Author: s_cohen

The Confessional Narrative

The Frow readings have briefly alluded to the religious practice of confession and its strategic secularization into a device for modern literature. Traditionally, the ritual of confession serves for the confessor to acknowledge his or her wrongs in aims to be absolved of sin/ignominy (forgiveness), reform himself or herself through penance, and ultimately be reborn of conscience. In The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen structures the narrative as the protagonist’s confession to his unidentified “Commandant.” In keeping with the Augustinian model of confession, the narrative includes both admittance of wrongdoing as well as proclamations of faith. This is demonstrated in the passage that opens Chapter 7: he admits his guilt over the assassination – “I confess that the major’s death troubled me greatly, Commandant…He was a relatively innocent man” – and then affirms his commitment to the revolutionary project, which serves as a stand-in for God in this book – “We’re revolutionaries, and revolutionaries can never be innocent” (111). This novel’s confessional structure, however, deviates strongly from the religious model because its narrator’s confession is not a voluntary enterprise; it is the result of an exercise of political force. Thus, contained within any ideological proclamations in the text, there is another layer of deception added to the already Janus-faced narrative. It makes me wonder, if in writing this confession the narrator becomes a reformed subject in the eyes of the state, how has his perspective and thus the story we receive been altered? Or how, if it all, does the narrator subvert the limitations of his prescribed confession?

Fictional Characters, Fictional World

To viewers, the world presented in the opening scenes of Blade Runner is a chaotic future, technology-infested but also run-down, hyper-corporatized and desensitized, and populated by a heterogeneous mix of cultures, languages, people, and images. There is some text to help us make sense of this foreign world, and later on Deckard receives instructions to retire the remaining Replicants that serve to orient us in the plot that unfolds. By the time we meet Rachel’s character, we are acquainted enough with the logic of Blade Runner’s world to understand where she fits within it.
The process of sense-making that the viewer undergoes to become familiarized with the fictional world feels natural, but in reality is the direct and calculated product of a methodically constructed system that the movie builds. As recurring symbols (ex: origami) and images (the geisha ad) prompt viewers to recall earlier scenes, or voiceovers reiterate words to convey Deckard’s recollection, the film ingrains a class of “memories” for the viewers in relation to the fictional world.
When Rachel discovers that Tyrell implanted her memories, she begins to question herself and all of the preexisting knowledge she holds. At the movie’s final scene, the viewers find themselves in a similar position, implanted strategically with memories of a distinct world, and disoriented by the sudden collapse of this epistemology through the film’s abrupt ending. In truth I am not quite sure what to make sense of this haunting mimetic structure, just as I am not quite sure what to make of what I just watched…

Belonging(s) in The Bluest Eye

Much of this book centers around social pariahs, predominantly through the story of Pecola Breedlove, and the process by which their society casts them aside. Parallel to this process of not belonging, the author accentuates a hierarchy of personhood based upon another type of “belonging” – physical possessions and characters’ relations to them. Claudia maps out the social hierarchy determined by characters’ relations to property on pages 17-18, when she notes how Cholly Breedlove has propelled his family from the periphery of “renting blacks” into the wretched state of “outdoors.” When a character finds themselves “outdoors,” as Pecola does in this section, they are devoid of all possessions.

Some objects, illustrated in the case of Claudia and her doll, or the Breedlove’s sofa, are imposed upon characters involuntarily, standing as metaphors for the oppressive social restraints they endure. Whereas Claudia reacts to her doll with anger and destruction, though, rejecting its presence, the Breedloves simply seem to harbor an internalized resentment towards their furniture, but nonetheless accept it.

Later in the narrative, Morrison uses the term “belonging” to describe the ugliness that dominates the Breedlove household. She visualizes the ugliness contagion that originates from Cholly as a type of garment which each member of the family wears distinctly (39). Pecola comes to truly believe that the ugliness belongs to her, and like her family does the sofa, accepts her ugliness as a fact of her existence. Though she has brief moments wherein she expresses a sense of ownership and projects beauty, Pecola mainly sees her “ugliness” as a contaminant, and thus casts aside her beautiful dandelions as weeds (48). This action of discarding foreshadows the physical and spiritual destitution of Pecola’s character – as a result of constant rejection, she ultimately renders herself  “outdoors,” unworthy of both belongings and belonging.

Self-constructed Fictions

Even though the work is a memoir and thus fundamentally nonfictional, there is much to take from Fun Home on the subject of fictional character. So far, the only character that Bechdel has presented explicitly as somewhat fictionalized is the father figure. She verbalizes this in a section wherein she talks herself down from the guilt she feels over his death: “However convincing they might be, you can’t lay hands on a fictional character” (84). On the next page, she continues, “In a way Gatsby’s pristine books and my father’s worn ones signify the same thing – a preference of fiction to reality” (85). With his preoccupation with the house and its pristine interior and appearance, as well as his retreats to the library and the army, Bechdel’s father hides his true self behind ornamentation and Fitzgerald-emulation. Fiction masks his reality of suppressed sexuality and childhood abuse, and it helps him to cope with his failure to sustain the European-artist-intellectual lifestyle he envisioned for himself.

This being said, there is also an implicit element of fictionalization in the manner with which Bechdel presents her own story in Fun Home. The chosen form of graphic novel amplifies this quality; Bechdel’s illustrations present to readers the scenes as she imagines or remembers them, and in doing so strips the license of interpretive visualization from the readers. Theoretically, this technique might relay a more accurate account of individuals or events, but Bechdel admits that she takes liberties in the role of constructor of her own narrative – on page 41, she writes, “I know Mort was a mailman, but I always pictured him as a milkman, all in white – a reverse grim reaper.” More directly, she accentuates her own tendency to fictionalize on page 58, “I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy,” and again on 67, “I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms.” Her pronouncements here demonstrate Bechdel’s attuned self-awareness towards her role as constructor of a narrative.

Character and Belief

I found it fascinating to track the belief of Oedipa – which develops into an effort to somehow make sense of all the symbols, messages, and mystery surrounding the Tristero and Pierce Inverarity – over the course of today’s reading section. Especially in the last two chapters, Oedipa’s beliefs escalate and in fact drive the action; on 64, she has Metzger take her to The Courier’s Tragedy, convinced that seeing the play for herself will mitigate some of her confusion concerning the bone charcoal. Metzger makes fun of her when she wants to talk to the director, but she is insistent: “I want to see if there’s a connection” (76). Oedipa’s questions make Driblette impatient, as he thinks she is trying to over-intellectualize his production, but Oedipa leaves with some added components to her belief, though still riddled with self doubt: “She stood in a nearly deserted parking lot, watching the headlights of Metzger’s car come at her, and wondered how accidental it had been” (80). By the end of Chapter 4, these suspicions or curiosities have catapulted into an undeniable belief in an underlying system: “She’d gone back, deliberately, to Lake Inverarity one day, owing to this, what you might have to call, growing obsession, with ‘bringing something of herself’–even if that something was just her presence–to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations” (90). In the urgency and seriousness of her discussions with Mr. Thoth, Fallopian, and Genghis Cohen, we can see Oedipa’s belief in the existence of a system of “constellations” has grown into what seems like certainty: “She nodded. The black costumes, the silence, the secrecy. Whoever they were their aim was to mute the Thurn and Taxis post horn.”

Collection of Objects

Doing today’s reading, I noticed myself paying extra attention to the talismanic symbols with which the Invisible Man interacts. Some of these, like Brother Tarp’s mangled chain link, he elects to keep in his close possession. Others, like Mary’s shattered minstrel bank that he struggles to discard earlier in the book, seem to be thrust upon him. In this section, the protagonist’s relationship to the primary symbol, Clifton’s Sambo doll, is a bit more complex. At first he is appalled by it, and tries to defile it in the street, but ultimately, as it becomes linked with Clifton’s untimely death, it becomes symbolic of the inherently complicated consciousness of a black man. So, it is added to the Invisible Man’s collection, and when he is examining it at his desk, noticing the black, invisible string that makes it dance, he thinks, “It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death…the life of a man is worth the sale of a two-bit paper doll” (435-436). Personal objects, and the agency with or without which they come into one’s possession, thus illustrate a projection of the static qualities as well as the development of literary character; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Self-Awareness vs. Archetypes

In Invisible Man, one aspect of character – self-awareness – seems to have an inverse relationship to another – archetypes (in particular as determined by societal and racial expectations); that is, as the character’s self-awareness increases, he conforms less to the archetypes imposed upon him. The scene that precedes the protagonist’s speech in Chapter 1, a sick game that provides entertainment value to the wealthy white men looking on, represents a physical manifestation of this character quality. Involuntarily made into the centerpieces of a spectacle, the fight scene unfolds as the protagonist and his fellow young black men blindly participate in the brutality, thereby fulfilling these predetermined roles. In the same way, Mr. Trueblood tries to justify his actions to Mr. Norton and the other white men who pay him off, but instead illuminates his total lack of self-awareness and responsibility, and therefore is rewarded for fitting an archetype of the immoral black man. The vet doctor, in contrast, reveals plenty of self-awareness, conducting himself with an unprecedented level of confidence, but is ultimately dismissed in the narrative because he fails to conform to the archetype of the unhinged black veteran.