Friday, February 27, 2009

Letters from the Earth

Journal #16
Posted by Michael Fong
February 27, 2009
Mark Twain, "Letters from the Earth"

"For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal. He looks at nothing as we look at it, his sense of proportion is quite different from ours, and his sense of values is so widely divergent from ours, that with all our large intellectual powers it is not likely that even the most gifted among us would ever be quite able to understand it. For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and haas left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race-and of ours-sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!" (Mark Twain, "Letters from the Earth")

The above quote is taken from Letter II by Satan addressed to both St. Michaels and St. Peters back in heaven. Satan is basically saying that to him man is strange, and that one example of it would be man leaving out sexual intercourse in their imagined version of heaven, which is puzzling to Satan as immortals enjoy it so much that for humans not to exclude it from their imagined heaven is like a man not requesting for water in a perishing desert.

Personally, I think that Twain is in many ways a remarkably successful satirist. In Letters from the Earth, he relates his naked observations of the human instinct and nature through the eyes of Satan, and notes that how man seems to contradict with his own religion with their secret yearnings and desires. Is Twain saying that Christianity here is for hypocrites only, or is there something else to it? My own interpretation of this issue would be that Twain is saying (i) regardless upon the authenticity of Christianity itself, so far those who believe in it is not a representation of the principles and the preachings that are in the Bible and (ii) that even if they are (hypothetically), they would all be going against the "laws of nature" in resisting against their human desires. While the latter point may not be meant in any negative sort of sense, the former one is definitely mockery directed to those who practice religion, or at least seem to practice it, but deep down in their hearts do as their greed and desires tell them to.

How accurate Twain's depiction of religion in the modern society is! More than once in my life I have met upon friends who claim to be Christians but then act in a way which is certainly not the way of the Christian life. I am not in any way criticizing the religion itself, but it's just that what Twain mentioned is very true: that human desires often contradict with principles prescribed by religion. Not only it is limited to Christianity, I find that a similar case also could be made with Catholicism, Buddhism, and basically any sort of religion that could be found around the world. But then again, "to err is human", the man is not perfect. To judge man from the eyes of immortals or gods like Twain did with Letters from the Earth would yield nothing but further disappointment and a great deal of sighs. It's ironic how thin the line sometimes is between a self-proclaimed atheist and a self-proclaimed Christian.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Twain and Humour

Journal #15
Posted by Michael Fong
February 25, 2009
Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"

"Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeeed he did some quite sweet things with it...Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one." (Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences")

The above quote is from Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper, where he further relates Cooper's "gift" in the writing of fiction. Twain pretty much criticizes every aspect of the fiction with Cooper, ranging from the use of language to the lack of logic and attention to detail in the work of Fenimore Cooper.

While being perfectly aware of the fact that "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" is definitely not one of the most famous works that Mark Twain is remembered by (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer would probably claim that honor), allow me to say here that this essay is by far without question the most entertaining piece of literary criticism and one of the most enjoyable piece of literature I've read in this quarter. I know that with Huck Finn being the masterpiece of Mark Twain I should probably focus on that instead, but still I could not resist dedicating this journal entry to Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper (I assure you that comments on Huck Finn would appear in my in-class essay).

I often find that with literature written, say, over fifty or sixty years ago, humor intended for that period of time would always be lost when read by the modern reader. Partly this is due to the difference in social and historical context, and partly this is due to the style and the way humor is perceived at that time, but this had always been my general observation (and to some, maybe an ignorant one too). For example, in my other English literature class, we studied the mock-heroics, satires and various pieces written by Pope, Dryden, Johnson, etcetera. Some are intended to produce laughter, but is hard to laugh to nowadays, even with a decent knowledge of the historical background at that time.

I find that Twain's humor, on the other hand, has a certain timelessness in it. I could easily see Twain as a successful lecturer during his time, with his curly hairdo and bushy moustache, and I could easily see him in the modern 20th century as an entertaining stand-up comedian with his brand of humor. The quote above about the broken twig was one of the moments that cracked me up the most, but there were other passage in the essay, such as the one about "Cooper's Indians", the whole shooting contest with the Pathfinder, which sent me literally laughing in my seat. Of course, having never read Cooper, I cannot say that this essay does him justice but still this is undeniably a remarkably humorous approach to the genre of literary criticism. It is impressive how even a reader like me, who never knew Cooper and thus unable to relate to most of the criticism Twain made in his essay, could still laugh along most of the time when reading it. This is one of the moments when I wish I had been born earlier to be in the audience of one of Twain's lectures, just to experience and hear them delivered by Twain in person. The man is truly a funny person in nature. Cooper Indians, indeed!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Men and social status

February 19, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #14
Edith Wharton, "The Other Two"

"In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: 'Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily's father.' Waythorn flushed. 'Oh-' he stammered unconfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife's reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice's first husband was a brute." (Edith Wharton, "The Other Two")

In this quote, Waythorn meets, for the first time, her wife's first ex-husband (that manages to sound confusing even on paper...) Initially dismissing him as a "nobody", Waythorn then attempts to relate his wife's description of Haskett with the real person. Before actually meeting Haskett in the library, Waythorn notices the shabby hat and umbrella in the hall. While conversing with Haskett, Waythorn observes his "made-up attached with an elastic". He goes on and muses upon the question of why should this detail, as ridiculous as it seems, symbolize Haskett.

In my creative writing class last quarter, one of the key underlying message that my professor was trying to get across is "show, not tell". "The Other Two" reminds me of Hemingway (e.g., "Hills like White Elephants", "The Old Man and the Sea"...) in that they both execute the art of showing to perfection. In this case, the initial embarassment of Waythorn is represented by the "oh" followed by the dash. Waythorn's perception of Haskett's accessories (tie, umbrella, hat) shows that he is a man who likes to compare his social status with that of others. All of this is being subtly expressed without actually being said. As I know that this is actually easier said than done (believe me I have failed so many times in my creative writing class), I really admire Wharton's technique in this story.

The phenomenon of men comparing themselves to one another, however, is easily seen in the society, even nowadays. It may not be restricted to the case of husbands dealing with their wives' ex-husbands. Take a high school reunion as an example. Successful men are always careful to include the fact that they make a lot of money/have a beautiful wife/drives a sports car, to obtain the praise and recognition of others. It is funny how this always reminds me of dogs marking their territory; men, at least some of them nowadays, feel the impulse to show off and to make their mark to others as to where they stand in society. I also noticed that when men encounter other men that are lower than they are in either wealth or social class (those two usually go hand in hand with each other), they appear sympathetic, but deep down, most feel happy. When men encounter other men that are higher than they are in terms of social status, they appear glad for these men's achievements, but most hold much jealousy and envy in their hearts. Waythorn is no exception. This may very well be Wharton's subtle attempt to mock men in this aspect.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The "Innocence" of Americans

February 18, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #13
Henry James, "Daisy Miller: A Study"

"'Gracious me!' exclaimed Daisy. She looked again at Mr. Giovanelli, then she turned to Winterbourne. There was a little pink flush in her check; she was tremendously pretty. "Does Mr. Winterbourne think," she asked slowly, smiling, throwing back her head and glancing at him from head to foot, "that-to save my reputation-I ought to get into the carriage?' Winterbourne colored; for an instant he hesitated greatly. It seemed so strange to hear her speak that way of her 'reputation.' But he himself, in fact, must speak in accordance with gallantry. The finest gallantry, here, was simply to tell her the truth; and the truth, for Winterbourne, as the few indications I have been able to give have made him known to the reader, was that Daisy Miller should take Mrs. Walker's advice." (Henry James, "Daisy Miller: A Study")

The above quote takes place in James' "Daisy Miller" when Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker are desperately trying to convince Daisy that she should not accompany Mr. Giovanelli. They want to preserve her reputation, so to speak. Daisy ignores them, and proceeds to take her walk with Mr. Giovanelli.

Throughout the story, James seems to be siding with the perspective of Europeans: that Americans are loud, obstinate people who does not have the mental capacity to appreciate European culture. This could be seen from his portrayal of Randolph, Daisy's sister. But at the same time, I think that James is making an argument for the Americans too, in that they are "innocent". Daisy Miller is his alternate figure of Americans abroad. Her "innocence" is attributed, I think, to the fact that she is exposed for the first time to such social norms and from her view, restrictions. She has not been in the culture long enough to know what is perceived "right" and "wrong" by the society, and hence her refusal to accept the advice of Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker about the matter of walking with Mr. Giovanelli.

In a sense, I agree with James. The following example is something out of my own experience, in which the situation is pretty much similar. Since Hong Kong became a part of China again in 1997, tourists from mainland China increased greatly. All of a sudden, we have flocks of them taking photos at the Victoria Harbour, the Peak (both well-known tourist attractions), and many other places. They are extremely impolite people, I'm sorry to say. They know not how to queue up, they litter all over the place in public, and they are excruciatingly loud, even when talking to one another. Honestly, I must say that I did not like them at all. I then had the opportunity last year to visit China myself. My family and I went to Shanghai, a well-known city in China. Much to my surprise, the people appeared extremely civilized. They are polite, and a stark contrast with the tourists I see visiting Hong Kong. I was confused at that time, till I had the chance to leave the central "tourist area" and visit the genuine town areas of Shanghai. There, the people behaved in very much the same manner as the tourists in Hong Kong.

I began to realize that whenever one views another culture different, one is more prone to find faults rather than virtues. Like me, Mrs. Walker saw only the faults within Daisy, and want to correct them. But still, it must be realized that Daisy came from another culture, and that she is innocent of these so-called "faults" that she has. Similarly, the Chinese tourists, at least a portion of them, are accustomed to behave like this in their home country. Others may view them as loud and rude, but it is normal to them. The difference and contrast between two cultures is the main reason that Daisy is perceived as a common girl with no self respect.

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #12
Stephen Crane, "The Open Boat"

"In his childhood, the correspondent had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded it as important. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point. Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality-stern, mournful, and fine." (Stephen Crane, "The Open Boat")

Here, the correspondent is reminded of a verse that he read in his childhood, a verse about a soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers. He goes on to say that in a way he never fully understood the meaning of the text or the significance of the dying soldier till that moment when he is in the dingey with the other three men. He realizes then that scenes in the poem is coming alive, and that he is experiencing the stern, mournful, and fine actuality of it. He goes on to express that he was sorry for the dying soldier.

I think it is in the nature of humans to be less aware of the problems and sufferings of others unless they themselves are involved in it. To fully understand the scope of a certain type of suffering, one must experience it to know the full extent of its impact. Similarly in the story, the correspondent cannot relate to the dying soldier until he is stranded in a dingey with three other survivors from a shipwreck. This phenomenon can also be observed in the present society. While people are both concerned about poverty and global warming, the latter arguably gets relatively more attention as most people feel the immediate threat of global warming on them when compared to poverty. Global warming is an issue that directly relates to all people living in the four corners of the earth, while poverty is only limited to those in poor and undeveloped countries. It is unfair to say that people do not care about those who live in extreme poverty, but it could be observed, at least for me personally, that unless a certain problem concerns and affects an individual in a very direct way, he would pay less attention to it.

The later description of the village upon the shore in "The Open Boat" further drives home the point: the people on shore does not understand the problem and experience of the four men in the boat. They watch curiously at the boat in the distance, but fail to note of the fact that these four men are very near the brink of death, and needs rescuing. This may be Crane's way in saying that a problem that may be that of life and death to one might be virtually insignificant to others due to a difference in perspective and position. This made me think of a Chinese saying: "What seems like a gem to one is worthless in the eyes of others." It is interesting to observe the difference of views between people in different positions. The men on the boat are obviously fighting for their lives, and yet the people on the shore (along with those in the omnibus, remarkably similar to that of a touring bus nowadays) might think that the men are just fishing, or fooling around, or simply doesn't need help.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Theatre vs. Real Life

February 11, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #11
Stephen Crane, "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets"

"Evenings during the week he took her to see plays in which the brain-clutching heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her guardian, who is cruelly after her bonds, by the hero with the beautiful sentiments. The latter spent most of his time out at soak in pale-green snow storms, busy with a nickel-plated revolver, rescuing aged strangers from villains...To Maggie and the rest of the audience this was transcendental realism. Joy always within, and they, like the actor, inevitably without. Viewing it, they hugged themselves in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition." (Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets)

Here, Maggie is taken by Pete to see plays. She, like most of the audience, enjoyed it when the hero came and rescued the heroine, and fought of the villains. Whenever the hero was struggling, the audience responded with cries of encouragement; whenever the villain made his entrance, the audience jeered; and whenever anyone died, the audience mourned. From the text, the play is about a hero rising from poverty to wealth and triumph, in which he forgives his enemy and applauded by the public.

Maggie, as it seems, envisioned herself as the heroine. Was she being too naive? Under her situation, I do not think so. Being a girl raised from poverty in a family that is hardly caring nor loving to her, personally I think it is only natural for her to imagine a better future. The ending, in which both Pete and her mother abandons her, shows the tremendous ability of Stephen Crane to capture the ugliest, yet true side of human nature. Life is not like a play. Crane forces readers to recognize the truth, and I think that is why he is so highly regarded by others in American literature.

I myself think that once in a while, happy things do happen to those that need or deserve it. But in real life, rarely do Prince Charmings ride in with their magnificent steeds to rescue the heroine as they embrace each other in the sunset. And that is also why I think people, both in the past and present, enjoy inspirational plays and movies. People like to imagine themselves as the hero, or as the ones being rescued. They like to entertain the notion, the idea, that their lives would take a turn for the best eventually. They immerse themselves in the "transcendebtal realism". I am not, in any way, criticising them. In fact, I do that myself too. Who wouldn't want to be 007, handsome and attractive, fighting off villains single-handedly and have beautiful women around him? Who wouldn't want to be Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany's, in which Holly Golightly, the woman he loves, eventually accepts his love? It is in the nature of human beings to identify the things that are missing in their lives, the things that they want to have, or the people they want to be, with the characters in movies. I think Maggie, being always dependent on others, is the unfortunate victim of her own romanticism, a bit like Flora in "The Imported Bridegroom". They both got something, or rather, someone, that they think is ideal and suitable for them, when it turns out that their expectations and imaginations could not be realized in real life.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Squatter and the Don

February 5, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #10
Maria Amparo Ruiz De Burton, "The Squatter and the Don"

"'Speaking about cows, brings us at once to the object of this meeting,'-Don Mariano, still smiling, went on, saying: 'You know that I have lost many, and that it is natural I should wish to save those I have left. To do this, and yet not ask that you give up your claims, I have one or two propositions to make to you. The reason why you have taken up land here is because you want homes. You want to make money. Isn't that the reason? Money! money!'" (Ruiz, The Squatter and the Don Chapter V)

In Chapter V of Ruiz's The Squatter and the Don, Don Marliano attempts to negotiate with the squatters on the issue of land and how it is used. Don is losing a significant portion of cattle to the squatters; they are either killed or stolen by the squatters as no fences surround either the Don's cattle ranch nor the squatter's crop field. Don makes the proposition in that he will provided the squatters with cattle, and tries to persuade them to take up growing fruits, making wine, butter, and milk. The squatters, however, remain skeptical of the practicability of the proposal, promptly refused, and at the end of the chapter Don leaves and persuades them to think about the matter once more.

Throughout history, one can notice that at the center of most conflicts, it will be upon the issue of money. Of course, race still plays a big part, but at the end of the day, it is the money that does the talking. In this chapter, I think Ruiz did more than depicting the conflict at that time over land before the readers' eyes; she is presenting certain sides of human nature, the sides where greed and instincts come in. In this case, as I am not entirely familiar with this section of American history, still I think that what Don proposed is a very good idea, actually, it's a win-win situation for both parties.

I think the portrayal of the skepticism and distrust of the squatters is presented accurately, and although this story was written approximately a century ago, the situation between the don and the squatters could be seen even nowadays. We have countries, both strong and weak, negotiating with each other, trying to get the best possible profit for themselves. Sometime one cannot help but wonder if both parties agree on less and trust and cooperate with each other, the results may be even better. I could not help but think if the squatters agree with the Don's proposal, both them and the Don would have been rich soon enough, and satisfied as well. But then again, this brings us back to the issue of human nature. When it comes to one's own benefit, most of the times one becomes extremely distrustful when working with one another. As much as I would like to see harmony, peace, and cooperation exercised when the interests of two parties, countries or individuals likewise, converge and conflict, I realize that this only exists in a utopian society, and most probably could not be realized.

The story also led me to think upon the issue of sacrifice. Clearly, in an ideal trade, both parties have to get what they want, and should be satisfied by it. But what if it's impossible? What if one party has to suffer in order for a trade to be made? It is this mindset that is lacking now in both the story and the present day society, on top of lack of trust towards others. People are unwilling to sacrifice, or in other words, they want to get at least equal to others in a trade; they want everything to be fair. Ultimately, countries, governments now are struggling for the top position of a pile of bodies. Look, for example, at America's constant war in other countries. Iraq, Vietnam, Panama, Cuba, Mexico, Iran, Persian Gulf, and a lot more. Some say that maybe it's all about opening a McDonald's or selling a coke in the streets of Iraq, to expand the market of American enterprises and also, in the case of certain Middle-East countries, for the oil. It's one thing to read in a story of conflicts between two groups of people on land and money, but it's really quite frightful to see similar parallels now in the society, aggravated and expanded to ten times the scale.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Preserving the White Heron

February 4, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #9
Sarah Orne Jewett, "A White Heron"

"No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird's sake? The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heroon's secret and give its life away." (Sarah Orne Jewett, The White Heron)

In "The White Heron", Sylvia eventually learns the location of the white herons resting grounds, and struggles in the end whether she should disclose this secret with the young hunter. Regardless of the immense money that the stranger promised her and pressure from her grandmother, she eventually refuses to yield, thus protecting the lives of the herons, at least for the moment.

The sentimentality within the story simply cannot be missed, and at least I myself felt strongly about it. There was once a great, beautiful park near where I lived back in Hong Kong. It was everything a child could have hoped for: trees with long, sweeping branches and small pond with fish and turtles in it. Families went there for picnics, local carnivals were held there, and I had two of my birthdays there too with my friends. It was a little strip of green paradise in the midst of the heavily industrialized town in where I came from. If one is familiar with Hong Kong though, one would know that it is terribly small, and unfortunately, one day the government announced that the park would have to be removed in order to make way for buildings and a brand new railway system.

Yes, there were protests and people fought to preserve the park, to preserve the white heron, so to speak. And yet, similar to Sylvia in the story, it is easier said than done. I remember the day when the bulldozers came in, when the trees were cut down methodically one by one, and when foul-smelling cement was poured over the barren land after the grass had been mowed. Some time later, a brand new train station stood in place, and from my window I could see it clearly. Of course I was sad, but then after time I find one actually forgets the sadness. There were moments when I would stare blankly outside the window before realizing that the park used to be there, and then I struggle to remember it.

I think Sarah Orne Jewett didn't want that to happen. She wanted to take a picture of her life, the details, everything that mattered to her before they changed. The white heron is the caricature of everything she hold dear, and like Sylvia in the story, she only wishes to record the secret, to learn the secret, but never to disclose it. There is a strong sense of passage of time that struck a similar chord in me. I suppose it may be a little bit cliche, but the old, popular saying "Times change, people change" always prove to be true. One might never know when the white heron is going to be hunted down, or when the bulldozers are going to come and kill off a park. The best that one can do, I think, is to do what Jewett did in "The White Heron": record everything and try to etch it out as deeply as possible into memory, so that even when things change, one can always go back and relish upon the memories of the past.