Look Up at the Cliffs

In older literature, there seems to be a lot of characters that are somehow masters of disguise. In Jane Eyre, the tall, rich landowner character disguises himself as a small, raggedy witch prophet who actually predicts the future. He tricks an entire party of people, people that he has met before, and who recognize him when he removes his disguise. In King Lear, there are multiple instances of characters dressing up as different people, those instances being Kent and Edgar (and the Fool kind of), and not leaving anyone in the room unconvinced of their false identities.

Similarly to the characters in physical disguises, the evil characters are masters at hiding their motives. These characters are Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, Edmund, and even Oswald. This sets up the heroes and the villains: the heroes are in disguise and the villains are lying. Kent is wholly good, and Regan is wholly bad. This leaves another category of characters: the ones who don’t know what’s happening. Lear, Gloucester, and Albany all get screwed over in this play, and while Shakespeare uses themes and metaphor to portray these downfalls, the literal reason why is due to political incompetency.

Shakespeare uses the motif of disguises to create plenty of interesting conflict, as well as move the play along. The situations created by characters pretending advances Lear’s falling into madness, the war between Britain and France, and other key plot points. Also, it’s fun to see situations such as Edgar pretending not to be talking to his father. There’s no way Edgar could ever be as good of an impersonator as he is in this scene, even while speaking to a blind man, but it’s about the hypothetical and the ideas being presented. For example:

Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou has perpendicularly fell.
Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again.

But have I fall'n or no?

From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a-height. The shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard. Do but look up.

Alack, I have no eyes.

Act 4, Scene 6, Line 67

In this excerpt, Edgar pretends to be not Edgar, while also pretending to be at the bottom of a mountain rather than at the top of one. And he convinces Gloucester of this by, while staring into the bloody red abyss that was previously the home of Gloucester’s eyeballs, tells Gloucester to “Look up”. He awes at the sight of the tall mountains, describing a scene that Gloucester can’t see. This trick would never work in real life, but this isn’t real life, it’s a theatre. Shakespeare uses disguises to explore interesting scenarios while developing characters: from this scene, we have learned that Edgar is cunning in his goodness (as opposed to Edmund) and that Gloucester’s safety is and will always be reliant on the actions of others.

A Song with Words

The Sun” is a relatively light electronic/dance song that provides a feeling of summer and melancholy. It’s from French musician Myd, who mainly does house music. The song is part of the EP All Inclusive, which released in 2017.

As I was selecting a song to defend as poetry from my Spotify playlists, I realized that I don’t actually listen to a ton of songs that have words. “The Sun” is one of the few songs I regularly listen to that does have words, although even it isn’t too complex in its lyrical composition. It sounds super nice and calm, as does the other two songs on the EP, but the lyrics don’t draw too much attention to themselves.

Myd was certainly going for a feeling to be received with this song, rather than any direct message to the audience. And the lyrics permit that transfer; the story being told is one of a journey, of movement, something for the audience to feel. A few things from behind the scenes support this idea of movement: the cover art for All Inclusive, and the music video for another song on the EP, also called “All Inclusive”. In the cover art, Myd is standing naked on a large boat in a beautiful, wealthy beach-villa landscape. It’s a pretty releasing image. But the music video is very strange, in kind of a disturbing way. Myd comes across as a crazy person and a rich douchebag, which he most definitely is. Through the movement found here, and despite the douchiness of the writer of the song, there’s still something about “The Sun” and its use of language that resonates with me.

Always on the run
Towards the sun
We always wonder
Why we love it, why we love

This verse is repeated multiple times in the song. A reason for this is that the journey to the sun, which is a metaphor for escaping the restraints of society, doesn’t end. The speaker isn’t just wondering about his life, he cites that he’s always wondering about why things are the way they are. In other words, the speaker won’t ever reach the sun. The whole “it’s all about the journey” thing is kind of cliché, but I think the speaker says a little more than that. He’s proclaiming the idea that there is no end to the journey, and that the journey is the only option, so it’s like the speaker is lucky that he loves it, because if he didn’t, his existence would be tragic.

The entire song feels bittersweet, and melancholic in a way. It’s also repetitive. The journey being an escape from societal restraints, anxiety, and sadness, it’s bittersweet that the escape is so formulaic, and that there’s always one way to do it. This is why the Sun is an interesting metaphor to use, because there is only one direction to it.

We can't bear it, just to know that
Like the sun, like the sun
Hey, we're in love
Baby you know
If we can't do it
We'll regret it
Honestly we spent too much time waiting

Something I haven’t mentioned yet is the “we”. There’s clearly a love interest here, someone the speaker escapes with. There is a problem: they’re not doing something they want to be doing. One would think that this would pertain to the restrains of society, and the issue would be solved during the journey to the Sun. (In Myd’s case, this would be going on a cruise and partying). However, this issue comes up during the escape. So, it is unclear what the problem actually is, whether they want to actually reach the sun (which is impossible) or if it’s impossible to even journey to the Sun, and the speaker and his love interest are just lying to themselves about ever being on a journey. Even through this problem, the speaker says that they love the journey: bittersweet.

In the end, “The Sun” is just a French dance song created by rich white guy. The lyrics do, however, present an interesting situation that goes against what is traditionally thought of as escaping society, or being yourself, in a way that benefits the rest of the song in its provoking of emotion, which only poetry could do.

Reasons Why People Pray

Exit West was written by Mohsin Hamid in 2017 and is his latest novel. It follows a young couple, Nadia and Saeed, as their relationships blossoms and then crumbles as they face extraordinary circumstances. The world opens in an unnamed city most likely in the Middle East facing a violent civil war. Magical doors appear throughout the world, allowing the two to escape to somewhat safer locations, as Hamid creates a world in which migration can occur instantly and without regulation, which has always been a nightmare for much of the world.

My favorite aspect of this novel is its focus on religion and prayer. Saeed comes from a religious family and has always actively practiced his religion. Throughout the novel, Saeed’s prayer is described as less for a devotion to God or righteousness and more as a coping mechanism for the Hell that is unfolding around him all the time. The simplest evidence for this is the fluctuation of prayer: as times get harder, Saeed and his family pray more and more. This isn’t wrong, morally, nor is it really unusual. It just means that these people are not solely identified by their religion.

Nadia is not so religious. In fact, she presents more modern characteristics to the gender-backwards society that takes place around her. She dons a slick motorcycle and likes doing drugs. She always wears religious attire but only as to not sign her death sentence in public. Nadia’s relationship with religion and her family follows the pattern of a breakup.

Saeed and Nadia have mostly different stances in the way they practice spirituality, but the two are not too different to let it get in the way of their relationship. Even so, this difference always persists. To Saeed, Nadia is an “other”, someone with an unrelatable characteristic which facilitates prejudice. Nadia doesn’t feel as strong of a feeling because she’s always been in the minority in her locations (agnostic/atheist). So while Saeed doesn’t value Nadia less because of those characteristics, he always looks for outside help from people with the same religion and the same skin color for when he feels the most saddened.

Religion plays a part in every instance of violence as well as every instance of love. This distinction can even be difficult to make, as in one of the scarier passages in the novel, where Saeed receives counseling from a friendly-speaking pseudo-preacher.

Saeed was torn because he was moved by these words, strengthened by them, and they were not the barbarous words of the militants back home… did remind him of the militants, and when he thought this he felt something rancid in himself, like he was rotting from within.

Hamid 155

Saeed is entranced by the preacher’s words about uniting under a cause, but at the same time can’t tell if he is turning into a terrorist. An instance where religion is strictly violent would be the rebellion in the unnamed city imposing strict laws. An instance where religion is strictly love would be Saeed’s falling in love with the preacher’s daughter toward the end of his relationship with Nadia.

Hamid does a lot with religion in this novel, focusing on violence, love, reasons why people pray, prejudice for those who don’t (or don’t pray to your God), and tone.

The Passing of Time (and Character)

The Stranger written by Albert Camus is largely a stream of consciousness into a character Meursault. Things happen in the plot, events that would change someone’s life permanently, but the narration is so distant that it brings the focus away from the plot and to the mind of the character.

With Meursault as well as Camus’ portrayal of Sisyphus in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, the characters that are attached to existentialism aren’t philosophers; they are unaware of the exact nature of what distinguishes them from others. Sisyphus goes from sad to happy in his respective story, which is a little simpler of an interpretation of the philosophy despite its being much more difficult to read. Meursault is more complicated in that he isn’t necessarily happy or sad, or important even in his own head. He finds some enjoyment in daily activities like eating and napping, and finds conversations interesting, but he feels neither doomed nor enlightened.

For a lot of the story, Camus seems to throw problems and events at Meursault to see how he reacts.

A lot of time passes in the first and second chapter of part II. And for the most part, Meursault’s lifestyle is stagnant. The eleven months that pass of his questioning have virtually no effect on his mental state, and his five months in prison only act as a rehab from things like going to the beach and smoking, and then he becomes adjusted and lives what to him is a complete life, with brand new daily activities:

“So with all the sleep, my memories, reading my crime story, and the alternation of light and darkness, time passed” (80).

I think that losing track of time is less of an effect of prison and more of the natural consequence of an existentialist philosophy, personified by Meursault’s circumstances. Meursault values life for the sole purpose of being able to live, but there’s no reason for him to value time. There’s evidence that Meursault has abandoned parts of his life just to lead a simpler life, and this chapter shows that he also has the ability to abandon time. So, where Camus threw a prison sentence at Meursault, he discovered something new about how Meursault wants to live life.

The following is my favorite quote from the story (so far).

“At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it” (77).

Art Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a novel written by Shirley Jackson in 1962. It is told from the perspective of Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood who lives with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian in an isolated house. Merricat goes to town to get groceries twice the week, but other than that, the family never leaves the house and hasn’t for years. Later through the book, a family member comes to the house without warning and their comfortable systematic life gets more chaotic.

I read the book over the summer and was caught off guard by how the story was told. This novel is filled with imagery and in a lot of ways its story is told through the strange and detailed setting, objects, and character movements. It doesn’t have that strong of a plot; you just kind of involve yourself in the story and it’s an uncomfortable experience. The writing is really cool, but the situation seems so wrong and unbreakable, especially since Merricat is fighting so hard to keep things how they are.

In a lot of ways Merricat is the antagonist of the story: she is the only thing keeping Constance back from leaving her life of isolation and doing something for herself. Their situation started when their family was poisoned, and when it’s revealed that Merricat is the killer, it’s not exactly surprising. She’s eighteen years old, but the way she thinks is similar to a young child.

And yet, Merricat is easy to sympathize with in her struggle to live life the way she wants to live it, even if she’s sleeping in the kitchen of a burnt down house for the rest of her life. It’s pretty clear that the way the sisters live is not the way life should be lived, but they seem to be happier than most people. And the life outside the house is painted as miserable and evil. The townspeople constantly cheer at the sisters:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?

Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Page 16, and throughout the book

My theory is that this story is a greatly exaggerated tale of a loner, most likely an artist, and how they are misguided in living a small, perhaps comfortable, but uneventful life leaving them untapped potential. Merricat is the artist and Constance is her art. Uncle Julian is her connection to the past, when she lived a somewhat normal life, so when he dies in the fire it’s the total loss of that connection.

I really enjoyed this novel and would highly recommend it.

Repetition in “Escape from Spiderhead”

The story is “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders. The main antagonist of the story is Abnesti, the leader of the experiment who uses the prisoners as guinea pigs to create a drug to control love.

I found the second part of the story to be interesting as it journeys through the mind of a character whose feelings are being controlled and tampered with.

Throughout the story, there is a kind of baseline tone that is calm and to the point, and then there is a heightened tone when Jake is on drugs or he is trying to prevent torture or he is having an out of body experience as he accepts his death. In the baseline tone, sentences are shorter, ideas are more repetitive, and the characters seem to care less about their surroundings.

The baseline tone reminded me of a movie I watched recently called The Lobster directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s about an exaggerated future dystopia in which people find a relationship and stay in it or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. One of themes is the grey area between true love and society pressuring people into relationships. In that movie people talk like robots and act emotionless. The characters get angry and sad, and they get happy, and their dialogue carries weight, but the way they act reflects emptiness. I found similarities between that movie and this story in the way that the prisoners have a lessened sense of reality which causes them to act strangely, as well as the way society in this story wants to control love.

My favorite quote in this story is on page 78. “Why was she dancing? No reason. Just alive, I guess.” In this part of the story, an indifferent Jake watches a character act strangely and doesn’t care enough to give an elaborate response to the situation. Whenever Jake is not high on Verbulace, he is indifferent to his surroundings. He accomplishes two things in the story: he solves the mystery of what Abnesti is doing, and he kills himself. And most of the story is very repetitive: he has sex with Heather and then he has sex with Rachel. He is put in a room with Rogan, and then Keith. Jake asks the same questions, and follows the same orders, and in the climax of the story he acts on “basic human emotion” and saves Rachel from torture, in a decision to end his life that lasts a few lines.

“Escape from Spiderhead” presents society within the walls of a prison and allows the protagonist to break out in the end. I think the way Saunders presents love is interesting, as a drug to be played with rather than a serious emotion to focus in on. And I think the way Saunders presents his characters is used to convey a sense of detachment from reality in a society where higher-ups have control over emotions like love.