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Dylan Thomas and the hero’s quest

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.01.27 PMIn “The Archetypes of Literature,” Northrop Frye proposes that the central myth of art is the hero’s quest, which can be characterized as man’s superhuman crusade against the disintegrating forces of nature. The poet Dylan Thomas has been described as a champion of nature and the cycles of life: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic” (Kershner). Yet, one of Thomas’ most celebrated poems, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” calls on man to defy the power of nature even as it recognizes his ultimate impotence against death. The poem relies on the psychic undercurrent of the hero myth to demonstrate man’s place in nature and his irrational, yet irrefutable, desire to overcome his mortality.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest.

Frye argues for a centralized theory of literature based on archetypes drawn from “pre-literary categories” or “literary anthropology” (1308). In his survey of archetypes that inform literature on a grand scale, he concludes: “the central myth of art must be the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society” (1314). He calls this the hero’s quest, which is the “mingling of the sun and the hero, the realizing of a world in which the inner desire and the outward circumstance coincides” (1313). It is the soul’s quest for perpetual spring and the defeat of winter (Frye 1311).

Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” about his own dying father, but the poem addresses the broad subject of man’s life in relation to the forces of life and death symbolized by light and darkness, day and night. In each of the central stanzas Thomas describes the smallness of man’s life and dreams: The wise man knows “night is right,” but his words were never bright as lightening; the good man’s “frail deeds” are only waves in a green bay; and the grave man approaching death can suddenly “see with blinding sight” and be gay. Yet, the overriding message of the poem is that “old age should burn and rave at close of day,” and Thomas uses the villanelle form to repeat his call: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas poets.org).

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest. Thomas pays tribute to the first—after all the night is “good”—and calls to the second: “Do not go gentle”—do not surrender to the darkness while there is still light. The poem was written late in Thomas’ career and was clearly motivated by his personal experience with his own father’s death:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. (Thomas poets.org).

However, the poem’s message reaches deep into the core of literary archetype described by Frye. Ultimately, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” celebrates the spirit and folly of man’s desire to overcome nature, which Frye describes as the pivotal myth of all art: “. . .the vision of innocence which sees the world in terms of total human intelligibility” (1314). Mankind is blessed and cursed by the fierce tears of its own desire, as day gives way to night.

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1301-1315.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org 1997-2013. The Academy of American Poets. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Kershner, R.B., Jr. Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1976. Print.


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The many meanings of ‘Life of Pi’

In the 2012 film Life of Pi, the viewer is taken on an unlikely journey across the ocean in a boat shared by a boy and a Bengal tiger. When the narrator—Pi as an adult—finishes the tale, he implies that a second account, a brutal struggle between humans for survival, may be the truth. He poses the question to the writer who is his audience, “Which story do you prefer?” (Life of Pi) The film exemplifies the medieval interpretive theory of polysemy, or multiple meanings, as described by Dante Alighieri in Il Convivio, not only because Pi literally offers viewers two possible versions of history—mythological and actual—but also because a deeper examination reveals a third allegorical reading that comments on the spirituality of man.

According to Dante, words can have many senses that fall under two basic categories of literal and allegorical. Allegory, he writes, is “a truth hidden behind a beautiful fiction” and includes symbolic, moral and spiritual interpretations (187). The main narrative of Life of Pi is portrayed in technically stunning, three-dimensional magic realism, a literary and artistic style with roots in mythology. Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, have fantastic and harrowing experiences as a shipwrecked pair that eventually wash up on shore and go back to their human and animal lives. When Pi relates an alternative, believable story of how he killed the last man on the lifeboat to stay alive, it becomes clear that the fantastic journey may indeed be a “beautiful fiction.”

pi

Is it Pi crying on the beach over the uncaring tiger, or God himself weeping at the indifference of man?

On the surface the film is about which story to believe—the literal or the allegorical, the ugly or the beautiful, the factual or the poetic. However, both versions of the tale inform an additional sense to Life of Pi, which Dante may have categorized as anagogical: Man may be a spiritual being—a higher being in medieval terms, closer to God—but he remains tied to the natural, animal world as long as he lives in the flesh.

Early in the film Pi is depicted as a young boy in search of God and love as he devotes himself to a number of religions and embarks on a romance with a beautiful dancer. He is also fascinated with the sublime but fierce Richard Parker. Pi’s love, his principles, and his faith are all challenged during his journey with the tiger, as he is forced to do things he never imagined to stay alive. Caring for Richard Parker is the only thing that sustains his soul as the two float seemingly endlessly at sea.

But the tiger ultimately never returns Pi’s love. Finally washing up on a Mexican beach, Richard Parker rises from the boat and walks into the jungle. Pi cries bitterly because the animal didn’t turn to look back or “say goodbye.” Love, it seems, has no home in nature, which is brutal and existential. However, in the second version of the story, it’s the so-called “higher beings,” the humans, that fight each other to the death. Is it Pi crying on the beach over the uncaring tiger, or God himself weeping at the indifference of man?

As Dante states in Il Convivio, “It is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal” (188). Having placed the viewer at the intersection of myth and reality, Life of Pi, takes it’s audience to another level of reflection. In Dante’s words, “ . . . that which is spiritually intended is no less true” (187). In the film, the writer responds to Pi’s question by preferring the story with the tiger because it’s “the better story.” Pi answers, “And so it goes with God” (Life of Pi).

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 184-188.

—. The Letter to Can Grande. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 188-190.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 177-184.

Augustine. On Christian Teaching. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 154-162.

Life of Pi. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu. 20th Century Fox. 2012. Film.


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At home with art and technology

profile dream photo

Me as a digital Deep Dream Vision Quest painting.

I grew up on a military base in the wide open Indian Wells Valley of California’s Mojave Desert. With a fantasy-prone mind and a peace loving heart, I felt a sublime fascination with the technology that powered jets up to speeds that broke the sound barrier and left trails in the skies above the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Yet, my life primarily evolved around home, church, and school, where I learned to color and write, think about God, sing, and dance. My father was a computer programmer, educated as an aeronautical engineer and gifted as a musician and poet. He would play the guitar with pens in his pocket. My mother worked as an accountant and could tap at a mean pace on an adding machine. At home her fingers were more often crocheting elaborate hanging planters, cooking homemade meals, or feeding material through her sewing machine. She was so adept at growing things that she actually made tulips come up in the hard, dry dirt of our backyard. Great with numbers, my mother still writes them with extra beautiful curves.

Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.

Coming from this home of engineers and artists, I always felt they were naturally parts of one whole. It wasn’t until I ventured into the wider world as an adult that I understood the cultural divide that I now feel compelled to challenge in my work as a science communicator and in my education and experience in the arts.

Fortunately many others are attempting to join what C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” Yesterday, I visited the Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose, originally conceived by author and historian Piero Scaruffi and organized by the Thymos Foundation. As described on the LAST Festival website, the event combines and fuses these disciplines “to help reshape the cultural environment of the 21st century towards a multidimensional form of individual and social creativity.”

LAST overview

Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose April 7-8, 2017.

The art exhibit, curated by Joel Slayton, playfully meandered across the art-science divide. Scientific concepts and technology were brought to bear on aesthetic concepts and displays that teased the mind and delighted the senses. Many were interactive pieces that operated on the viewer’s physical presence, movements, or sounds. Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest took images of viewers standing in front of a large screen and turned them into a rich dreamscape digital painting of layered familiar shapes, ceaselessly morphing. The piece uses videogames and machine learning to generate what Boodhoo calls “interactive science fiction” that “turns dreaming into a shared experience.”

Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest

Cere Davis’ Water Organ looked like a Dr. Seuss laboratory experiment: funny tin vessels moved on water via sound waves and magnets. The ambient sound composition coming from these curious components could be silenced by placing a finger on a strip of tin foil just in front of the sculpture. The softly shifting, goldfish colored sculpture with its dreamy sound patterns had a trance-like effect – all the while, I wondered what invisible forces were at work. According to her bio, sculptor, engineer, musician and dancer Davis plays at the boundaries of “engineering, soulful expression, and laboratory experimentation.”

water organ

Water Organ, a kinetic sound sculpture by Cere Davis.

As Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, “Human beings sometimes seem naturally inclined to see life in contrasting pairs.” Science is exact, disciplined, factual, logical, and analytical. Art is open, meandering, and based in emotion. Art is atmospheric; it appeals to our senses. Science is specific; it tells us about reality and enables useful inventions. Yet, even as I write these descriptions in order to place art and science on opposite poles, I see traces of each on the other side of human experience. Science is certainly open to new discoveries, and great artists are precise and rigorously trained. A beautiful equation can give scientists goose bumps, and art has contributed real power to civilizations. Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.

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More than Love on the Horizon hologram at LAST Festival.

 


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Feminist impressions

I wrote this poem after being introduced to the art of Hung Liu and Kara Walker in a course called Women and Art. The sketch is also inspired by their work.
Woman

Sketch by Angela Anderson

I am the mangled feet

of grandmothers

the carcasses of baby girls,

casting shadows on a landscape

that smothers.

I am the sting of whispers

on the necks

of sisters,

whips cut horrors

into my way

back.

I am the breaking bones

of cousins

battered with stones,

pieces of my body

hitting blades of sorrow

yesterday, last century,

and tomorrow.

Raped, bent, abandoned,

and shamed,

I am woman.

I am maimed.


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‘The Birds’ as Hidden Drives of Women

In “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud identifies the mechanism of fear produced by horror stories as one that reveals what is hidden. The uncanny, he states, is something “which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (833). Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, is set in a time and place ripe with restraint. The small town of Bodega Bay harbors good housewives, mothers and teachers who smile while their eyes reflect less-innocent feelings centered on one man—the lawyer Mitch Brenner. When a deviant, cosmopolitan socialite comes to town to court Brenner, birds start flocking and attacking. Viewed through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny, the birds in Hitchcock’s film represent unconscious female drives, which once awoken through the arrival of a sexy stranger, threaten the psychic sleepiness of the shuttered community.

The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force.

In his 1919 essay, Freud traces the roots of the German unheimlich (uncanny) to two converging meanings: familiar and concealed (828). Unfolding narratives in The Birds provoke the tensions inherent in this meeting of terms. When the attractive Melanie Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay to surprise Brenner with a pair of lovebirds, the town’s folk glare, Brenner’s mother and ex-girlfriend act threatened, and the local fowl refuse to eat. The suspicion inherent in the tense behavior of the community suggests that there is something below the surface that should be guarded from strangers, like a family secret shared by the intimacy of a closed group. As the birds in the film become increasingly violent, the hidden motives in each woman surface through their tentative relationship with Daniels. Strained conversations and emotional outbursts unearth their jealousy and despair.

What is the source of their angst? According to Freud, “every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety” (833). To the housewives of Bodega Bay, Daniels represents a dangerous freedom. Her bold antics in pursuing Brenner are amplified by her reputation: according to a gossip column Brenner’s mother read, the socialite had once jumped into a Roman fountain in the nude. In Freudian terms, Daniels is what the housewives of Bodega Bay once knew and had to hide beneath their small-town social mores: the power of their own libidinal drives.

The menacing birds in Hitchcock’s film are the materialization of the women’s latent sexuality. At the local diner Daniels tries to convince an elderly female ornithologist that the birds attacked children at the school. The woman retorts, “Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss, they bring beauty into the world.” In other words, lovely creatures, birds or women, cannot be dangerous, and yet they are. The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force. Daniels becomes the focal point of the women’s hysteria as the avian horror plays out. A mother at the diner strikes out at the stranger: “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil!”

The Birds was produced on the advent of the sexual revolution in America, more than two decades after Freud’s death. Hitchcock’s “uncanny” portrayal of women’s sexuality as both familiar and concealed is placed perfectly in the tension between conservative 1950s and the liberating 1960s. At the end of the film, Daniels is driven by her bold curiosity to an attic room where the birds trap and ravish her. In a state of shock, she allows herself to be taken into Brenner’s mother’s arms. Tamed at last, Daniels smiles up at her—a good daughter’s smile. As Brenner drives the family out of town through a mass of eerily docile birds, the viewer is left to wonder if they will attack again.

Works Cited

The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 824-841.


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Art and aesthetic character

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Isadora Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)

Art is popularly conceived of as a finished work: the art object. People look at a painting or sculpture, read a poem or hear a piece of music and call it art. The products of artistic activities are indeed valuable independent entities in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller’s “art for art’s sake.” However, in order to understand and appreciate art broadly, one must go beyond the art object to consider the process of artistic creation that brought the artwork into being. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger argues that the artwork conveys the world from which it was born. That world—the inspiration, passion, hopes, and fears of a particular time, place, and condition—provides the emotional kindling for aesthetic activity, which is a distinct enterprise requiring certain qualities in order to engage in it. The world is constantly offering up inspiration, but human capacity to interact aesthetically with it varies from one person to the next and one moment to the next. What is the nature of this interaction between woman or man and the world that engenders art? By looking at the aesthetic character—the dispositions or ways of being that foster the pursuit of aesthetic activities—one can more fully understand the nature of art. Three key aesthetic qualities are openness and seeking, dedication, and expressiveness.

Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden.

Many philosophers have defined art as a medium through which man is connected to a higher truth. In Enneads, Plotinus characterizes beauty as the soul recognizing the “higher realm of being” in earthly forms. Clive Bell describes the state that art arouses as “aesthetic emotion,” an ecstatic response that is unearthly and sublime. Leo Tolstoy, who argues for moral aesthetic judgment, insists that art originates in honest inspiration, new and “dimly-perceived feelings,” which are directly connected to the artist’s heart. Whatever the source of aesthetic insight—the soul, truth, love, or genius—people must be open, receptive and seeking in order to connect to it.

The first dispositions required in the process of art are perceptiveness and reflectiveness, through which the artist or the viewer of art must search for something beyond the material, the obvious, and the everyday. Art often results from a momentary lucidness—an answer to a question of the soul. The open and seeking aesthetic character finds something in the world that resonates, often in a frequency that is beyond logic or reason. Plotinus describes how “sense-perception … gathers into one that which appears dispersed and brings it back and takes it in, now without parts, to the soul’s interior.” Man’s aesthetic eyes, heart, and lungs must be open, beating, and breathing in order to “gather” inspiration from the world.

The second challenge of art then follows: The artist takes that tenuous insight and makes with it something real. Therein lies the next important aesthetic disposition—dedication. In Art as Experience, John Dewey asserts that aesthetic value is directly correlated to the magnitude of vitality with which any object is made. In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan, one of the founders of modern dance, describes how she stood in an empty and silent dance studio with her eyes closed, perfectly still, waiting for an answer to the question: What moves me? When the answer came, she didn’t stop questioning. She worked for years to find, sculpt, and perfect her own dance facing down significant obstacles. Every artist acquires the skills of his trade, and he goes to work each day to turn inspiration into substance, to make the intangible tangible. Artworks may be described as divine, but they do not drop from the heavens. They are the result of human work done creatively and passionately. R. G. Collingwood argues that art lives in complete form in the mind, but art is never realized without physical effort. Art is a process and product of the mind, soul and body working in the material world—using matter to bridge the immaterial world of thought, emotion, and being. Art may well be connected to the higher-self—the soul—but it is more than prayer; it is creation.

To truly appreciate art, the art enthusiast must also invest her time and attention in a manner that requires devotion. She, too, must have an open, seeking mind and heart to embrace the worlds that art open to her—and while many people are content to appreciate art in the manner of Kant’s “free play,” making the effort to contemplate the artwork over time and learn about the artist, culture, and time period it was created in gives the beholder of art a deeper understanding and a richer experience. In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume expresses the importance of exercise in the art experience: “In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.” It is one thing to fall in love with an artwork and another to do the hard work of seeking understanding and discovering unseen nuances in the familiar.

What begins inside the artist’s heart, mind, and soul and develops in her studio is ultimately meant to be shared. The final aim of artistic creation is communication. Therefore, the third essential disposition of aesthetic character is expressiveness. Only through expression is the artist able to fully realize her work. Tolstoy frames the creative act of art as a struggle in which the artist attempts to build a bridge of understanding to his fellow man. For Tolstoy, successful art reveals the artist’s inner awakening sufficiently enough to bring about a similar feeling in all who receive his message. In Poetics, Aristotle proposes that drama serves man in his efforts to learn through affinity with tragedy, which imitates life. Art is essentially a cycle of giving and receiving: The artist gains insight through receptivity; he gives his time, talent, and effort to creation; he presents his work to his fellow man; the viewer receives and interacts with the work; and the artist gains new knowledge through the synergy. Without expression, the circle of art is broken.

Through receptivity, engagement and interaction with the world, aesthetic character facilitates perpetual discovery, development, and achievement. Heidegger argues that by bringing to light the constancy of being surrounding and inherent in substance, art illuminates the world in the entire context of its being. Art has the power to reveal truth, even the mutating truth of changing constants, because it is a creative act. Knowledge is a constant process of building understanding and letting go of old ideas to make room for new.

Art is a human activity and occupation. It demands certain human qualities. Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden. It struggles to bring knowledge from the murky depths of being to the surface, so that man can understand himself and others. The fact that artists and art enthusiasts exist and share a common aesthetic character demonstrates that human beings are intrigued, impassioned and propelled by self-examination. Through art man learns about his spirit and its connection to the material world.

In his Berlin lectures published in Introduction to Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel emphasizes that self-reflection is the essence of the human spirit. Art philosophy approaches man’s contemporary sacred needs and allows art to maintain its spiritual relevance, he argues. Through self-reflection, aesthetic experience provides what Aristotle refers to as catharsis: feeling, sensing, but also knowing about the self and the world. By understanding and nurturing aesthetic character, man can secure and augment the important endeavor of art, the value of artworks, and the interactions of art maker and viewer—a worthy conversation toward understanding and appreciation of the precious subtleties of life.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. Liberty Online. Jawaid Bazyar. 1995-1999. Web. 20 January 2013. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Aristotle/Poetics.htm.

Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” Art. New York: Chatto & Windus, 1981. 15-34.

Collingwood, Robin George. The Principles of Art. Chap. 7. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1938. 125-152.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980. Chap. 1-2. 3-27.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Chapters 1-3.” Introduction to Aesthetics (Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of 1820s). Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. ”The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. A. Hofstader. Lectures 1 & 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 32-48.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965. 231-255.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Trans. J. C. Meredith. Sections 1-14, 16, 23-24, 28. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Plotinus. Enneads. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Vol. I. Section 6. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. 229-263.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Letters.” On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 26-27. Trans. E. Wilkinson & L. Willoughby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. 191-219.

Tolstoy, Leo. “On Art.” What is Art? and Essays on Art. Trans. A. Maude. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. 46-61.