Is Physical Loss the Only Avenue to Emotional Gain?

In the play King Lear losing power is what humanizes Lear. He goes from a prideful King obsessed with others expressing how much they love him to a man with empathy for others and even regret for the way he mistreated his daughter Cordelia. This happens as a result of him being stripped of his kingdom by his daughters Goneril and Regan. Based on the path he was on it seems that this was the only way for him to have a more mutual recognition for others. This theme of loss allowing others to become a better person was prevalent before King Lear in many tragedies and remained extremely popular long after, even stretching into modern movies and TV shows.

Losing a person’s sense of pride of power as Lear did when he lost his Kingdom has actually become the premise for many comedy tv shows rather than tragic plays. This is seen in Community, where Jeff Winger loses his high power job as an attorney. As well as in Bojack Horseman where Bojack loses his fame. Even in Schitt’s Creek, where the family loses all of their money. In these shows and many more the protagonist starts arrogant and rude like Lear loses their most central identity. Only after this can they become a better and more complete person like Lear, though in the end they succeed rather than suffer a tragic death. In addition to TV shows this is seen in countless movies such as many of Leonardo DiCaprio’s movies (Catch Me if You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, ect.) and on the comedy side many of Will Ferrell’s movies (Blades of Glory, Talladega Nights, Anchorman, ect.). This idea has been embedded in a huge amount of stories for centuries in such a way that it seems like the only way to force some characters to develop.

As a result of this theme being central to some of history’s greatest stories, stories have been written about characters forcing themselves to self destruct and lose it all so that they can reach a Lear esque enlightenment in the end. Think of the famous Fight Club line, “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.” In this movie Tyler Durden leaves behind all of his systems that he believed before gave him worth to pursue this freedom. In fact, this idea has bled into the actions of real people. Few embody this better than Chris Mccandless, the man who is the subject of the book and movie Into the Wild. Chris was a man who would soon become a lawyer and was obsessed with literature, mostly classics like King Lear. Following his parent’s divorce he left this all behind to live with no money in nature in search of enlightenment. Eventually, just as he seemingly began to understand the world he too perished, this time from a parasite rather than grief. It was knowledge of these stories that led him to this lifestyle as many stories, like King Lear, portray it as possibly the only way to becoming a better person. So why wouldn’t Chris give up everything? It feels like a small price to pay for becoming an enlightened person. On another note, King Lear could have had the same line of thinking. As he had most definitely read the tragedies and live through them and now saw an opportunity to live like them. It feels very possible that Lear’s madness was caused by his own sense that he was a bad person and needed to be self destructive to save himself.

An Era of Errors

The song I chose was II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night) by Childish Gambino. The song is the second to last track on his album Because The Internet. The album is about finding meaning in the age of the internet and is accompanied by a screenplay that includes which songs should be played over each scene. The album and screenplay tells the story of a character named The Boy who lives off his family money and spends his days trolling people on the internet and throwing parties in his LA home. Soon The Boy gets tired of this and tries to find something else to give his life purpose. During this quest The Boy goes from trying to restart past relationships to taking a trip to Sweden and eventually ends up giving up and decides to sell drugs. 

The song Earth: The Oldest Computer is played when he arrives at his house for a drug deal and realizes he has been set up. Knowing it is possible he could die and soon he does. The title is an allusion to the novel A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the book the earth is a computer trying to find the question that will give people the meaning of life because they already know that the answer is 42. Just before it can give the people the question, the earth is destroyed. Just as in the book, Gambino dies just as he begins his epiphany

The Boy gets emotional as he begins to think about his life. He wants to live forever and the fact that he cannot makes him feel like he is missing out. Gambino sings: “See, now I don’t wanna see an era, an era, an era/ See, now I just wanna live forever and ever” (Childish Gambino, lines 1 and 2). Gambino understands he has only lived part of the human experience and longs to continue on. While in the official lyrics it is written as era, referring to a period of time, in the song this could be interpreted as “error”. This is common in his songs as he often uses lines that could be heard as two different words. The word error works in the song as it would be: I don’t want to see an error. This calls back to the themes of how the internet has changed human perception of the world as error is commonly used when talking about computers. This allows the line to have multiple meanings as he both wants more from life and does not want to live with mistakes.

Next, Gambino reflects on his life and thinks about what he could have done differently and what he is proud of. He soon seemingly goes on a tangent as he begins to reference pieces of culture represented by the letter A: “That ‘A’ on my chest like adultery (Yeah)/ That “A” on my chest, put your fist up (Yeah)/ That ‘A’ on my chest like a chipmunk” (Childish Gambino, Lines 10-12). First, he brings up an “A” representing adultery. This is seen in the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which the main character Hester Prynne must wear a red “A” because the father of her baby is unknown. As and fists are symbols of anarchy, a movement to remove all government. The final line talks about the “A” on the chest of popular cartoon character Alvin the chipmunk. This could be seen as a few of the many influences on a person’s life as books, political movements, and cartoons can shape who a person becomes. In addition, this use of anaphora while speaking about this letter shows these symbols ultimately mean nothing. If a red letter “A” can mean anything from a singing chipmunk to a lawless state it really represents nothing. All symbols are only social constructs that people apply worth to.

Soon after the lines about the letter “A” Gambino begins rapping about the way that in the internet age what gets put online is there forever. He believes that this could cause problems. Then he begins to think about how hypocritically this is of him to think as he raps: “Even I won’t survive, is it unfair?/ Is it unfair? Cause I don’t care/ When I step on that ant on the grass” (Childish Gambino, Lines 41-43). The rhetorical question “Is it unfair?” asks if this is even worth thinking about, as everything dies and most of the time he does feel bad about it. Gambino feels odd being sad his life will be over if he feels nothing when wiping something like an ant out of existence. While caring about the life of an ant is extreme this could be applied to people. This creates another question for the listener: should we care about everyone or no one? It seems in this moment The Boy has chosen just to think about himself. This question that interrupts him thinking about his life allows Gambino and the reader to reflect on their more selfish thoughts and possibly push some towards mutual recognition of all things.

Everyone Is an Other to Somebody

Hamid uses language to portray his characters in a less biased way and allow readers to reflect on how words push power dynamics. From the beginning of the novel Saeed and Nadia’s home country and religion are unknown to the reader. Hamid will purposely avoid mentioning either of these facts and refer to them in general terms. Often people, especially in the middle east, become quickly defined by these things due to perception from the media and other sources. Rather than being quickly recognized as an “other” to readers, Saeed and Nadia’s characters are able to develop without being as burdened by these labels. 

Hamid later flips the script on the west. After Saeed and Nadia take a door to England they arrive with other migrants in a house in London in an affluent neighborhood. As more refugees arrive the British people begin to want them out. Here, the author uses words once again to change how the reader views the stories characters. He chooses to call the British people natives, a term rarely used to describe people in western countries. The term native has a perception as being a term used for those oppressed by another group, such as the Native Americans. This calls out the reader’s own bias using this term and putting the British on the other side of the power dynamic. 

In addition to words Hamid uses the emotions and actions of characters to try to level the playing field for the migrants and natives is showing that the countries they come from are not less than those they are going to. This is seen in the brief passage that cuts away from the story about an accountant on the brink of suicide. The man finds a door in his house and is able to be happy in Nambia. “Later his daughter and best friend would receive via their phones a photo of him…  and a message that said he would not be returning, but not to worry, he felt something” (Hamid, 131). This example of a man happier on the side of the door most people are leaving shows that though people are leaving, these are not bad places. This all allows the reader to get a less biased view of the world and mutually recognize those not from the west as their equals.

Who Is the Real Robot?

While at Celeste’s, Meursault eats dinner with a small woman. She is very direct, precise, and quick. This intrigues Meursault enough to follow her after dinner to see what she does next. This woman is described as a “robotlike” (43) by Meursault. This woman seems like a foil to Meursault because she does everything with direction: “Ordered her whole meal all at once… While she was waiting for her first course, she opened her bag, took out a slip of paper and a pencil, added up the bill in advance, then took the exact amount, plus tip, out of a vest pocket and set it down on the table in front of her” (43). From the moment she sits down she does everything with purpose. This is clearly the opposite of Meursault, who through the story aimlessly lets life happen to him as he does things like turn down promotions and marry a woman he is not in love with.  

Calling her the robot woman seems odd as Meursault could be described as a robot himself. He seems to feel no emotion and just does exactly what he is told to do. I think this woman could be an example of why some critiques of existentialism and Meursault are hypocritical. As some say that it is dark and assumes life has no meaning. The character of the robot woman shows how a person that is the exact opposite of an existentialist, one that has great belief in the systems that humans have created, could be just as bad. As while Meursault seems not to decide anything for himself she does not either, as she is trapped in a routine determined by systems outside of her control. Meursault and the robot woman show how opposite extremes in world view could result in similar people.

Manley Pointer is a Very Smart Kim

The fake bible salesman who goes by Manley Pointer in Good Country People shows a lot of similarities to Kim, Brian’s stalker ex-girlfriend, in  A Conversation About Bread. To begin, Pointer is a little bit of a stalker himself. He has gathered information about the Hopewell family somehow. He even tells Mrs. Hopewell “you’re a good woman. Friends have told me” (4). Like Kim, Manley seems to have been stalking this family to learn information about them to manipulate Hulga. This is seen when he talks about having a heart condition and only a few years to live. He only lies about this because it gives him something in common with Hulga, who is in that exact situation. Another more important similarity is the fact that they were only interested in Brian and Hulga because of their disabilities. This is seen when at the end Manley reveals himself and mentions “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way” (9). This shows that like Kim, Manley is interested in people with disabilities only because of their disabilities. Even worse, he connects the objects that they need to help them function by stealing from them. So while Kim was a stalker, Manley is a stalker and a thief.

What this all shows about Manely and Kim is that their characters are not able to mutually recognize other people. They both push the power dynamic of ABLE/disabled because they do not see those different from them as equals. As a result of seeing Hulga and Brian as less than them they do awful things like stalking and theft of things that they need. These two characters serve as examples of what not to do. If Kim and Manely had the ability to mutually recognize others these stories would be very different.

Did Jeff’s Actions Actually Change Anything?

In the end of the story Jeff gets his escape by killing himself because he believes it is the only way to save Rachel. He then is freed and he floats up out of Spiderhead. At first glance this seems like a selfless act to make sure another human does not die. What will happen to the prisoners after this? It seems likely that this act had almost no effect on the people imprisoned in Spiderhead. Nobody will get in trouble for Jeff’s death as when Heather dies nobody cares and they move on to the next person. Jeff was only even there because he had the best descriptions so they will just bring in Rogan or Keith and get one slightly less descriptive observer. In a short time Jeff will be replaced as it is clear that many people want to become part of the experiment instead of staying in prison.

Overall, this intense ending will likely mean nothing for the rest of the people in the story. As the only person Jeff even knows is Abnesti, who does not care about Jeff at all and only uses their “friendship” to guilt Jeff into doing things he does not want to. This is shown when he says “Am I a monster… Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Rexall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?” (68). He only reminds him of what he has done for his when he wants Jeff to let him give Darkenfloxx to Heather. Abnesti also makes it obvious that he does not see these people as human as he uses their crimes as reason to experiment on them and let them die. This is shown when he uses someone’s confidential case file to convince Jeff that it is okay to give her Darkenfloxx. So, while it was significant to Jeff that he took his own life in an act of mutual recognition to save Rachel and did help him escape from this awful scenario. This will not end up helping the other people forced to be in this experiment. In fact Jeff might have taken away their only hope at someone who could try to do something to get them out of there as he showed he was willing to go to great lengths to make sure people were not treated this way.