Chrétien and the Silent Majority

“Well I didn’t vote for you” 1

Silence versus speech, namely question and answers, serves as one of the central conceits of Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail (Perceval). Perceval begins the story as an uncouth youth who states whatever he wishes, and as indicative of most bildungsroman narratives, he matures, but he matures into silence. The gentleman and vavasour, Gornemant of Gohort, gives Perceval advice, “‘he who talks too much commits a sin’…I warn you not to talk too much” (402)2, and this becomes Perceval’s guiding motivational aphorism, following his mother’s earlier advice. In the definitive moment of him being seated at the Fisher King’s table and witnessing the grail procession, he does not ask any questions, and his “failure becomes one of being silent” (Murrell 55). Perceval’s (de)evolution as a character seems analogous to the modern day apathetic citizen, for though he undergoes “refinement” his resultant character shift, though societally acceptable, results in failure.

Raised ignorant to his noble bloodline, chivalry, and courtly etiquette, Perceval knew no other life besides the sheltered existence manufactured for him by his mother in the Waste Land (387). Chance or fate brought him in contact with five knights, beginning his tale and indoctrination into knighthood. Perceval leaves after receiving a lecture from his mother, who faints upon his departure from worry (387-389). Impulsive decision and want drive Perceval to King Arthur. He bursts into the court at Camelot:

The boy [Perceval] did not give a fig for anything the king told him, nor did his grief or the shame done the queen make any impression on him. ‘Make me a knight, sir king.’ he said, ‘for I wish to be on my way.’ The eyes of the rustic youth were bright and laughing in his head. No one who saw him thought him wise, but everyone who observed him considered him handsome and noble.

‘Friend,’ said the king, ‘dismount and give your hunter to this squire…’

And the boy replied: ‘The knights I met in the heath never dismounted, yet you want me to dismount! By my head, I’ll not dismount, so get on with it and I’ll be on my way’ (393)

Perceval’s boldness here, namely his refusal to dismount, appears as an affront to Arthur’s authority, but his actions derive from his limited intellect in courtly mannerisms. He does not care to change his mode of discourse. Following his courteous labeling of Perceval as “friend” and asking him to “dismount,” Arthur takes a dig at Perceval’s age and background: he stands as no more than a “naïve boy” (393). He adds in a positive comment about his uncertain noble birth and potential to be “brave and wise,” but he lists the negative first—despite the use of subordinate conjunction “though.” This sentence structure prioritizes Perceval’s status as “naïve” and reinforces Arthur’s conception of him as merely a simple Welsh boy (393).

Later on in this above, excerpted passage, Arthur evokes the longstanding argument of nature versus nurture in the near conditional, “if his [Perceval’s] folly has come from poor teaching, [then] he can still prove brave and wise” (393). The phraseology here supposes that Arthur maintains some degree of hope for “saving” the boy from his ignorance by knighting him. The rest of Arthur’s commentary, however, pushes this hope to the background as he deftly exclaims how Perceval will “be dead or crippled” because “he’s so simple-minded and uncouth” (397). Arthur zeros in on Perceval’s intelligence and mannerisms after analyzing his physicality and personality because both mattered when assessing the overall ability of a knight. Perceval’s noble birth, however, stands as the key to his knighthood. Arthur made Perceval a knight, and Perceval dedicated his all to becoming a faithful knight, only at the expense of losing a part of his personality, and perhaps, identity.

Perceval’s change in character and his silence in wake of the Fisher King’s procession connects with and contrasts to his initial depiction as an “uncouth” Welsh boy. Note his aforementioned, brash request to be knighted, and then the curious questioning by his lodgers as to whether “[he] is a mute” (404). Between these two events, Perceval, who Chrétien always emphasizes is a “youth,” learns traditional courtly manners, gains a new set of clothes (401), fights Anguingueron (409) and Clamadeu (417), rescues a castle from starvation (412), all the while holding his tongue. Eventually, Perceval realizes that he must return to his mother and leave “his beautiful love Blancheflor” who he picked up during the above delineated exploits (417). On his way to reunite with his mother, Perceval stumbles upon the titular grail in the castle of the Fisher King. During the grail procession, Chrétien spares no narrative criticism. The procession begins with the passing of a white lance, candelabra, and grail. After each item passes by Perceval, he fails to question why, even after the procession repeats. Chrétien’s commentary during this scene highlights Perceval’s impressionable nature, calling attention to the “admonishment given by the gentleman” or “wise gentleman’s advice” that Perceval keeps “in his heart” (420, 421). This “gentleman,” Gornemant of Gohort, appears in Chrétien’s three main, and near identical criticisms of Perceval: that is, Perceval “refrained from asking” out of fear “that if he asked they [the Fisher King and fellow guests] would consider him uncouth” (420). Curiously, this is the second appearance of “uncouth” as a supposedly negative adjective tied to Perceval as a character, and looking at the historical definition of the word to align with Chrétien’s timeframe meant merely “unknown, unfamiliar, or strange” (OED). Retrospectively, “strangeness” should not be a problem or character flaw, but Chrétien thought otherwise. With the passing of the grail, though, Chrétien states another characteristic of Perceval, possibly residual curiosity from his bumbling ignorance that he happily voiced prior to his teaching, “[Perceval] saw the grail pass by completely uncovered before him…he wanted to know; he said to himself that he would be sure to ask one of the court squires before he let thereSo the question was put off and he set his mind to drinking and eating” (421, emphasis mine). Perceval wants to know, and that makes a key distinction between being indifferent, a “marvel,” or just not having the audacity to speak out or question out of fear.

Chrétien’s commentary on Perceval’s lack of initiative and his check on himself to fit into societally acceptable behavior emphasizes his change but also the extent of the hold this “gentleman” had on Perceval—he shaped Perceval, boxing him into his own norm. Perceval forgets the value in speaking out, a trait he frequently used in the first half of the tale. In this instance, the mode shifts from a creation of Perceval as a character to an onslaught of narration. Chrétien relays Perceval’s many missed opportunities, and this narration does not necessarily espouse a tone of derision; if anything, Chrétien’s humor comes through.

In the introduction to the collection containing Perceval, William W. Kibler notes how Chrétien’s use of humor “give[s] the impression of a real discussion” and shows his ability to “incorporate keenly observed realistic details into the most fantastic adventures” (17). This trait carries into Chrétien’s brilliant narrative quips in Perceval: “It is a difficult task to teach a fool” (395); “If anyone were to tell it again it would be boring and wearisome” (398); “I’ll say no more about the meal” (401); and “I could tell you all about it if I made that my purpose, but I do not want to waste my efforts, since one word is as good as twenty” (414). Assessing the pagination of these excerpted lines of narration shows that Chrétien writes with leisure, and perhaps, to entertain himself as much as the reader3. Contextually, these quips read as humorous, and the language breaks up the narration, directly addressing the audience. While Chrétien maintains free reign to insert commentary and move or direct the discourse, Perceval does not. As a character of his own creation, Chrétien silences Perceval, especially considering the Fisher King’s grail procession. Chrétien’s ultimate quip foreshadows Perceval’s failure4, and calls for an even level between silence and brash exclamations/demands: Chrétien inserts a narrative quip as foreshadow, commenting on Perceval’s silence, and calling for some middle ground: “Yet I fear that this may be to his misfortune, for I have heard it said that at times it is just as wrong to keep too silent as to talk too much. Whether for good or for ill he did not ask or inquire anything of them” (421).

Moving from Perceval’s character arch to Chrétien’s actual narration brings to light one filmic adaptation of this grail cycle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (henceforth, MPHG). Chrétien created the grail story in Perceval, and his text serves as the bedrock for other grail cycles. As Professor Elizabeth Murrell notes that any discussion of MPHG, “must be informed by the numerous versions of the various stories that compose the grail cycle and that fill the historical space between Chrétien and the production of the film” (51). She calls attention to the varying versions of the grail procession seen across centuries from Sir Thomas Malory to Milton, but for sake of conciseness, and to stick within the bounds of this paper’s thesis, the focus remains on Chrétien’s Perceval and how it relates to MPHG.

The surrealist humor in MPHG tests audiences much like Chrétien’s quips—Python humor is rooted in intellectual and linguistic puns, and some of the jokes may come off as absurd rather than funny. Regardless, that humor augments the film from a low budget British import to a defense of humor as a medium for challenging political discourse, defending its own absurdity; as medieval film specialist Kevin J. Harty states, “this silly film is by no means a trivial one” (147). The social significance of this humor, especially when considered from a political standpoint, serves a key purpose: humor drops the barriers inevitably raised with political discourse. Consider Terry Gilliam’s comment on MPHG, “humor is a great test, as well as a great defense” (Meuwese 56). The “test” and “defense” in Gilliam’s quote refer to the “crude” or “irreverent” animation in MPHG, but the quote also speaks volumes for the film as an “interpretation of the medieval and the modern” and as a culturally significant commentary on issues of “justice, violence, and desire” (Harty 147).

MPHG serves an important modern interpretation of Perceval. As a cult classic, its many one-liners rank as cultural mainstays5. Indeed, Professor Greg M. Smith observes that the “picaresque structure of Arthurian tales dovetailed” with the Python sketch comedy, creating nonlinear “self-enclosed sketches,” and these “structural characteristics” made the film “a series of ‘quotable’ moments” for “fans” to “integrate…into their lives” (72). To go along with Chrétien’s quips and (foreshadowing) narration, MPHG features three narrative interludes between scenes five and six, 23 and 24, 31 and 32, and importantly humorous one-liners throughout. During the second narrative interlude6, the narrator and several of the main characters of the film directly address the audience with an exclamatory “Get on with it!” a line resonating with Chrétien’s “I’ll say no more about the meal” (401) or “I do not want to waste my efforts” (414). Bringing in MPHG, draws from Professor Elizabeth Murrell’s paper, “History Revenged: Monty Python Translates Chrétien De Troyes’s Perceval, Or The Story of the Grail (Again).” Murrell positions Perceval as MPHG’s Arthur. Looking at the humor of inherent in Perceval’s character in Chrétien and comparing him King Arthur, in MPHG serves as a kind of play on the current state of affairs: even the most chivalric, noble, king of kings can be made fun of, and so must the orange buffoon in Office of the President of the United States; citizens need not be silent to tyranny; they must satirize it, and though MPHG is “not really satirizing anything specific” (Sims), both works maintain political undertones.

MPHG parallels Perceval—the former draws from latter as source material. Chrétien wrote in a time of political discord. MPHG first aired in the United States in 1975, three years after Watergate7. Both use humor in their narration or allow their characters to voice humorous one-liners, but the silencing of Perceval in the grail procession, a scene solely found in Chrétien, marks an important difference. Murrell finds the tension in both works derives from “the clash of the authority of the parent (the domestic) and the authority of the king (the political or public) when there is no mediating discourse” (55). As aforesaid, Chrétien calls for a middle ground in his foreshadowing narration in the grail procession. The United States, in 2017, needs a middle ground. In a sense, citizens largely begin active political life as “uncouth youths” like Perceval. Society expects perfection, and a “gentleman” like Gornemant comes in to correct, educate outspoken youths, effectively silencing options most different to his own, so said youth never again speaks boldly to persons above his status (split infinitive for your pleasure). They become indoctrinated into a societal situation knowing how to behave in traditional discursive situations but not knowing how to assert their own identity, their own options to fully participate (in society, or Socratic question and answer situations as seen in both Perceval and MPHG).

After Perceval’s failure to speak, he wakes to a silent castle, leaves, and comes across a lady, his cousin, weeping over the death of a knight. She begins a series of questions and answers with Perceval. She asks him what he saw at the grail procession, and Perceval gives her fragmentary answers leading to the important question, “‘Did you ask the people where they were going in this manner?’” to which Perceval answers, “‘No question came from my mouth’” (425). Following this statement, Chrétien reveals Perceval by name, calling him Perceval the Welshman (then the lady calls him Perceval the wretched). Supposedly, Perceval had not known his name up to that point, but “although he did not know if that were true or not, he spoke the truth without knowing it” (425). This scene matches several scenes in MPHG, but “The Bridge Of Death” (Q: Stop! What is your name? A: It is Arthur, King of the Britons), “Constitutional Peasants” (Q: Who are the Britons? A: Well, we all are. We’re all Britons, and I am your king),8 and “The Witch Trail” (Q: How do you know she is a witch? A: She looks like one) scenes seem most apt in the exchange of information. And, whether rhetorical in some instances or not, these questions move along discourse and allow the sharing of information. In the case of MPHG, these questions receive answers that completely inverse the discourse or undermine the questioner, particularly in the case of the “Constitutional Peasant” scene, for the peasants render King Arthur’s authority null, much like pre-educated Perceval’s run-in with the king.

These two works negotiate different modes of discourse, for Chrétien excessive speech or excessive quietness result in failure, or as Perceval’s cousin relates “much suffering” and a kind of “sin” (425); for the Pythons, not poking fun at authority results in a failure of their comedic art. Both works satirize the present. Their shared humor makes it a point that the petty differences in politics and authority today, the silencing of different opinions and not listening yields a kind of injustice. Satire in art always serves a key purpose in society, and Perceval and MPHG both attest to the fact that power struggles will always plague modern society—said struggles date back to the “medieval,” and yet, like Perceval, citizens remain silent, become labeled as a silent majority, content with half listening to some autocratic figurehead in a wig.


Notes

  1. This quote is taken from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (MPHG)…In my continual quest to find validity in my major or the importance of it—I found myself in medieval literature this semester. I can’t say I enjoyed every work we read, but to pass the time and cope with the fact that I had to do the readings to get a good grade and be a good student, I tried to find some iota of humor in everything we read. I didn’t know the course centered on Arthurian literature, much less romances, but when I discovered the variations of the traditional Arthurian myth and that romances began as simply texts written in French, I felt a bit better about being in this class. For this final exam (that I did not want to write because I am graduating and heading for my undetermined future in London and law school), I give you a loose analysis of what I feel the function of one tale we read. I also wanted to include the only thing I thought of time and time again this semester: MPHG...one of the most preeminent films of this past century, a work of pure comic genius. But, since Trump began his lame ass presidency this semester (I’m not trying to make fun of people who can’t walk “right” or of donkeys, they substitute for a harsher expletive that doesn’t belong in an academic paper), I had to root this whole paper in this depressing context. In this contextualization, I discovered ties throughout text, film, and politics, and something came out of this—namely this lame term paper that you probably won’t read all the way through, but that’s ok. I focused on The Story of the Grail (Perceval) because that story was hilarious and served as a major source text for the Pythons in crafting MPHG. Hopefully, you found my analysis enjoyable. Thanks.
  2. For sake of redundancy, unless otherwise prefaced with a different author, all of the following in-text citations come from: De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Ed. William W. Kibler. London: Penguin, 2005. 381-494. Print [cited below]. As this text is a prose version of Chrétien’s French poetry, I have given the page numbers rather than the line numbers.
  3. Note the headnote (pun intended) to Perceval “thanking” Count Philip of Flanders for his patronage (381). See Adolf for the historical context; supposedly, there was a political situation involving aristocracy, Philip of Flanders, and the monarch.
  4. For further commentary on this and an analysis of Perceval’s “failure” as criminal, see McCullough: “His obstinate questioning and his resistance to being questioned are interpreted as a sign of his sauvagerie and naivete, as ignorance of good manners. It is important to note that in this scene Perceval asks first about the lance that a knight, who looks to him like God himself, carries: that is, he asks the precise question that he refrains from asking at the castle. Perceval will soon discover, however, that his postponement of the question constitutes a crime” (52, emphasis mine).
  5. Notable lines include: “How could a 5-ounce bird possibly carry a 1-pound coconut?” “Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.” “Look, that rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide! It’s a killer!’ ‘It’s just a flesh wound.” “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!” “Oh! Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!” “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”
  6. Excerpted narrative interlude: “The wise Sir Bedeveire was the first to join King Arthur’s knights, but other illustrious names were soon to follow: Sir Launcelot the Brave; Sir Galahad the Pure; and Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Launcelot who had nearly fought the Dragon of Agnor, who had nearly stood up to the vicious Chicken of Bristol and who had personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill; and the aptly named Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film.  Together they formed a band whose names and deeds were to be retold throughout the centuries, the Knights of the Round Table.”
  7. See BBC News, Glass, and King.
  8. Excerpted scene below:

ARTHUR:  Old woman!

DENNIS:  Man!

ARTHUR: Old Man, sorry.  What knight live in that castle over there?

DENNIS:  I’m thirty seven.

ARTHUR:  What?

DENNIS:  I’m thirty seven — I’m not old!

ARTHUR:  Well, I can’t just call you `Man’.

DENNIS:  Well, you could say `Dennis’.

ARTHUR:  Well, I didn’t know you were called `Dennis.’

DENNIS:  Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?

ARTHUR:  I did say sorry about the `old woman,’ but from the behind

you looked–

DENNIS:  What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior!

ARTHUR:  Well, I AM king…

DENNIS:  Oh king, eh, very nice.  An’ how’d you get that, eh?  By

exploitin’ the workers — by ‘angin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma

which perpetuates the economic an’ social differences in our society!

If there’s ever going to be any progress–

WOMAN:  Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here.  Oh — how d’you do?

ARTHUR:  How do you do, good lady.  I am Arthur, King of the Britons.

Who’s castle is that?

WOMAN:  King of the who?

ARTHUR:  The Britons.

WOMAN:  Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR:  Well, we all are. we’re all Britons and I am your king.

WOMAN:  I didn’t know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous

collective.

DENNIS:  You’re fooling yourself.  We’re living in a dictatorship.

A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes–

WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.

DENNIS:  That’s what it’s all about if only people would–

ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives

in that castle?

WOMAN:  No one live there.

ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?

WOMAN:  We don’t have a lord.

ARTHUR:  What?

DENNIS:  I told you.  We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  We take

it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

ARTHUR:  Yes.

DENNIS:  But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified

at a special biweekly meeting.

ARTHUR:  Yes, I see.

DENNIS:  By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,–

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

DENNIS:  –but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more–

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!  I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN:  Order, eh — who does he think he is?

ARTHUR:  I am your king!

WOMAN:  Well, I didn’t vote for you.

ARTHUR:  You don’t vote for kings.

WOMAN:  Well, ‘ow did you become king then?

ARTHUR:  The Lady of the Lake,

[angels sing]

her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur

from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I,

Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.

[singing stops]

That is why I am your king!

DENNIS:  Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords

is no basis for a system of government.  Supreme executive power

derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical

aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

DENNIS:  Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power

just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR:  Shut up!

DENNIS:  I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an empereror just

because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d

put me away!

ARTHUR:  Shut up!  Will you shut up!

DENNIS:  Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

ARTHUR:  Shut up!

DENNIS:  Oh!  Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!

ARTHUR:  Bloody peasant!

DENNIS:  Oh, what a give away.  Did you here that, did you here that,

eh?  That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me,

you saw it didn’t you?

9. Some of the “works” in my Works Cited were not quoted directly in my essay, but I found them useful when preparing to write it, so I left them in because I did honestly read/watch/listen to them…well I did skim the Khanh Le thesis…


Works Cited

Adolf, Helen. “A Historical Background for Chrétien’s Perceval.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 58.3 : 597-620. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2017.

De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Ed. William W. Kibler. London: Penguin, 2005. 381-494. Print.

“Echoes of Watergate Resurface as Trump-Russia Links Probed.” BBC News. BBC, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

Glass, Ira. “615: The Beginning of Now.” Audio blog post. This American Life. Chicago Public Media, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 4 May 2017.

Harty, Kevin J. Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

King, Colbert I. “Russia Is Trump’s Watergate. Will He React like Nixon?” The Washington Post. WP Company, 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

Le, Khanh. Humor, Romance, Horror and Epic in Text and Film of Arthurian Legend Adaptations. Thesis. CUNY City College, 2014. New York: CUNY Academic Works, 2014. Print.

McCullough, Ann. “Criminal Naivety: Blind Resistance and the Pain of Knowing in Chrétien De Troyes’s Conte Du Graal.” Modern Language Review 101.1 : 48-61. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2017.

Meuwese, Martine. “The Animation of Marginal Decorations in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’” Arthuriana, vol. 14, no. 4, 2004, pp. 45–58., http://www.jstor.org/stable/27870655.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. By Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2002.

Murrell, Elizabeth. “History Revenged: Monty Python Translates Chrétien De Troyes’s Perceval, Or The Story of the Grail (Again).” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 50, no. 1, 1998, pp. 50–62., http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688168.

Sims, David. “How Monty Python and the Holy Grail Influenced Film by Satirizing It.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 May 2017.

Smith, Greg M. “‘To Waste More Time, Please Click Here Again:’ Monty Python and the Quest for Film/CD-ROM Adaptation.” On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology. New York: New York UP, 1999. 58-85. Print.

“uncouth, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 11 May 2017.

Wilderness, Faerie, and Character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

French Arthurian romances, like those of Chrétien de Troyes, often gloss over particulars of geography. Other romances involving Sir Gawain, in particular, follow suit; contrary to this, fitt II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) highlights specific geography of Northern England. Certainly, scholars elaborated on “þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale” before (see Elliott and Rudd), and yet, the particular line and the word itself demands further elaboration alongside how the wilderness, augmented by faerie, interweaves with the poem’s two titular characters.

The Gawain Poet (henceforth simply, poet) initially describes the forest in abnormal clarity and then muddles over the rest of the details, including perilous events that befall Sir Gawain. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) features the line “In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale” from SGGK (ln 701) in definition 1b of “wilderness.” This example supports the following, historical (c1400), definition of wilderness as “a wild or uncultivated region or tract of land, uninhabited, or inhabited only by wild animals; ‘a tract of solitude and savageness’” (OED). The denotation of “wilderness” deserves examination because of the poet’s irregular geographic specificity and inclusion of faerie elements–the Green Knight himself–within said location. Indeed, the poet names actual places, particularly those in the North of England like Wirral and Cheshire, but also Wales and the Isles of Anglesey with all their accompanying topographical detail (see ln 695-705).

The OED and the glossary in SGGK both define “wilderness” or its equivalents, “wasteland” and “forest” as “uninhabited,” “deserted” (242, 245). And yet, however abstract in the poem, faerie spectacles and creatures, inhabit the wilderness of Wirral; “uninhabited” merely signifies “uninhabited” by specific types of living beings. Though, Gawain encounters inhabitants of the uninhabited (see ln 719-735), including the Green Knight, who do not satisfy this condition of the word. “Wilderness,” as a noun, labels and encompasses an area, but does not assume habitation by faerie creatures; neither does the basal meaning–free of symbolic suggestion–of “wasteland” or “forest.” The OED defines “wilderness” as uninhabited but qualifies it as perhaps “inhabited only by wild animals.” Extending wild to encompass faerie, though, fits with the poem.

Further inlaying the wild with faerie, the poet substitutes “wyldernesse” with “wasteland” in fitt IV to reference the wilderness of Wirral. Noting SGGK as a Ricardian work, critic Roger Caillois’ commentary on fantasy in the “Middle Ages,” proves useful. Caillois described the period as “steeped in the supernatural” noting the excessive “continuity between people’s beliefs and their certainties about another invisible world ruled by the gods and daemons” (quoted in Durix 14). Following this logic, reality fused with faerie in this period. The wild, too, conflated with faerie allowing various descriptions to affix to the forest of Wirral, making it mystical and contradictory (uninhabited and inhabited) place, but real nonetheless. The principle faerie aspect of SGGK, namely the Green Knight himself and the beheading game he controls, makes the tale. To use a Tolkienian term, they function as a type of “arresting strangeness,” drawing the reader and protagonist Gawain into the depths of the wilderness. Upon passing into the wilderness, Gawain encounters faerie elements of lesser import but still worthy of brief commentary: considering the poet’s comment on the “wild” beasts Gawain fights on his way [(“Hit were tore for to telle of the tenthe dole” (ln 719)] the Green Knight deserves focus as the titular faerie being and not the accessory creatures like the noted “wormes,” “wolves,” and “wodwos” (ln 720-721). The Green Knight is both the wild and faerie. The creatures are both wild and faerie, but as the poet does not dwell on them, this paper will not either.

The Green Knight, denied of a solid, identifying name until the final fitt, uses a color to define himself, and does not disclose the location of his chapel, again, favoring color to constitute tangibility. Faerie demands tangibility–to venture forth in a world against or partially unhinged from reality instantiates a suspension of disbelief that gives way to some degree of control, but faerie’s “arresting strangeness” supersedes all actions. Green, as a symbolic representation, qualifies him as a knight and serves as the only clue to his incomplete identity. The Green Knight links with and personifies his environment. He is of both wilderness and faerie because both belong to and define him. The Green Knight announces himself to Gawain as such, saying, “‘Bertilak de Hautdesert I hat in this londe,’” (ln 2445). The prepositional phrase in his actual name (Bertilak of the high desert) and the adjectival qualifier in his pseudonym (the Green Knight) tie him to his environment: here wild bridges with faerie and makes him, as a character, more tangible. Again, Bertilak, as a wild man is from and of the wilderness. He also parades into King Arthur’s court to initiate a beheading game as a faerie spectacle. Both of his names combine to complete his identity as intertwined with his environment. Roots in actual geography allows for an ideal suspension of disbelief, so the Green Knight and his faerie elements (e.g. his green skin and aura, girth, and invincibility) augment the setting by imbuing it with faerie.

Equating wild with faerie reinforces the setting of SGGK. Faerie isolates individuals by pushing them to the limit of their imaginations and forcing them to question reality. Readers question faerie just as Gawain questions his identity. Gawain undergoes a kind of voyage of the soul as he enters into the wild. He, courtesy of his chivalric loyalty, undertakes a wholly unfamiliar task in beheading the Green Knight and then acquiescing to his game (ln 495). Gawain’s whole self thereafter seems enmeshed in an uninhabited place both physically and mentally. The poet continually reinforces Gawain’s solitude throughout the poem, making him a geographic isolate despite the realistic Northern English backdrop. The poet’s description of Gawain on the way into Wirral, specifically of him wandering hopelessly alone (ln 695, 735, 749) connects with the OED’s sub-definition of wilderness as “a tract of solitude and savageness” and circles back to the concluding encounter with the Green Knight (see ln 2245).

The nature of the beheading game and the physical environment itself deprive Gawain of companionship (except for God), making him vulnerable to self-doubt. The Green Knight and his wife question Gawain’s identity: the wife accuses his courteous reputation when he politely refuses her (ln 1293), and then in a parallel line, the Green Knight frankly declares, “Thou art no Gawayn” (ln 2270). Gawain’s name becomes a topic of conversation, which calls his reputation into question, and Gawain must reconcile that as an un-inhabitant, fully alone in faerie infused wild. Furthermore, when the beheading game reaches its denouement and Gawain enters the Green Chapel, the Green Knight states: “Iwysse, thou art welcom, wyye, to my place/…And we ar in this valay verayly oure one” (ln 2240, 2245). The Green Knight welcomes Gawain to “my [his] place,” again claiming ownership over his domain while emphasizing their state of solitude. Gawain acted and faced the Green Knight alone save for the presence of a girdle courtesy of Bertilak’s wife.

Gawain, as a literary character acts as the quintessential knight with his perfect courtesy, but the many poets that wrote him into existence presumably based off of the ideal qualities of real knights. Gawain inside a real geographic location though makes no sense, but placing him in Wirral, a real forest/wilderness, imbues said place with story, faerie. This placement also characterizes Gawain as a fanciful character against the backdrop of reality. The poet forefronts faerie elements and location around Gawain. The Green Knight and his embodiment of nature first deprives Gawain of his companions, makes him question his identity, and then forces Gawain to carry a burden of his redefinition as a product of his environment. He carries with him a badge, the girdle. He carries with him a new-formed identity. His roots extend into the soil and enforce his bones. He survives the beheading game as no longer a forgotten, isolated inhabitant of an uninhabited land, but as a character not so dissimilar from the Green Knight in terms of his geographic links.


Works Cited

Battles, Paul. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Peterborough: Broadview, 2012. Print.

Caillois, Roger. Anthologie Du Fantastique. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. 9-10. Print.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. “The Status of ‘Fantasy’ in Maori Literature in English: The Case of Witi Ihimaera.” European Journal of English Studies. Vol. 2. N.p.: n.p., 1998. 11. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Elliott, Ralph W. V. The Gawain Country: Essays on the Topography of Middle English Alliterative Poetry. Leeds: U of Leeds, School of English, 1984. Print.

Rudd, Gillian. “‘The Wilderness of Wirral’ in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’” Arthuriana 23.1 (2013): 52-65. JSTOR. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 139. Print.

“wild, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 12 March 2017.

“wilderness, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 6 March 2017.

Possession and Fatherhood in “Rappacini’s Daughter”

Narratives, with all their complexity, detail, and singular characters, explore what William Empson calls a “complex word.” For Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” its full title qualifies as the complex word, and the entire story works it out. The title sets up a possessive: Rappaccini, the father, literally, by punctuation, possesses his daughter, Beatrice. Hawthorne selectively writes his title to position Rappaccini, from the outset, as the main character while objectively characterizing Beatrice.

The title defines Beatrice’s identity, for she literally is Rappaccini’s daughter, but “Beatrice” easily substitutes for that definition. Replacing a definition of Beatrice with Beatrice’s actual name, though, forefronts her human identity, agency and does not include her identity as an experiment. Beatrice functions in the story as a central object affecting three male characters, limiting her holistic characterization. Hawthorne introduces two of the three primary male characters before introducing Beatrice, and she finally enters the narrative when her father summons her (‘Beatrice! Beatrice!’ [2657]). She first voices her identity, “‘Here am I, my father! What would you?’” (2657), but the context curtails her exclamatory reply, especially considering the elaborate description of her beauty following it. Accordingly, the possessive title elucidates her objective characterization as her father’s experimental object, and however problematic, labels the short story well.

Beatrice begins and ends the story as Rappaccini’s experiment. Rappaccini’s skewed sense of identity as a father factors into his need to possess Beatrice. Possessing becomes his way of protection, but Rappaccini’s perverted testament of love deprives Beatrice of a “normal” existence. Rappaccini believes his daughter, as a female, requires some defense mechanism. When Beatrice objects to her father’s “fatal science” (2674) for poisoning her life and love prospects, he says to her:

‘What mean you, foolish girl? Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvellous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy? Misery, to be able to quell the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as thou art beautiful? Wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none’ (2675)

Rappacini misunderstood his daughter’s heart and desires—she alone maintains the agency to make her own decisions, but her father corrupts her inborn free will via possessive fatherhood. Beatrice proves her resilience, though, and capacity to capitalize on her less than ideal situation as an experiment in her retort: “I would fain have been loved, not feared” (2675). She dies criticizing her father for possessing and poisoning her existence. Certainly, Rappaccini aimed to better equip his daughter with “marvellous gifts” to battle oppressive patriarchal society, but in manipulating her, he crosses the line between father and scientist.


Works Cited

Empson, William. “The Structure of Complex Words.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 56, no. 2, 1948, pp. 230–250.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappacini’s Daughter.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. By Paul Lauter, Richard Yarborough, and John Alberti. Vol. 2. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014. 2653-2676. Print.

Hobbits and Heroes

Hobbits value, or rather love, “peace and quiet and good tilled earth” (Tolkien, The Fellowship 1). They, with their “mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking” (2) delight in and value simple pleasures, never fighting amongst themselves in a “warlike” manner (5). They behave as Tolkien’s readers, and he speaks directly to this fact when describing these “burrowing, hole-dwelling” (Foster 257) creatures in the prolog to The Lord of the Rings.

It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves. Of old, they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion, and liked and disliked much the same things as Men did. But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered (The Fellowship 2).

Here lies the crux of hobbits, their characterization as a distant cousin of readers; consider the inclusive pronouns “ours” and “us” particularly. Hobbits, with their frivolity and pettiness resemble people in the lives of readers, if not the readers themselves. Tolkien based the home of hobbits, the Shire, “more or less [on] a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” (Garth, “Sam” np.) to further align this species with Englishmen, readers in the primary world. He also meant to make heroes out of them. In their humility, passion for the quotidian, and a firm connection to the earth (they walk without shoes), hobbits maintain a strength and will to persevere against dire odds, not unlike the soldiers in World War I. Both dismantled the traditional idea of hero previously defined by Greek and Roman mythology and epics (especially those of the Germanic variety espousing “Northern courage”).

The “modern literary hero” rests on the literary perception of “modern,” meaning after World War I (1914-1918) and involving “a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases…of Western culture” (Abrams 167). Epics, mythology, and literature at large, stand as some of the “traditional bases.” Studying Greek and Latin works at King Edward’s School as well as focusing on Classics and comparative philology at Oxford provided Tolkien with a superb knowledge of Western culture’s bedrock texts (Garth, “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien” 2-3). Tolkien had knowledge enough of the action hero archetype (so pervasive in epics) to do as Abrams suggests: he modernized the hero, radically breaking (167) or rather uprooting this archetype to plant a new hero, a hobbit.

Tolkien’s service in WWI factored into his definition of hobbits as modern literary heroes. He saw his battalion decimated, took part in the battle of the Somme, and lost all but one of his close friends by 1918 (Garth, “Tolkien” 2-3). Tolkien recalled his experience in the war enough to allude to WWI soldiers in his translation of Beowulf (another example of the “traditional bases”), providing the following commentary: “Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them” (Tolkien, “Beowulf” 113). Certainly a hero “is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance” (Abrams 77), but WWI showcased the psychological wreckage of an entire generation of young men caused by action in the war. Focusing on the soldier as a subjectively complex, thinking individual changed the idea of war as well as the hero. This focus made the hero modern by undercutting traditional heroes like Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf. Philosopher and classicist, Angie Hobbs, summarizing Plato and attempting to formally modernize the hero, sees passion as a replacement for the traditional martial valor in the characterization of heroes (Bragg). The modern hero, then, would maintain a greatness of soul, the refusal to submit, and a calm, strong endurance of misfortune (Bragg).

The four central hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, exemplify all three of these characteristics and deserve the title as passionate modern heroes. To Tolkien, WWI was an “utter stupid waste” and a “moral and spiritual” detriment “to those who have [had] to endure it” (Garth, “Writing” 3). But, soldiers endured the “animal horror,” serving passionately for their family, brotherhood, and nation (Garth, “Tolkien” 2-3) just as Sam served Frodo; the hobbits (collectively), Middle-earth. Sam proves to be the best example out of the hobbits for characterizing them as heroes, for he stands as a “reflexion” of Tolkien’s WWI batmen rolled into one (Garth, “Sam” np.). His dedication and perseverance baffles readers as he says to Frodo, “I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, which I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me” (The Fellowship 85). Sam formally addresses Frodo here (in his typical fashion), and tells of an unseen need to keep going—Sam maintains a greatness of soul by coming to terms with his needs; he refuses to submit and return to the Shire after seeing the elves, and though not presently obvious, his calm but strong endurance of misfortune comes out later during his and Frodo’s perilous journey to Mordor. He satisfies all the aforesaid criteria while lacking any epic, privileged background. He has no expectations, making his actions even more heroic.

In Moria, the traditional hero, Aragorn, cries the name of his ancestor, “Elendil!” (The Fellowship 322), while the modern hero, Frodo, cries the name of his home, “The Shire!” (316). Their values differ here—Aragorn thinks of his expectations, thrust upon him by his epic background, and Frodo thinks of his home like any common reader would. A chink in this hypothesis, of the hobbits as modern heroes without any grandiose beginnings resides Frodo, Merry, and Pippin being upper class. Frodo came into wealth through his uncle, Bilbo, Merry is the Master of Buckland’s son (Foster 331), and Pippin is the “thirty-second Thain of the Shire (14-64) and a Counsellor of the North-kingdom (14-64)” (Foster 401). Their priviledged backgrounds, however, do not factor into how they see themselves, and they, unlike other members of the Company, do not introduce themselves as “Frodo son of Drogo” (The Fellowship 316). Still, Sam serves as the prime example of the modern literary hero. He is merely a gardener, but his loyalty and steadfastness endure to the end.

All the other members of the Company or Fellowship come from royal, celebrated, or privileged genealogical roots whereas the hobbits seem less concerned with the upper echelon, resembling the origins of modern day readers. For instance, Aragorn descends from Númenórean prince Isildur [and is his heir (The Fellowship 241)]; he remains the last Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North (Foster 122). He may have been introduced as a “grim” Ranger in a pub (The Fellowship 153), but his history distances him from readers—because of his background, heroic deeds expected of him, and even his elevated diction make him inaccessible. As a member of the Dúnedain, he “knew and spoke an Elvish tongue,” which he often infused into his speech (“Appendix F” 1102). The elves appear even more distant than Aragorn: they are wholly divine beings. Prince of the Woodland Realm (Foster 140) and sole elf of the Company, Legolas exclaims the English word “Alas! Alas!” at the Council of Elrond to announce his highly formal introduction (The Fellowship 248). Gimli, son of Glóin (Foster 208) has a similar introduction: an antiquated exchange of axioms with Elrond (The Fellowship 274) marks his first stretch of dialogue, removing him, establishing his diction as higher than the hobbits. The Common Speech, as adopted by hobbits, was used “freely and carelessly,” but “the more learned among them had still at their command a more formal language when occasion required” (“Appendix F” 1104). Indeed, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin shy away from such elevated diction (except when addressing Elves), contrary to epic convention, and their lexicons feature simpler terms and a heavy use of contractions (The Fellowship 48, 273, 276, 90) that parallel modern, colloquial English. They talk like Tolkien’s readers.

From these ideas, crafting a generalization like, “Most accessible, modern literary heroes have values, behavior, and speech pattern like humans,” demands accompanying and relevant premises to characterize it as a cogent argument. Consider the following premises: Hobbits are accessible to the reader; Hobbits are modern literary heroes; Hobbits have values, behavior, and speech patterns like humans. Rearranging these premises as the above essay does yield the cogent argumentative pattern as defined by Richard Feldman in Reason and Argument (86):

  1. x is an A. (Hobbits are accessible to the reader)
  2. x is a B. (Hobbits are modern literary heroes)
  3. Most ABs are Cs (Most accessible, modern literary heroes have  values, behavior, and speech pattern like humans)
  1. x is C. (Hobbits have values, behavior, and speech patterns like humans)

Some paragraphs adjust some wording to expound upon the premises and provide linguistic flourishes for aesthetics, but the generalization remains that hobbits are accessible, modern literary heroes (with passion, etc.) because they value, like and dislike “the same things,” eat and drink “the same things,” and speak the same way as readers (The Fellowship 2). The hobbits provide hope for the humble and self-conscious, illustrating that even the smallest individuals can perform truly epic feats in the face of peril.


Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College, 1999. Print.

Bragg, Melvyn, prod. “Heroism.” In Our Time. BBC Radio 4. London, England, 6 May 2004. Radio. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y282

Feldman, Richard. Reason and Argument. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Print.

Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth: From the Hobbit to The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1979. Print.

Garth, John. “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892-1973.” Handout. 11 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Sam Gamgee and Tolkien’s Batmen.” John Garth. Beverly Rogers, Carol C Harter Black Mountain Institute, UNLV, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 July 2016. https://johngarth.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/sam-gamgee-and-tolkiens-batmen/

Garth, John. “World War I and Tolkien.” Handout. 15 July 2016.

Garth, John. “World War I Writing and Disenchantment.” Handout. 15 July 2016.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Appendix F.” The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston, NY: Mariner, 2012. 1101-112. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2002. 102-30. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Of Mongolian Throat Singing

In the innermost part of the stars above our heads, a nuclear fission reaction continually churns out various elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Gravity takes hold of these elements, and just like after the Big Bang, condenses them to create planets, and, ultimately, life. We humans are made of stardust. There are secrets of the universe that astronomers know, from the smallness of our world, how far things are in space-time, and to realize that when we look up into vast darkness or perfect blue sky, we’re seeing the past.

 

I walked past a pickup truck, and the smell of gasoline danced up my nostrils along with a memory of my brother. With his then sky blue eyes and white blonde hair, he asked for a ring of keys, blue jeans, walkie talkie, and a tall hat to be like his uncle. The petroleum mixed with a whiff of flat, sun-dried Pepsi cola, and tire raised dirt. James Taylor entered my ears.

 

You witness a most unusual phenomenon of a boy and a girl, both not yet toddlers, sitting head to head facing each other for hours on end. Their parents thought the two were connecting brain waves or some such nonsense, but they knew that their children were best friends from the start. The boy often engaged the girl in odd little adventures: equipped with a toy Jeep, they drove into the stars and through every time period they knew in their little heads, and with a dilapidated washing machine rusted to disuse in the backyard, they imagined a space ship and moonwalked into the extra-terrestrial. In the car, Lady Madonna danced through their ears while they made the sun-shade a super computer, typing long numerical codes on the polyester to signal ultimate destruction for far off worlds.

 

            It takes 8 minutes for sunlight to reach the Earth—if the sun exploded, which it will at some point, we wouldn’t know about it for 8 whole minutes.

 

The two children, siblings, seventeen months apart. They were inseparable. Nicholas and Annalisa, both intentionally eight letter names, became two names that would forever go together. Shortened, Nicholas became Nick, four letters; Annalisa, Anna. The children slept in the same room together, ate together, played together. Daylight never went on long enough.

 

Nicholas had always been there for his sister. He was the first born son; she, an accident. Although the Palmer family had not known that Nicholas would have a sibling, they were happy to have Annalisa in their family. The two children acted like twins once Annalisa was born. She, being six months early and weighing only two and a half pounds, almost died after being born. Her father frequently compared her to a Chipotle burrito considering she fit in his hand. Additional complications arose besides her weight. The baby girl was diagnosed with pneumonia a few days after her birth, and at the hospital, the doctors had direr news: a small hole punctured her heart. Fortunately, her body somehow healed itself, and she lived. Nicholas was also a miracle; his mother stands by the fact that she does not make babies well. He weighed around seven pounds, and part of his brain was compromised. After being in labor for three days, my mother gave birth. He breathed his first breath soundlessly. Nicholas John Palmer lived.

 

While sound waves cannot exist in space, light waves can be translated into sound waves. We can hear what the universe sounds like artificially, but we all live under its silent chorus.

 

It was Mongolian throat singing all the way to Arizona. The hardly melodic grunts supposedly treasured by the Tuvan inhabitants of the nomadic nation and Norwegian oregano gravy were two of the five things talked about in the car. In 120-degree heat going 90 miles an hour, hearing “music” resembling someone regurgitating their food while constipated is the last thing you want entering your ears. The passenger immediately behind the driver lost any of his sanity once the throat singing began—he loved this “song.” With a great heave of air, he mimicked the Tuvan master rather horribly while the rest of the passengers shoved fingers into their ears. When our auditory slapping reached its denouement, the backseat vocalist allowed there to be silence. This was my brother, Nicholas, at 21.

 

Throat singing aims to amplify the sounds of nature, adding to the symphony of life. As a folk tradition of nomads, the singing intermixes with the howling winds of the steppes, chimes of streaming water, and the staccato interludes of various wildlife. Take that out of context, reproduce it on a CD, and what comes out of plastic speakers in a midnight blue Nissan Altima is rather ridiculous.

 

Then again, he never harmonized with the chorus of the universe, silent though it is. Sure, his blue eyes matched the sky while mine blended into the midnight darkness, but he was something different. He unsurprisingly sang from his throat, embracing its two tone nature. A kind of duality permeates his being, and we, however connected, will always be opposites.

 

Is that it? Where’s the funny universe that your brother seems to inhabit? Where does this all connect to your details about how the world works, the stars, the sun exploding, etcetera?

Well, my brother does have the ability to create controlled explosions throughout the lives of his friends and family. The whole throat singing business began in September of 2013 when he received his mission call to Mongolia. I’d insert a Genghis Khan joke here, but I don’t do jokes. He arrived in Ulaanbaatar in December, and stayed there until October of 2015. Now, he’s back there again—he fell in love while speaking in tongues—and he will return with his fiancé on July 17, 2016. Mind you, her family herds sheep and other livestock in the Gobi Desert, a lucrative business for nomads. Now, we have a wedding to plan and prepare for…Mongolia broke the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

Yes, before the Mongolia incident, you must know that he was fluent in Japanese. He has this insane ability to memorize languages, especially those of the Altaic variety. For instance, now he’s learning Arabic and Turkish for the hell of it, but he took four years of Japanese in high school, won several speech contests, took the AP Japanese test, got the highest score (5), and then passed the national Japanese Language Proficiency Test. He did this all without a bat of an eye. He doesn’t jive with the whims of the universe. And as he came into this world soundlessly, maybe he mastered the chorus. Perhaps, to contradict myself, his song is the song of the universe, and everything works out for him because he accepts it. He capitalizes on what life has given him—he doesn’t have to hope for the best; he always gets the best. To him, everything must work out, everything will be fine, he just has to shock the world and destroy some things, but he remains seemingly invincible.

And, that’s ok. From his 5 A.M. runs and cycling ventures he loves to invite me on to his adamant piano playing by ear (he can’t read music), he’s my best friend who just happens to be my brother. I don’t see my life without him begging me to play chess at 8 P.M. or flinging impersonations of Gollum into my room at 10 P.M. I don’t see it being as funny without him asking me to shoot aliens or binge watch Doctor Who with him at 12 A.M. or asking me about reality, if we really exist, what’s the difference between faith, belief, and fact at 6 A.M.

I write this because he has chosen another path than I. He’s stayed with our childhood religion and will progress in it by being married on July 30, 2016 in the Saint George temple. His fiancé speaks no English, and she has a long way to go before becoming a U.S. citizen. He has chosen marriage earlier than I ever would have expected, and I just hope he’s happy. All his randomness and our childish excursions together will evaporate into memory as soon as he kisses the bride. We can’t continue these antics. I’m losing a friend, but he’s gaining a lifelong partner who I hope to befriend. I want him to know I’ll miss him, but he’s secretly telling me to grow up, find my own love, and get on with adulthood. Nothing will ever be the same, and yet the sky will continue its crescendo into perfect morning blue and its diminuendo into blackness until the two-toned song stops.


Works Cited

Bennett, Jeffrey O. The Cosmic Perspective. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.

Are You Looking After Yourself

I sat in the musky car, rolled down the windows, and let the night seep into my empty stomach. The memory of those elders melted away from the heat sneaking in beneath my hat. Neon lights flickered past the raging drivers as I let the car coast. The stereo played long and loud while I let my left arm hang out the window. To the cadence of undulating rushes of heavy air, I sporadically opened and closed my fist. Youth. The elastic silky skin of my face and taut stomach muscles. I studied my forehead in the rear view mirror. Wind hit me in the face, drying my lips. Windows went up. Time poised to a near stop in this instance. Shards of broken lights scattered on the mosaic of neon through the passenger windows, and as I sped down the freeway, pops of headlights flew into my vision.

 

Wrinkles twinkled about the edges of her eyes while she stoically sat, knitting in her airplane seat. Each hand worked away on a scarf; needle upon needle joining the tiny threads to create a fabulous new garment. Every few seconds some straggly fuzz flicked out of the needle, sealing her image in my memory. With a blurt, the comical noise of her thigh rubbing blue leather, I blinked, only to find a projection of an elderly man’s braced legs in my mind. His suspenders ground into his white polo, and he trudged along to find tomatoes in the fluorescently lit supermarket. Then it shifted to a hunched back professor shuffling to the bathroom: her bright eyes contrasted with her time corrupted cheeks and forehead. Still her flat hair, a light brown, cut into a neat bob, brushed perfectly against her jawline. And the airplane seat creaks. I wait a bit, blinking again into hazy internal glimpses. I see the knitter’s flushed face smiling down at the progress she made.

 

They said that this stretch of hours, days, years is the time of your life, the highlight of your whirlwind existence as animated matter. Locks of curl whip around my cheeks. 65. 70. 75. 80. 85. A syrupy stew of black heat hugs the side of the road, cloaking the automobiles, and I alone propel ahead of them. I can’t see those smiling grandmas or those hunched elders now, only the road lays ahead brightly lit by slithering streetlights. I see my face again, shamefully praying I don’t get old. My face holds the etching of my days. I wonder how it will fit them all.

 

How vain I am to begin my mental obsession with youth. And yet, why do I see such beauty in these passing elders. Society says they deserve pity not some marveling thoughts of a twenty-year-old. Go help that old lady out. Don’t stand there infantilizing her. Go give your grandpa a hug, young lady, he’ll only be here so long. He’s a human being; he can make decisions for himself, do things by himself—he still has agency. Come on, he’s old. Whatever.

 

What am I doing with myself? I wish to be old—to have my busy days past me, and yet I treasure my youth, my ability to simply do without inhibition. Why then, am I cooped up, slaving over project after project, trying to tell myself that I am happy being a workhorse. I am happy being a student. I am happy being stressed beyond belief. I can’t be masochistic.

 

Sample graduate school interview questions:

What are your hobbies?

I don’t know.

What do you do in your spare time?

I don’t have any.

What are you doing with this beautiful time when you have arrived at your most attractive, most physically fit, most alive? I hope they’re lying. I hope that those smiling elders are happy now because their dispositions have changed. That’s possible. Perhaps they too faced their own type of plastic bag over your head suffocating stress. I don’t know. The one thing that bothers me is their blissful happiness. It’s like they’re children all over again, and here I am, on the first step into my twenties, and I only see blackness—stairs leading to nowhere. I’m afraid. I’ll fall. There’s no railing to clamp my hands onto. I can’t gingerly step down one stair at a time. I must go down, head first, because it’s just me. It’s my life whether I like it or not. This time as a “new adult” is mine. I must remember. I don’t want to concoct a lie; construe some educational thing I do or something I hate into a so-called hobby. I don’t have spare time, but that’s my own fault. Yes, there’s the rub. Time—the destroyer of everything, the common denominator of all life, and what does my family constantly berate me about—how I use or misuse it.

 

You should get that hair out of your eyes. You have such a beautiful face, young lady, said my 80? 90? year-old great Aunt Carla, immediately touching my hair and tugging it behind my ears. She just broke her right femur falling down a couple flights of stairs. She’s still alive—it’s hard to kill a Cox.

 

Those boys love a pretty face.

 

She pushes me constantly, same as my mom. That’s the one thing I can’t think about: Do you have a boyfriend? No. Come on, sweetie, don’t you like someone? Well actually yes, I do now, but I think it’s unrequited. Look at your friends and twenty-something family members all getting married. Mom and dad hate them and think they’re crazy and never going to be as successful as you. April got married last year—you’ve never been on a date. That hike with Steven counts since we hiked until sunset, that’s romantic. No, he was a friend. Timothy asked you to prom even though you were graduating early, that counts. Of course it doesn’t, you said no because of a calculus test. You’re pathetic. Try again.

When Aunt Carla touches your face, her hands nearly set your cheeks ablaze. You never could figure out why she resembled a walking furnace, especially with her ridiculously dyed red hair. Face it. You need something else to live for besides good grades and props from professors. You’re not in high school anymore. In fact, you’re a senior in college. Truly figure out why you want a college education besides money and the chance at a better paying job. You still have time. What about relationships, emotional intelligence, and overall happiness?

There, much better.

She whispered in my ear as it burned.

 

The road turns again. For a split second I close my eyes once more, getting ready for more wind to curl up around my eyelashes. I see that knitting grandma, that suspendered grandpa, that flat haired professor, and now my brutal Aunt Carla invading my thoughts. They flicker away as quick as I blink, and I begin to retreat into my mind once more to that first step on the staircase. Time hasn’t changed you, has it, but you’ll keep wearing your woes on your face. Time will inevitably knit a scarf for you, and as you try to smile down at it, you’ll know your fate. You will never be that kind old lady on the blue leather airplane seat. It’s all in your head. You just don’t know how to turn-off.

Whisper No

Here you lie restlessly awake between the flailing skies and siren wails. The unquiet distance and auditory rape continues, and you see reality as it comes and goes. Six minutes into the raw new day what more do you see but reckless youth and piercing lights from bars blocks away. There’s more than this shrieking existence: peel back the idiosyncrasies and reveal the innocuous—the place where life is dull and meaningless. You are barred from this place.

You cannot, will not ever live with or in the bland quotidian; life will always mean pain and penury for you. And yet, do you see anything coming to change who you are? Don’t you see you exist for no reason? This is all a scam. No,

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it”

(Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Betty Hester, September 6, 1955).

Suck it up. Bar down on whatever bit of stringy meat you have left on your bones. Squeeze the filth that has accumulated on your thighs, and realize that you, in your meat sack of a body, are worthless. Sit up. Walk to your bathroom sink, and scald your hands in the water from that rusted faucet. Life is not for you. You understand that you’ll never be strong enough to look past the nihilism written in your bones. What about existentialism—don’t get yourself worked up about something for nothing. You know your own truth. You found out what was happening, and now you merely must live with the pain and associated turpentine temperament.

“an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything…only a fool can become something” (Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground).

Let hate boil in your marrow. Get angry at the world. It’s Saturday and time for you to rage against the world for one day. For tomorrow you’re supposed to sit and be still in some religious institution, but really, why are you there? Why do you waste an hour or three praying to an ill-willed, frivolous, non-existent being? Networking. Feign faith to extract wealth—it’s humanity at its finest.

Come back to your derelict apartment above strewn out simpletons and part time hookers to realize your place in the world. At least you’re somewhat above them. At least you’re going to college and “doing something” with your life. But don’t forget to grimace at the sordid slums you live in. You wanted to be anywhere but here—remember. Don’t forget to pick up those groceries or do your laundry. Look to material wealth after you complete these maintenance rituals.

Fix those sleeping problems, take your medication, and be sure to call mom. What about your treatment. It’s time for you to go chug a liter of water while you chain yourself to that revolving once-torture mill. No that’s later. Go back to sleep. Those freaks in their disgusting soiled clothes scream from the concrete slab below. They will soon pass out from their squalor, and then you’ll go on and scrape the rough cotton sheets on your limbs, trying to eke out some kind of rest even though you know it’s not possible. Evidently, it’s 4 A.M.

“And do you know what ‘the world’ is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end… This world is the will to power—and nothing besides!” (Nietzsche, Will to Power’s aphorism 1067).

We limp through our lives with nothing more than the supposedly evolutionarily favorable bodies of bipedal, hairless apes. What is our purpose. In the tired eyes of the moonlight, we are nothing, but we are everything. We are made of stardust, but then isn’t everything connected to us? The sea bed of existence bears no meaning, no glinting treasure left for us remains uncovered. Going through the motions established by a fallible group of humans in a system corrupt as any eighteenth century king does not gratify us. Examining the scum of humanity at our doorsteps does nothing to boost our morale. We live for some reason. We, the human race, persist for some undetermined reason. We can’t seem to reason anything better to do than to molest the Earth, killing everything in our path: this is our will to power. We are all monsters. Even the supposed façade of civilization does nothing to hide the malformed, malcontented psyches ruling our actions. Our race is sick, and yet, we live on in our vegetable existences.

I need a fresh start. I stare down the street from this ridiculous rectangular prism, and I think:

“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter” (Albert Camus, The Stranger).

I’ve been fed on a diet of commercialization and corruption. I’ve grown up in a schizophrenic mecca of gaudy America. Consume and consume, my friends; welcome to the modern world. Forget your woes, and remember you’re here to make money, spend it, devour to your hearts content, and die. This is a place of pleasure; enjoy. But, don’t forget the progress erected beneath your feet, the fabulous pacifier to reality. Consider the technology, materialism, consumerism, etc. and the legacy of humankind.

I remove my hands from my face. I return to myself here in the present. I study my hands, the intricate markings on the dermis suddenly appear as a map leading to somewhere. The self will always be with us—progress does not murder self-reflection.

 

Foaming about the edges of the vast scatterings of humanity, hope tries to find its way, tries to bubble over but to no avail. Hope means nothing: there’s only good and bad without any rotting leftovers in between.

 

Sweeping bodies from mountains to deserts chart out the spherical nature of our world—writhing pain and suffering only join it together. Can’t you see that’s all the human race has inflicted upon its dwelling? Our niche makes us suicidal: we mark our territory by destroying every other sentient being currently occupying a space we wish to own. There’s no point in prolonging this existence if it means destruction. Where’s the righting species, the higher than human exterminator, Dr. Manhattan, coming to set us right? We will never know how to become stewards of the earth if we maintain this dearth of understanding and kindness. Productivity may give way to progress, but when does it become a hindrance to our naturalistic impulses—our calculating love, if we have it, for animals in our past evolutions as mammals, a love for those things we could have become. Denying the past spores and imminent flaws of the future creates an epidemic of ignorance and a self-centered, utilitarian approach to progress in the name of progress. Where is the place for those kind souls who seek degrowth?

 

What would happen if we just stopped?

 

 

 

 

 

There.

Stop breathing.

Stop pushing, going, flowing, moving.

 

 

Stop.

And breathed again.

 

You all go and continue your demolition if you’d like…Destroy the ecosystem, and forget us. We don’t want to come to your sadistic party. Leave us to our own devices. We will be the ones who walk away. We will be the ones who you say do nothing by doing something. You will mock us, but we will be examples to your children because we chose not to conform. We were the ones who did something while we had the chance to slowly dismantle the system by cutting ourselves off from it. And, that’s ok. That simple act of defiance will mean something to the soil we softly tread on, and you will see the many that follow in our barren footsteps towards this something, a second chance.