Dentistry and Vodka

Having finished the book, one question I was left wondering was why the dentist was even included in the story. It seemed odd to have such a bizarre character without having him significantly contribute to the plot. In hindsight, I think Tokarczuk included the dentist as a mirror of the government.

First is the alcohol the dentist uses to help sedate his patients before he works on them. Evidently, from the descriptions of the patients’ reactions, the alcohol isn’t doing much good to ease their discomfort, because the dentist isn’t providing adequate assistance. Similarly, I believe Tokarzcuk is arguing that the government, though its duty is to help the people, doesn’t provide adequate support to citizens when they have a problem, which is something that Janina experiences multiple times throughout the book. 

In addition, Janina describes the dentist only pulling out teeth for most of the time, instead of filling cavities or trying to prevent them. Again, the dentist mirrors the government in critiquing it for not doing enough to protect citizens, and only taking action when something drastically bad happens, similar to how the dentist only pulls out teeth once they are beyond saving. I feel that although the dentist personally doesn’t contribute much to the plot besides agreeing with Janina in her theory that the animals were the ones murdering all of the people, he does serve as a reflection and a critique of government.

The Conservative Side of King Lear

Looking at who was left standing at the end of King Lear, it’s pretty evident that Shakespeare was trying to convey a rather conservative message. The most notable characters that were still alive were Kent, Edgar, and Albany, all of whom never tried to take power away from others. Characters like Goneril, Regan, or Edmund, who tried to take away power from where it naturally resided, all died horrible deaths. I feel Shakespeare is arguing that the power of balance should not be upset, which is a conservative note to an otherwise free-thinking play. In addition, none of the central characters are those of a poor class, and though some of them pretend to be of lower class, like Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, they all return to their original status of having power at the end of the play (that is if they are not dead). In the entire play, there is not a single instance of anybody gaining power and keeping it. 

There is also Cordelia. I personally thought she would have had a better ending seeing how she stood up to Lear when he was being unreasonable with his division of the Kingdom. France’s speech about respecting women also made her out to be a fiery figure in an otherwise dreary play. However, with her death, I feel Shakespeare was trying to emphasize that women do not belong in places of power. Goneril and Regan are also examples of this, seeing how they turn monstrous when given power, but Cordelia’s death truly pounds the message home. If Cordelia did not die, she would undoubtedly have inherited Lear’s power and have been a good ruler as well. I think Shakespeare killed her off to avoid having a woman in a position of power, which runs in parallel with the flawed public opinions of that time period. 

Re: Stacks

After his girlfriend broke up with him, his band split up, and he contracted mono, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon exiled himself to his father’s cabin in rural Wisconsin and spent an entire winter there in isolation, creating “For Emma, Forever Ago,” his first studio album. “Re: Stacks” stands alone as the last song on the album, serving as a capstone to the album’s frozen, emotional exploration of the pain and beauty of being alone. 

A recurring metaphor throughout the song is the mention of gambling, or “stacks” of poker chips.

I keep throwing it down two

hundred at a time

And it’s hard to find it when you knew it

When your money’s gone and you’re drunk as hell”

This motif of “stacks” is referring to effort. Even though Vernon put in everything he had into his relationship, whether that be with his band or his lover, he still hit rock bottom and lost everything he had. Feeling robbed of all of the effort he put into his relationships, what little control he had over his life is gone. The mention of “stacks” recurs throughout the song in the chorus, as Vernon repeatedly tries to rid himself of the memory of the “stacks” he once had. 

Further descending into himself, Vernon continues his self-excavation, baring all of his emotions:

I’ve been twisting to the sun

I needed to replace

And the fountain in the front yard is rusted out

All my love was down in a frozen ground

Searching for a source of happiness, or light, he is twisting towards the sun. The word twisting implies a sense of pain or discomfort; Vernon is trying to get over his losses but he can’t and it’s painful. Even though he needs to move on and find someone new, he can’t because he is too grounded in the past. Ultimately, the culprit for all of his troubles is himself, as mentioned by his rusted-out fountain. Just like iron harms itself by producing rust, Vernon is a bad influence on himself. 

Ultimately, in the last lines of the song, Vernon is finally able to accept what has happened and move on. 

This is not the sound of a new man

or a crispy realization

It’s the sound of the unlocking and lift away

Your love will be safe with me

Although he has not gained a radical new insight or made a huge discovery, time has lent him acceptance of his misfortunes and he is finally able to move on. Nothing has really changed, but Vernon has forgiven his past.

The song, and the album, ends with a drawn-out silence, and then the click and beep of a reconnecting answering machine as he rejoins the world. 

Who is the ‘Robot Woman’ from The Stranger?

After having read and discussed The Stranger, for an extended period of time, one character that has stood out to me is the ‘Robot Woman’ from the restaurant, and later, the trial. While both keep to themselves, the contrast between them is striking. One instance that stood out to me was when she sat across from Meursault at the restaurant. He recounts how she “ordered her whole meal all at once, in a voice that was clear and very fast at the same time. 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). While she seems to have everything figured out for her, in meticulous detail, none of that makes her any more satisfied or better off than anyone else.

Although it cannot be said that she tries to conform to societal systems like love or religion, every action in itself seems to follow a routine. The purposelessness of her routine parallels the futility of clinging to societal systems, and similarly, she doesn’t have any more control over her life than anyone else– she can’t stop Meursault from following her after her meal. However, she is so different from any normal person that she too is an outsider like Meursault. In effect, I feel the ‘Robot Woman’ gives Meursault a binary that he can define himself against, something that represents everything he is not. As a result of their differences, it is likely that Meursault is more content with his life as he doesn’t try to change his circumstances in any way, while the ‘Robot Woman’ is bound to her never-ending routine. 

Murakami’s peculiar writing style in “The Elephant Vanishes”

Reading “The Elephant Vanishes,” one thing I noticed was the major differences in writing and storytelling style between Murakami Haruki and George Saunders. Compared to Saunders’ style, which is very action-packed and transports the reader directly into his world, Murakami’s style tends to be slower, but in a very particular fashion. While he skips over entire months after the elephant vanishes (packet page 36), he focuses, with peculiar intensity, on the elephant-house dedication ceremony (packet page 34). 

Having read other work by Murakami, I noticed that this style is consistent throughout most of his writing. While this style does give some parts of his writing a “slower” feel, it actually gives the reader more insight into the stories he is trying to tell. Specifically, by showing some parts and omitting others from the narrator’s perspective, readers are better able to understand their perspective and opinions. As a result, I feel that I know and understand the narrator in “The Elephant Vanishes” better than I do Robin in “10th of December,” for example. However, in my opinion, George Saunders’ writing is more enjoyable due to its fast-paced, engrossing nature. 

Mutual Recognition and Healthcare

Over the summer, I worked in a skilled memory care facility as a caregiver. In my life so far, that is where I have felt most prominently the power struggles mentioned by Benjamin in Bonds of Love. However, the experience was confusing to me in that I, as a caretaker, had power over the residents as my job was to take care of them and was tasked with controlling many parts of their lives, while they also had power over me as I was their caregiver. I’m still not quite sure if I was the subject or object in this situation, but I am certain that achieving mutual recognition in any place related to medicine would be extremely difficult.

Having a clear hierarchy of power is something that can be found in almost every medical workplace, and often helps facilitate effective and efficient patient care, which should be the ultimate goal of any medical institution. However, I feel this system also has many drawbacks in that the patients are stripped of their personhood and viewed solely as patients, which is a dehumanizing experience to anyone.

Personally, I believe that mutual recognition in a hospital setting would require recognition of patients as humans and not just a chart or list of ailments. In turn, patients would need to recognize their doctors’ humanity, which arguably is more difficult than the former, as hospitals are scary places to begin with, and acknowledging doctors not as doctors but as humans (who can sometimes make mistakes) would only add to that fear. Is a binary balance of power a necessary evil in the field of medicine, or would mutual recognition help alleviate the fear so often associated with hospitals?