Saturday, April 21, 2012

Leave it to the French to freak people out.

            Many historians believe the Armory Show held in 1913 to be a major catalyst in the beginning of American Modernism, and when looking over the various paintings and sculptures exhibited, it is easy to see why.  The collection of art displayed in the Armory Show was radically different than much of the art that came before it.  The most radical aspect of Modernism at the time was, perhaps, its departure from realism into a new, abstract world of expression where artists were free to explore and express their new found feelings of alienation and fragmentation brought on by the industrial revolution.
            The best way to look at the Armory show in terms of Modernism is to examine first its most controversial paintings, in this case French Cubism, in particular the work of Marcel Duchamp titled Nude Descending a Staircase.  It seems this painting was the center of much controversy at the 1913 Armory Show; leave it to the French to freak people out.  The controversy seemed to stem out of the rather obvious reaction that the painting looks absolutely nothing at all like its title, and does not really resemble anything at all for that matter.  The painting is just an amalgamation of abstract angular shapes, assembled in a rather mechanical and violent way.  Before this time painters were expected to mimic reality, and paintings themselves were meant to be lifelike.  This collection of art marked the beginning of Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, and a whole series of “isms” that broke away from the early modern style of "realistic" paining.
            Another influential French painter highlighted in the Armory Show was Matisse.  Matisse, although similar to Duchamp, was also very different.  Both artists broke away from realism but in very different ways.  While artists like Duchamp and Picabia represented the human body by dividing it into intersecting lines and planes, Matisse represented the human body by simplifying it into what was considered crude, childlike, and even monstrous forms.  Again, what makes Matisse distinctly modern was his revolt against realism, and his depiction of reality in an entirely new and challenging way, one that represented the disillusionment of that time.
            The final, and perhaps the most important, artist I would like to highlight from the Armory Show is Vincent Van Gogh. Although Van Gogh was already well known in Europe, he was fairly unknown in America at the time.  This show brought Van Gogh into the American public eye, further spreading his influence on Modernism.  While he is generally not considered a modernist painter, his impact and influence on Modernism was so profound that he cannot go unmentioned in a discussion of Modernism.  It was Van Gogh’s incredible, bold use of color, his rough emotional honesty, and the abstract surreal nature of his paintings that made him radical in his time.  This combination of radical honesty and the bravery to break away from cultural norms and artistic convention really lies at the heart of Modernism and was to me what defined the Armory Show.    

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Four Notions of Freedom

Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then….I contradict myself; / I am large….I contain multitudes.”

This is one of my favorite Whitman lines; it really sums up his view of freedom for me.  To me, the line represents, as I mentioned in my previous blog, Whitman’s freedom from himself.  In saying “Very well then….I contradict myself” I feel he is saying that in the end, he is even free from his own limiting self image, he is even free from himself.  And seeing as how the poem is called Song of Myself, I think that is quite revolutionary.    

Dickinson: “They shut me up in Prose—”

I chose this line because even though it literally speaks of being shut up, or trapped, it defines freedom for Dickinson by defining for her what freedom is not.  In my eyes, Dickinson found freedom though writing poetry.  As an introvert and a secluded recluse, Dickinson was in many ways not free.  However, through writing, through the expression of her consciousness, she was able to find freedom.  This line, to me defines this notion of freedom. 

Emerson:  “Free even to the definition of freedom, "without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution."

I chose this quote because this, to me, is what separates Whitman and Emerson.  Emerson sought freedom from the past, freedom from the definitions of society, but in my eyes he still felt limited by the self.  Here he states that explicitly, for he implies that you might not be free from that which arises from your own constitution.  Whitman, on the other hand, sought freedom even from this. 

Douglass:  “I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced.”

This quote really defines the freedom Douglas found through owning his own labor, and being his own master.  Until this point, although he was physically free, his mind was still in the shackles of his past, still under the influence of slavery.  In the realization that he finally owned what he himself earned, he found freedom; at least he found as much freedom as life in those days could allow.   


From poem number 718, I have chosen the word Civility, from the line “For His Civility--”   I have chosen this as the richest word in the poem for a number of reasons.  I feel that it refers to Death, specifically the personification of death.  In the poem Dickinson describes herself meeting Death and riding with him in a carriage, passing a school and children, then fields, then a house, etc.  I chose the word Civility because I find her descriptions of Death rather profound.  In this poem, death is not something or someone to be feared, but rather a kind of ferryman that rides with her, side by side, through life.  She says he kindly stopped for her, and he describes him as having civility.  In this manner, Death is seen as corresponding to life, as something natural and not to be feared.  Death is described more as a civil guide who carries you from life as you recall childhood, and adulthood, as the poem says, toward Eternity.  Civility, to me, really encapsulates this poem,  mainly because it seems to sum up Dickinson's attitude towards Death.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dickinson and Death

Poem 712

Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The Carriage held but just Ourselves --
And Immortality.
We slowly drove -- He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility --
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --
Or rather -- He passed Us –

The most interesting thing I noticed in the poem, after looking back, is the relationship between Death and Children, and Death and Immortality, also, the personification of Death and Immortality, and the significance of riding with them to an unknown place.

Because I could not stop for Death –

What does she mean by stop for Death?
Why is Death capitalized ?
Eight Syllable line, Iambic Tetrameter
Because- question or statement?
Who is Death? Entity? Metaphor? Noun?

He kindly stopped for me--

Six syllable Iambic Trimeter
Is a Death a physical being capable of stopping?
Are they meeting somewhere?
Does she implying she will die?

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

Eight Syllable line, Iambic Tetrameter
Why are Carriage and Ourselves capitalized?
Why the dashes at the end of all the lines?
Is she traveling in the Carriage as she meets Death?
Is Carriage a reference to something biblical?
Does Ourselves imply a relationship with audience?

And Immortality.

Six syllable Iambic Trimeter
Again why the capitalization (common in Dickinson poems, almost one in every line)
Is Immortality being personified?
Dual relationship with Death?
Does this have spiritual implications?
Why a period at the end?
Rhymes with me from previous line

We slowly drove -- He knew no haste

Who is we?
Why the dash separating the clauses?
Is He referring to Death?
Eight Syllable line, Iambic Tetrameter
Does haste imply they are going somewhere?

And I had put away

Is I Dickenson?
Six syllable Iambic Trimeter

My labor and my leisure too,

Eight Syllable line, Iambic Tetrameter
Dual relationship of labor and leisure
What does she mean that she put her labor and leisure away?

For His Civility –

Six syllable Iambic Trimeter
Is His referring to Death?
Is Death Civil?
Why the capitalizations?
Could His refer to Christ/God?

We passed the School, where Children strove

Eight Syllable line, Iambic Tetrameter
Why the Capitals, are School/Children significant in their relation to Death?
Why is Death near a school and children?
Is Death riding with them?
First of three repetitions of “We passed the”

At Recess -- in the Ring –

Six syllable Iambic Trimeter
Imagery of children playing/childhood
Odd comparison with Death? Why contrast the two?
Why the dashes in the middle?

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

Eight Syllable line, Iambic Tetrameter
Second repetition of “We passed the”
Again why capitalize?
Can Grain Gaze?
Could this refer to something biblical? A Hymn?

We passed the Setting Sun –

Six syllable Iambic Trimeter
Third repetition of “We passed the”
Setting Sun creates vivid imagery paired with the image of fields of gazing grain
Where are they going?

Or rather -- He passed Us –

Six syllable Iambic Trimeter
Who passed Us?  The setting sun or death?
Is passing a metaphor for Immortality?
Why end with another six syllable line? Throws of the meter

Sunday, March 4, 2012


            Before comparing and contrasting the differences between Emerson, Whitman, and Douglass, I will say, outright, that the ultimate freedom each seeks is freedom of consciousness.  Each author, I believe, recognized very well that there is no other kind of true freedom.  Of course, physical freedom was an issue for Douglass; that goes without saying.  But if you examine Douglass’s slave narrative closely, it is quite obvious that true freedom for him was something mental, and that his physical freedom was did not lead to his emancipation.  Whitman and Emerson, on the other hand, were white.  So they were, of course, physically free.  They were, perhaps, not always well off, but this fact alone, to me, indicates that the freedom they defined was through consciousness. 
            Staring with Douglass, the most important theme of his freedom, was, as he puts it, the idea of being a slave in form, rather than a slave in fact.  The “form” represents the physical shackles of slavery.  The “fact” represents something much deeper.  The fact of slavery was the enslavement of consciousness, and the complex system of inhumanity used by slaveholders to morally and mentally keep African Americans enslaved.  These tactics are well described in Douglass’s slave narrative.  For example, the way the masters would give slaves those few days of freedom after Christmas, and then challenge them to get horribly drunk, just so they could impress upon them an ironic sense of equating freedom with being sick. 
For Douglass, true freedom was something inside.  This inner freedom, however, did not come about by purely inner means.  This inner freedom came, ironically, through labor.  All his life, Douglass never knew the rewards of his own labor; he never had a direct sense of what his labor was worth.  While working as a caulker on the docks, he, for the first time discovered this worth.  And it was through this discovery that he learned that true freedom for him was to keep what he earned, therefore becoming his own master.  Although this sense of owning one’s own labor involves the physical exchange of money, it was through this that Douglass became free in his mind.  It was only when he could work and earn a living for himself, that Douglass could finally be free, a slave neither in form, nor in fact.
            Emerson, on the other hand, sought mental freedom, not from one’s own limitations, but from the limitations of society, and from the limitations of the past.  Emerson believed that a scholar could not be free unless he or she (he back then) could cast off the bondages of what other men have done in the past.  He saw that imitation was a form of slavery, slavery to the ideas of others.  Freedom for Emerson came through authenticity, from being able to, in a sense, ignore the past, and be truly creative now.  He saw reliance upon books, reliance upon other people, as a hindrance to real creativity.  So, like Douglass, the freedom Emerson defined was one of consciousness, but still, that freedom was within the boundaries of society, because it sought the approval of society.  Why else would he give his speech at Cambridge?  Emerson desired to free scholars from the past, but he still wanted them to conform to societal rule.
            Whitman however, sought an entirely different form of freedom.  While there are many ways in which Whitman was everything Emerson dreamed of, there are many ways in which Whitman represented nothing that Emerson ever could have imagined.  To me, Whitman sought freedom from everything, most importantly, freedom from oneself.  In other words, Whitman knew that even if you become free in the eyes of others, if you are still limited by your own ideas, by your own mind, then you are not free.  Through his poetry, Whitman sought to leave everything behind, to become, in a way, empty.  And through this emptiness, he was filled with the universe.  He was free to become anyone, and in many ways, Song of Myself, was Whitman speaking for others by becoming them.  By celebrating himself, he was celebrating everyone.  He could celebrate himself because he was free from himself.  This kind of freedom went way beyond Emerson.  This kind of freedom was, and still is, dangerous.  Whitman represented a wild kind of spiritual freedom from society, from which Whitman stood on the outside, naked and undisguised, looking in.  I am blown away by Whitman every time I read him.  The kind of freedom he writes about is rare, it didn’t really exist then, and it hardly exists now.     

Friday, February 10, 2012

Emerson and the Freedom from the Known

“Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The most important theme I took away from Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar,” is the importance of discovering truth for ourselves, by ourselves, not by simply imitating those who came before us, but to stand on your own, as a light unto yourself.  That we must use the past, not as a crutch, but as inspiration and inspiration only.  For to imitate is regurgitate, and destroy all personal discovery and inquiry.  To come to a conclusion based on the past puts an end to your own curiosity and experimentation.  When one imitates, there is no searching, no inquiry that one must undergo because it is all done for you.  So, essentially this quote is about imitation versus authenticity.  Emerson rails against a certain kind of intellectual, the “bookworm” as we discussed in class, or, the person attached to literature as a kind of fetish.  The bookworm imitates what is read, idealizes it, but does not put it into practice.  The bookworm discovers nothing for themselves, they are stuck in the past, and nothing is new for them.  The “mind of the past” is another important theme of “The American Scholar.”  By this, Emerson is referring not only the wealth of literature, philosophy, and culture of the past, but the modern mind which is overshadowed and so crippled by these things.  No matter what we do, the great figures of the past, Shakespeare, Chaucer, among others, loom over the English writer, we must always live up to the standards of genius.  In order to do this, according to Emerson, we imitate genius, we emulate, we “Shakespearize,” but we ultimately have no genius for ourselves.  So the task of the true scholar is then, through a return to nature, a return to reality, to become free of the past and to seek to create for ourselves.  If the past has value, it is for inspiration, so that we may discover our own genius now.  This entire sentiment brings to mind a more modern day spiritual teacher name Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti once said, “We have all become good gramophone records.”  In other words, we all imitate, but few of us stand on our own.  So when Emerson says, “what one day I can do for myself, he is saying that in the end, you must discover the truth for yourself, only then should you accept it.