12 Winters Blog

Ulysses, African-American Authors, et al.

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 16, 2010

I continue to make my way through Ulysses.  This morning I finished reading episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis.”  It was especially meaningful to me for several reasons.  It’s a highly literary episode, as the characters, especially Stephen Dedalus and the poet A. E., discuss Shakespeare and, in particular, their various theories about Hamlet (and Hamlet and king Hamlet).  Before reading Ulysses, I had not seen the parallels between Homer’s Odyssey — a text that I’ve taught for years — and Hamlet, a text that I’ve taught but it’s been awhile. Both, for instance, are very much concerned with the absent father (Odysseus and king Hamlet), and in both the returned father spurs them to violence against intruders to their home (the suitors and Claudius).  The bipolarity of faithful Penelope versus faithless Gertrude is interesting, too.

Perhaps the most intriguing notion to come out of my reading of episode nine, however, is the idea that Joyce was exploring the dichotomy between Aristotle’s rationalism (represented by the cliff-dwelling Scylla) and Plato’s more organic idealism (the maelstrom Charybdis).  I’ve been teaching and studying the Odyssey for years, but I’ve never thought of Odysseus as having to navigate between these philosophical poles — and the dangers associated with sailing too closely to one or the other.  We can see this metaphor played out in our everyday lives.  In education, for example, it seems that the Aristotelean has run amok with an overemphasis on standardized testing (crystallized in the politically named “No Child Left Behind” legislation) to the detriment of the more flexible and organic pedagogies, associated in this paradigm with the Platonic.  That is, President Bush and the architects of NCLB wanted to treat students as if they were software that could be tweaked into superior performance — and dismissing the complexly organic nature of complex human organisms.  Standardized testing has its place in education, but we mustn’t sail too closely to the rocks; a more moderate course is needed.

I’ve also been (re-)reading some slave narratives as I’m currently teaching one of my favorite courses at the college, Introduction to African-American Authors.  I’ve taught it several times over the last four or five years, but I overhauled the syllabus, placing greater emphasis on the early slave narratives (Equiano, Prince, Douglass, and Jacobs), and also on the Harlem Renaissance.  Regarding the latter, this new emphasis has allowed the poetry of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes into the reading list, as well as the novella The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman.  For the conclusion of the course, I’ve also switched out Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) for The Bluest Eye (1970).  Of course, in revamping the syllabus the age-old problem has manifested itself:  for everything the syllabus giveth, it must taketh something else away.  In this case, I’ve lost some writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (and Walker’s concept of “womanism” as opposed to feminism).  These are great losses to be sure.  I’ll have to evaluate this incarnation of the course once we finish in mid-June.

I continue to work on The Authoress and am very pleased with how it’s taking shape.  I have a more solid sense of the ending, but it remains many, many words away, and I’m deliberately avoiding marrying myself to the ending as I envision it now — I want the narrative to have the autonomy to assert its own wishes and needs as we go along.  The fine folks at Punkin House Press are getting things in order.  I still haven’t been contacted by an editor there regarding Men of Winter, but it will no doubt happen soon.  Their plate is mighty full, to put it mildly.  Speaking of autonomy, PHP’s philosophy is to let writers have their own space to create and to promote themselves.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this noble philosophy, but, on the other, some writers could probably use a bit more guidance when it comes to presenting themselves to the world.  I can offer no citation, but I’ve heard that when Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat”) would send his work to his publisher, the junior editors would draw straws to see who had to edit his writing, which was filled with misspellings and ungrammatical musings.  Creativity — even if a sort of genius creativity — does not necessarily make one a master of the English language, which is why the gods invented editors.

And speaking of unmasterful endeavors, I continue to tinker with tedmorrissey.com — but there probably isn’t a lot more to do until Men of Winter gets closer to an actual release date.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: