The Thoughtful Blogger

 

Have you ever analyzed what blogging means to you and how it influences what you write? You could learn a lot. Recently, I did just that for Esther Prokopienko, a grad student at the College of Saint Rose. Researching both the act and platform of blogging, she incorporated the following answers into her research and posted the resulting paper, The Scholarly Writer/Blogger: A New Discursive Space, on her own blog, Esther’s Space.

1. How long have you been blogging? Why did you choose to begin? Do you notice any changes in your writing/thinking process from before you were a blogger to now, as an active blogger? Do you use blogging as a way of thinking through ideas? How do you use the different mediums (journals, blogs, livejournals, etc) for thinking and writing?

While spending a great deal of time overseas as a flight attendant (1997-2001), I had begun a blog of sorts, The Lincoln Street Chronicles, to keep friends and family updated on my personal activities and observations. I’d also share pre-digital, scanned photos of my layovers. That primitive HTML site was hosted by Geocities and I would add entries to the top of a free, single and static web page. There was no mechanism for readers to enter comments, but I sometimes posted interesting email replies under the main post. I certainly wasn’t the only person doing this, but I suspect that blogs, as they are known today, stemmed from this type of “web logging.”

I have been blogging officially since January 2007 when required to do so for a college literary theory class. Transitioning to a more sophisticated data entry system and the access to an extensive, searchable catalogue of Google Images added for multi-layered meaning was quite exciting. After I resigned from flying, my writing had become private again, hand written within various small, decorative journals. I had forgotten how much I missed my online interactions until assigned my first class task, to write an introduction about myself, a task that included a carefully selected picture of a toilet.

I thought, initially, that the informal style I used to record thoughts and feelings about places I had visited would not translate well to academic theory analysis. I was wrong. I quickly realized that it was the perfect tool to express my frustration with my lack of quick and easy understanding. In fact, while venting about how difficult Bakhtin?s theory was to grasp upon first reading, I had a bit of fun creating dialogue as if I were speaking with him. His picture looks down upon my own as he encourages me to take another look at what he has to say. When I do, I gain more understanding and share that understanding with my classmates. In this and later posts, I draw parallels between the material and various pop cultural phenomena such as Madonna?s affinity for sparkly things and Star Trek’s arch enemy of assimilation, the Borg.

Creating written content, through blogging or any other kind of writing, forces me to engage more thoroughly with the material. Fleeting thoughts must be carefully molded into cohesive ideas. In my mind, because blogs are designed for a wider audience than that of a private scholastic paper read by a single professor, the inherent design infuses an added responsibility to entertain (or at least engage) a larger audience. It also adds importance, when presenting interpretations publicly, to ensure accuracy. To get sloppy is to risk public humiliation on the world stage. This is the additional pressure of academia in the blogosphere, a place where unknown professors are looking for lesson plans, students are looking for clues in order to grasp difficult topics, and, in the case of a particular international literary journal that pirated one of my posts, editors are looking for material to publish.

2. Describe what you write. What makes the blog an appropriate avenue for exploring your topic? Do you have a separate personal blog and a more academic blog, or are they one? Do you think of your blog as a personal space, or as a space to engage in discussion with others?

The majority of my blogging tends to focus on class discussion topics or to stem from assignments. As my collection grew, I decided to make this a repository for all my academic writing. I have since added and back dated assignments from other classes in order to keep a mind-expansion record of sorts.

To talk of academic writing alone would only portray half of the story. At some point, after talking with two friends about the first and last time I ate haggis, I pulled an old journal entry from that day, posted it to my blog and shared the link. When I first did this, I knew that classmates would also be able to read about my adventure. This was the day I discovered a use for categories and tags, an easy way to delimit the personal from the scholastic within the same blog. From then on, Daily Drivel became the category of choice for anything personal.

The terms “personal space” and “blog” are incongruous to me. The fact that readers from all walks of life and from all over the world have the ability to comment make this space public. In fact, I have learned to limit the presence of my personal snippets, or at least writing that is meaningful to me, thanks to the advent of Google AdSense. It seems that the new trend for “entrepreneurs” is to steal posts from other blogs, post them to their own site, sign up with Google AdSense and have Google place topic specific advertisements in their sidebars. When people land on these sites and click the sidebar ad, the blog thief capitalizes on writing that is not their own. This has happened twice, putting the onus on me to prove my identity by sending a copy of my passport as well as the original site of authorship prior to Google shutting down the culprit. Apparently blogging is no longer enough. Now one most police their posts as well.

3. When writing a blog post, how do you imagine yourself as the writer? How much of your writing is “real you” and how much is a portion of you- writer you, blogger you, academic you?

I have heard this question asked before and still don’t know how to reply. I do not picture myself compartmentalized in such clear terms. My humor almost always enters into my academic writing, for better or worse, so that could probably be read as “the real me” shining through. Since the academic scope of my writing is based in deep-seated curiosity, even that is “the real me.”

What I can say about writing, in any format, is that I am far more confident using the written word than I am with engaging in the messy act of unleashing my ideas verbally. I am more apt to express my actual thoughts in writing than when under the gun to speak in public, a task that strikes terror into the depths of my soul. In fact, when speaking, I often cannot find those words most important to conveying my idea at all.

4. When you are writing, do you imagine an audience? Do you know your audience personally? Has your blog provided opportunities for you to meet others with the same interests? Have you ever consciously chosen to write/not write something because of concern over your readers? possible responses? Do you ever use blog feedback to generate new blogs?

My audience, beyond my classmates, is typically envisioned as a big, black void. Brave confidence in writing only goes so far when I never know what is coming at me from the dark recesses of the internet. Some expert can come along and tell me I?ve got it all wrong, which I would actually welcome, but I am careful not to write much about politics for fear of a giant slamfest. My political opinions are only now becoming part of the majority point of view. The past eight years have been a different story.

I broke this political silence recently when I received a friend?s response to my Facebook tagline that sparked a political discussion. Moving the discussion from one platform to another, I transferred it to my blog and kept my correspondent-in-crime anonymous. This would be the closest I have ever come to generating new posts from blog feedback.

Post inspiration is most likely to come from my in-depth comment on other blogs rather than blog feedback. When I receive a comment, of course that sparks conversation. I simply tend to keep topic conversations confined to a single post, sometimes replying with as much as an essay-length response rather than breaking out a new post.

5. What are your blog stats? What is an average number of visitors to your blog per day? What areas of your blog are the most popular? Are there particular topics that elicit a higher readership? How has your readership changed over time?

My most famous blog post of all time is called “Foucault, Foot Lickers, & 7 Foot Sex Symposium.” This post is a Foucaultian interpretation of a college faculty reading in which one essay examined how wrong the fetish of foot-licking seems to be while another explored the ways housing a seven foot tall painting of a bikini clad couple for a friend changes one’s life. Both essays had, in my mind, proven Foucault?s point that in all the ways we try to avoid talking about sex, a discourse is thus created.

Search terms for this particular post are less than academic: foot lick, foot licking, lick foot, licking feet, lick feet, feet lick, feet licker, sex foot, sex feet, feet sex, foot sex, footsex, and so on. 2008 has yielded 2,736 hits for this post alone, up from a measly 300 from May-Dec. in 2007.

Close seconds include posts on Cindy Sherman and Linda Hutcheon, both of the postmodern persuasion.

Oddly, political posts get the fewest hits so perhaps it’s time to shelve that unfounded fear of a slam fest from folks who disagree with my views. Good to know.

I’ve Been Robbed

I learned last week through the WordPress pingback feature that a substantial number of Brain Drain posts had been mentioned on another site. As any blogger would probably agree, to see a pingback to what you’ve written is an honor of sorts, a hat tip to your brilliance or at least a mockery of something quirky you’ve said. You smile, feel full of yourself for a minute (sometimes two) and move on. Instead, this list of pingbacks aroused suspicion. This is a partial view:

literature linked here saying, “Silence Speaks Louder In response to Richard Barsa …”
literature linked here saying, “Anne Finch: Creating Her Own Space The poem ?The …”
literature linked here saying, “Quills: Voyeur as the Voice of Reason The Voyeur a …”
literature linked here saying, “Objectivity: A Question of Perspective In referenc …”

Although I’d like to think I’m that important, nobody is worthy of being legitimately quoted twelve times in a single day.

I followed the pings to their source. There, a solid, orange banner bore the photo of a young woman-child. She wore a skimpy, green silk halter and cowboy hat. Her long, blonde highlights were seductively fanned by some off-screen electronic device yet there was an innocence about her that threw me. The small image was cocked to one side and framed as if it were a film negative but that didn’t produce the negative feeling in my gut as much as the title ”literature” in bold letters (with a lower case L and quotes included) under which were all my latest posts. Only one, Aisha in Rwanda: In Need of Humanity, had been offered up for redistribution, NOT MY WHOLE DAMN BLOG.

While one knows that to blog is to run the risk of having your thoughts hijacked, still, the kicker was seeing a copyright symbol at the bottom of the page alongside the words “posted by Smite jonz.” Funny, Smite, you look a lot like ME in that picture linking to an article all about ME in the Saint Rose Chronicle.

Smite chose Blogger to host his (?) site, which works hand in hand with Google’s AdSense Program. From the look of it, this thief stole material from all over the web for two months, increasing the chances of drawing site traffic through numerous keywords. Cha-ching. Any visitor clicking through a sidebar ad generated a small pittance for Smite. The problem is this (as if there is only one here). The last time I looked at Smite’s tracking widget by Geovisite.com, new visitors were pouring in by the minute from all over the world to read my material and with no kickbacks to me.

Ad-ing insult to injury, the kind of advertisements I was generating was astonishing. According to Google:

AdSense for content automatically crawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content?ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.

How does my text translate to “Pro-Republican” in bot speak???? There were seven Republican spots on “my” page.

I notified the folks at Blogger last week, following their procedure by attaching a copy of my passport photo for proof of identity. By using my real name and photo, not just my screen name, Smite may have temporarily dealt a heavy blow to my identity but he also gave me legal leverage in pursuing him. I’ve been watching to see how Blogger would deal with the offender and the site was finally removed today.

Of course, I’m pleased to be me again. More than that, this experience has taught me that it’s possible to make some dough off my own work. It’s been proven by Smite and his boatload of field testing, field testing that I’ve already paid for and learned a great deal from. Thanks for all the hard work, Dude. I’ll use it wisely.

Then again, perhaps the wiser choice is to stick with WordPress whose policy states:

We have a very low tolerance for blogs created purely for search engine optimization or commercial purposes, machine-generated blogs, and will continue to nuke them, so if that’s what you’re interested in WordPress.com is not for you.

It seems, once more, capitalism has been proven to gum up the works of “free” speech.

Anne Finch: Creating Her Own Space

The poem “The Critick and The Writer of Fables” published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch’s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch’s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.

Breaking through Gender Oppression

The “Critick and the Writer of Fables” is bound centrally in Finch’s first published collection, Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions, in which gender consciousness is inescapable. From a publication that announces it has been written by a Lady, the brief introduction “From the Bookseller to the Reader” says:

THE Town, already having done Justice to the Ode on the Spleen, and some few Pieces in this Volume, when scattered in other Miscellanies: I think it will be sufficient (now that Permission is at last obtained for the Printing of the Collection) to acquaint the Reader, that they are of the same Hand; which I doubt not will render this Miscellany an acceptable Present to the Publick. (Finch A2)

According to this passage, Finch writes as a woman in a man’s poetic world, without apology and with enough coercive wit that both asks for acceptance and demonstrates her worthiness of such a valuable gift. Using her previous, though comparatively small, success with a few anonymously published poems, Finch introduces her greater body of public work with “no doubt” that it is acceptable. She argues that, since the town has already granted righteous acceptance of “Ode on the Spleen,” her talent has been established and the door is open for her to share more. While this argument reads as logical, her confidence reads as contrived in light of the parenthetical allusion to public resistance and lack of permission.

Because women have not been allowed to take part in the general poetic conversation as equals to men, Finch follows her introduction with the poem “Mercury and the Elephant.” This piece reveals the general opinion of male authors toward women’s writing, including the lines, “Solicitous thus should I be / For what’s said of my Verse and Me; / Or shou,d my Friend’s Excuses frame / And beg the Criticks not to blame / (Since from a Female Hand it came) / Defects in Judgment, or in Wit; / They’d but reply — Then has she Writ!” (Finch 2-3). Disconnect between the genders is undeniable. If women commit defects in judgment and then commit such thoughts to the page, is that considered well crafted writing? Who decides? Obviously, men are judge and jury of all that enters their world, including the thoughts of women. Finch goes on to say that men read for themselves, not for women, while women write for themselves and not for men (Finch, 3). Poetic permission reflects strong patriarchal control over the craft, although there is some small glimmer of value of feminine poetics referred to in the poet’s mention of friends who make excuses. Flawed as women may appear in their craft and wit, something brings those friends to Finch’s defense. It may be the slight recognition that difference is not necessarily wrong.

Men of Taste

In the poem, the friends who Finch speaks of mirror her relationships with other poets such as Jonathan Swift, Nicholas Rowe and Alexander Pope. While there are certainly more, these three present a gamut of opinions surrounding her work. According to Barbara McGovern in her book Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography, Swift was an admirer of Finch and encourages her to publish, while Rowe encourages Finch not to venture into publication, (although it is speculated that he included a verse epilogue from Finch in his play “The Tragedy at Jane Shore”) (McGovern 100). Rowe’s advice lies in direct conflict with an account from Myra Reynolds, in her introduction to The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. In admiration the likes of which Swift shared, Rowe describes Ardelia (Finch’s pen name) in one of his poems as a “divine nymph” whose praise is unqualified (Reynolds liii). Barbara McGovern and Charles H. Hinnant, in their book The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, A Critical Edition, describes a positive aspect of the relationship between Finch and Pope. This exists in both Finch’s admiration of Pope’s poetry as well as her playful criticism of his four lines in “The Rape of the Locke.” Their amiable interactions include Pope’s enjoyment of Finch’s poetry which likely leads Pope to influence the inclusion of two of Finch’s poems in Sir Richard Steele’s Poetical Miscellanies of 1713 in addition to Pope’s own inclusion of Finch’s “The Impromptu” in his 1717 volume of miscellany poems (Hinnant and McGovern xxxvii). Unfortunately, twelve years after Finch?s death, she became the butt of Pope and Gay’s satirical jokes in “Three Hours After Marriage” (Reynolds, lv-lvii). If this environment reads as fickle and complicated, one can understand why Finch had to navigate her way through the shifting public and poetic taste with care. Perhaps this explains why she references “men of taste” in the “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” It is not the opinions of women that can make or break this artist.

The taste of the time was indeed shifting when “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” was published in 1713. Finch first learned to mirror the style of Dryden while she was Maid of Honor to Mary of Modena beginning in 1682. Her personal acquaintance with him is more than likely since they had both courtly and family connections; Dryden wrote “Ode to Mistress Anne Killegrew” for another of Mary Modena’s maids at that time, and Finch and Dryden became related through the marriage of cousins (McGovern 21). By the time Alexander Pope, the poet Finch most wanted to please, had published his new Pastorals, Finch had already written a great deal of her work in accordance with Dryden’s standards. Pope and Swift each shared similar annoyances for Dryden’s poetic devices such as his use of the triplet as well as the hiatus (Reynolds, lxxxix). These devices heavily peppered Finch’s poetry long before Pope had developed his taste. Interestingly, in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” Finch writes about a departure from the poetics of Dryden. This change in her own taste may account for Pope’s fickleness toward Finch’s poetry.

Finding Freedom in the Smallest of Spaces

How is it that Anne Finch was able infiltrate the masculine world of poetry in the first place? Although female authors at this time must write from within the trappings of their gender, they also find freedom to write within a space that does not compete with that of masculine poetry. In the scholarly paper “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch,” Dorothy Memin explains of these poetesses:

In both form and content they cherish autonomy rather than preeminence and usually speak of themselves in self-deprecating low-keyed tones. And always the inescapable central term is gender: whereas male poets have imagined their own voices to be genderless, ?universal,? they never forget that they write, and will be read as women. (Memin 336)

It is likely, for these reasons, that Finch takes care to differentiate between the ways in which men read for themselves and women write for themselves, particularly after she publically declares herself a woman in a manner that might read as a public ruse; the interpretation of her anonymous work may have been presumed to be written by a man. But why this enormous focus on feminine humility? Mermin explains the connection between literary and moral reputation:

If women are peculiarly shy about having their works “exposed,” it is partly because their works and their selves are so often confused with each other. Their physical person — their beauty is generally the prime object of critical regard. (Mermin 338)

To tread this fine line between acceptance and rejection via humility is a skill that some like Aphra Behn had little stamina to execute well. While Behn’s good reputation could not survive public ridicule once she became too bold for male acceptance, Finch was far more careful. Although she does break gendered poetic boundaries by daring to make a woman the subject as well as the object in “The Critic and the Writer of Fables,” this places her in little danger of harsh criticism because the satirical tone of the poem distills her self-importance down to self-mockery.

While Finch refers to her published poems with this feigned yet necessary sense of humility, she and her husband also preserve, without publishing for fear of condemnation, a portion of her later work, now collected within the Wellesley Manuscript. As McGovern and Hinnant suggest, this fear likely stems from Finch’s allusions to political sympathies within her fables with the Jacobite cause during a time of anti-Jacobite hysteria:

What they bring out is the close relation that exists between a reluctance to publish and an attitude toward questions of moral, historical, and political import that refuses to resort to ideas of self censorship, expediency, concealment, or compromise in the preparation of a manuscript. (Hinnant and McGovern xxiii)

In these unpublished poems, Finch understands her feminine limitations within in the public realm. For a woman who published hundreds of poems, she never stopped writing what she honestly thought, if only as a matter of private self expression shared with a trusted few. These poems were Finch’s way to pledge personal allegiance to the Stuart family, regardless of public distaste for such a stance or for engagement of a woman in political debate. Considering the political climate and the further alienation at stake, particularly after her husband Hineage’s arrest for attempting to join King James on the continent after the Glorious Revolution, Finch was wise to be selective.

Suggesting this behavior as evidence of strict self protection is not to say that Finch was overly protective of all aspects of her work. She found room to speak publicly and playfully through her poetry using one of the altered Augustan elements best explained in Maragaret Doody’s The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Doody says:

The heroic couplet was associated with matters thought foreign to women – classical learning, rule over the world. The more memorable poetry of Augustan women poets is usually in iambic tetrameter in which they could be allowed to toss off individual observations and feelings. In this form too, they could safely exhibit wit without being thought too arrogant. (Doody 242)

Doody puts words to the lack of women’s political impact in this medium by using phrases like “light verse with a point” or “unassuming, but nicely formed” to highlight her examples. Finch employed this low impact line-style in “Mercury and the Elephant” with good reason. Opening Miscellany with a poem describing the struggle of women writers, she had to be careful not to earn rejection before her audience turned only a few pages. To present her heart-felt dilemma in a style reserved for humor, she is likely seen at the time to be poking fun at herself. Finch would not always play coy though, refusing to back into a woman’s corner of the writing desk. She could just as skillfully cast off her individual observations using the traditionally heroic iambic pentameter in poems such as “Ardeliah’s Answer to Ephelia” and “Nocturnal Reverie” which Doody calls some of her best work (Doody 242). It is interesting to note that these were placed toward the end of Miscellany, perhaps because they were of too serious a tone, leaving her audience to work through the larger body of work before reaching the piece de resistance.

While the use of iambic tetrameter may have offered a foothold for women in a man’s poetic world, once that first step was taken, it was time to commandeer the muse. Trevor Ross in Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century, traces the symbolic fall of Apollo, Greek god of poetry, throughout men’s works produced prior to and during the Restoration. Apollo, Ross finds, mirrors the valorized male in the position of the British laureateship and “by mid-century, Apollo, like modern royalty, enjoys only a ceremonial role in the governing of Parnassus, which is itself no longer a star chamber but a democracy” (Ross 179). It is this weakening of the national poet and the poet godhead that created space for new points of power. As Ross explains:

By the 1688 *Journal from Parnassus,* the emergence of professional women writers like Behn had become enough of a threat to Parnassus that they had to be exiled altogether, lest they “soon endeavour a Monopoly of Witt.” By then, the laureate ideal had become weakened sufficiently for women poets to begin appropriating Apollo in their own defense. Finch, in her “Circuit of Apollo” (1713), has the deity dividing the honours among all women since “they all had a right to the Bay’s” and then ceding his evaluative authority to the Muses, “Since no man upon earth, nor Himself in the sky” would dare to rid Parnassus of “three parts in four from amongst woman kind.” (Ross 181)

This hostile takeover of a masculine myth reshaped the poetic world for women, if not entirely for men. While it was a tremendous accomplishment for women in the fictional realm, it may have been more dangerous in the real world. The perceived threat quite possibly reinforced the thought that men must keep women out of politics and poetry. Still, the power of women cannot be denied when evidenced in their work. The muse, referred to twice in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is both adventurous and demanding, leading a female poet rather than a man. Equally important is the fact that she “strays” down various traditionally male paths, each time finding her way back to fables.

Why Fables?

Within “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” there is little evidence that the fable writer is a woman other than through Finch’s use of self deprecation. This may be due to the translation in her adaptation of La Fontaine’s original, “Contre cueux qui ont le Gout difficile,” although it more likely stems from her own sense of position within English literature. Charles H. Hinnant, in The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation, explains why the origins are not so clear:

Finche’s fables, like those of Swift or Gay, are not translation — or even imitations, in the sense popularized by Oldham and Pope. Thus they do not conform to what Dryden calls paraphrase — a mode “where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not strictly followed.” (Hinnant 168-169)

While keeping with the feel of what the poem attempts to achieve by illuminating the limitations that rigid criticism places on poetry, Finch expands the meaning to suit her concerns with a pertinent historical time, place and culture. According to Hinnant, Finch “retains the denunciation by La Fontaine’s critic of the hackneyed language of the epic and pastoral, but she adds a section on satire and begins by making her poet renounce the irregular ode in favor of the fable” (Hinnant 169). Fables are an enjoyable poetic format for Finch. She is largely a talented fable writer as well as a translator in four languages. Finch’s art in capturing La Fontaine’s message creates an enhanced translation that suits her present and personal predicament.

Sadly, for Finch, fables have lost their luster for the professional male poet. They are considered amateur and femininely inferior. This notion is made evident as the poem’s speaker calls fable writing a descent in form. In the critic’s opinion, “Fable, he cries, tho grown the affected Strain. / But dies as it was born, without Regard or Pain. / Wilst of his Aim the lazy Trifler fails, / Who seeks to purchase Fame by Childish Tales” (Finch 163). This description offers no kind word for the form. A lazy person, as opposed to the skilled professional artist, fails to create anything of worth by putting little effort into the creation and earning ill reward. Fame said to not come so cheaply in the shape of a children’s tale because only craft and skill can divine a thing of beauty. Is the ease with which Fables appear to flow truly the work of lazy triflers? Absolutely not. Hinnant explains the misconception in an historical context:

The grand tradition of English criticism from Sir Philip Sydney through John Dryden established a system of critical norms that privileged poetry over verse, mimesis over fiction invention over imitation, etc. Let La Fontaine and his English successors mark exactly the same categories, but they give a witty reemphasis to the features that they agree to discern. (Hinnant 168)

Of course these critical norms are the very ideals “The Critic and the Writer of Fables” rallies against. The poet wants to hasten toward the enjoyment of fiction rather than mimesis if only to instruct through a removed example rather than the satirical rantings of a mimetic reproduction.

To expound on this thought, the interesting twist in the first stanza is where the narrator says that fables “Teach, as poets should, whilst they Divert”(Finch 163). This line rings of what Augustan poetry is supposed to accomplish, to instruct the masses on transcendental truths. According to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. In “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. A Dissertation upon Poetry,” Johnson writes:

The business of a poet requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition; observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind, as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of infancy to the despondence of decrepitude. He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must, therefore, content himself with the slow progress of this name, contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place. (Johnson 2694)

Finch’s poem achieves all of these goals. She understands the joy of expression for men and the unhappiness of oppression for women. She creates a generalization of social experience for half the population in order to instruct both men and women in tolerance. She understands the skewed world view and those prejudices that are not her truth as a woman. She is not stagnant in time but, instead, traces the changing poetic times, instructing on the poetic possibilities, and painting this picture in broad strokes. Although these points may be understood by Finch’s public audience on some level, there is still the demarcation of this feminized form in which she delivers her message. Without critical distance, those readers of her time can not see the value in her departure from Augustan tradition.

How ironic that Johnson’s Rasselas is a fable defining what Augustan poetry should be while missing his own mark, ignoring half the picture so entirely. How can a man who ponders life so thoroughly come to the conclusion that poetry by Finch or any other woman has no place in his anthology, The Lives of the Poets, Linda Zionkowski, in her book Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784, argues that the female poet was not always excluded from what eventually became a masculine literary field. Johnson complicates the ability to understand the omission because he was known to offer female writers encouragement:

[His encouragement] prohibits an easy dismissal of the problem as an instance of gender prejudice. Although the increasing commercialization of eighteenth-century life complicated the distinctions between professionals and pseudoprofessionals, Geoffrey Holmes argues that during Johnson’s time, a profession was still characterized as a lifelong vocation requiring extensive training and application “The Lives” preoccupation with the nature of literary labor, the social status of poets, and the relation of poets to the audiences whose needs they presumably served reveal Johnson’s concern with detailing the distinguishing features of his profession. In repeatedly asserting what Magali Larson calls “the monopoly of competence” of nonaristocratic literary men, the Lives articulates and codifies new expectations for poetic careers — expectations that could not be met by writers whose class and gender required them to operate under an alternative economy. (Zionkowski 186)

To see poetry through the lens of labor obviously lessens the blame on gender alone. It is gender as attached to labor or, more precisely, the lack there-of that has its hand in turning the tide. Education is another aspect of this economic point of view. Without educating all women, how can they first train to be laborers? Johnson, and others like him, determined the rules for professionalism and inspired the exclusion of all women. While the motive for learning and recording what Johnson could about what he saw as a profession seems innocent enough, the result was tragic for poetic women who were no longer anthologized between 1750 and 1779 (Zionkowski 186). This is obviously only one theory and it is not an easy idea to rest all blame upon. Johnson must have been at least somewhat aware of his impact on the history of inspiring male-centric British poetry much to the dismay of his female poetic acquaintances.

Interesting as this revelation about the connection between poetry and labor may be, there is no such handy explanation that can excuse the “taste of men” for excluding the poetry of women, particularly when women’s textual elements evidence the gender divide time and again in those historical moments when they are included. “Taste,” a term briefly addressed by William Wordsworth in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems,” is only referenced in order to say that he does not fit into the traditional approach to what is acceptable in poetry (Wordsworth 649). This idea plays a significant role in Finch’s poem with which she criticizes “men of taste” for limiting poetic form to the exclusion of anything different. Wordsworth’s own taste renounces the contrived language and structure of Augustan poetry in order to replace it with common language which speaks to the common man (Wordsworth 650). Although Finch writes long before Wordsworth, her poem too argues for the need of language that speaks to the common human being (not just man), demonstrating that changing taste does eventually make room for the new but that it happens slowly.

Similar as Wordsworth and Finch may seem in their directives; Wordsworth had no real knowledge of Finch’s poetic identity. Of her selected pastoral poetry, referred to him by a friend, he says in a letter to Alexander Dyce in 1830:

Her style in rhyme is often admirable: chaste, tender, and vigorous, and entirely free from sparkle, antithesis, and that overculture which reminds one, by its broad glare, its stiffness and heaviness, of the double daisies of the garden, compared with their modest and sensitive kindred of the fields. (Hopkins, 178)

Speaking aptly on “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Nocturnal Reverie,” Wordsworth’s assumption is that this is entirely representative of Finch’s greater body of work. The reality is that much of Finch’s poetry adheres more closely to the Augustan style. Only a handful of her poems were pastoral.

Alexander Dyce, the recipient of Wordsworth’s note, is an important piece within the history of Finch’s legacy. Sharon C. Seelig’s article, “The Poets of the Renaissance,” investigates the poetic climate that existed at the time that Katherine Philips and Finch were included in an anthology by Dyce in 1827:

In his preface Dyce makes it clear that he is correcting an omission: Of the Selections which have been made from the chaos of our past Poetry, the majority has been confined almost entirely to the writings of men; and from the great *Collections of the English Poets,* where so many worthwhile compositions find a place, the productions of women have been carefully excluded.” (Qtd. In Seelig 163)

George W. Bethune produced an anthology of women authors as well in 1848, joining in the view that human nature, and in particular female nature (or intelligence), was improving. (Seelig 163). These changing points of view prove that Finch, with a talented group of other women poets, indeed carved a place in poetic history. Sadly, at the time, the increase in accessibility to women’s writing is attributed to improved female nature rather the opening of the door by more tolerant men and more persistent women. Although the end result, women finding their place in anthologies, is a move toward a more balanced artistic environment, I believe that Finch’s inclusion in anthologies alongside men like Pope gave her work more credence given the earlier stigma of being cordoned off for being the very thing that makes her superior against adversity.

Using the Tools at Hand

While the popular convention of Augustan poetry offered a framework with which Finch could put forth her perspective, it was lacking in the ability for language and form to readily reflect a woman’s full truth without being told in a man’s voice. Jacques Derrida, in his theory “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” recalls Levi-Strauss’ use of the term “bricoleur” to refer to someone “who uses the means at hand.” Derrida expands on this idea saying that bricolage, or “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text or heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is a bircoleur” (Derrida 920) Finch thus becomes a handywoman borrowing from past and failed poetic forms as avenues for the feminine voice. By doing so, she de-centers the original and creates something new. This is not unlike T. S. Eliot’s theory, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the poet must conform to the cannon but must also expand the capabilities of the work just enough to make it new and interesting (Elliot 1093). Augustan poetry was the only convention at hand for women writers to be taken seriously, but was in need of change to accommodate the feminine voice. To create something entirely new is a sure fire way to be rejected in a climate that adores time honored tradition so Finch uses the tools she has at hand. By using Augustan references and modes of writing, Finch pushes portions of the old voices out of the way, makes room for her own, creating an entirely new public voice within the compilation.

Turning these broken forms in upon themselves for examination is partially an Augustan satirical function but, in the case of such self-reflexivity, it demonstrates an almost postmodern move. Linda Hutcheon, in her book The Politics of Postmodernism, defines historiographic metafiction which, through a two part process of dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitations employed by a particular narrative form. To dedoxify something is to problematize it by a reverse definition, one that denaturalizes and reveals the ideology behind a form as clouded by cultural norms. Hutcheon describes it best by saying:

Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and seemingly mutual contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts (including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control and mastery — that is to totalize (Hutcheon 35).

Finch performs this move by writing a fable about a fable writer, at once demonstrating that a fable, typically seen as artistic folly, is actually a powerful tool used to deliver her message. Within the same poem, she does this also by satirizing the satirical. While Hutcheon’s theory refers to a specific kind of postmodern narrative, the idea illustrates well Anne Finch’s use of poetic fable to reveal both the established social power, from the shortcomings fable possesses due to public imposition to the versatility with which it delivers her message about what the form has the power to do very well.

Another form Finch manipulates within “The Critick and the Wirter of Fables” is the recycling of epic references to Greek mythology. She turns this into something preposterously larger than life and then, like the muse, commandeers the story for her own benefit. Finch satirically employs the form but also reveals it as tired, if not for her new spin on the ending. Her passage reads, “The walls of Troy shall be our loftier Stage / Our mighty theme the fierce Achilles Rage, / Amidst her Towers, the dedicated Horse / Shall be received, big with destructive Force; / Till Men shall say, when Flames have brought her down. / “Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town?” (Finch 163). Finch references the city of Troy as well as the Trojan horse as “she? as if to say women’s poetry (her own) actively infiltrates a feminine city in order to reclaim power after a ravaging under the rule of men. In the end, neither the feminine city nor the feminine horse survives, but something new exits when Troy is replaced by the town of Ilium. Finch appears to understand that her poetry must go into battle, but also that the fight will render something new rising up from the ashes of destruction.

Next up for critique in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is the traditional Augustan pastoral, a true sleeper according to the critic. The idea of sleep is playfully handled in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” when the critick says “Oh! stun me not with these insipid Dreams, / The Eternal Hush the Lullaby of Streams. / Which still, he cries their even Measures keep, / Till both the Writers and the Readers sleep” (Finch 164) Christopher Miller, in “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening,” examines the gender innovation of “Nocturnal Reverie” and compares Finch’s imaginative spin on darkness to the originating trope in which, “Finch mimics the famous evening-to-fantasy scholarly devotion in John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” (1631), but she focuses more on sensory absorption of the nocturnal world than on the humoral disposition associated with it” (Miller 604). In this nocturnal space, a different kind of pastoral where eyes would typically be closed, Finch, as the thinly veiled fable writer, says that the critic and “men of taste” must open their eyes to new poetry and see all the possibility that she sees by directing her reader toward “Nocturnal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, Finch seems to agree that this form is tired although she can easily prove that it has the ability to move beyond the “Swain’s unhappy Smart” and the “Envy of the Plains” (Finch 163) Essentially, poets of the male persuasion need to wake up, read what waits in front of them, and by the time they get to her “Nocternal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, they will have indeed learned from experience.

What Fresh Poetry is This?

When the only poetic form the critic will accept is revealed to be satire, the fable writer is astonished and critiques the critic right back. With biting tongue she asks, “Must only Satire keep your Fancies warm? / Wilst even there, you praise with such Reserve, / As if you’d in the midst of plenty starve, / Tho’ ne’er so liberally we authors carve” (Finch 164). It becomes obvious that the critic will never truly be satisfied, even with their form of choice. The thirst and hunger for poetic gems would be quenched if only the critic and “men of taste” would relinquish the lofty airs that fill them with nothingness in order to drink from the depths of an abundant well of craft. Finch’s poetry can lead them there but she cannot make them drink. Left to choose for themselves, the last lines leave them where they began, with “Operas and panegyricks” (Finch 164). In Finch’s lifetime she never did see much movement on this front.

This lack of transcendence permeates the end of “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” Likewise, in “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale,'” Hinnant talks about the ways in which Finch associates with the natural world rather than the superiority of the human world without ending on the note of achieved perfection (Hinnant 511). She does this here too and, while it may make the piece feel unfinished, I think Finch simply asks for the recognition that other poetic possibilities exist. While she does not directly describe what this new proposed form would look like, I believe she refers to poems she has already written. Everything is an experiment. Rather than hold poetry to some new immovable standard. In leaving the possibilities open ended, she has no desire to create new confines within which she and others must conform at her particular command. This is a grand departure from what her male counterparts consistently try to categorize and control. Finch just wants to be, and it’s oh so very romantic.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Comp. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2006. 914-926.

Doody, Margaret. The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 233-264.

Eliot, T S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 1092-1098.

Finch, Anne. Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. London: J[Ohn] B[Arber], 1713. Google Books. 5 Apr. 2008 .

Greenblat, Stephen, ed. “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. a Dissertation Upon Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Comp. Lawrence Lipking and James Noggle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2006. 2693-2694.

Hinnant, Charles H., and Barbara McGovern. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, a Critical Edition. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1998. xv-xli.

Hinnant, Charles H. “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale'” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 31 (1991): 499-513. JSTOR. College of Saint Rose, Albany.

Hinnant, Charles H. The Poetry of Anne Finch: an Essay in Interpretation. Newark: University of Delaware P, 1994. 166-196.

Hopkins, David, ed. Routledge Anthology of Poets on Poets. 2nd ed. Florence: Routledge, 1994. 178.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. 29-58.

McGovern, Barbara. Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1992.

Mermin, Dorothy. “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch.” ELH 57 (1990): 335-355. JSTOR. Neil Hellman Library, Albany. 15 Apr. 2008. Keyword: Anne Finch.

Miller, Christopher R. “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening.” SEL 45 (2005): 603-623. 12 Mar. 2008 .

Ross, Trevor Thornton. Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century. Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen UP, 2000. 173-205.

Seelig, Sharon C. “The Poets of the Renaissance.” Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Ed. Claude J. Summers. Columbia: University of Missouri P, 2002. 156-169.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Comp. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 648-668.

Zionkowski, Linda. Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 171-204.

This paper was discussed in The Guardian on the topic of Anne Finch’s poetry.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/oct/06/poem.week.anne.finch

Will the Real Harvey Pekar Please Step Up?

From the beginning of Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), we are presented with many versions of Harvey Pekar:

A comic strip frames Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay), an uncostumed kid on Halloween in 1950. When asked what he’s dressed as, we learn that this kid is no super hero. He cranks off, “I’m Harvey Pekar. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood” and storms off with the voices of kids mocking his name in fading echos.

If memory serves correctly, we hold that same external comic frame and fade the content to actor Paul Giamatti walking that same street playing the film’s character “all grown up.”

• A voiceover of the real Pekar tells us Harvey Pekar is also a real guy and we eventually meet that guy in a sound studio being interviewed, documentary style, by Shari Springer Berman.
• Interspersed are comic renditions of the character talking to us in bubbles, telling us about who he is.
• Giamatti thinks in bubble text at the supermarket where the idea for American Splendor was born.
• We meet “the comic renditions” of Pekar again at the the train station when Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) arrives for the first time.
• Later, we get clips of the real Pekar on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
• Giamatti also stages Pekar’s volatile GE/NBC blast on the same show.
• Last but not least, we see one more permutation when Giamatti acts repulsed while watching a play about Pekar played by Donal Logue when the voiceover adds that he, the real Pekar, wonders how he?ll feel seeing Giamatti play him in this movie.

The genius mix of reality and fiction is enough to make my head spin…

On one hand, Harvey Pekar is very real. He documents his every day life events and those of his work acquaintances in American Splendor comics. He has appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” as your average guy from the Cleveland rust belt (although he doesn’t seem very average to me). He has always kept his job as a VA hospital file clerk. Now he’s produced enough work and acquired enough fame to appear in this movie but divulges the fact that he’s doing it for the money. Throughout every rendition of American Splendor, Pekar’s reality bleeds from life to art and back again.

On the other hand, Pekar, like any artist, hand selects moments that portray his reality in a particular way. The comic story is first selected and shaped by Pekar. As one of the film’s screenwriters, he has some sway over what makes the film. Although he does little to openly display his controlled artistic bent, we get a small clue when, by his own admission, he says he has not always portrayed his wife accurately. Pekar also relinquishes much of his control?when rendered visually by a wide range of artists. That control is once again wrested from him with the inclusion of other screenwriters. At one point, he fears what the film’s outcome will be with so much room for interpretation by others. In these small spaces, we can see that the real Harvey Pekar is not so easy to pin down. Perhaps this is why, after seeing other HP’s in the phone book, Pekar ponders both who they are and who he is.

This fictionalized reality becomes interesting in that, although Pekar rebels against commoditization of corporate entertainment, particularly as he and self-proclaimed “nerd” Toby Radcliff (Judah Friedlander) are commandeered on “Letterman” and MTV, Pekar has ironically been in the business of commodifying himself from the beginning. The Pekar doll made by Joyce, now his wife, is the perfect metaphor for Pekar’s construction process. The clothing is something Pekar has truly worn, the fabric of his reality, so to speak, and something everybody can relate to. But it is his face, ultimately his identity, that is the creation of an artist. By making himself a comic book character, the visual product patterned by and after Pekar himself is what has been for sale at every stage of the game.

My Intellectual Cosmos

Taking stock, a reflective exercise often assigned at the end of a class, is also a graduation requirement. This is my first draft. Tweaking to follow… although references to “navel gazing” and “mental masturbation” are definitely keepers.

The Collegiate Experience and My Intellectual Cosmos

This reflective essay has been assigned to help connect my Senior Seminar experience, with its focus on pre-romantic poetry, to the greater Saint Rose experience and thus my intellectual cosmos. To be honest, I find this task rather difficult. My trouble stems from the Senior Seminar portion of this ponderance. Let me first say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual, in-depth conversation every class has offered and that I find significant value in the exploration of early literary theory and the ability to measure today’s ideas by comparison. Still, I struggle to kindle some sort of greater passion for the subject matter in a present-day application that brings new awareness to light.

In my ideal world, Senior Seminar should be more than an entertaining intellectual exercise. I had hoped for a topic that would engage my passion, inspire me to action in righting some contemporary wrong and raise my own awareness as well as the awareness of those who read what new discoveries my research has to offer. Instead, I am reminded time and again, as we jest about the many ways in which poets have continually pondered their navels, that the struggle of the human experience merely shifts at a snail’s pace. Looking to history offers little more than greater historical knowledge of humanity’s slowly morphing circumstances, faulty attempts at understanding through overly general categorization, and constant repetition of these mistakes. While history is a fantastic place to begin, traveling back in time is not necessarily the best place to finish, at least in the opinion of this Saint Rose senior.

While the official capstone of pre-romantics study has been a wonderful venue in which to exercise analytical skills developed in other classes, I would say that the study of theory and postmodernism have been my personal and intellectual capstones. Through these two classes I have become significantly aware of and even horrified by the assault of stereotypes upon my own thoughts. I have since used that awareness to both examine and challenge knee-jerk reactions as well as my long standing perceptions of this crazy world we live in. Theory has provided new ways of understanding beyond those with which I was familiar. By studying an array of alternative ideas, I found freedom in choice and relieved the constraint on my personal identity. Of course, one could argue that social constructs not only bind identity, but that there can be no identity without such definition. It is in the understanding that boundaries are arbitrary and differ from culture to culture that freedom to make new and different choices exists. Liberated in my ability to move beyond the limited scope of what little I was told I could be, I have also learned to see this postmodern world for what it is and have situated myself within as a global citizen. Armed with my new perspective, I dare to dream bigger dreams and choose to live a life in which I am more aware of the impact I have on others as well as myself.

An example of how Postmodernism changed my life stems from examining a postmodern text through a theoretical lens. Choosing Linda Hutcheon’s definition of historiographic metafiction, I have explored the film and filming process of The Last King of Scotland. This movie focuses on former dictator Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda as experienced by the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Many uneducated Ugandan citizens who watched this film in underground viewing huts believed the fictionalized version to be historical, calling the film “real.” While this might appear to suggest the realism that film technology has the ability to create, the project reveals a far more disturbing picture. Intimidated extras believed that Forest Whitaker was truly Idi Amin and that they were being paid to support his political agenda. A twisted version of the death of Uganda’s beloved Kay, Amin’s wife, corrupts her image through one more Western violation of a black woman for the sake of appealing to a Western audience. Also, in a culture where modesty is imperative, filmmakers in a bind to find willing extras coerced Amin’s impoverished former poet to run naked through a party scene, essentially blackmailing him so he could make enough money to return to his family when he merely wanted to read. Throughout my paper, which I still intend to polish and publish, unethical Western film making philosophy becomes as exposed as that poor poet. By the end of the fifteenth page, there is no question that ethical behavior is required in this failed form of historiographic metafiction, one influenced by money and the reinforcement of stereotypes rather than empowerment of all of humanity . Revealing the horrors of Hollywood-style colonization and commoditization of an entire third world nation, this, by far, is my most meaningful academic work to date. My latest paper on the poetics of Anne Finch could never be as powerful.

On a personal level, what I have learned in Postmodernism has inspired me to action. I have begun to thoroughly and independently research my own possible impact as a Westerner when volunteering in Africa this summer. I will continue to diligently study how best to immerse myself within the Ghanaian culture while recording the lives of dying HIV/AIDS patients for their soon to be orphaned children. Preservation of cultural and familial information is my main goal and I wish to leave as little impact upon these people as possible. For this reason, I have chosen a non-governmental organization serving the needs and projects developed by the local villagers rather than joining forces with one imposing Western ideological ideas and solutions. This is not to say that Western philosophy is entirely corrupt, but there is no denying that, in inextricable conjunction with capitalism, it consumes other cultures at an extraordinary pace. While the study of literature has been invaluable in gaining better understanding, literature without action is nothing more than mental masturbation.

I have, in a previous reflection paper, likened my personal growth through the study of literature to a spiritual awakening; the best possible outcome college can have on an individual without the involvement of religion. I can honestly say that the study of theory and the global impact of the postmodern have changed, for the better, who I am as a person. Saint Rose initially rejected my application and, upon appeal, accepted me with condition, so it is with great pleasure that I have proven worthy of that chance by earning a 4.0. While earning that grade is certainly a crowning achievement, it means nothing but for the fact that I am walking away with a new world view as well as an eye toward making a difference. That, to me, is an end result well worth the hard work I have invested in myself these past two years.

Looking at Quills

Having selected Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) as my “Writers in Motion” film of choice, I watched it twice, first to take in the entire story and again to take notes. For further insight, I watched the DVD extras on screenplay writer Doug Wright’s commentary, costuming, setting and casting, searched for the text of the screenplay to read for sheer literary value, and hit JSTOR for some scholarly direction. I also found accounts of the Marquis de Sade’s real life on the Time Warner True Crime site and discovered another devoted to PVC fetish wear designed in the Marquis’ name. Before I knew it, I had shoved so much material into my feeble little brain that my ability to create a single thesis ground to a screeching halt. I screamed, “TOO MUCH INFORMATION!” and took a break. This is how I roll.

Reading Barsam’s last chapter of Looking at Movies offers the perfect springboard for this paper I have yet to begin. With graduation looming just 15 days away, that’s what I call salvation in print. One method Barsam suggests is a tracing of dualisms or binary oppositions. In Quills, that could include things such as:

• nature/culture
• good/evil
• freedom of speech/censorship

By outlining some of these issues, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, I find that the film pits these oppositions against one another in order to explore the gray areas in terms of what writing can and must accomplish.

What this film seems to want to say is that writing fiction or creating narrative is not only inherent in one’s nature, but that human nature is at odds with culture. More specifically, culture is the tool to reign in our human nature, particularly since the libertine nature of an individual is rarely good for a greater societal state of being. This is precisely where the purpose of fiction enters in and Barsam’s section on “Memesis or Catharsis” (321) comes into play..

If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it – if you will – as the asylum’s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. Departing from reality for the sake of the story, the creators want to say that the more those in power try to suppress public access to what is essentially 18th century pornography (inherent human nature?), the more persistent and even violent the fiction becomes. The idea of “story” takes on a life of its own and will fight through the quill of its author or any other means to survive.

Alternately, while the Marquis says his theatrics are “just a play,” his words are undeniably influential and carry a great deal of power. Because the power of the Marquis’ story results in the death of a laundry maid, Medeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet), as well as incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum’s own society, Plato’s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. The Bible too is portrayed as a narrative of dangerous means, God being accused of stringing his son up “like a side of beef” making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.

If this film proves anything, it’s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the recent blame of video game violence when children act like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice and that fiction offers that outlet. According to the filmaker’s, censorship be damned but so too is the fiction writer.

While I haven’t the skill for it, I’d love to address a Freudian analysis of this film’s creators. What kind of person venerates a man who, in real life (and this is merely one of many counts against him), locks up six young girls for 6 weeks of torture and sexual abuse, releasing them to separate convents with instructions not to talk about their traumas all to make a case for free speech? I suppose I can understand that you’d want to use the worst case scenario for the ultimate effect, but what irked me most about this film is that I was coerced into finding the Marquis rather witty, sometimes charming, seductive and even logical if not completely self absorbed. How dare they make me cheer for such a perverse asshole. Maybe I should psychoanalyze myself (another approach Barsam mentions). Then again, I might get locked up too.

I’d go further but then I’d be writing my paper right here and now. That would ruin the surprise for even me (or something like that). This was an awesome place for some serious brain drain in order to sort some threads I’ve been considering (and to prove I read the chapter), so thanks for reading. Any feedback is welcome.