Identity in King Lear and the Dreaded “Senioritis”

At the heart of the tragedy of King Lear lies an identity crisis. As King, Lear derived meaning, power and identity from his privileges and influence as a king, a father, and a man; he sat atop power hierarchies, automatically granted him respect and reverence from his subjects, peers and family. However, once he is stripped of the power of a King and of father’s control over his daughters by his own folly, he loses the power and influence he once took for granted, and he is left lost, confused and bitter. King Lear’s mistake did not lie in making those positions and privileges a part of his identity- they impacted his day-to-day life and fundamentally changed his relationships with all those around them. Nor did his mistake entirely lie in his hubris in giving all his influence to his daughters and expecting his mere title to grant him respect, though that certainly is a part of it. Rather, King Lear’s true mistake was building his entire identity around external titles and privileges that could be stripped away rather than on inward qualities or experiences.

Act I, Scene I illustrates Lear’s folly in this regard. In the scene, he asks each daughter, Goneral, Regan and Cordelia, to espouse how much they love him, and depending on their responses, he will divide up his land to each accordingly. Goneral and Regan both indulge him in long, praiseful speeches in an effort to improve their own wealth and status, while Cordelia, his favorite from the start, speaks of her feelings curtly and plainly, yet truthfully. As a result, Lear denounces Cordelia and divvies up his kingdom betwixt Goneril and Regan. This scene demonstrates that Lear values outward praise and respect over shared experiences and sincerity; he is, in a word, shallow. Consequently, when he is no longer King and thus is not accorded the respect and praise of one, he is left with no sense of self-worth, as his identity was based on shallow exaltations.

Many high school students and teachers speak of a phenomenon called “senioritis”, which is an outlook crisis often occurring during the second semester of a student’s senior year where they become uninterested in high school grades, extracurriculars and accolades and lose motivation and purpose. Some of this is due to the excitement of college and certain negative high school experiences, sure, but I also believe that it has to do with how students often build their identities in high school. With such an emphasis placed on grades and extra-curricular achievement, students may construct their identities around what they excel at, ie. being the “basketball player”, “math kid”, “theatre kid” etc. Again, this is perfectly normal, as these activities make up much of students’ day to day life and influence who they interact with. However, if a student who derived their identity solely from high school academics activities climbs the mountaintop (ex: being admitted to college, ending their senior season on the varsity team, earning the lead role in a show), it can be difficult to figure out where to go next once second semester hits and it all doesn’t feel as meaningful anymore. And like Lear, a student losing these parts of their identity can lead to feelings of confusion, loss of purpose, and lack of motivation that all characterize senioritis.

I know there are many more causes of the senioritis effect that I am likely overlooking. However, as someone who is currently experiencing its effects, I am trying to look inward to focus on the qualities and relationships I have that truly constitute my identity- my friends, my family, my passions and interests outside of school.

Living Loud: Childhood Social Standards in “Wait For the Moment” by Vulfpeck

“Wait For the Moment” is a short funk/soul song from Vulfpeck album, My First Car. The poem follows the thoughts of the speaker, a young boy from a suburban neighborhood, as he is called in for bed while other children continue playing outside. Overall, the poem illustrates the superficiality of social circles, how the speaker’s understanding of that superficiality conflicts with his human desire for connection and attention, and an overall message about living life more meaningfully by honing in on what matters most.

Mom said, 'Wait for the moment!'
Gone home, went to bed
While the other kids, they're still outside
I don't feel time when I sleep
So I snuggle up with my sheet
And wait, for a brighter day

These first verses of the song communicate the speaker’s situation in it’s most basic form: he is called in for bed while other kids are playing outside at dusk. The title phrase of the song,”Wait for the moment!”, is a piece of maternal wisdom: that the speaker should wait until a better opportunity to play comes along with people he truly enjoys and to not engage in superficial relationships. The hopeful tone of the speaker, conveyed by “snuggle” and “brighter day”, suggests that the speaker is perfectly okay with going inside to bed.

I'll play football tomorrow
With only my best friends
People I like, but I don't love, are not allowed

The speaker details his hope for the mentioned, “brighter day”, that he will play sports tomorrow with his closest friends. His specification that he will only play with people he loves and not just whom he likes further illustrates the speaker’s rejection of superficial friendships, and how he would rather spend time building deeper relationships instead. He must, “Wait for the moment!”, so he can prioritize those relationships.

I wonder if Sharon will see me
But I'll play cool
'Cause cool is what you have to do

In this verse, the speaker introduces us to the first paradox of his rejection of superficiality and his human desire for attention. The speaker has a crush on a girl named Sharon, likely a friend from the same neighborhood. He hopes Sharon will see him playing football, but he knows that he has to play cool around her to fit societal standards. Thus, the poem illustrates the ironic contradiction of rejecting superficial relationships but hoping to capture a romantic interest through superficial attitudes. In particular, the improper use of an adjective in the line, ” ‘Cause cool is what you have to do”, emphasizes the young age of the speaker, thereby conveying how an understanding of societal expectations and superficiality is internalized in early childhood.

It's hard to make a point
When you're living so loud
Turn it down

The speaker fully articulates his frustration with the superficiality of his interaction with Sharon. The phrase, “make a point”, evokes the idea of presenting something meaningful, or giving meaning to ones life. The phrase, “living so loud”, conveys the creating too much superfluous noise that can hide what’s really important. Therefore, the verse is implying through metaphor that it is difficult to create meaning in one’s life when you are caught up with the superficial, which reflects the speaker’s disdain for the cool facade he is expected to put on for Sharon. The last line gives a metaphorical instruction: to “turn down” the noise and make your life and relationships more meaningful by getting rid of the superficial and superfluous.

All in all, these ideas tie into the poem’s message: to try to live a more meaningful by not wasting energy on the superficial expectations and friendships and instead waiting for the moment where you can focus on and appreciate the things and the people that matter most.

Migration, Longing, and Food

As I read Exit West, I am concurrently working on a research project on the history of the vertical spit, a cooking method that was invented in mid-19th century Turkey and spread around the world. In a way, the story of the vertical spit is a story of immigrants: Turkish immigrants in Germany, Lebanese immigrants in Mexico, Greek immigrants in Chicago. With each relocation, some adaptation or some new tradition arose as the original doner kebab transformed into shawarma and tacos al pastor and gyros, while the vertical spit remained constant. I would theorize that such innovations arise for the same reasons that Saeed began to intensify his prayer habits once he left his home city: we search for reminders of our past life, adapting as necessary to regain what we felt we have lost. As people migrate to new places, ingredients and recipes may alter, but the core of a traditional doner kebab stays the same because it reminds one of home. The evolution of food (especially the foods of the United States) is a product of the same longing for what was left behind that Hamid wishes to illustrate using the magical doors. It is a product of hardship, not just of the place one has left, or of the journey to somewhere new, but the hardship of starting over and leaving a life behind.

Nothing, Everything, and Nowhere In Between

At face value, existentialist philosophy is the philosophy of aloof scorn towards societal values and human problems. That middle-age “existential crisis”, questioning, “What could it all MEAN?” For most characterizations of such philosophy, the answer is nothing. All of society, human institutions, experiences, and emotions are for naught, at least as far as the universe and life itself is concerned- we are all just a part of a big floating rock in space where stuff happens, with no rhyme or reason as to when it happens or who it happens to. It is all absurd.

Yet, a deeper look into existentialism produces a different outlook, for which we may consider Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. In his essay, Camus argues that the old Greek mythological figure condemned to rolling a boulder up a mountain for eternity has been severely misrepresented in his emotional state. Rather than becoming discouraged at the futility of his fate, Sisyphus finds meaning and fulfillment in the brief moments walking down the mountain to retrieve his rock; for then, he can appreciate his momentary triumph and very existence. The act of living becomes his meaning of life, and he is fully present. Therefore, rather than being sad and longing of his old life, Sisyphus is actually happy.

This idea about finding meaning in existence results in an important modification to the common portrayal of existentialism. Nothing matters except for existence, and therefore, everything matters. The meaning of life is not found in emotions, or institutions, or goals; it is found in the very existence of the mundane. Everything simply is, and nothing lies beyond- there is nowhere in between.

Cultural Anthropology, the Middle East, and White Women in the Library

The field of cultural anthropology, especially the study of subjects in the present, has significant value to understanding our civilizations and how communities form in different areas of the world around different ideologies. However, the lens through which historians (particularly white, Western historians) view other cultures may serve as a thin, unconscious veil for validating misconceptions and maintaining a power structure. In the 1980s, the late historian Edward Said proposed that Western cultures adopted an “orientalist” attitude towards the Middle East, dictating that it was barbaric, homogenous, violent, etc. Particularly, he received pushback on his assertion that scholars of the Middle East from the West committed a certain type of damage: though under the veil of scholarship and objective observation, their conclusions were influenced by their Western biases, and the scholarship itself was an assertion of the power structure with the “Orient” as the subjects for the West’s observation. Thus arose the question, “Does cultural anthropology of other cultures ever capture an accurate description of subjugated ethnicities/cultures, and does it even benefit those it studies?” Similar questions arise in “A Conversation about Bread”, as Edwin questions his role as a ethnographical storyteller for an experience that is not is own. Yet, what I think may be more telling is the role of the white woman in the library. The woman takes notes, presumably as another ethnographical academic exercise, on the interaction between Edwin and Brian, two black scholars. Notably, her reactions to their conversation and the notes she takes reveals certain prejudices she harbors towards her subjects; note her surprise at Brian’s correct use of “monolith”. Therefore, this character may serve as an allegory to the Western cultural anthropologists Said warns against: maintaining a power structure of subject vs. object under the protection of scholarship, despite her clear biases, and never benefitting those she studies.

How do you escape your past?

The title “Escape from Spiderhead” implies a physical escape from the research/prison complex where Jeff is held. Yet, in a physical form, he never leaves. His body remains in Spiderhead after his suicide- none of his fellow inmates escape either. Therefore, what exactly does Jeff escape? To answer this question, we must assess a) what Jeff wanted to escape and b) who (or what) was narrating the story during its last moments. In regards to the first problem, the answer appears simple: he wants to leave Spiderhead physically so that Rachel will not be Darkenfloxxed. However, will Rachel not just be Darkenfloxxed with Rogan or Keith narrating her experience on Veraluce instead of Jeff? With this in mind, it becomes clear that Jeff truly wishes to escape killing, both in his past and present. On page 76, Jeff describes, “It was like all I had to do to be a killer again was to sit there and wait.” He then regretfully recalls his first murder of Mike Appel in detail. In Jeff’s mind, even if he isn’t actively killing Rachel, his complacency will render him a murderer once again, just as he was when he actively killed Mike Appel. Though Rachel will be Darkenfloxxed with or without Jeff, he wants to escape his complacency in her death, and by extension, his violent past. This desire is confirmed when we assess who escapes Spiderhead and how they do it. After Jeff kills himself, he transcends his physical form and leaves Spiderhead, sailing “right through the roof.” Additionally, some benevolent figure asks him if he wants to go back into his body, to which he refuses, and he joins a flock of birds, and “flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them…”. All of these confirm that he does not have a physical human form and that his body was left behind in his death. However, the ending suggests that his body was not the only part of the narrator that remained in Spiderhead. Jeff implies that the murder in his past is “the ultimate, unwashable transgression”; there is no way for Jeff to escape his wrongdoing. This appears to contrast the ending, where the narrator articulates, “and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never will.” How could the narrator, Jeff, have escaped his past if murder is unescapable? The narrator at the end of the story is not Jeff at all. Notice that he never refers to Jeff at the end of the story; he states, “This is all me now”, implying that he and the Jeff that was in Spiderhead are now separate. The narrator not only leaves behind his physical form when Jeff dies- he ceases to exist as Jeff, and therefore absolves himself of Jeff’s past. In this way, the narrator has never killed and never will, because though Jeff never escapes, his conscious does.