Reading “Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” as Sentimentalism

April 5, 2017

Reading any biographical information on Sui Sin Far (there is a good brief one in note 1 of the article I’m using), it would be fairly easy to make a connection between Far’s memoir-essay and Homi Bhabha’s theory on cultural hybridity. That is an option if you want to answer a theory question.

I decided to try to give a genre option about the literary tradition of Sentimentalism, using Min Hyoung Song’s article, “Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far”. Far offers that sentimentalism “is the name we give to the culture of private feelings made public, a process of making emotions into conspicuous display” (137).

But before Song explains what she wants to add with a sentimentalist reading of Far, she presents two popular debates within Asian-American literary studies. So alternatively, you can choose to use one of these debates to frame your essay and you can make a strong argument.

The two main debates Song presents are the Chin-Kingston debate and the Douglas-Tompkins debate. She draws a parallel between the two debates by claiming they both revolve around the popularity and commercial success of a text, and whether this is a negative or positive quality making it worthy of close reading.

Chin-Kingston debate:

Deals with a gendered versus a political reading. Song uses Frank Chin, an editor of a well-known anthology of Asian American literature, as one of the more vocal examples of critics making an a priori assumption of what being Asian-American means, and therefore which texts should be taught. This vision is largely masculine, heroic, and explicitly political in its resistance. In contrast, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston (whose popularity Song claims Chin takes issue with) deals with both ethnicity and gender in her work. Her work then, challenges this an underlying assumption that popular writers, especially dealing with female oppression, can’t qualify as successful resistance literature and therefore do not deserve prominence.

If you wanted to write critically about this debate (the majority of it is covered in the first two pages of the article) you would have to relate your text to the “uneasy legacy of pitting feminism against…‘ethnopolitical critique’” (135). You can look for examples of where sentimentalist writers (particularly female writers according to Song) either follow or challenge the Asian-American patriarchy that ascribes “desirable traits such as originality, daring physical courage, and creativity under the rubric of masculinity” (135).

For example, Far complicates this because she remembers as a young girl fantasizing about heroic deeds, and she attributes it to her Chinese heritage. However, she clearly follows the sentimentalist conventions when talking about her personal experiences or gives singular accounts of Asian-American women marrying white men. You can also add to this debate by choosing a male writer that seems to be writing in the sentimentalist tradition, to ask what qualifies as masculine or feminine (Junot Diaz or Ralph Ellison could work here. If anyone has read David Henry Hwang’s short play M.Butterfly, that could be really interesting in this debate).

Douglas-Tompkins debate:

Ann Douglas (whose definition of sentimentalism Song is using) sides against the genre because of its roots in “religious populism”, or the didacticism of sentimentalist texts trying to impart Christian values onto oppressed groups. She argues that “Sentimentalism…never exists except in tandem with failed political consciousness” (137). Again, like the Chin-Kingston debate, critics assume there is a divide between feminist and racial readings because the popularity of sentimental texts from the feminine perspective are regarded as distracting from and trivializing the racial concerns that require active resistance. Sui Sin Far’s writing is so highly debated because her writing doesn’t fit neatly into either category.

Jane Tompkins argues that if the popularity of a sentimentalist writers in the 19th century signals their being overly parochial, it’s a fault of the modern reader and not a shortcoming of the writer. Instead, Douglas suggests that their popularity signals their importance rather than deserving criticism.

 

Song departs slightly from these arguments, siding more with Tompkins, by focusing on the Christian roots of American sentimentalism. While she agrees that there’s reformism and therefore oppression implied, she says you can’t ignore the fact that a Christian education allows oppressed groups a way to navigate a culture they would otherwise not have a voice in (138 and note 3 on 148). If you want to focus on this part of the argument, you can possibly also use Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

 

Other texts that I think can best relate to this article, possibly under the sentimentalist genre, are Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fun Home, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, possibly some of Brooks’ poems. Also Bartleby (if looking at the morality of Christian values, or the apparent lack of feeling/attachment in Bartleby) and the previous suggestions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Invisible Man if examining masculinity.


Using Rob Nixon’s, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, for historical reading of Arundhuti Roy’s God of Small Things

April 3, 2017

“Slow violence” is the idea that violence (particularly environmental damage and the poor disproportionately hurt by this damage) which builds up incrementally is easier to ignore due to temporal diffusion. In the face of immediate economic gains, the violence and the victims are forgotten and essentially erased from collective memories. Because the damage is less visible than the spectacle of a cataclysmic disaster, Nixon suggests that slow violence only postpones an inevitable catastrophe that is accruing.

 

Some themes/examples in the book that relate to Nixon’s ideas. I would suggest choosing only one as plenty to talk about in a short essay.

Domestic abuse, post-traumatic stress (3 Nixon).

This can relate to the domestic abuse that Ammu sees between Pappachi and Mammachi. Also, the trauma that Estha experiences, and then both the twins.

 

Memory and memory loss due to temporal distance and abstraction (Nixon 41).

The twins’ separation and what this does to their psychic bond and their shared traumatic memory of seeing Velutha die. How he is forgotten among the “Love Laws” carried out in the History House.

There’s a disconnect between all these experiences (including between the abuse in each generation) like an active effort to forget or not see these events.

As children, their imagination allows for abstractions that distance them from the trauma (ie. Pretending non-existent Velutha’s twin brother died, or how their positive reaction to The Sound of Music movie lessened the blow of slowly understanding their inferiority to their half-white cousin Sophie Mol).

 

The difficulty is representing slow violence, and using narrative strategies to less the invisibility or temporal distances (2). Also, how “writer-activists” can expose injustices and help them stay relative in the face of growing speed with technology (42). Nixon actually quote’s Roy on the first page of his book, she’s known to be one such writer-activist.

 

Other texts that this novel can relate to:

The Buried Giant– topics of memory/“uneven memory loss” (Nixon 41). This can also work well with Bhabha and how to locate identity.

Sui Sin Far’s essay– hybrid identities (if you would like to use Bhabha instead). The twins identities are an obvious choice, but also Baby Kochamma can be examined for her Anglophilia, unrequited love for a pastor, her gardening habits, etc.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao– Nixon’s thoughts on the writer activist’s role (could fit a genre or historical context question).

Invisible Man– a lot of topics can relate to this trauma, violence, visibility

Foucault– as secondary theory. Topics of visibility and violence tie in with Nixon.

Culler’s article “Why Lyric?” and/or Seo-Young Chu’s definition of the lyric – There are a lot of lyrical moments in the novel. Could also be used with one of the poems on the list. (If using one of the Brooks’ poems, can possibly focus more on the topic of slow violence vs explicit violence)

 


Group Theory Presentation on Homi Bhaba

April 3, 2017

I’m posting this very late, but here’s my part of the group presentation. These are definitions for the main terms that Bhabha uses. Some of them are similar or overlap with each other.

 

(cultural) hybridity– This refers to the mixing of culture between the colonizing and colonized people. In the postcolonial setting, both sides are changed after the encounter. The implications of hybridity are that there is no essential identity to return to, as it’s constantly evolving.

(Parker mentions though that some critics take issue with the fact that the term carries a biological connotation of crossbreeding, which emphasizes a binary of identities, a binary that Bhaba is trying to get rid of with the non-essentialism of the hybrid).

 

Third space – This is the place where hybridity takes place, specifically where the hybrid identity is expressed through enunciation (by using language). Again, this emphasizes that every individual is a hybrid of sorts, and must enunciate its own identity for itself.

(the third space is similar to liminal spaces because it’s a middle space between fixed identities. However, for Bhabha, reaching a fixed place/identity is not important, because we are constantly in this evolving third space).

 

Mimicry – Is when the colonized people imitate the colonizers, and vice versa. However, it’s not always seen negatively as cultural hegemony. For Bhabha it can be subversive in that the colonized people can show they can just as easily act like and take on the mannerisms of the supposedly superior colonizer.

 

Unhomeliness – Relates to dislocation of people and the subsequent blurring of borders. Feeling the unhomely is not the same as having no home, rather it’s the disorientation of trying to situate culture. Bhabha adds that because borders are blurred (between what is home or global) there is also a blending of public and private.

Bhabha does borrow the term the “uncanny” from Freud (it can be a consideration if someone wants to use two works of theory together). He also mentions that even though unhomeliness is related particularly to the colonial and postcolonial condition, it can apply to any work of fiction dealing with cultural difference.

 

It can also be helpful to keep in mind Parker’s attempt to define the term postcolonial. To assume that “post” implies only “after” or “anti” imperialist, would ignore the fact that there is ongoing neocolonialism. Also, Bhabha warns against exactly the same implication when he explains that there is no essential identity from a “pre” colonial state to return to. Bhabha’s hybridity deals with temporality and the present so much because of the need to reframe identity within the ongoing changes to borders.

 


Exam Strategy

March 20, 2017

I tried to list them in the order of the safest first because we discussed most of them in class, moving down to the ones I like more, but still need some work. The ones with asterisks are the ones that I haven’t found specific sources for yet, but I’ll keep looking.

Historical:

-“The Dream of the Rood” and Dreaming in the Middle Ages.

– “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and/or “Bartleby the Scrivener” with Shen’s, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’”

** Herbert’s “The Collar”. I need a historical source to focus on the political climate he wrote in (The Poetry Foundation biography is good). I’d probably compare the content that Herbert was able to publish openly in comparison to another metaphysical poet, so I’d need another source.

** The Importance of Being Earnest with a historical source that gives context to the literary movements or trends at the time. The article “Profiles and Principles: The Sense of the Absurd in The Importance of Being Earnest” touches on it a little with the focus on aestheticism. I’d like to also talk about Aestheticism’s relationship to the Decadence movement, since Algernon (name of the protagonist) is also the name a famous Decadence writer. I think this context, and Wilde’s dislike of this particular writer helps better explain the satire of the play and the point made in Spininger’s article (that the plays triviality is meant to show the importance of meaning despite the absurd).

** “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Modest Proposal,” either together or separately, depending on what historical sources I can find. I want to compare the economic climate of each and how each author is critiquing it (the growing loneliness of the worker in 19th century America, and the idea that people are the riches of the nation in 18th century Ireland).

 

Genre:

** Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Buried Giant, with “Introduction: Theories and Debates” & Alan Lane, “The End of Roman Britain and the Coming of the Saxons: An Archaeological Context for Arthur?” to compare the Arthurian tradition to another genre (possibly Westerns like Chani suggested).

** “Bartleby” and “A Modest Proposal”, again comparing the economic critique, but this time focusing on how one uses the form of a short story and the other uses satire.

– The Dickinson poems “Funeral in The Brain” and “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” as following the tradition of conceits in metaphysical poetry. I could add another poem by a metaphysical poet possibly, if the question needed it. These two poems specifically relate well to Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”.

 

Theory:

– Bhabha and “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian”

– “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Bak’s, “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucouldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” but I’m not sure what I would say beyond repeating the article’s claims.

– Use Foucault’s “Panopticism” directly with “The Tell-Tale Heart” and talking about the narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye and his own power to terrify the man with his invisible presence in the dark.

– The God of Small Things with any one of the sources I found during the seminar paper. The best ones for a short essay are probably Foucault’s “Panopticon”, Chu’s theory on sci-fi, or a small section from Robert Nixon’s Slow Violence: Environmentalism of the Poor.

 

The Flexible (these could be in more than one category, but I’m not sure):

The Buried Giant with Chu’s theory of sci-fi to look at the role of memory in the book. It could obviously fit theory because I’m using Chu’s theory, but also it could fit genre if I make a case for how the genre could be considered sci-fi, or using sci-fi elements. I’d probably also use the interview with Ishiguro.

 

**The Importance of Being Earnest and the article “Profiles and Principles: The Sense of the Absurd in The Importance of Being Earnest”. By focusing on the absurd, I want to link this to Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall”. The article talks about trying to create meaning with the frivolousness of the play. I think It’s relatable to Woolf’s existentialist questions in her stream-of-consciousness, and how the abrupt ending could be interpreted as negating the importance of her own questions, unless you take the approach that Spininger does in the article. I’m not sure what category this would go in.

The sources will decide if this is a genre or theory question. If I use only the play, I can quote Nietzsche directly with the article, and make it a theory question. If I use only Woolf, I can try to make the genre claim that Woolf’s story can be classified as absurdist. The Spininger article might work here, but a different source will be more relevant, maybe an essay from Camus.


Draft Checklist

February 17, 2017

Things to Add:

– add a paragraph as a critical summary of the novel (focused more on the novel)
– add one more paragraph focused more on the critical sources I’ll cite specifically
– add a paragraph about all the genres relevant to the novel (and change the parts in the essay that are labeled as sci-fi but align more with magic realism)
– add a paragraph explaining what I think I’m adding that is new by using my main sources to read the book (I think I might have the start in the last cover letter, it might need two paragraphs)
– add a paragraph on Smith and nature
– incorporate the suggested source on empathy
– go throughout the essay and make clear what things are controversial definitions or moves, by Chu, for example

Things to Organize:

– make sure every every paragraph has a topic sentence
– organize these topics sentences within the new general framework, to see what order to put the paragraphs back in
– add an paragraphs that I might need to go from one idea to the next
– add more examples from the novel where they seem lacking
– see if my thesis needs to be revised for what I wrote, or if my introduction properly sets the conclusion I reach at the end

 

I’m actually going to start with the organizing list first, with topic sentences for the paragraphs I haven’t written yet. I think it’ll help save time editing those paragraphs to fit in after the fact.

I’m still not confident in the amount of sources I have, but I’m going to go ahead and start editing with what I have and only add sources if something feels unexplained and lacking.


Research Proposal and Annotated Bibliography

December 3, 2016

I’m late with posting my research proposal so I kept the descriptions of my secondary sources in the annotated bibliography.

My primary text is the novel The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. The book shifts in time a lot so the political climate in India from about the 70’s until present day is a big part of the book, although somewhat implicitly. The main characters are twins who have an almost psychic bond and one experiences a traumatic sexual encounter as a child. There is also a controversial sexual scene between the twins once they are older.

I’m interested in researching the political implications of this incestuous moment, as in what was Roy’s purpose in included it. A related question is how are surveillance and policing used to suppress communication or connections like the ones the twins share? Nature is also a big part of the book, namely how it’s sourced and the negative effects of globalization, so another question I have is where is, and isn’t it possible in the book, to separate the violence against people from the “violence” against their natural resources?

My research questions might seem to cover unrelated topics, so I hope the sources help connect the ideas. So far, my secondary sources deal with each topic mostly separate from one another. Also, they’re all books and I haven’t read them all fully yet. I’m hoping at the library meeting I can find a few more sources (shorter articles) that are interdisciplinary and can better relate to the literary aspects of the novel.


Annotated Bibliography

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975. Translated by Alan Sheridan, 1977. Vintage-Random House, 1995.

I’m focusing mostly on the chapter about the Panopticon, a design of an ideal prison that relies on constant surveillance, rather than violence, to deter illegal behavior. This relates to my question about policing and surveillance, as there’s a Communist movement trying to be put down in Roy’s book (with violence of varying visibility). Foucault offers that modern society will internalize this public visibility, or a culture of spectacle, until they police and subject themselves in every aspect of their private lives.

The strategy I plan to use with this source is leap-frogging. I think applying Foucault’s ideas to the novel makes a strong case for how generations’ worth of learning has them arrive at a modern carceral culture that pervades their private lives (enforced in part by the hierarchy of the caste system). However, the idea that the Panopticon is an ideal and violence-free design is problematic because it still relies heavily on the potential for violence to be effective (an invisible, but implied violence). I’d leap frog with examples in Roy’s novel showing how resistance to the policing can be fostered in the secrecy and imagination of some of the personal relationships.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Nixon’s term slow violence is a concept that small acts can build up over time into large acts of violence against people and the environment. This slow accretion makes the violence hard to identify and Nixon deals with issues of representation and visibility of the poor that are affected most by it. This invisibility, brought on by a limited scope of time, is further aggravated by the speed of the digital age skewing our sense of time. Nixon supports both political and literary forms of resistance to neoliberalism, which ties in well with Roy’s writings.

I intend to piggy back on Nixon’s idea that if slow violence is thought of simply as an extension of structural violence, then it risks addressing only highly visible issues that happen quickly (sudden catastrophes). Nixon’s concept of slow violence actively avoids doing this. Roy also gives special attention to things on a smaller scale and touches on how technological connectivity prompted what feels like sudden Westernization in India. I want to apply Nixon’s ideas to the novel, to show that while the environmental violence that is present in the background of the novel is an extension of the more explicit violence in the story, we can’t disregard other factors. The novel’s temporal shifts, further distorted by a traumatized child’s memory is one factor to consider. Also, the role of the caste system in furthering the invisibility of the poor. Although Nixon deals with environmentalism, this ties in well with Foucault’s work because his modern discipline relies on a kind of invisible violence.

Roy, Arundhati. Walking with the Comrades. Penguin Books, 2001.

This book is a collection of essays combining reports on current affairs and Roy’s actual time spent in the forests, with the people continuing to lead the Maoist movement against the Indian government. I haven’t narrowed down which essays to cite, but she covers several topics relative to the novel.

I plan to “ride the scholar’s coattails” mostly on this source. Roy offers reasons as to why the Maoists are left with little choice but to arm themselves to protect their livelihoods. At the same time, she does not suggest that the solution lies in either the neoliberal agenda of the state, or the militant Communism of the Maoists. I hope to extend this viewpoint in answering the main question of this research project. Even though Roy is the author of the primary text I’m using, I also want to try to use these essays for the strategy of “crossbreeding with something new”. I think her non-fiction essays make a chase for how her fictional work adds something to what the other sources talk about.

Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. 1984. Afterword by Neil Smith, Foreword by David Harvey, 3rd edition, University of Georgia Press, 2008.

This is a book with a very wide range because it deals with social theory. The overarching concept of “uneven development” tries to explain why third world countries (which were expected to be fully integrated into the global market in a postcolonial economy) were only partially integrated as cheap resources for the rest of the market. Smith suggests that this uneven development is caused by the capitalist economy’s perpetual need to “produce” space (Smith was a geographer). I will focus of the parts about how nature is produced. Also, I plan to piggyback and show how producing space where space already exists, creates contradictions which have effects such as seen in Roy’s novel.



My motive for writing this paper is to keep continuing a scholarly conversation on postcolonial literature that deals with neocolonialism more than issues of identity. From the sources I have found so far, it seems as though scholars in other disciplines writing about these topics don’t believe that fictional literature has much to contribute to their social and historical theories. To a degree, I feel that that literary scholars do not either, when literary theory gets more and more abstracted on issues about identity.

I obviously haven’t finished my research for the paper yet, but I have general direction that I hope to reach in the conclusion. Regarding the production of space, I want to look into how this forces the erasure of old relationships to the land and people’s livelihood. Even in modern India, one’s livelihood is often inherited just as one’s blood is (under a caste system that still exists in some ways). I want to show how that suggests a consanguinity with “Mother earth”, which in turn make brothers of your neighbors. Within a postcolonial history, it’s impossible to ignore the complicated issues of inheritance, and it problematizes how neocolonialism deals with people unwilling to give up their yet “unproduced” land. The caste system helps to enforce the surveillance necessary to put down movements against the state, but at the same time it allows for this implied consanguinity with the land to continue. I want to show that in order to benefit from one aspect of caste, without condoning the other, the Indian state has criminalized the poor trying to keep their land. Roy’s literary choices show how a false narrative can turn the movement to stay linked to your land (through solidarity and love for your “brother”) into something as abhorrent as incest.


Woods’ “Nature and the Inner Man”

November 15, 2016

I chose Woods’ article because I was interested in the stark contrasts between nature and the courtly settings in the poem. I felt a lot of the points he made were apparent when I read the poem, but I had assumed the struggle for Gawain was between a lowly, natural state of man and a higher, rational state closer to god. The religious elements of the story stood out to me more as Gawain’s duty to a Lord and “the Lord” were often conflated. I assumed Gawain’s guilt served to show every man needs to show humility considering he’s apt to fall back on animal like instincts to survive. Woods gave lot of insight into this idea with Avicenna’s inner or lower thoughts, and the rational soul unique to humans. These ideas gave me more historical context for how I had already chose to read the poem, that is following the usual themes in romance narratives.

By the end of the article though, Woods gave more historical context that made me look at the poem in an entirely different context. He suggests that while looking at Gawain as a rational man that’s dealing with the natural world is a necessary part of the reading, a more intriguing view is “Gawain as a prototype of late-medieval individuality, or as an early symptom of bourgeois sensibility” (226). I thought this was fascinating because I read it with the assumption that historically prevalent view was of man being rational because of God-given reason. Woods’ suggestion though makes me rethink the order or events that made this a popular theme in romance narrative. Rather than think that Gawain’s courtly mannerisms upheld popularly held beliefs, I now feel like narratives such as this are why they became popular in the first place, especially because of the associations to piety. He makes interesting points throughout about Gawain’s interaction with different surfaces and the overt richness of most of them seems to imply to me that this struggle for moral perfection is a somewhat aimless journey afforded to few. The fact that Woods calls it an “early symptom of bourgeois sensibility” also makes me curious as to how the problem transforms in following works.


Were they offended by what they read or what they felt?

November 1, 2016

All of the critics seem to touch on the topic of Haddon’s responsibility as an author depending on the intended audience. Both Bartmess and Olear are assuming the majority of the readership will be neurotypical readers and worry how someone unfamiliar with Asperger’s will react to the book.

Bartmess doesn’t think that a neurotypical audience can read Haddon’s protagonist the same as they read a neurotypical one (though Miller suggests Chris reads like an “imperfect narrator”, like any neurotypical one). According to Bartmess, Chris is alarmingly without empathy, and an elitist that would rather that people unlike him would just die (while Miller thinks Chris shows immense sympathy and is only guilty of thinking his views are the best, like everyone tends to do). Bartmess takes issue with Haddon’s book having become an introductory text that informs neurotypical people about Asperger’s. This means that Chris’s problematic qualities, of both inflicting violence on others and being oblivious to abuse directed at him, is normalized among a neurotypical audience from the start.

I think Olear implicitly had a similar problem with the book as Bartmess, specifically with Chris’ unlikable character. I don’t think either Bartmess or Olear is comfortable with the idea that Chris’ personality is so trying on the neurotypical people in his life, to the point that the abuse towards him becomes ordinary. In the case of Olear, I think the unaddressed abuse upsets him as his son’s neurotypical caretaker. Haddon’s book shows the after effects of a marriage that fell apart from the stress of raising their son with Asperger’s. As Bartmess pointed out, the book seems to expect Chris’ violent outbursts, and excuse the abuse towards him (almost as if he deserves it) whenever it fails to openly condemning it.

Bartmess received a lot of backlash for her criticism from other people also with Asperger’s. They claim she made the mistake of assuming, not Haddon, because some readers with Asperger’s actually do relate to Chris. It’s obviously impossible to say all “aspies” have exactly the same symptoms. Being a pervasive disorder that effects personality, it’s also impossible to assume they would all share exactly the same personality. It’s Chris’ personality that Bartmess takes so much issue with. It seems strange that Bartmess can’t acknowledge experiences of Asperger’s that differ from her own (a few people suggested comorbidity to explain some symptoms). Similarly, Olear insists that if Chris does have Asperger’s, it must be some extreme form because most aspies are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

Both Bartmess and Olear have an aversion to Chris’ portrayal and claim it’s because they worry how neurotypical people will respond to it. I think it’s possible though that their criticism is a way to justify their personal dislike of Chris’ personality. By placing the fault in how Haddon wrote him, they don’t have to acknowledge how they’re basically rejecting a neurodivergence unfamiliar to them.


Murray Asks Where Are the Autistic Adults?

October 25, 2016

Murray, particularly in chapter four, seems to be using the dropping out strategy from Gaipa’s list. He spends half of the chapter outlining how fiction writers are reinforcing the fears about an “epidemic of autism”. These fears stem from the general public framing autistic children as victims that need a cure, one that will only be found with increased awareness. He points out that these awareness raising charities often function under sentimentality. Murray even goes as far back in time as to refer to the pediatrician Asperger, and argues that the same hopelessness has existed for over fifty years. By referencing “experts” in literature, activism, and science, Murray is showing that the fear of lost children is what causes autistic celebrity (like Mukhopadhyay’s) to thrive. Murray is challenging this current narrative of an exceptional autistic child overcoming obstacles that mark his transition into being accepted as nuerotypical and even as an adult.

A big flaw that Murray points out with the prevalent obsession with autistic children in particular, is that it doesn’t consider what becomes of autistic adults. If the narrative is of a voiceless child, the child is no longer a victim once he gets his voice back, and that empowerment makes him an adult to a degree. Again, sentimentality is the cause of a false narrative, such as implying there is an end to autism and that it can be likened to moving from childhood into adulthood.

I would say the method used here is dropping out, and not taking on the establishment, only because Murray doesn’t disagree with the need for hope that such a narrative can give. He disagrees with the the fact that fear of the alternative, if these children are not saved, is what creates this problematic narrative. Instead, Murray reframes the entire conversation by focusing on Mukhopadhyay’s own words, for their content and subjectivity (not just as proof of his special ability) and letting Mukhopadhyay speak for himself. Murray believes that the writing proves that he is self-aware of his condition and that he can define himself, and make progress without claiming to have been cured.


The Elephant is a Chimp

October 18, 2016

I took Charlie to represent everything that went unanswered about race, for Charlotte in particular, so he became the elephant in the room throughout the novel. It could partly explain why most of the class felt the book was anticlimactic or unfinished. Charlotte’s rage was mostly over discovering a huge secret past and then realizing that it wasn’t really a hidden secret, just ignored. Being that her parents already knew, her discovery was anti-climactic and her resistance trickled into acceptance of the obvious, that there’s a lot still unaddressed about racism in our country.

If we look at Charlie as the placeholder for unspoken or unaddressed racism, the experiment takes on the enormous task to start a dialogue that will somehow erase past wrongs (Julia Toneybee admit as much in her self-indulgent apology letter). The question that bothered me and wasn’t answered explicitly in the book, was why the family was so obsessed with loving Charlie or receiving his love in return (personally, not just because of the experiment). They take him into their family and give him their name (which is curious because it looks like all the character names tell something about what they believe). This acceptance as one’s own is why I related the book most to the Hustvedt’s Shaking Woman. She goes on a journey to accept that her healthy self and the shaking woman are one and the same. There’s something self-empowering to owning all parts of you, even those you can’t understand. In that sense, the book relates more to the Eleanor Longdon’s TED Talk we watched in class, and how she came to listen to the voices she heard as meaningful input, rather than a debilitating mental illness.

Another strange similarity I found with the talk and the book was how the voices became antagonizing and told her to harm herself in order to prove her worth. I’m not claiming the Freeman family heard literal voices, but they all seemed to have something to prove to themselves regarding Charlie. Callie’s internal dialogue was the clearest example because both her overeating and magic was harmful to herself (and Charlie at the end) but she genuinely thought Charlie’s love would fix everything in her family. Her final attempt was interesting because she stopped a few times to note what felt wrong or right, like sharing spaghetti with Charlie out of bag felt strangely like love, or how drugging Charlie and hiding outside in the cold didn’t feel quite right. Callie is the youngest and she has some instincts about right and wrong, but she’s the most vulnerable to believing the voices that tell her she needs to prove her worth.

I think this ties back to Langdon’s approach to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical things her voices were pointing to, like realizing there wasn’t a real intruder getting in her house, but that she felt a very real fear due to past trauma. She stopped treating the voices as the enemy and looked deeper into her past for what was causing them. Langdon supports a holistic approach that uses this kind of self-therapy and I couldn’t help but look at Charlie the same way. It’s as if Charlie is a literal manifestation of a racist past and everyone is trying to come to terms with this traumatic history through him (or ignoring the trauma by focusing only on him).

Laurel seems to be of the mind that aggressive self-therapy, by engaging the “voices” or speaking with Charlie, will fix everything. Its interesting she’s excited to use sign language to do this considering that sign language is what she used to insulate herself from racism growing up. She doesn’t tell her children about this racism she dealt with, she bans her children from listening to any “booty music”, and she’s completely against Adia’s influence over Charlotte. It’s as if Laurel wants her family to be on board with an experiment that will treat their “symptoms”, but at the same time she won’t admit to her daughters that there’s a traumatic past that induced them.

Charlotte and Adia’s more direct approach sounds like when Langdon was over medicated and then discarded as hopelessly incurable by the medical community. Laurel fears that her daughter attacking racism head on, like the exclusively physiological approach in medicine, will only make things worse. Adia’s mother made a really interesting point when Adia was rallying to spread flyers about Toneybee’s history. Her mother told the girls there was no point because they’re trying to fight something metaphorical, and flyers won’t do anything if there’s no literal enemy. This defeated attitude (which Charlotte was angry to notice was more like her own mother’s) is similar to Langdon’s despair under traditional diagnostics and medication. Again, there’s this issue of what is metaphorical or literal, or whether to treat the symptoms or address the trauma.

I think Callie, because of her young age and being sheltered from all the secrets, is ignorant to the fact that they’ve inherited a tramautic history, and that her issues come partly from her family ignoring it. On the other hand, Charlotte gains self-awareness through the novel, but it seems she’s not completely in agreement with her mother even at the end. As an adult, she’s disappointed Adia gave up her radical ways and Charlotte admits to herself that own pettiness surprised her. Part of her wanted to see Charlie struggle with the gift box and revel in his inadequacy. I think part of her still resents her mother believing that new dialogue can somehow erase the past.

Going back to this post’s title, its sort of like Charlotte thinks it’s an absurd idea that if we can only just talk to the elephant in the room, we can pretend he’s part of the family. Charlotte would probably agree with Langdon’s holistic approach where the goal isn’t necessarily to cure, because one isn’t mentally ill simply because they hear voices. People can be mentally different and still be full individuals in society. Similarly, as an adult, I don’t think Charlotte wanted to get rid of Charlie (or that it’s possible to undo the past) because she still visits him. She only wished her mother would acknowledge that he was a chimp living with them, not a human brother, and that they could speak to and learn from him without having to adopt him.

I can’t imagine Langdon saying “I love hearing voices”, but she did mention jokingly at the end that it’s not all bad. She had to learn to talk to her voices respectfully before she could put her life back together. Similarly, I don’t think Charlotte believes in the book’s title completely, but learning to move on means respecting all parts of herself and her history.


Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar