The Great Stage of Fools

My favorite element of King Lear is not a particular image or subtheme, but rather the continuous contrast between what characters appear to be and what they really are. This pattern has repeated several times, and I continue to discover more examples as I read.

Take, for example, Cordelia, one of the first characters to have such a development. Although her sisters sing lofty praises of their father while she refuses to profess such love, she is the one who really loves Lear. As the play continues, Regan and Goneril continue to plot behind their father’s back, even closing doors on him during a storm. On the other hand, Cordelia cries tears of “diamonds” and “pearls” from her “heavenly eyes” when she learns of her father’s poor treatment (187). Despite what one might think after reading the first scene of Act 1, Cordelia is the caring and loyal daughter.

Other examples include Lear, who begins as the powerful, mighty King. However, by the middle of the play, he stands as a “slave” to the tempest and the forces of nature. He admits that he has become a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (129). The Fool is another example. Although his name suggests otherwise, he remains the wisest character in any scene that he is in. This is particularly clear through his insightful and accurate reflections that he expresses through poetry such as on page 51. 

Recently, Gloucester has proved to be one of these characters. Once he is blinded, he says, “I have no way and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities” (173). In other words, he states a thematic revelation: our weaknesses/losses can make us better people. Even though he is literally blind, Gloucester seems to “see” a lot. Yet again, this difference between what he is and what he seems to be serves a vehicle for Shakespeare to deliver sub themes.

Although individual sub themes related to suffering or vision may be tied to these different characters, this overarching pattern ties to the larger idea about the “play of life.” It makes us wonder to what extent everyone is simply playing a character; furthermore, it makes us realize how terrible “actors” they all are. All of the characters mentioned above are assigned a role, but they don’t always fit it. King Lear, who becomes increasingly aware of himself and his relation to others as the play progresses, puts it best in Act 4: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools” (207).

Achieving the Impossible: Is “Gypsy” Art and Pop?

ARTPOP is certainly Lady Gaga’s magnum opus. She embraces her place in the music industry while also challenging her audience to delve deeper than they ever have. Unlike her previous, simple crowd-pleasers such as “Just Dance,” Gaga attempts the seemingly impossible: creating real art that also appeals to the masses. In other words, the title of the album says it all. This record is a proper fusion of the worlds that Mother Monster lives between at all times: ARP and POP (with art first).

“Gypsy,” one of the final tracks on the album, is a perfect example of her artistic expression. Beneath the synthesizers and thumping bass, there are piano melodies, poetic lyrics, and, most importantly, true meaning.

The lyrics feature a conversation between a man and a woman. At the start of the song, the man states that he must leave the woman in order to travel the world:

Sometimes I think that we could just be friends
'Cause I'm a wandering man, he said to me

He then questions their relationship asking:

Does this thing we have even make sense?
When I got the whole world in front of me

From the beginning, Gaga establishes one of her extended metaphors. She is the woman, and the man represents her career. His eagerness to leave and experience the world is similar to the pressure Gaga feels to travel on tour and perform show after show. In an effort to cope with the loneliness of traveling the world and leaving one’s family and friend’s behind, the woman exclaims:

I don't wanna be alone forever
But I can be tonight
I don't wanna be alone forever
But I love gypsy life

Likewise, Gaga tells herself these same words because she knows she loves performing all over the world despite the sacrifices she has to make such as missing her family and friends. 

Gaga continues her poetry with simile. Having embraced the journey, the woman remarks:

Like Dorothy on a yellow brick
Hope my ruby shoes get us there quick
'Cause I left everyone I love at home

Here, she is clearly referencing the Wizard of Oz. When she compares herself to Dorothy, she illustrates the beauty and terror that accompany her adventure. Although Dorothy faces evil (The Wicked Witch of the West), she also finds friends and a happy ending. Similarly, there are dark parts to Gaga’s story (loneliness), but there are also great rewards: she gets to live her dream.

At the heart of the song is Gaga’s biggest metaphor. She is a gypsy. Thus, this is the title of her song/poem. More correctly referred to as Romani, gypsies are people who more from place to place. Although there is already plenty of meaning behind this metaphor, Gaga takes it further than just an explanation of her lifestyle. She finds beauty within this comparison to make a real statement: this song is a love letter to her fans. Although she moves from city to city, she finds a new home with her fans everyday. Gaga accepts that she is a gypsy, but she concludes that gypsies don’t have to be lonely:

Thought that I would be alone forever
But I won't be tonight
I'm a man without a home
But I think with you I can spend my life

By the end, Gaga finds happiness. As a superstar, she is like a gypsy. Even though she feels lonely sometimes on tour, she remembers that she will always have her fans. She ends the song listing dozens of countries before she finally sings:

Be my home just for the day
I'm a gypsy, gypsy, gypsy hey

The Heart of Darkness

My favorite moment in Exit West occurs early on in the novel on pages 7-10 when the story abruptly shifts to a sleeping woman far away. At first, these few pages seem out of place and confusing, but now that I have finished the story, I see their purpose. I see why Hamid introduces this section so early on. He injects this seemingly random moment to begin developing a theme right from the start of his book. 

Hamid transitions from Saeed and Nadia’s story to a scene in which he plays with the reader’s preconceived notions of the global other. A “pale-skinned woman” covered by “a sheet even paler than herself” is sound asleep as a “dark man” with “dark, wooly hair” emerges from a dark “doorway” (7). These few pages are littered with literary techniques, the most important one being the contrast between light and dark. Hamid paints this scene in Australia to cause the reader to assume the worst of this man. Darkness is often associated with evil while white is associated with purity and goodness. Additionally, Hamid uses words like “monstrous” and “emerging” to add to the intensity. At first, the reader can’t help but fear for the woman as this man invades her home. Then, he “chooses the window,” and the man leaves in an instant (10). 

Looking back with my knowledge of the magical doors, it is clear the man just arrived in Australia from “not infrequently perilous circumstances” (9). In the story, Saeed and Nadia are desperate to escape to safety. This man is no different. Global others are not different. Like all of us, they are simply looking for a better life. Other than physical borders between countries, Hamid makes clear that our biases against the global other alienate them. He shows the reader that even they can succumb to these issues. The man never intended to harm the sleeping woman. He doesn’t do anything to her. Instead, he drops “silkily to the street below” (10). 

Meursault, Salamano, and the Foil

Camus uses other characters in his novel The Stranger to highlight Meursault’s lack of care. For example, Meursault notices a woman who sits with him as she eats at Celeste’s. In particular, he notices how she does everything with assurance. She eats purposefully, she marks her magazine completely, and she prepares her bill to the exact penny before she begins eating (43). Meursault follows her outside as she swiftly walks away, and notes how strange she is, but nothing else happens involving the lady. At first, it seems odd that Camus would add this strange detail that takes up a page of his story and appears to amount to nothing. However, the purpose of this encounter is to provide contrast to Meursault’s indifferent personality. Meursault responds to everything with short sentences that say he doesn’t really care. This lady, on the other hand, seems to care about everything she does. By including this woman into the story, Meursault’s indifference is only made clearer.

Another character that contrasts Meursault is Salamano. In the beginning of the novel, the old man seems like a bad person with no heart. He abuses his dog and calls him a “lousy bastard” all the time. However, on page 39, Meursault hears him crying after he lost his dog. Camus makes a clear point to take this character who seems heartless and give them emotions and vulnerable moments too. This surprising revelation causes the reader to wonder: if even Salamano cares about things, how come Meusault does not?

If the syntax of the novel and Meursault’s own thoughts aren’t enough to show his indifference to everything, the stark contrast between him and others completes the job.

Mutual Disregard in Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead

For my summer reading, I chose Scythe by Neal Shusterman, and I enjoyed it so much that I got the second book, Thunderhead. The novel takes place in a dystopian future where issues like death and poverty have been eliminated. In order to keep the population under control, “Scythes” are appointed to “glean” (kill) a certain quota every year. The story follows Citra, a Junior Scythe, who finds herself in the middle of increasing turmoil within the Scythedom. Although she despises her responsibility of ending people’s lives for good, she knows she must keep her role as a Scythe in order to quell the corruption emerging around her. Like “Escape from Spiderhead,” if not more, the premise of this story is highly absurd. However, that doesn’t mean it fails to relate to Benjamin’s theory of mutual recognition.

In this novel, society has lost all respect for individual life. With no such thing as death, the lives of people seem to have little value. In this world, it is apparent that no one thinks about anyone else. In fact, when a Scythe is finished gleaning someone, their family cares more about receiving immunity for a whole year than their recent loss! This is the complete opposite of mutual recognition.

Additionally, I find it crazy to think that the heroin of this story takes pride in the fact that she, unlike other Scythes, gives her unfortunate victims a month to decide how they wish to die: “Of course, this method of gleaning [creates] double work for her – because she [has] to face her subjects twice. It [makes] for an incredibly exhausting life, but at least it [helps] her sleep at night” (31). That is how low the bar is!

I take this book as a warning as to what can happen if we, as a species, completely lose sight of Benjamin’s theory. She says that in order to establish healthy identities/relationships we need to not only see ourselves as worthy entities, but also others. If we can’t value each and every person as a unique and important story, then perhaps we will find ourselves gleaning one another someday…

“Was there some Verbaluce™ in that drip or what?”

The following passage gave me that “tingle down the spine” we keep talking about:

“…killers all, all bad, I guess, although, in that instant, I saw it differently. At birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing up into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forcers, life enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hands clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife, or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform then (transform us!) into earth’s offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression.

Wow, I thought, was there some Verbaluce in that drip or what?

But no.”

To me, Jeff is realizing the cruelty of the world he lives in during this out-of-body experience. It’s very dark because he basically says there is no hope. He claims that people’s destinies are already decided (as a combination of nature and nurture) and inevitable. This is certainly a disturbing message from the text.

The writing is also carefully written with pacing in mind. As Jeff continues, he stumbles into this very long sentence that made me read with more speed and more excitement. He makes a joke about using Verbaluce to produce such insightful language. Then, he follows with “But no” (a two word paragraph). This completely stopped me in my tracks, and I instantly reread the whole thing again. There is so much meaning here, and it is delivered flawlessly.