New Episode on Podcast

This post is a lot late than expected. Life sort of happened this week. Things got busy, but I was able to get this edited and posted. Honestly, the hardest thing about maintaining a blog or podcast or anything on social media is just that. Maintaining. It takes time and dedication and sometimes it feels like a drag keeping things up. If I’m being completely real, I’m doing all of this to keep my mind thinking while I balance working an oftentimes mentally arduous job and a job that requires no brain power but sucks the physical energy out of me. Such is life. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the episode. Per request of a coworker, I will be attempting a rhetorical analysis on an Instagram post of hers. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be both posting new content on this blog and recording audio for older posts, so stay tuned!!

p.s. The new episode is up on SoundCloud at this link: https://soundcloud.com/user-62785598/mortality-and-expendability-in-stranger-things

-Jace

The Millennial Mariner Podcast

So, I am the cohost of a podcast called The Lit-Knitters with my friend Sam Jacob. Because of this experience, I’ve decided to venture into podcasting in tandem with writing in this blog. In this podcast, I will be recording the posts I have written as well as have discussions with guests to spice up the conversation. Below is the link to my podcast on SoundCloud. You can also find it on Pocket Casts and Stitcher. I only have the trailer up, but I will have an episode up by Monday night!

SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/user-62785598/trailer

Stitcher – https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/anchor-podcasts/the-millennial-mariner

Pocket Casts – https://pca.st/95Tn

Spotify

The Death of Nostalgia: Mortality and Expendability in Stranger Things [SPOILERS: Seasons 1,2,3 and Breaking Bad]

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The Duffer Brothers have streamed their way into becoming somewhat of a household name over the last three years. With the creation of Stranger Things, they have added to the recent 1980s revival that has swept across the US and the nostalgia that has come along with it. It has leavened the nerdy subculture of the past thirty years, to which I whole-heartedly ascribe. Though I am a 90s kid, I grew up with older siblings who are 80s kids, and by association I assimilated 80s pop culture. Due to my upbringing, I find this show, in many respects, entertaining, thrilling, witty in its references, and overall a very binge-worthy show that caters to older and younger generations alike. The Duffer Brothers have most definitely created a cultural and historical phenomenon that will likely entertain viewers long after streaming services become obsolete and everything from movies and television shows to music, books, and the news is projected directly into our brains. Though this show does deserve high praise in many regards, I find certain aspects of it hard to reconcile with. The biggest issue I have with the series as a whole has to do with one word: expendability. Through looking at the series and how it deals with death and mortality, we can understand whether expendability is a good thing for the series or a sign of weak writing.

Death is, whether we like it or not, a huge part of horror, thriller, and even sci-fi films (genres where Stranger Things falls into). So, in order to properly evaluate this aspect of the series, there are two methods of addressing violence and death that need to be discussed.

The Rambo Effect

Rambo

I grew up watching classic parody films from Airplane (1980) to Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). One movie that I remember watching scores of times on a taped VHS (with commercials included), was the 1993 Hot Shots: Part Deux. In it, Charlie Sheen plays Topper Harley, a hyperbolized and parodied version of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. Only instead of fighting police officers in a small town, soviets, and Afghan rebel forces, Topper is up against Saddam Hussein and his cronies. During a scene in which Topper is helping POWs escape a POW camp, he goes all out and starts killing every single enemy soldier in droves. With his first kill a kill count is started and multiplies at a ridiculous rate with arcade noises playing in the background. He hits milestones like “Equal to: Robo Cop,” “Equal to: Total Recall,” and finally the screen flashes with “Bloodiest Movie Ever.” The scene is full of hilarious kills like a man having a bulls-eye painted on his chest and his backside as well as a part where Topper runs out of bullets in his machine gun and just decides to throw a handful of bullets at approaching enemy soldiers successfully taking them out. Each of the enemy soldiers that are killed are tallied and counted and nothing else is said about them. They are faceless, numberless, and in the end absolutely expendable. This scene depicts death, and excessive and gratuitous violence in a flippant way to bring viewer’s attention to the ridiculous nature of the violence in movies like Rambo. When death tolls reach astronomical levels, the value of individual life decreases because it takes too much time and effort to recognize and place lasting value on people. They become expendable.

Kaiju Killings

Along with the shoot-em-up type films like those in the Rambo franchise, it is important to consider how mortality is displayed when huge monsters are involved. Stranger Things is no stranger to monsters that are gigantic in size and have a knack for mass destruction. However, before dissecting the Demogorgon and flaying the Mind Flayer, let’s look first at everybody’s favorite radioactive lizard, Godzilla and what are known as the kaiju.

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Godzilla and the kaiju (including Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Gamera) are monsters that gained notoriety during the post-WWII years in Japan. They were born from Japanese folklore and brought to the spotlight in film originally as a metaphor for the devastation of nuclear war. In Japanese monster films, and especially in the many American adaptations of the Godzilla films, the populous in the wake of these monsters and their battles are disregarded and are not the focus of the film. Most monster films rely heavily on the fights between Godzilla and Mothra or any of the other kaiju. Because of the minuscule nature of humans compared to the massiveness of the kaiju, a whole city and its inhabitants can be utterly wasted, and no one will really bat an eye because the battle between the monsters is a lot more intriguing than the individual plights of the humans on the ground.

To further this method and its glazing over of individual deaths, let’s look at the American 2014 adaptation of Godzilla. After an incredible five-season run with Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston went from dorky, loser Hal in Malcom in the Middle, to Heisenberg: Methamphetamine King-Pin. When my brothers and I saw that Bryan Cranston would be in the new Godzilla movie, we were more than a little excited. Cranston was shown in the trailer as playing a big part in the film. We were ready to see what Walter White would do against the King of the Monsters. Our expectations were immediately crushed when Cranston’s character bites the dust in the first fifteen minutes of the film. A younger, lesser-known actor ended up being the lead for the movie. Though he was the protagonist, the focus was not as much on him as it was on the final fight scene where Godzilla thrashes the MUTO and vomits a torrent of flames down its throat. I still loved the battles, but I left the theater wondering whether it was even necessary to have humans in the film at all.

So, what do Godzilla and Rambo have to do with Stranger Things?

Simply, it’s monsters, violence, destruction, expendable mortality, and the macabre.

Not so simply, it’s what Edgar Allan Poe defines as “the single effect.”

In his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, titled “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale,” Poe expresses that “in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance.” When Poe speaks of this “singular effect” he means that rather than worrying about a plot in a story it is more important first to make sure that the story is unified in the impression and feeling it leaves on its reader/viewer. For Rambo movies, the singular effect is a feeling of grittiness that leaves you with dirt and mud smeared on your face with the taste of blood in your mouth. With Godzilla movies, the feeling is that of awe and captivation at how huge the monsters are and how awesome the fights are. Sometimes, especially in the case of Godzilla films, this singularity of effect is done at the expense of character development and viewer-character connection. This isn’t always the case, and it isn’t always a bad thing. In relation to Stranger Things, Poe suggests that the most powerful stories, the ones that leave “an intense or enduring impression,” are those that can be enjoyed in one sitting. In his own words, he states that “this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed in one sitting.” Many Stranger Things fans will agree to this point, and some people might be unwilling to admit it: you probably binged Stranger Things (seasons 1-3) in one sitting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It proves Poe’s point: a good story is one that is enjoyed in one sitting and one that presents and maintains that singular effect. The Duffer Brothers establish this effect through implementing the Rambo and Kaiju methods of mortal expendability. There’s blood, violence, destruction, monsters, and death; and the people who are mortally affected by these elements are sidelined so that the real singular effect can be presented: nostalgia for the 80s and the horror film genre.

Justice for Barb/Bob/Alexei/Billy/Hopper/Random Citizens of Hawkins, Indiana

Considering this idea, Stranger Things has been criticized for its lack of closure and “justice” for certain deceased or supposedly deceased characters. Though the deaths in Stranger Things aren’t on a massive scale, this principle can still apply considering the gravity of the events taking place in the Hawkins. Season 1 rocked viewers with the death of Nancy’s best friend, Barb, who was just trying to keep Nancy safe. Chapter 2 of season 1 ends with Barb disappearing. Chapter 3 begins with showing her being dragged into the swimming pool by what we believe to be the Demogorgon. It isn’t until the end of the season that we find Barb dead in the Upside Down. Despite the search for Will being the focus of the season, many viewers, myself included, found everyone’s disregard to Barb’s death disturbing and unjust. Shannon Purser, the actress that plays Barb remarked in a tweet that “Barb wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.” Regardless of whether Barb was a big deal or not, many people believed that because Barb didn’t deserve to die, that she needed to be redeemed somehow. Barb blew up on the internet, and a hashtag of #JusticeforBarb and #ImwithBarb became trending to the point that the Duffer Brothers paid this injustice a quick visit in the beginning of the second season. Even with this second-long candlelight vigil, Barb’s death is disregarded, and she remains a plot device, an expendable character. Her character isn’t developed as much, signaling that she is non-essential. Using characters as plot devices, or just a means to further the plot, isn’t anything uncommon in fiction or film, but when these plot devices are brutally murdered without any repercussions viewers get upset and feel that “justice” has not been served. In the case of Barb, it was her character, not the actress, that was dealt with unjustly. Shannon Purser is not an A-list, bigshot actress. When this is the case, even though the death is viewed as not resolved, the stakes are lower because both her character and the actress are just another face in the crowd.

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Barb isn’t alone in being dished an undue demise. What happens when you bring someone on the other end of the acting spectrum? What if you enlist an 80s icon? In Season 2, we are introduced to Bob Newby, played by none other than Sean Astin: Samwise Gamgee, Rudy, Mikey Walsh. He’s the happy high school friend of Joyce turned love interest and ultimately turned tragic casualty in the fight against the Mind Flayer. Compared to Barb, Bob’s character is more developed, has more screen time, and serves a higher purpose than Barb did. Where Barb’s character was solely a plot device to show viewers what would happen if someone was not saved from the Upside Down, Bob is the happy, easy-peasy pseudo-father figure for Will Byers who ends up sacrificing his life to save Joyce and the others from the demodogs. Viewers are given more time to connect with Bob. He is basically the Rudy of Stranger Things.

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The Duffer Brothers didn’t completely forget the deaths of characters like Bob and Barb. They do pay service to them in small ways (missing photos of Barb in season 2 and the “Super Bob” drawing on Joyce’s fridge and the minor flashbacks she has in season 3), but they are short-lived. It seems as though the surviving characters either don’t care or are so overwhelmed with the new monster from the Upside Down that they don’t have time to mourn.

With season 3, we see the deaths of minor and major characters alike. Two members of The Hawkins Post are taken over by the Mind Flayer, are both brutally destroyed by Jonathan and Nancy, and subsequently melt into a living blob of human organs and flesh and join to the massive flesh creature terrorizing Hawkins. We meat Alexei, a Russian scientist who is captured by Hop, Joyce, and Murray, who helps them crack the code to stop a laser from opening the portal to the Upside Down. We get to know him as the smiley, cherry-Slurpee-loving, soft-hearted scientist. He serves his purpose and is shot dead during episode 7 by the Russian T-1000 thug who eventually meets his maker at the hands of Hop. We see several random members of the Hawkins community be taken over by the Mind Flayer and melt into human soup and congeal together with the poisoned rat population to make the bigger flesh beast the kids encounter during the last couple of episodes of the season. Billy, the bad boy and mom seducer, who becomes the host for the Mind Flayer, is killed in a last second act of self-sacrifice to save the whole group after being convinced by Eleven that he isn’t a bad person after all. And, finally, Hopper who, after defeating the Russian Terminator is supposedly vaporized during the explosion following the shutting down of the Russian laser pointed at the gate to the Upside Down.

So, what are we to do with a show that kills off minor and major characters at the drop of a hat? What does that say about the Duffer Brothers’ concept of expendable mortality?

The Death of Nostalgia

Before we get into this, Stranger Things isn’t the only show that has unexpected and tragically unjust deaths for major and minor characters. As an example, Breaking Bad, one of my personal favorites, kills off minor characters like Jesse’s friend Combo, Jesse’s two girlfriends, drug dealers, Gale Boetticher, and a couple of junkies (to name a few), and major characters like Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, Hank Schrader, and supposedly Walter White himself. Each of these characters, minor or major, was killed unexpectedly. Even the deaths of people like the junkie that Jesse kills with an ATM seem to serve a greater purpose than just furthering the plot. In this case, Jesse gains notoriety and people are more willing to pay him for the meth. The deaths serve a two-fold purpose: 1) further the plot, 2) aid in character development. The difference between these deaths and the deaths in Stranger Things is that the deaths in Stranger Things fail to address the issue of character development.

There aren’t any apparent lasting repercussions for Barb’s death, Bob’s death is only grieved for a second in season three, and who’s to say what will happen in season 4 as a result of Hops death and Billy’s death, not to mention the deaths of the dozen or so random “flayed” townspeople. Now, I could say that Stranger Things fails at presenting what might really happen if a town were to be invaded by Demogorgons, and therefore it is a failed show. Maybe the Duffer Brothers don’t care. Maybe they are heartless people who want to pull the mortal rug out from under your favorite characters. I could say that the Duffer Brothers are mediocre at best in developing characters or at least overdeveloping characters that are only going to end up being killed right after we are introduced to them. But, there’s no such place as Hawkins, Indiana, the Upside Down most likely doesn’t exist, and since it’s a work of fiction the Duffer Brothers can do whatever they want. It’s their show. If they don’t want the people of Hawkins to hold a massive candlelight vigil for Barb, Bob, Hop, and the poor flayed citizens, then that’s their choice. I could be angry about this, but after a lot of thought (maybe more thought than I probably needed to invest in this show), I’m fairly certain that there’s a reason why human mortality in Hawkins is treated in a Ramobian and Godzillian way.

Like Edgar Allan Poe states, Stranger Things seemingly has the aim of instilling in viewers a “singular effect” of nostalgia for a bygone childhood (either experienced or not experienced by its viewers) and a longing to go back to that time. With the deaths of both major and minor characters, the Duffer Brothers seem to be toying with the idea of connecting not only with the past (and in this case a mostly imagined past), but with characters in this imagined past. By eliminating characters with no remorse and diminishing the value of individual characters, the Duffer Brothers suggest that whether we like it or not, we can’t feel completely comfortable in a time and place that we feel nostalgic over. They combine the feeling of nostalgia with feelings of dread and terror by mixing 80s pop culture references and an undying fear of the Russians with grotesque and terrifying creatures from a twisted, mirrored reality that reflects back cracked and distorted. These two “singular effects” oppose each other and project the viewer’s perception of 80s pop culture into a Dutch angle. Everything is just a bit off kilter. The feeling presented through Stranger Things might be like mixing water and oil, but the fusion of these two effects allows for the Duffer Brothers to question the extent to which nostalgia serves as a positive influence in our lives, especially when we live in an age when no matter what decade you are born in, you have access to centuries of information and the annals of history can be read, researched, and assimilated into your life in seconds.

 In regard to nostalgia, what Stranger Things does right is exactly this: it blends good memories with bad memories. The 80s weren’t all Dungeons and Dragons, arcades, and New Coke. They were also the Berlin Wall, Nancy Reagan, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Carl Sagan and his nuclear winter theory, and the Challenger Explosion. Maybe what the Duffer Brothers are trying to say is that our memories of the past shouldn’t be painted by just the good. They might even be a bit flayed at times. Maybe our memories, individually and collectively, are a conglomeration of the good things, the bad things, and the stranger things.

Off-Gridding: You Don’t Matter and That’s Okay

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There’s something in us that yearns to be recognized and valued. Even the humblest among us feels at least in some degree the need to be needed. Despite what many of us have been told in our lives about being a unique snowflake with value beyond compare and you are the center of your life’s drama, this isn’t entirely true. I’m not here to say that nobody matters. Everyone has value, and everyone needs to be viewed as important. We are individuals with highly distinguishing features and frailties that make us who we are. They define us and help us understand ourselves and others. Nobody can and should dispute or disregard anyone’s personal value. I’m also not here to preach that “you are one insignificant grain of sand on a beach, and no one will ever care about you and you matter less than you think.” While there is some truth to that statement (there are currently seven-billion+ people currently living on the earth, mind you), we sometimes don’t feel valued and that’s okay.

Recently, I’ve taken the steps to establish more of a web presence on online communities like Twitter, Instagram, and even Reddit. I’ve used these platforms to find and connect with people like me: the nerdy, book types who write about literature. However, I’ve mainly been using these platforms to promote and share my analytical and creative writing as well as a podcast I do with a friend of mine. As good as I think I am at writing or putting together a podcast, the content I’m producing usually falls on blind eyes and deaf ears. Also, I’m not using this as a way to throw blame or shame at people who don’t like my stuff. You can like or not like what you want. I can’t force you to do anything.

but you're wrong and I hate you

I’m using this to set the stage for something else, so don’t feel like I’m trying to coerce you into following me on Instagram, Twitter, or giving me those sweet karma points on Reddit. I’ve realized that the number of followers I have or the amount of likes I accrue doesn’t and shouldn’t be a deciding factor in my worth as an individual or as a creator. It’s honestly my dorky intellectual habits and pursuits are in part what define me.

I learned this lesson recently when I accidentally left my phone at my apartment when my wife and I went to one of her photo shoots. We left around 11:30 am. The location was about an hour and a half drive from our apartment, so we had some time to talk about our week and how things were going. One of the things we talked about was what we were going to do about replacing a tire on my car. A few days earlier, I had driven home from work and run over a bent metal plate that had fallen off of a truck in front of me. The metal punctured my front left tire, but I didn’t know that the tire was flat until two days after the incident. I wanted to know how much a tire would cost to replace. I reached into my pocket to check my phone, and as fate would have it, my phone was not in my pocket. I asked my wife what time we would be home, and she said that we wouldn’t be home until around 10 or 10:30 pm. Dread sunk in. I was off the grid. I had unintentionally gone rogue. To make things more intense, my watch had recently stopped ticking. I was phoneless, without any concept of time except for looking at the shadows being cast by vertical objects, and kind of without any way of knowing how much tires cost. In the same instant, I thought, “I’ll probably get text messages that I need to answer, calls, notifications on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit. How am I going to respond?”

Luckily, I had something to read while my wife was working her magic, and we were able to spend unadulterated time together between the wedding and the reception. We went to Ramen Haus in Odgen, Utah, chilled out at a library, and ended up eating sandwiches from Walmart at around 9:00 on our way back. We got to talk to each other, listen to each other, and just spend time. It was refreshing, but even toward the end of the evening, I still had the thought of “what have I missed? Did anyone miss me?”

To my surprise, the only notifications I received the entire day were from my news app. Nothing. Silence. My mother had called earlier in the day three times, but after no success in reaching me, she called my wife. Even then, I was not asked about and my wife was able to answer my mother’s questions. I was off the grid and nobody noticed. For about five seconds I felt like my attempts at establishing a web presence were a waste and that no one would ever like anything I posted ever. I felt like no one cared that I was gone. After those five seconds, I thought back on my day: the ride up to Ogden, the reading, and most importantly the conversations I had with my wife and the time I got to spend with her. In that moment, the notifications faded, and I was reminded that my personal value doesn’t come from the likes I receive or the followers I amass on social media. I didn’t matter that much online that day, but on the ride home, my wife thanked me for coming with her and told me that she appreciated that I took the time to come with her and just be there. What started as an accident, ended in a nine-hour step back off the grid from what I thought mattered. I saw more clearly that evening that what really mattered wasn’t my interaction on the web with complete strangers, but my interaction with the woman I love. I realized that even if all my followers unfollowed me or stopped liking my posts, I would still have her.

So, if you feel like you don’t matter or that your presence online is defining you, take a second and step off the grid. It will give you the perspective you need to understand that even if you don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of social media, you can define yourself and understand your value. Unplug, step away for a while, and try your hand at off-gridding. You never know if someone close to you needs you to just be there with them.

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[Close Reading Rainbow pt. 4] Coming to Grips with Reality in Julio Cortázar’s “The Night Face Up.”

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Sometimes reality is scarier than any nightmare we might be having. This was definitely the case for many writers in South and Central America during the 1960s and 1970s. Citizens of countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina suffered under military dictatorships that negatively impacted these nations economically, developmentally, and even academically; many of these affects are still being felt by Latin Americans today.

From 1966-1973, Argentina was rocked and shaken by the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía. Through a military coup, known as Revolución Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón, the then president of Argentina, was ousted and exiled to Spain. In the wake of this sudden shift in power, Onganía made his mark on the economic, industrial, and academic history of Argentina. Due to the Argentine University Reform of 1918, students and professors had autonomy over the university and could establish a governing body over the university that was separate from the federal government. This all changed on the night of July 29, 1966.  Hundreds of students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires were violently forced out of the university by police officers led by Onganía. Following the removal of autonomy from the university staff and students, many of Argentina’s best and brightest academics were either forced to emigrate or emigrated on their own free will to other Latin American countries, Europe, and the United States. This night would later be named “La Noche de los Bastones Largos” or “The Night of the Long Batons.” As a result of Onganía’s regime, Argentina was flipped on its head and continues to suffer the consequences of this dictatorship.

The following spring, on April 22, 1967, a story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar was published in The New Yorker titled “The Night Face Up.” The story chronicles the events of a night where a man crashes his motorcycle, is rushed to a hospital, receives treatment, and drifts in and out of consciousness between 1960s Argentina and “the war of blossom,” a time of ritualistic human sacrifices which occurred during the time of the Aztecs. At the time of the story’s publication, Cortázar was living in France, where he wrote and published many of his short stories and novels. Cortázar was a proponent and patron of the arts and education. His work primarily focuses on understanding the nature of reality and dreams/nightmares. According to Lois Parkinson Zamora, in his work “Cortázar is attracted to the visionary energy of the myth of apocalypse, to its revitalizing power: Its transformative vision becomes for Cortazar the central metaphor for the artistic imagination operating under extreme conditions of personal and/or political crisis” (92). Cortázar, just like many of his contemporaries, recognized the traditional and ritual-like nature of establishing military leaders, called juntas, in Latin America. Life under these regimes was nightmarish, apocalyptic, and extremely frightening, and Cortázar sought to understand the complexities of living a normal life under abnormal circumstances; living two realities at the same time. Many critics of Cortázar’s work have linked him to Bohemian writer Franz Kafka due to Cortázar’s ability to tell stories that, according to fellow Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “Very subtly… [attract] us to his terrible world in which happiness is impossible” (21). Borges goes on to say that the world in which Cortázar writes is “a porous” one where “human beings are interwoven with each other…. Cortázar delights in playing with the stuff we are made on, time. In some tales, two temporal series flow along and intermingle” (21). These ideas of time and two temporal and very different realities flowing together permeate his fiction and simultaneously serve as a window into the nightmare that many Latin Americans struggled through during the regimes like that of the Revolución Argentina.

In examining the combination of these two realities, Cortázar pits heavy and light imagery against one another like water mixing with oil to underscore the difficulty in straddling two alternate realities. In “The Night Face Up,” the man who “does not have a name” (66) experiences a rupture of consciousness and reality due to a traumatic near-fatal motorcycle collision when a woman steps into an intersection during a green light. On impact, the man’s “vision went. It was like falling asleep all at once” (67). He is shot into what the narrator explains later as a “a void… an emptiness he could not manage to fill” (73). The nurses and doctors in the hospital, those whose job it is to operate on his broken arm and provide him with an X-Ray, are juxtaposed with the priests and warriors bent on capture him and sacrifice him in his dream. In the hospital, his nostrils are filled with “that hospital smell” (68); smells that usually connote cleanliness, safety, and healing. Whereas, his supposed dream is marked by “a confusion, as of one drawing all his sensations, for that moment blunted or muddled, into himself” (71) and “the smell of war” (69). The smells are antithetical. The man’s senses present a duality in his perception. On the one hand, he is slightly marred by a motorcycle accident, yet is covered in bandages and awaiting treatment. On the other, he is a Motecan warrior escaping the hands of murderous priests who want to sacrifice him to one of their many gods. The heaviness in the dream state stands in stark contrast to the relative lightness of the hospital room.

This dual and entirely inverse relationship between the two realities is furthered in the way that the man interacts with people in the dream and in his perceived reality. After his accident at the beginning of the story, the men that help him “encouraged him cheerfully with jokes and assurances” (67). The atmosphere surrounding the event is not serious in the slightest. They laugh and talk about how the bike is more banged up than he is; despite having broken his arm. Though these jokes and encouragements seem to serve as a welcome reminder that this man has just escaped death, the narrator makes it clear the “Voices” from which the jokes and the encouragements were coming from “did not seem to belong to the faces hanging above him” (67). This can be seen as just a lag in perception as a result of trauma. However, people living under oppressive regimes and oppressive individuals experience similar dislodged realities. They hope that the life they were living before the coup can go on as it did without any repercussions. These dictators like Onganía, as aggressive and oppressive as they were, worked to improve the infrastructure of the country. Despite the upgraded infrastructure that comes with some oppressive military-run governments, the cons almost always outweigh the pros. The citizens under the regime also recognize, just like the students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires, that regardless of improvements in national infrastructure, the reality of these regimes is the suppression of ideas and the forceful removal of democratically granted autonomy.

Like these students and the professors, the man in “The Night Face Up” is confronted with a split reality: he is both a civilian with a broken arm in a hospital and a Motecan warrior avoiding the sacrificial altar. The pros of the hospital are that he is being taken care of through modern medicine; the con is that his arm is broken, and he has a fever. The solitary pro of being a Motecan warrior is that his right arm isn’t broken; the cons are that he is in the dark, he needs to follow a difficult path to escape, he can’t stay awake in the hospital, and the obvious prospect of being sacrificed. In the story, he doesn’t have a choice as to which reality he actually inhabits. In the end, the man finds himself drifting further into his dream, described him as being pinned at “his wrists and ankles…. staked to the ground on a floor of dank, icy stone slabs” (73). The whole night, both in the hospital and in the dream world, he is in the same position: face up. He is passive in both realities, and ultimately realizes at the end that he is not a man from 1960s Argentina as the narrator leads readers to believe at the beginning of the story. Rather, his reality is the one where he is being sacrificed, face up.

Because of the regimes that existed in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, many Latin Americans felt like they were face up on the sacrificial alter while at the same time trying with all their might to fight back against this reality. The terror and frustration felt by the people of Argentina during Revolución Argentina provides an important framework for Cortázar’s case study on dual realities in many of his stories. Just as Lois Parkinson Zamora states, “these episodes subtly transmute themselves into a descent to the cellars of behavior, to Its remote irrational sources, to an immutable essence – magic, barbarous, ceremonial – of the human experience that underlies rational civilization and, under certain circumstances, rises up to disturb it” (92). They allow readers to see what life could be like and ask themselves which reality is worth accepting and which is worth denying. Unfortunately, many people remained in Argentina during the seven years of Onganía’s dictatorship and suffered like the man in “The Night Face Up”; left to their fate at the hands of a nightmarish dictator who pushed citizens down as they tried to wake up and remain face up. Thankfully, people like the students and the professors from the University of Buenos Aires and people who fought for freedom against oppressive juntas were able to wake up, escape the nightmare, accept the correct reality, disrupt the tradition of military regimes, and help usher in a less terrifying era for Argentina and other Latin American nations.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Preface to Julio Cortázar’s Cuentos.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co., 1999, pp. 21-22.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson. “Art and Revolution in the Fiction of Julio Cortázar.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar.“ Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co. 1999, pp. 92-114,

Cortázar, Julio. “The Night Face Up.” Blow Up, and Other Stories, Random House, 1967, 57-66. (Print) (Online, I used the online version for citations)

 

[Close Reading Rainbow Part 3] Heartless Reactions to a Boy and a Buzz Saw: “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost was an American modernist poet and playwright who wrote and published his work from the early 1910s to his death in the early 1960s. He is praised for his command of the English language through his use of colloquialisms (common speech) in his writing. Many of his poems are set in rural settings and describe life outside of the city. Frost’s most well-known poem is one that is used during essentially every single graduation/convocation speech: “The Road Not Taken.” Though this poem is uplifting and thought provoking in its tone and intention, some of Frost’s poetry is as thought provoking as they are violent and disturbing. One of these poems is his 1916 poem “Out, Out—”. To understand the gravity of this poem, here it is in its entirety:

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

After frightfully watching and listening to the boy’s penultimate pulse leading to the final beat, the adults that surround him seemingly get up and go about their affairs without any real thought regarding the ill fate of the child. Upon first reading, the poem “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost seems to end leaving the reader standing in a dismal deluge of disinterest and disconnection. However, through understanding the purpose behind the tonal shift between the first twenty-two lines and the last three lines, the reader can see that the apparent apathy isn’t heartless, but rather a natural, more mature response to a very tragic death.

As a beginning move, the speaker describes a cozy, idyllic, rural scene in the opening six lines, which provides the reader with a sense of innocence and security. The saw in the yard, “drop[s] stove-length sticks of wood,” that are described as “Sweet scented stuff when the breeze [blows] across it” (ll. 2-3). The sticks produced by the saw will inevitably be used to warm the home and provide comfort to all those who reside therein. There is a calmness about the yard and the home despite the “snarl[ing]” and “ratt[ling]” of the saw (ll. 1). The voice of the saw is just noise in the background of what should be a perfectly fine day. We get the image of a rural Vermont surrounded by “Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset” (ll. 5-6). The setting established in these introductory lines allows the reader to feel at home. There is protection. The mountains act as a natural barrier, giving the yard a safe-and-sound sort of vibe. The only image that is disconcerting is that of the saw as it “snarl[s] and rattle[s], snarl[s] and rattle[s]” (ll. 7).

The saw’s rattling and snarling hums in opposition to the calmness and homeliness of the wooded compound and creates an uneasiness that culminates in the rather forceful amputation of the boy’s hand. In accordance with the comfort of the wooded enclosure, the boy possesses a naivety that protects him from understanding the danger and gravity of the saw. This innocence can be seen in the way that the interaction between the boy and the saw is portrayed. Rather than being a grotesque and awful scene of confusion and gore, when the boy’s hand meets the saw, the whole ordeal is shown as something comparable to an animal jumping at the boy. The saw is given animal characteristics, in addition to the snarling and rattling, in that it is described as “Leap[ing] out at the boy’s hand” (ll. 16). It’s almost as if the saw is some sort of snake, lashing out at some unsuspecting passerby. Though the saw is seen as a sort of snake, the speaker interjects saying, “or seemed to leap,” leaving the reader a bit disjointed (ll. 16). This disconnect allows the reader the chance to question the perspective of the child. It also acts as a catalyst for the reader to come to terms with the reaction of the adults at the end of the poem.

The boy’s perspective, in addition to the image of the saw as a snake, gives the remainder of the poem, up until the last three lines, a tone of innocence taken away. The boy is described as “giv[ing] the hand” to the saw, almost as if it were some sort of offering (ll. 17). When the hand is accepted by the saw, the boy lets out a “rueful laugh” (ll. 19). The juxtaposition of these two words gives the reader a conflicted image. Rueful and laugh are almost absolutely opposite of one another. The “outcry” of the boy is something of a sorrowful laugh. This image, in relation to the uncertain tone that the speaker employs earlier on, shows that although the boy might have thought that he knew what he was doing when he offered his hand to saw, he really had no clue what he as getting himself into. The bucolic background bursts before the readers’ eyes. The boy holds his hand “as if to keep the life from spilling” out of the wound that now occupies where his hand once was.

The boy loses his innocence and his knowledge regarding danger and pain allows him to be like the rest of the people that end up surrounding his deathbed. He possesses, or at least seems to possess, all knowledge beforehand, yet when he is disarmed “[he sees] all—” (ll. 22).  He wanted to be a “big boy” although he wasn’t old enough to be using the saw to begin with (23). His innocence is “spoiled” and he is thrown into confusion as he cries for his sister to tell the doctor to not “cut [his] hand off—” (ll. 25). Despite his desire to keep the hand unspoiled, “the hand was gone already” (ll. 27). He is left with no hand, and the people around him show little to no emotion toward his sudden, tragic end. Although this is very tragic, the adults understand that the saw wasn’t a snake. It wasn’t something that a boy of his age should have been playing with. They aren’t sad that he is gone, but they are sad that he had to learn the hard way that when children get too close to snakes, they will get attacked.

This shift in tone from calmness and homeliness to the confusion of the boy and the subsequent apathetic attitudes of the adults allows the reader to see that the attitude seen by these people isn’t one that should be deplored. The adults understand that there is nothing that they can do to bring the child back. It is true that “No one believed” that he could pass so quickly, yet everyone knew that the saw was dangerous. As a group of rural residents, their lives are most likely based on surviving. The boy exhibited ineptitude in the realm of survival. He was dead as a result of his actions and the as a result of the adults’ awareness of such a consequence, they knew that there was “No more to build on there” (ll. 33). They understand that in nature, although one might be encircled and protected by mountains and foliage, if someone dies as a result of their own actions, it is not their affair and shouldn’t be something to trouble them further.

What are your thoughts? Are the adults heartless? Is nature unforgiving and uncaring as some writers like Frost describe it to be? What can be said about the response of the adults as opposed to the children? What does that say about innocence between adults and children? Leave your responses in the comments below! Thank you, and see you next week where I will be looking at Julio Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up.

[Close Reading Rainbow Part 2]: Dead Letters, Dead Walls, and Dead Men: Artistic Uncertainty in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City. He wrote short stories, novels, and poetry between the 1840s and 1880s. His most famous work is that of Moby-Dick. Despite his recognition and acclaim now as the author of Moby-Dick, in its time the novel nearly ruined Melville’s career as a writer, as the length and complexity of the novel served to alienate his readers and pushed him out of the literary limelight that he experienced through writing adventure/travel novels.

Melville had written travel/adventure stories like Typee: A Peep at Polynesia (1846) and Mardi, and a Voyager Thither (1849), both based on Melville’s own travels in the South Pacific, which were highly regarded during the time and well-received. His two Moby Dick (1851), which he regarded as his masterpiece, and Pierre (1852) were financial and critical bombs. Regarding this dilemma, Melville once wrote to his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne However, despite his earlier success with these stories, after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre, Melville waited in vain for letters assuring him of at least an ounce of critical attention and the possibility of making some sort of profit off of his hard work. Melville admired Hawthorne and wrote an incredibly helpful review of Hawthorne’s collection of tales and sketches Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He considered Hawthorne as a friend and gave praise to his tales and success as a story teller and his masterful prose style. In one letter Melville laments the underwhelming public response to Moby-Dick: “Dollars damn me; and the malicious devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar… I shall be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most to write, that is banned” Melville continues, “—it will not pay. Yet altogether write the other way I cannot” (Frederick Busch vii-viii).

After the reception of Moby Dick, and Pierre, Melville wrote several short stories that explored the feelings of utter despair and rejection he had felt at the hands of publishes and critics. One of those stories was “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” This tale of frustration and annoyance can be seen as Melville’s own response to what he perceived as his literary downfall. In the story, the narrator relates his experience with a scrivener (law copyist) named Bartleby, who was “the strangest [he] ever saw, or heard of” (Melville 3). The narrator, a lawyer, is considered by many to be a “safe man” because he does a “snug business among rich men’s bonds” (4). He is “a man who, from his youth upwards, [had] been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (3-4). Though he sees himself as a successful and well-to-do lawman, he meets his match when Bartleby begins to work at this office. Bartleby is described as being “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!” (11). Hard-working as he seems to be at the beginning of the tale, Bartleby develops a disdain for doing anything that he prefers not to do. Throughout the story, the compromising and adaptable narrator is faced with unchanging and stubborn Bartleby as he prefers not to do anything at all. Bartleby prefers not to do anything to the point that the narrator moves his office because Bartleby won’t leave, and Bartleby is subsequently taken into custody and sent to prison where he dies because he “prefer[s] not to dine…[for i]t would disagree with him; [he being] unused to dinner” (44). Rather than preferring to do anything a sane person would do, Bartleby stares only at the “dead wall” outside his office window, and when he enters prison, he stares at a wall rather than doing anything he is told. Upon further examination after Bartleby’s death, the narrator discovers that he had been employed at the “Dead Letter Office in Washington” where letters that have incorrect return and forwarding addresses are sent, sorted through, and finally burned. Despite the narrator’s efforts to get Bartleby to move and do something, he is unsuccessful. Much like Melville’s own career, he felt that things were not moving, and that publishers and critics were preferring not to consider his work seriously. Through looking at the relationship between the narrator, Bartleby, the wall, and the Dead Letter Office, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” becomes an angry cry from a rejected artist and an accurate depiction of the total anxiety and dejection that struggling artists everywhere no too well. As Melville writes in his letter to Hawthorne, Bartleby exemplifies the emotions surrounding critical and financial failure that Melville felt as he bore the shame associated with what he felt was the “malicious devil… forever grinning in upon [him].”

The narrator feels as though he were secure in his identity as a semi-successful lawyer who is in the know about those under his control, but his interaction with Bartleby proves to expose his true character. He knows the routines, eccentricities, schedules, and personalities of every scrivener in his office. He gives definite and methodical descriptions of his employees three employees: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut

“Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman, of about my own age – that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but, as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, P.M., or thereabouts; after which, I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity” (5).

Nippers is described as being “a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man, of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly personal affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked” (7-8).

Ginger Nut, “was a lad, some twelve years old. His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as a student of law, errand-boy, cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited a great array of shells of various nuts. Indeed, to this quick-witted youth, the whole noble science of the law was contained in a nutshell” (10).

The narrator is able to easily profile each of his employees and is even able to work within each of their strange personal schedules. They, unknowingly, all work together to make the office work as efficiently, without too much effort needed, as the narrator wants. In each description given, the detail is methodical; it is a brief, but detailed character sketch of each scrivener. From eating habits to grinding teeth, the narrator has each of his employees figured out. They are round characters who have quirks that are relatable and understandable. Turkey can’t work efficiently in the afternoon in evening, so the narrator frontloads his work day and doesn’t give hardly any work to him in the afternoon and evening. Nippers is the opposite; he doesn’t work as hard in the morning, but come the afternoon and evening, his work is admirable. According to what the narrative deems fit, each employee is given specific workloads and tasks to enable the office to function like clockwork.

With Bartleby’s arrival, the narrator knows nothing about him. He has no next of kin or close family relationships that are on record. Bartleby is an enigma. After one of the first instances in which Bartleby “prefers not to” accomplish a task that the narrator expects of him, the narrator “look[s] at [Bartleby] steadfastly. His face [is] leanly composed; his eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (13). Although the narrator feels strongly about Bartleby’s insistence that he “prefer not to” do anything, the narrator feels pity rather than anger. At one point the narrator even claims that he became “considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition.” The narrator even applauds Bartleby’s integrity stating that he “had a singular confidence in his honesty. [He] felt [his] most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (20). Though these admissions seem to be heartfelt, the narrator is only trying to reconcile with the fact that Bartleby is no doing what he, the narrator, would prefer that he would do.

These feelings quickly turn to agitation and frustration and finally to apathy, but for a moment the narrator feels as though he has figured Bartleby out. While the narrator believes that he can understand Bartleby’s character, he speculates many of the details that are more readily apparent of his more long-time employees. With the passage of time, Bartleby’s obstinance proves too much for the narrator. After giving up copying completely, Bartleby, according to the narrator, becomes “a millstone to [him], not only useless as a neckless, but afflictive to bear” (29). Bartleby prefers to do nothing but stare at the wall outside of the office, in what he narrator defines as “dead-wall reveries” (24). Though the narrator shows compassion on Bartleby during this, and other occasions, his patience quickly runs dry leaving him with no other choice than to ditch Bartleby and part ways with him. This task becomes difficult for the narrator because, unlike his other employees, he has not yet been able to conquer the wall that is Bartleby.

The wall outside the office serves as an important symbol in both the obstructions faced by the narrator and those faced by Melville. Outside the narrator’s office stands a “lofty brick wall” that is white on one side and “black by age and everlasting shade” (5) on the other side. This wall creates a deficiency “in what painters call ‘life’” (5). Like the wall that stands outside of the office, Bartleby becomes a wall to the narrator; a barrier that prevents him from figuring this employee out and fitting him within the system of the office. Likewise, to Melville, he published his work according to what his readers wanted to read. He knew the publishers like the narrator knows his employees. Much like Melville’s experience with Moby-Dick, he had been publishing in journals, magazines, and periodicals for years before publishing Moby-Dick. He was an experienced and talented writer, but unlike his earlier novels, Moby-Dick was long, complicated, and difficult for readers to grasp. In a sense, Moby-Dick was dense, deep, and in many cases enigmatic. Readers approached it the same way one would approach a towering white and black wall. How can I climb this? Should I even bother? What can I use to destroy this so that I can just get to the other side? For Melville, the same questions were posited when trying to overcome the obstacle of the negative reviews and poor reception of Moby-Dick.

Questions like these are exactly the questions that the narrator asked regarding Bartleby. Before the narrator can truly understand Bartleby’s character, Bartleby is imprisoned and shortly thereafter starves to death. Following his death, the narrator recalls a rumor that was floating around concerning Bartleby’s history:

“Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had suddenly been removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, hardly can I express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?… a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

In Melville’s attempts to write, publish, and see the success of Moby-Dick, he like the narrator and even in some ways like Bartleby, was met with insurmountably dead-walls, dead letters and submissions, and dead hopes and dreams. Melville’s hopes were not fully actualized until decades after his death. Between his death and the recognition he would later receive at the hands of modernists poets like D.H. Lawrence, his most famous work, his life’s work, sat on the shelf while readers and critics preferred not to recognize him for his masterful prose style and devotion to his craft. Oftentimes writers like Melville who go against conventional writing forms and styles are not widely accepted and recognized in their own time. Melville’s interjection of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” at the end of the story serves as a sometimes unwelcome reminder to readers and society generally of the importance of supporting and being involved the arts. In a time when civil discourse is on the decline in the media (social or otherwise), we would do well to step back and learn from authors and writers like Melville who hoped to illuminate moral and social issues and help us discover truths that need to be discussed so that we can learn what it really means to be human.

What do you think? What are your thoughts about Herman Melville? What can we learn from “Bartleby” in 2019? What piece of literature would you like to see next on the blog?

Also, a special thanks to Terence Wride for suggesting “Bartleby” for this series! Check him out on WordPress at Wride Rants.