yorkshire moors.  What is available – the countless accessible essays, biographies about Emily and her family and our own close reading of Wuthering Heights with a psychoanalytical perspective – enables us to extrapolate enough information to understand that not only was Emily’s life clearly affected by her brother, but she was also a thoughtful and very interesting human being. 
Her sister, Charlotte, claims, in one of her disclaimers about Emily and Wuthering Heights, that she “had no worldly wisdom,” but she also states that inside “lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero” (C. Bronte, 20).  These are character traits that gleam like lightning through the personalities of the deplorable and degraded human beings Emily created for Wuthering Heights, a novel so rich and powerful that, in spite of its moral ambiguity, by its very nature it must announce the utterly capable, unconditionally loving and inspired mind of the woman who wrote it.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte.  “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:  Wuthering Heights.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.  Print. 
Brontë, Emily.  Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:  Wuthering Heights.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.  Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M. “Looking Oppositely:  Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell.”  Wuthering Heights:  A Norton Critical Edition:  London:  W.H. Norton & Company Ltd., 2003.  Print.           
Murfin, Ross C.  “A Critical History of Wuthering Heights.”  Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:  Wuthering Heights.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.  Print. 
Robinson, A. Mary F. Emily Bronte. London:  W.H. Allen and Co., 1883.  Print.