Monday, December 7, 2009

The Creation Story

Michael Fong
Journal #21 The First Americans
December 7, 2009

"When he [the good mind] had made the universe he was in doubt respecting some being to possess the Great Island; and he formed two images of the dust of the ground in his own likeness, male and female, and by his breathing into their nostrils he gave them the living souls, and named them Ea-gwe-howe, i.e., a real people; and he gave the Great Island all the animals of game for their maintenance and he appointed thunder to water the earth by frequent rains, agreeable of the nature of the system; after this the Island became fruitful and vegetation afforded the animals subsistence." (The Iroquois Creation Story 20)

"Though David Cusick was one of the first Iroquois to record the oral literature of his nation in the alphabetic writing of Western civilization, contemporary Iroquois do not necessarily receive his work with praise. For instance, Seneca-Wyandot scholar Barbara A. Mann points out that Cusick inserted missionary interpretations of Iroquois creation stories into the text of his Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations." (From Finding a place for David Cusick in Native American literary history - Susan Kalter)

The above quote is from David Cusick's rendition of the Iroquois Creation Story at the part where the "good mind" creates humans, and the world as we know it to be. It also relates how the "good mind" gave rein to the humans to have control over the world that he created.

I was struck initially by the marked similarities between the Iroquois Creation Story and the Genesis of the Bible. The parallels are so unmistakable that passages between the two could be easily interchanged. God breathes upon Adam to give him life; the "good mind" does that too. God gave humans free rein of the earth and its living things; again the "good mind" did the very same thing. Even the fall of mankind is subtly hinted in the later parts of the story, where the "evil mind" was deemed to be responsible for the creation of reptiles.

The question remains now is that whether David Cusick, as suggested by Susan Kalter, inserted Christian interpretations of the myth and presented it to us modern readers in that fashion. Such undertakings are not completely of in history. For instance, there was a similar issue with Beowulf, where messages with Christianity connotations were inserted throughout the poem to the point that some question whether the poem was constructed by more than a single poet, or whether it was modified later by other individuals with the agenda to spread Christianity. It would be indeed be interesting to obtain the copy of the original myth for comparison to see how Cusick made modifications, if any, to the contents.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Christopher Columbus

Michael Fong
Journal #20 Christopher Columbus
December 1, 2009

"I came to serve at the age of twenty-eight years, and now I have not a hair on my body that is not gray, and my body is infirm, and whatever remained to me from those years of service has been spent and taken away from me and sold, and from my brothers, down to my very coat, without my being heard or seen, to my great dishonor. It must be believed that this was not done by your royal command...I did not sail upon this voyage to gain honor or wealth; this is certain, for already all hope of that was dead. I came to Your Highnesses with true devotion and with ready zeal, and I do not lie." (Columbus 34-35)

"So Columbus said, somebody show me the sunset and somebody did and he set sail for it,
And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it,
And the fetters gave him welts,
And they named America after somebody else." (Ogden Nash - Wikiquote)

In an attempt to clear his name and restore his reputation, Columbus wrote the letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, seeking pardon from the charges made against him at the time. He was ultimately successful, as Ferdinand went forth with the pardon, as the royal couple restored Columbus subsequently with his wealth as well as freedom.

The difference between this particular letter to Ferdinand and Isabella could not have been more different with the letter to Luis de Santangel regarding the first voyage. Every phrase and every word used in the letter all point to the desperation that Columbus held when he was writing it. I myself was brought up with the idea that Columbus was the virtuous and fearless voyager who discovered America, so to be brought to face the darker side of Columbus was, at first, extremely strange to me.

Nash's quote had a tone of pity and defense for Columbus, as he lamented the fate that Columbus was met with, a fate that he took to be unfair given the immense significance of the discovery that Columbus made. I beg to differ. One should always judge an individual on every episode of his life, and not just selective moments. What about Columbus' atrocities in the West Indies? What about the violent bloodshed and torture that he put to use during his brief stint as governor? Although those charges were never proven, it casts doubt and shadow over Columbus' character. This much could be said though, that we should never herald Columbus as the perfect, moral voyager as history books still present to our generation nowadays.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Puritans: the Chosen People?

Michael Fong
Journal #19 William Bradford
November 24, 2009

"Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies, and give them delivernce; and by His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them were either hurt, or hit, though their arrows came close by them, and on every side them, and sundry of their coats, which hung up in the barricado, were shot through and through. Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of their arrows, and sent them into England afterwards by the master of the ship, and called that place the 'First Encounter.'" (Bradford 119)

"The English in which it is written is that of the English Bible, or perhaps we should rather say the more popular language of the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' It is a language which Bradford uses with great effect." (G. Cuthbert Blaxland. "Mayflower" Essays on The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers. Ward & Downey Ltd., 1896)

Bradford records the encounter between the Puritan colonists and the Indians. Victory belonged to the colonists, and Bradford credited it to the workings of God. The protection of the Puritan colonnists from the arrows that the Indians fired was also said to be an act of God.

Blaxland categorized Bradford's language as that of the Bible, and in some ways, it is remarkably similar to the Old Testament. In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, led by Moses to escape from the grip of the Pharaoh, underwent a similar journey to the promised land. The parallels are unmistakable; in Bradford's work, the theme of the Puritan colonists being on a divine journey could be observed. What is more interesting though is how Bradford fashioned the colonists. He included a reference of God in no less than nine occasions, and in each of the cases, God is said to be the direct cause of either the curse upon the enemies, or the success of the colonists themself. They saw themselves, in essence, as the Israelites, the chosen people. When mana rained from the Heavens, the Israelites rejoiced and knelt to thank God; similarly when Indian arrows spared the colonists, they took it as a form of God's protection.

However, the Puritan colonists, in my opinion, displayed the unfavorable traits of so many other groups of people before them who believed God was on their side and that they were chosen. The British, for instance, did the same thing with Indians as the Puritan colonists did with the Native Indians. Their religious fervor immediately led them to view other races as inferior and in need of enlightenment. Such mindset and mentality eventually sowed the seeds of slavery. The colonists adherence to the Old Testament blinded them in the virtues and qualities prescribed by Christianity. "Love thy neighbor"; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Bible could be interpreted in a great many different ways; it appeared that the Puritan colonists had their own separate interpretation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Anne Bradstreet

Michael Fong
Journal #18 Anne Bradstreet
November 19, 2009

"If ever two were one, then surely we. / If ever man were loved by wife, then thee; / If ever wife was happy in a man, / Compare with me, ye women, if you can. / I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold / Or all the riches that the East doth hold. / Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense. / My love is such that rivers cannot quench, / Thy love is such I can no way repay, / The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray. / Then while we live, in love let's so persevere / That when we live no more, we may live ever." (Bradstreet 206)

"A number of love poems written for her devoted husband, Simon Bradstreet—a busy colonial official often away from home—reveal a healthy sensuality and suggest that, although she was a Puritan, she was not puritanical." (Anne Bradstreet: An Overview. Thomas F O'Donnell)

In Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband", she expresses her affection and love towards her husband. The theme of unity and eternal love could be observed in the poem, as well as the greatness of their relationship.

Writing in the age of Puritans, Bradstreet echoes one of the most famous Renaissance poets of all time in this particular poem, John Donne: "My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears...If our two loves be one, or thou and I / Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die". The language and tone is so alike that I would go as far as saying that this could definitely pass as a love poem written in the Renaissance by a man, were the genders be inversed. In "The Good Morrow" (the quoted excerpt above by John Donne), Donne incorporates the idea of mutual and everlasting love. O'Donnell mentioned that although Bradstreet was a Puritan, she was not puritanical, and surely this love poem to her husband is a clear example of such notion.

The equality and mutuality of the love expressed in the poem also could be interpreted as Bradstreet's perspective on femininity and gender. As opposed to the traditional, uptight, housekeeping wife, Bradstreet chose to profess her love in a direct manner, which was unorthodox for women at the time. I think, in a way, this is why Bradstreet was so popular within Puritans. True, they held to their beliefs with fervor and passion, but subconsciously desires and love, as described for instance in this poem, was repressed within their minds. Bradstreet echoes such ideas and thoughts, and as a result the Puritans at the time could, at a certain level, relate to what she was saying her poetry.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Michael Fong
Journal #17 Jonathan Edwards
November 17, 2009

"The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up." (Edwards 430)

"Never was there a happier combination of great power with great piety." (THOMAS CHALMERS, quoted by G. D. Henderson in Jonathan Edwards and Scotland, The Evangelical Quarterly, January 1944)

Upon his detailed elaboration on the workings of God and how He punishes the wicked, Edwards shifts the tone of his sermon. The second part of it starts with the above quote, focusing largely on converting non-believers into Christians, and those who were already Christians into more devout believers. The message of rebirth and redeeming oneself is dominant.

True, Edwards is a stout and devout Christian (to say the least), but he also possesses the power, as Chalmers put it, to impress his audience with his message. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" invokes the sense of fear. Not only did it invoke fear, but it extends the fear to the realms of the unknown, that is, one would never know when God will strike, and that every sinner is essentially at the hands of a God, a God who will act according to his pleasure. We all have heard sermons on how God is the Almighty and that sinners should repent for their sins, but to put the message in such a powerful way and to instill such emotion within his audience (one could but imagine how the audience reacted to Edwards' sermon) is a work of art.

The feeling that I usually get from Christianity is that to some extent certain messages are sugar coated. We believe in Christ, we are saved from hell and doom. We admit to our sins and pray for forgiveness, we shall be granted that provided that we are sincere. Edwards' approach is unique; he infuses both the anger of God and the terrible consequences should we follow the path of evil, and present us with the one and only way to escape from Hell. His message is direct and not dressed up in fancy rhetoric. The difference in being moved by religion and comprehending religious ideas, according to Edwards, is the difference between reading the word fire and actually being burned. In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", he has succeeded, in a way, in lighting a fire on all of our backsides.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Declaration of Independence

Michael Fong
Jouornal #16 Thomas Jefferson
November 12, 2009

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain...And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another." (Jefferson 655)

"Nothing can be more absurd than the cavil that the Declaration contains known and not new truths. The object was to assert, not to discover truths, and to make them the basis of the Revolutionary act." (Letter to Thomas Jefferson by James Madison on September 6, 1823)

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson goes on an elaborate attack on the British Empire and King George in particular, citing his violation to the rights of life and his lust for violence as well as war for his own greed as crimes and sins. This passage was ultimately dropped from the Declaration of Independence.

Oppression is, throughout history, the fundamental root cause of most revolutions across the world. Whether it is the Roman slave rebellion led by gladiator Spartacus, or the English Revolution in the wake of the execution of Charles I, or the American Revolution, it could be seen that it is oppression that drives people to revolt and to rebel. It is within human nature, and indeed the nature of every other living organism, to push back when cornered, to attack when too much pressure and force is delivered. For Jefferson to stand up against the British rule, and to construct the document that influenced the United States for years to come is, in itself, a feat that cannot be easily matched within the history of this country.
Yet, as we shower Jefferson with respect and pride the Declaration of Independence as the ideal of America, we must also look at this country and her place in the world as of now. Isn't the United States edging closer and closer to what Britain did? Wars are being waged and still the agenda is unclear. Other countries are constantly forced to the brink by America, either by the strong hand of economical coercion or by simple intimidation of power. Jefferson claimed it as a right and duty to go against tyrannical powers in situations where revolution is deemed necessary. With the actions of America within the past fifty years, is she inching closer and closer to that boundary when other countries would rise up and revolt against her? One could but only hope the United States would not follow the path in which Britain ventured through three centuries ago. If the object is to assert truths within the Declaration, let us make sure that this country would adhere to them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Common Sense

Michael Fong
Journal #15 Thomas Paine
November 10, 2009

"Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mitress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain...Asia and Africa have long expelled her [Freedom]. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind." (Paine 636-637)

"History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine." (John Adams - Wikipedia)

In the quote above, Thomas Paine goes in an outright attack towards the British empire as a whole, accusing her of wrongdoings comparable to that of rape and murder. He ends by going on a ferocious lament on the gradual extinction of freedom in every other continent, thus singling out America as the "last free land"; the ultimate sanctuary for freedom, human rights, and peace.

Paine may not employ fancy rhetoric in his writing, but his "plain" style of writing is not, in any sense, a display of weakness in his arguments; rather, it cloaks the ingenuity
and brilliance of them. His mode of argument is so intricate and elaborate that the title "Common Sense" of his work seems all but a subtle suggestion of irony. I could not help but be reminded of yet another speech given by Mark Antony shortly after the death of Julius Caesar. Through the course of one single speech, Antony successfully turned the crowd from supporting and agreeing with the course of action of the assassins to a raging mob determined to avenge Caesar's death. The Roman public was thus turned to revolution against Brutus and his fellow statesmen, which in turn marked a significant change of political climate within the Roman Empire. "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears", began Antony with his speech, and what follows completely changed the mindset of the Romans and their perception of Julius Caesar. Isn't Paine doing a similar thing? Is he not declaring, "Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears", and designing within his arguments to refute and counter Britain? In "Common Sense", Paine's agenda is clear: to rally the colonies into joining the revolution against Britain, and through the course of his work he succeeded. His infusion of direct appeal of emotion to the public along with his clear, concise arguments (as opposed to the British mode of oratory, which tends towards the archaic and dense nature) indeed was a pioneer to the politics of America to this very day.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Poet Laureate of African Americans

Michael Fong
Journal #14 Phillis Wheatley
November 5, 2009

"Great Maro's strain in heav'nly numbers flows, / The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows. / O could I rival thine and Virgil's page, / Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage; / Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn, / And the same ardors in my soul should burn: / Then should my song in bolder notes arise, / And all my numbers pleasingly surprize; / But here I sit, and mourn a grov'ling mind, / That fain would mount, and ride upon the wind." (Wheatley 754)

"The poems written by this young negro [Phillis Wheatley in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral] bear no endemial marks of solar fire or spirit. They are merely imitative; and, indeed, most of those people have a turn for imitation, though they have little or none for invention...She has written many good lines, and now and then one of superior character has dropped from her pen; as in the Epistle to [Maecenus]" (The Monthly Review 49 [Dec. 1773] - Taken from Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800)

The above quote is taken from Wheatley's poem "To Maecenas". Wheatley muses about the Greek classics, and imagines herself as a poet with skill comparable to the great Virgil. She acknowledges, however, that this is only wishful thinking, and that she would, instead, "ride upon the wind".

The reviews upon this particular poem, as could be seen above in the second quote, were largely negative at that time. People accused Wheatley of imitation and mere copying, and at the same time ironically though, they grudgingly admit, like the quote above, that Wheatley did write good lines "from time to time". They fail to mention, for instance, that Wheatley's knowledge of the classics was far superior than the average white individual. They also conveniently overlook the fact that Wheatley was writing in the high style of poetry by adhering to British traditions. Was it not Aristotle who elaborated on the theory of mimesis in Poetics that it is within human nature to align and respond to literature in a subconscious mimetic way? Wheatley's infusion of the classics with her own thematic messages in her poetry could not be doubted, in any way, as being insignificant and mere imitation of older texts. If Wheatley was born a white man she would have been hailed as one of the greatest poet of her time. Not only did slavery tighten its cold-hard steel chains upon the throats of the negroes, but it also inhibits prodigies such as Wheatley in being recognized.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Narrative of the Life

Michael Fong
Journal #13 Olaudah Equiano
November 3, 2009

"They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate; but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute." (Equiano 684)

"But even though it is replete with textual enigmas, Equiano's autobiography cannot conceivably be marginalized within the canon of slave narratives." (Ide Corley - The Subject of Abolitionist Rhetoric)

At this point, Equiano is on board of the slave ship, and had been contemplating a possible escape by jumping over the side into the water. Upon knowing that he was going to be sent to work for the white people, Equiano at first appears relieved, but then is worried about the savagery and brutality that his future potential white masters displayed.

We have so far read sufficient slave narratives and documents to at least grasp, if not understand, the appalling and deformed nature of slavery. How incredibly pathetic it is for the white people to not see the actions in which they were committing as outright savagery, but instead accuse the colored peopleas being animals? Such contrast is exceedingly ironic indeed.

I remember seeing an artistic portrayal of the moment when the British first embarked upon the soils of the New World. A naked woman is seen lying on a hammock, while a man in the attire of a soldier approaches. The New World is portrayed as a woman, helpless and seductive. In the history of mankind, the constant occurrence of one race/country raping and ravishing another is seen so often that one cannot but wonder if this is the nature of humanity. Equiano captures perfectly the feeling and emotion of deception that the Africans felt when being sold as slaves, and for this reason, I disagree with the notion that his Narrative of the Life as not being within the canon of slave narratives. The primary factor of slave narratives, for me personally, is always to put one in the shoes of the narrator and feel the emotions. It is a document of both the spiritual as well as physical hardships in which the system slavery imposes upon slaves. Is it that crucial whether Equiano fabricated his origins of birth or not? Is it really a key part in determining whether this is a slave narrative or mere fictional fantasy? I think not.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man

Michael Fong
Journal #12 William Apess
October 29. 2009

"By what you read, you may learn how deep your principles are. I should say they were skin-deep. I should not wonder if some of the most selfish and ignorant would spout a charge of their principles now and then at me. But I would ask: How are you to love your neighbors as yourself? Is it to cheat them? Is it to wrong them in anything? Now, to cheat them out of any of their rights is robbery. And I ask: Can you deny that you are not robbing the Indians daily, and many others?" (Apess 1057)

"Apess was singled out as the outside agitator responsible for misleading an otherwise well-contented group of Native Americans, and the white strategy focused on removing his influence." (Barry O'Connell - Native American Writers of the United States. Ed. Kenneth M. Roemer. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 175. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. From Literature Resource Center.)

In this excerpt from A Son of the Forest, Apess examines the hypocrisy of the white people; how they, while proclaiming themselves to be Christians, act without adhering to the Christian principles. He also criticizes how the white people view themselves as the "superior" race as opposed to other colored people.

"Kill the Indian, save the man." That was the slogan for the white people at that time, a slogan that justifies the assimilation and elimination of the Native Americans. Native Americans were viewed as uncivilized savages that needs to be taught. The overall consensus for the white people was that they were doing the Native Americans a favor. Apess was one of the lone fighters out there to try to preserve the Indian way of living and culture, and yet he was viewed as an "agitator" who causes panic and trouble out of nowhere. Is there a sadder fate for such a warrior of his race? Is it not shameful for the white people at that time to prescribe such a label on him, when the real wrongdoers and sinners were themselves?

Agess was not only fighting for the physical preservation of Native Americans. He wanted to preserve their culture, their way of living, which were both already on the precarious brink of total extinction due to the white people. This reminded me of Zitkala Sa and Sarah Winnemucca's autobiographies; both places tremendous emphasis on how the white people "kills" the Indian in spirit. Included in this journal entry is something I came across in a photography class. This is an old photo taken by a certain photographer; his job was to take photos of the Native Indians, especially young ones, before and after they attended school that the white people set up. True, they fashioned him into what a "gentleman" should look like, and yet such transformation is unbearable to watch. How much punishment and spiritual torture did this student endure before he was transformed into this appearance? He lost the use of his language, his native clothings, his touch with his culture and essence he became yet another victim of an evil machine designated to crush the Indian within every Native American. There is no Native American Problem, just as there is no Negro Problem. The only problem seems to lie solely with that of the white man.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rip Van Winkle

Michael Fong
Journal #11 Washington Irving
October 26, 2009

"Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy age when a man can do nothing with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench, at the inn door, and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times 'before the war.' It was some time before he could get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war-that the country had thrown off the yoke of old England-and that, instead of being a subject of his Majesty George the Third, he was now a free citizen of the United States." (Irving 964)

"'Irving is much over-rated', Poe wrote in 1838, 'and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer'. A critic for the New-York Mirror wrote: 'No man in the Republic of Letters has been more overrated than Mr. Washington Irving.'"

After spending twenty years in a deep slumber, Rip Van Winkle awakes to the realization that he had been asleep for two decades, instead of what he thought to be a mere night. He returns to the village, and is initially confused over the new surroundings. Eventually, he settles down once again, and gets used to the new America; at the same time he sheds off the notion that the country is still being ruled by a monarch.

It was last quarter, I think, when I mentioned that I once lived in an area in Hong Kong where there are trees growing around, and a big park near the neighborhood. Sadly, due to construction work and the expansion of transportation networks, the park, and ultimately the green wildlife began to disappear before my very eyes. While it may be very heart-rendering, the change never hit me in the face until I compared photos that I took in a similar location a few years before and after. Irving, in "Rip Van Winkle", is in essence doing the very same thing. By "abducting" a man from the time when Britain still ruled and then placing him in the beginning of the United States, he successfully captures the alienation and extreme shift in the structure of the government. For the people who went through this change personally, while they may be aware of such change, the fact that they were living in the moment makes a less impressive narrator than Rip, who missed entirely the whole changing process and only got to witness the start and end products.

Poe mentioned that Irving is overrated. Is he, though? True, he may be retelling a story that has already been created, but does that necessarily make Irving an overrated writer? Who else borrowed stories, reconstructed the elements, retold them, and eventually gained international and critical acclaim? None other than Shakespeare himself. The story of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is another version of an earlier story written by another writer eighty years before Shakespeare came up with the play. It was not original. But for Irving to retell the story with such eloquent style and to make it resonate with the historical context at that time is in itself an art.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Resistance to Civil Government

Michael Fong
Journal #10 Henry David Thoreau
October 22, 2009

"I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward...A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?" (Thoreau 1858)

"In reading Henry Thoreau's Journal, I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, & ventures on & performs tasks which I am forced to decline. In reading him, I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, & illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. 'Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, & saw youths leap, climb, & swing with a force unapproachable, — though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings & jumps." (Ralph Waldo Emerson - Wikiquote)

In Thoreau's famous essay "Resistance to Civil Government", he not only refutes the practical use of the mode of the government at that time, but also condemns it as the primary source of obstruction to the overall well-being of the society and its people. He then questions the purpose of man within the context of the government, whether the man is really a man, or merely a puppet, a tool, used for the betterment of the system itself.

Emerson's description of Thoreau's iron-clad strength is clearly shown in Thoreau's writing as well. He is indeed the extension of Emerson's idea; or simply put, Thoreau's writing is Emerson's theories in live action. Emerson stresses the importance of non-conformity and establishing one as an individual, not a mere cog or bolt in existence within a machine. Although Thoreau did not go against the concept of society and being as one, he did however expresses distaste towards the blind obedience and faith towards the government. In doing so, he argues, man will be reduced to mere pawns that exist only to serve a purpose. Such mode of government therefore is, inherently, a failure.

One could not help but shudder to observe the society nowadays; when the United States, close to a hundred and sixty years from the first publication of Thoreau's essay, is still at the moment fighting a seemingly purposeless war in Iraq. A war that not many seem to understand, but at the same time a war in which many deem to have a darker agenda. While the casualties mount on and more and more soldiers are sent overseas, are they fighting a war as individuals who believe in the war, or are they "moveable forts" and "magazines"? The chilling parallels between something that is written more than a century later with the political situation now is uncanny. There may be an Emerson somewhere at the present moment, but the world needs another Thoreau to pave and lead the way concrete actions and unwavering beliefs.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Philosopher of Modern Ages

Michael Fong
Journal #9 Ralph Waldo Emerson
October 20, 2009

"Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower, there is no more; in the leafless root, there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time." (Emerson 1172)

"His aunt called it [Self-Reliance] a 'strange medley of atheism and false independence'." (Wikipedia)

Emerson speaks his mind in his essay "Self-Reliance"; here, he urges man to speak more freely of their own minds, and not merely quote past words of the wise. The present, he argues, should be the time that man should live in, instead of being restricted and inhibited by the past.

Emerson may very well be the perfect melting pot of classic as well as modern age philosophy. His incorporation of classic philosophy could be seen in his discussion of divine Providence earlier on. Shades of Boethius' "A Consolation of Philosophy" could easily be observed in his discussion; both in the aspect of the divine order of things as well as the place of man in the plans of Providence. His arguments also carry with them a flavor of Plato himself, as he discusses the nature of man in terms of his virtue, his actions, and his soul.

At the same time, Emerson celebrates the nature of inconsistency as well as innovation. I think this is a bold and daring thought upon his part. When have philosophers of the past ever contradicted their own words and alter through different modes of thinking as time goes? Emerson's argument that inconsistency should not be condemned, but rather, commended, is a breath of fresh air.

Is this a really a medley of atheism and self-independence though, as Emerson's aunt describes it? I would say that the Christian undertones are radically different in terms of nature, but in essence the same ideal of Christianity still prevails. Emerson rejects the notion of learning "dead" religion, rather he describes religion as an organic matter that is ever-evolving, and cannot be taught. He also acknowledges a certain form of higher power, and God serves constantly as a figure of power and stability in this essay. His stance of refuting conformity, could be seen in a way as self-independence, but from another perspective it could also be seen as him encouraging people to be unique and different, in order to elevate man to a whole new level of unity. I myself find the mental requirement to read Emerson comparable to that of reading the works of classic philosophers and thinkers, and certainly within the complex labyrinth of arguments that Emerson laid down there is still much more to dwell upon. He is without doubt, one of the best philosophers of modern ages.

Thoughts after class today:

First of all, I must clarify my personal stance in which I had not the chance to do so in class today because of the limited time frame. I am not, in any sense, endorsing the notion that Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is entirely Boethian in nature. As Eduardo noted in class, I would say that it contains certain Boethian ideals, but it is not a complete imitation of the philosophy of Boethius. But then again, it also contained ideas reminiscent Plato, Confucius, and many others; at the same time, I agree that it too contains exclusively American ideals (this point itself cannot be refuted). I suppose the direction in which I conveyed to class today was that the Emerson borrowed his idea, or at least referred to it directly, from Boethius in his essay, which is not what I intended to express at all (probably that may account for the immediate excited conversation between Natalie and Eduardo at the other end of the classroom).

To say that Emerson's ideas and philosophies are directly linked to Boethius, or even the classics, is ignorant. What I intend to say, instead, is that Emerson may have reflected (most probably not to his intention) certain ideas and principles from a great many past authors, and at the same time incorporated such ideas into the writing of his own. The French writers, for instance,were an influence to him; would it be a stretch to claim that with the influence of the classics upon the Renaissance writers that Emerson subconsciously caught some of it as well? I suppose my point is that it is to some extent true to say what one writes reflect what one reads. To force a purely Boethian reading on Emerson is, as I have said, ridiculous; but to come up with cross interrelations between Emerson and the whole legion of writers, thinkers, and philosophers of the past provides, on the other hand, extremely valuable insights as well as inspirations.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Michael Fong
English 48A
Journal #8 Harriet Jacobs
October 15, 2009

"Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence? When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation, and say, 'Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord!' But when the ruthless hand of man strikes the blow, regardless of the misery he causes, it is hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will be youth. I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate." (Jacobs 1812)

"I have very little occasion to alter the language, which is wonderfully good..." (Lydia Maria Child on Harriet Jacobs)

Under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs recalls the early days of her slavery when she fell in love with a free born colored man. Although being deeply in love, at the same time she perceives the difficulty and the impracticability of such marriage between them due to her status as a slave. The dream of love and marriage never came true for her due to the tyrannical measures that Dr. Flint took against her.

Putting aside the physical hardships as well as torture that slaves had to go through, the mental torment in itself is already more than enough to drive one into a state of maddening despair. Slaves being treated as mere animals is evident in many autobiographical works of African Americans. Men are used as cattle to plow the fields, while women are paired up to "mate" with whomever the slave owner wishes to produce "offspring" to tend for his or her growing estate. The sheer outrageousness is frankly quite unbearable.

True, in terms of the literature Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is superbly written. True, the language, as Child puts it, is wonderfully good. Yet at the same time, while we, as modern readers, are blessed with such an eloquently written document that provides us with valuable insights of the past, I could not but ponder upon the saddening cause of such a piece of literature to be written. The words are not gushed upon paper due to the gentle urges and consolation of the Muse, nor are they inspired by divine intervention, nor are they the product of scenic surroundings; instead, they are the words spawned from the crack of cold, pitiless whips and empty stomachs. Is it not ironic and heart rending that beautiful literature has such despairing origins?

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Michael Fong
English 48A
Journal #7 Harriet Beecher Stowe
October 8, 2009

"A thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her child, and sprang down the steps towards it. The trader caught a full glimpse of her, just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throing himself from his horse, and calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after deer...Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap-impossible to anything but madness and despair; and Haley, Sam, and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it." (Stowe 1719)

"'Uncle Tom's Cabin' came from the heart rather than the head. It was an outburst of deep feeling, a cry in the darkness. The writer no more thought of style or literary excellence than the mother who rushes into the street and cries for help to save her children from a burning house thinks of the teachings of the rhetorician or the elocutionist. " - Charles Stowe in The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1889)

With Haley the slave trader hot in pursuit and finally discovering the location of Eliza, in an act of desperation she flings herself into the river and successfully crosses it with her baby by using the ice. The move separated Eliza from Haley. thus providing her with a temporary sanctuary on the other side of the river on the shore of the Ohio side.

The coldest of hearts would still surely have felt pangs of sorrow for Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin. To venture across thin ice in the face of death is virtually an impossible mission even for a single individual, let alone one carrying with her one of the most precious burden a woman ever could carry. The relation between prey and predator, the hunted and the hunter is extremely striking, and at the same time, bitter and depressing. Even to the normal hunter, to shoot a deer when its calf is by its side would surely strike a certain sense of guilt within the hunter. It could be seen that Haley, on top of obviously not regarding Eliza as a normal human being, also ignored the fact that she was a helpless parent with a child. To commit such act of violence requires much greed and evil to blind the eye; evidently slavery could have the means to drive an individual to such horrific ends.

Stowe, in my opinion, is one of the finest war photographers of slavery. Her words are snapshots of the state of slaves at that time, and she constantly places us again and again in the action, appealing to us, the readers, to join with her the escape of Eliza. We are asked to feel the tension and fear when Eliza runs away, the cold searing pain and blood when she crosses the river, and the despair and sorrow when she relates her sad past to Mr. and Mrs. Bird. It did came from the heart rather than the head, as Charles Stowe put it. There is no manipulative use of rhetoric, no secret underlying agenda, nothing but the stark naked truth of slavery staring at us right in the face. This is what made Uncle Tom's Cabin so powerful; it immortalizes the valiant struggle of slaves for freedom, and at the same time documents the painful history of America's past in which should not be forgotten.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Michael Fong
Journal #6 Frederick Douglass
October 13, 2009

"Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels...We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation." (Douglass 2125)

At one time Mr. Douglass was travelling in the state of Pennsylvania, and was forced, on account of his colour, to ride in the baggage-car, in spite of the fact that he had paid the same price for his passage that the other passengers had paid. When some of the white passengers went into the baggage-car to console Mr. Douglass, and one of them said to him: "I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner," Mr. Douglass straightened himself up on the box upon which he was sitting, and replied: "They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me..." (Booker T. Washington, Wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass notes in the appendix of his autobiography Narrative of the Life that he himself holds no grudge towards the religion Christianity itself. Rather, he detests his white masters in being hypocritical, and claims that they practice slaveholding religion. He then states the irony of the "Christian" white masters, thus showing the contradictions between the principles of the religion and the actions in which they were taking at that time against the slaves.

Religion has always been used as a powerful tool of control in history. Christianity, and the Bible in particular, are always molded to suit the intentions of invaders, aristocrats, or in the case of Douglass, slaveowners. The British practiced the very same thing during their period of colonization in the past, when they literally forced Indians to slavery while at the same time emphasizing a strong belief and adherence to Christianity. Douglass' experience speaks for itself: to break a slave both physical and mental tortures have to be put to use. It is brutal and at the same time pathetic to see how white slaveowners mutilate the intended good principles of Christianity in order to suit their evil deeds and doings.

"I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me." Was this what a majority of white people were doing at that time? In being hypocritical and cruel, but at the same time claiming themselves Christian, they degrade themselves as a result. It is the master, ironically, but not the slave, that was degraded. Sadly realization of such truth often proves to be slow in manifestation. Native Americans, the Aborigines, the cast a forlorn forecast on the future of mankind based on past histories could be said, in a way, logical. Douglass' statement is the universal truth and factual accusation to all of the groups of "masters" throughout history. Will the degradation ever cease? Will the masters get to realize their mistake that what they are doing is essentially dragging themselves in mud? The naive answer would be one could but only hope that such heinous acts of atrocities would not happen in the future. The answer based on reality, however, is much darker.