Why I’m putting this blog on hold

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on

– John Keats, ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’

Back when I was in my late teenage phase of lexical obsession, I used to memorise every single polysyllabic word I’d come across, so much so my ambition at one point was to become a walking thesaurus. For real. 

With each new vocabulary I was able to deploy in daily patois (ahem, they say old habits die hard), I’d feel a surge of self-assurance and superiority. But worry not, the rest of the blog post isn’t going to be in this kind of register, because I’ve long outgrown that sort of insecurity. It’s interesting though, to think how appending a few more syllables to words could possess the power to inflate one’s ego.

Among my trove of ego-boosting gems, there was one I particularly liked – ‘epiphany’. While this word originally carried biblical connotations, meaning “insight through divine inspiration”, over the years it has gradually shed its theological plumage and taken on a more philosophical connotation, referring to “a sudden realisation or a great revelation”. I first came across it when reading literary criticism on James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, in which the protagonist Gabriel ultimately comes to a tragic epiphany about the passionless nature of his marriage.

I was reminded of this word, however, because I recently came to an epiphany about this blog.

And this epiphany is what I’d like to talk about in today’s post.

austen

How it all began

When I started this blog about 3 years ago, I actually thought of it as a continuation of my dissertation paper, in which I tried to find the meaning and purpose of literary criticism.

Essentially, I was writing lit crit about why people bother writing lit crit, not because I was convinced that pulling an academic meta-gimmick would bag me a First, but rather, I wanted to understand why creative work needs critical analysis in the first place.

Why can’t we just leave novels and poems alone, and let people enjoy and make of them what they will? Why propose interpretations and influence others with your take on what a given work is about? Heck, why do English professors – who basically make a living out of writing literary analysis – even exist?

Well, I ended up with the tentative conclusion that, perhaps, just perhaps, the act of analysing literature is, in fact, also a creative act, if not even more so, because reading generates not just one, but multiple, understandings of a single work. A neo-Bluestocking English Professor’s A feminist discourse on ‘The Bell Jar’ does not have to be any less creative than Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and the imagination of authors is not mutually exclusive to the interpretation of critics.

bell jar 63

In fact, the best literary critics are often those who interpret imaginatively. Reading what they think of literature is like reading a creative essay that expands the parameters of your understanding; you may laugh at the ludicrousness of how far-fetched their analysis of a given symbol in a novel is, or you may scorn at the frivolity of how serious they take the use of run-on lines in a poem to be, but one thing’s for sure: good literary criticism always invites some kind of emotional response from the interested reader, but the best literary criticism invites emotional response from the layman reader who may not even be interested in literature in the first place.

 

So?

So… I set up this blog because I wanted to write what I believe to be the ‘best’ kind of literary criticism, and to do so outside the proverbial ‘Ivory Tower’ of academia, preferring instead the public domain of social media. This is because I resisted – and continue to resist – the idea that literature is a coterie pastime, accessible only to an exclusive, ‘elite’ bunch who have had the fortune of being well-educated. The perpetuation of this myth has got to be one of the greatest ironies of all time, seeing as literature is nothing if not a compendium of all human experiences and emotions.

And thinking deeply about how a given poem, novel, or play portrays humans and humanity from different angles, how they apply to our own lives and invite us to reflect on the way we live, is an exercise in improving self-awareness, and in my opinion, one of the best approaches to living a more conscious, meaningful life.

As time went by, I realised that I would use this blog to share snippets of my personal life, which I’d always relate to something I was reading at that given point in time. While this isn’t a problem per se, I began to notice how I was increasingly unable to share as much about work and life on here as I’d like to, because the blog is a public platform, not a private journal. I’d end up self-censoring out of privacy concerns, or sometimes just straight up not write a post because I’d self-censor so much that by the time I was done there wasn’t much point left to it all. 

Most importantly, I came to the epiphany that I’ve slowly but surely moved away from my original intention for Classic Jenisms, which is to focus on the joys of conscious reading and of literary appreciation, not on myself. I came to realise that I had started turning this blog into a solipsistic outlet, where I’d share whatever whenever I felt like sharing. Again, not a problem in and of itself, but not quite what I initially had in mind for this blog.

Next steps?

Of course, change is the only constant, and it’s only natural for ideas to evolve over time. But with the advent of both the Gregorian and the Chinese New Year, I had a thorough think about where I’d like to take this blog going forward, and I’ve decided to start a separate but related project.

The aim of this project is simple, and a return to the roots of this blog – to make literary criticism meaningful and accessible for as many people as possible. I’ll be working on it under the radar for the time being, and I anticipate that it’ll take at least a few months before I can bring it to light.

It may work, or it may not, but I hereby pledge my word that I will give it my best shot, and that you’ll be the first to know about it here once I’m ready to launch it.

* * *

All this, because I truly, madly, deeply believe that literary criticism / creative interpretation / imaginative reading / conscious reading / appreciative analysis / however you want to call the act of creating meaning from poems, books, and plays, is one of the few things that make life a more rewarding experience.

Because it stems from love.

Pure, unadulterated love for the portrayal of what it means to be human.

radu-marcusu-498248

 

 

Photo credits: heroine jones
Advertisements

Pre-Christmas reading feels

Nothing between human beings isn’t uncomplicated and there’s no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.

– Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys 

Updates on my progress re Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys – I’ve finally finished it, and believe it or not, the last 50 pages flew by pretty quickly, which goes to show that there are rewards to be reaped from bibliographic perseverance, or just that Oates didn’t do that great a job with her overall narrative architecture in this book.

Either way, I think it’ll probably be quite some time before I pick up another family saga. Still, I give mega creds to Oates for her stylistic elegance – there’s no denying that this prolific lady has a way with words.

She’s worth reading, maybe just not at urban speed.

Over this period of sluggish struggle with Oates’ book, I happened to have re-read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which is a considerably shorter classic about the life of two American labourers during the Great Depression era.

I was surprised by how much it touched me, especially when I don’t recall feeling much the first time I read it. Then again, I didn’t even register that Pride and Prejudice was a love story when I first read it at 10, so perhaps first impressions gained at a time of literary immaturity usually aren’t reliable.

Having read and loved his short stories, I maintain that John Steinbeck is the American realist par excellence, perhaps second only to John Updike (my all-time favourite DWM*), and that his works are sine qua non for the personal library of any self-professed 20th century literary lover.

Exploring Lennie Small – a giant who is anything but small 

In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s portrayal of the mentally retarded Lennie Small is masterfully heartbreaking, because he paints Lennie as a walking paradox who has very little agency over what he does, says or feels: he is a child trapped in a man’s body, a purist in a practical world, an animal lover who kills animals and doesn’t realise it until he does, and a male labourer who is even more sentimental than the only woman in the book.

Lennie is so pure in mind and so untainted in soul that he emerges a saintly anomaly when compared to all the ruthless, wily, worldly characters around him.

Notice how people who are radically ‘different’ often meet two fates: if eventually accepted by the masses, they will be haloicized (e.g. Jesus); if ultimately rejected, they will be persecuted (e.g. Othello). As the adage goes, fortune favors the bold, so those who are not endowed with the confidence of asserting their ‘different-ness’ (because the word ‘difference’ doesn’t suffice to underscore just how different these characters are) would naturally fall to the sidelines of the marginalized, deemed freaks of nature or specimens of failure.

In Of Mice, Lennie almost always steps on toes, and it is precisely because his mishaps are such bumbling examples of comic awkwardness that they are so heartrending, and that he is able to incite such sympathy on the reader’s part.

A. C. Bradley, one of the seminal Shakespearean scholars, was often criticized for commenting on dramatic characters as if they were real people, but I sometimes wonder how it’s possible for anyone not to conceive of fictional constructs as real people, because isn’t that ultimately the point of literature – to use novels as interpersonal sandboxes, to imagine the fictional as stand-ins for the real, and as such, to strengthen our capacity for empathy?

camila-jacques-426278

Granted, it’s difficult to imagine myself as a mentally retarded person (for which I’m incredibly thankful), but there are definitely times when I have felt like the inadequate moron in the corner, or the sore thumb that’s grossly unaware of her unwelcome presence.

The thing with Lennie is that he doesn’t mean for his presence to be so glaringly unwelcome; most of the time, this Steinbeck character is genuinely sorry and helpless about his physical ineptitude, which all the more compounds his sympathy quotient in the reader’s eyes.

Lennie

John Malkovich as Lennie Small in the 1992 film adaptation

A good example of this is when George, Lennie’s understanding but also understandingly irate sidekick, tells him off for picking up stray mice and secretly hoarding them as pets:

“You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?”

“Give you what, George?”

“You know damn well what. I want that mouse.”

Lennie reluctantly reached into his pocket. His voice broke a little. “I don’t know why I can’t keep it. It ain’t nobody’s mouse. I didn’t steal it. I found it lyin’ right beside the road… I wasn’t doin’ nothing bad with it, George. Jus’ strokin’ it.”

George stood up and threw the mouse as far as he could into the darkening brush, and then he stepped to the pool and washed his hands. “You crazy fool. Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went across the river to get it?” He heard Lennie’s whimpering cry and wheeled about. “Blubberin’ like a baby! Jesus Christ! A big guy like you.” Lennie’s lip quivered and tears started in his eyes. “Aw, Lennie!” George put his hand on Lennie’s shoulder. “I ain’t takin’ it away jus’ for meanness. The mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.”

Lennie sat down on the ground and hung his head dejectedly. “I don’t know where there is no other mouse. I remember a lady used to give ‘em to me – ever’ one she got. But that lady ain’t here.”

George scoffed. “Lady, huh? Don’t even remember who that lady was. That was your own Aunt Clara. An’ she stopped givin’ em to ya. You always killed ‘em.”

Lennie looked sadly up at him. “They was so little,” he said, apologetically. “I’d pet ‘em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead – because they was so little.”

Killing something without meaning to: this has got to be one of the greatest moral dilemmas known to man. Without intention, can even the greatest of crimes be forgiven, despite the irreversibility of the act?

Lennie’s ‘crime’ is that he is too big, and as such, his force is often too great for most delicate creatures to bear, as they die beneath the burden of his lethal Midas touch. Lennie, this big-hearted bumbling bloke and poor child of deterministic tragedy, is a serial killer, albeit an unwilling one.

mouse

Can you, then, sympathise with this accomplice of Death, notwithstanding the complete lack of control he has over his deadliness?

* * *

On a merrier note, Christmas is in the offing, and if tradition stands in the Chan abode, soon the turkey will also be in the oven. In a capitalist haven like Hong Kong, this festival is really just another excuse to go shopping, not that I take too much issue with that, being a native product of a product-crazed culture.

I wonder when I’ll be able to experience a white Christmas again – I miss winter in England, although when I was there, I would often curse my toes off so much from the cold I didn’t need frostbites to remind me which part of the Northern Hemisphere I was in.

Have a happy, happy Christmas, everyone. Read a book or something, or failing that, spend more time with your loved ones. Actually, reverse the order, because as much as virtual living procures its own enjoyments, it is never worth letting imagined figurines get in the way of real flesh and blood, chock full of love and hugs.

christmas twin

 

*Dead White Male: a controversial term for Caucasian male authors who have gained eminence and been posthumously canonised in Western literary history (used tongue-in-cheek here) 

Photo credits: The Paris Review, Unsplash, MGM

This is what vulnerability looks like (a brief note)

It’s difficult to write without inspiration, and lately, I’ve been experiencing a dearth of inspiration.

Usually, this means that everything has been going rather swimmingly in life, because otherwise I’d be a bundle of complicated ‘feels’ dying for an outlet for emotional outpour.

Tis the Catch-22 of writing: there’s no writing without experiencing some degree of distress. And yet, not being able to write for extended periods of time stresses me out as well; it’s a hollowing feeling, not having ‘output’, even though most of what I write is just diaristic catharsis masquerading as erudite essays. Ha. 

Continue reading

The one thing that underlies misogyny

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

– ‘Daddy’, Sylvia Plath (1981)

Fun fact: It was International No Bra Day yesterday.

i support no support

If you already knew that, more power to you, sistah (or brutha!) Until I caught it from the airwaves yesterday morning on my bus ride to work, I wasn’t aware that we had a commemorative day for bralessness, so it was with a tad bit of wistfulness that I missed out on a chance to legitimately unbound myself from the lady diaphragm wall, albeit for just a day.

What I have been aware of, though, is the Harvey Weinstein expose that’s been at the top of my BBC reader for the past week.

Continue reading

When traveling starts at home

To flit…
From high to low, from low to high, yet still
Within the bound of this huge concave; here
Must be his home, this valley be his world.

– William Wordsworth, The Recluse (1888)

Who doesn’t love traveling?

I honestly don’t know anyone who doesn’t. From the anticipation of jetting off to another place to the experience of seeing and tasting new things, there’s no denying that traveling is one of the greater joys in life.

Continue reading

An interview with Samuel Ferrer, Man Asian Literary Prize-nominated author

“I find it amazing that the most prominent kingdom of the Indian diaspora completely evaporated, leaving nothing behind other than these stones.”

– Samuel Ferrer, The Last Gods of Indochine (2016)

I will admit it – I’m a picky reader.

There are certain genres that I used to love but now wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (chick lit lad lit I’m lookin’ atcha), and I secretly wish that Top 10 Bestseller shelves could be consigned to the dusts of bibliographic oblivion.

bestseller_bunnyfoot

Fie! Fie! Get thee gone

I’ve written about my (much contested) aversion to sci-fi before, and I’ve always found the idea of fictionalising history a bit unsettling.

This is why, when author, double bassist and jazz musician Samuel Ferrer reached out to me a while ago with an invitation to read his historical fiction novel, The Last Gods of Indochine, I was skeptical. Looking back, I’d say I was thrown out of my ‘reading comfort zone’, given that a large part of it is set in medieval Cambodia – a period in history which I have absolutely no knowledge about.

Continue reading

How women show their strength

What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.

– Susan Sontag

Back in October last year, I took up strength training as part of my fitness routine.

Since then, I have been lifting weights every week in full badass mode; headphones in, West Coast hip-hop on, huffing and puffing while I bust out 20 squats with 20-pound dumbbells in each hand.

workout selfie shot

Not the most flattering self-portrait, I know, but no one looks flattering when they’re working out. And if you disagree, you’ve either not worked out before, or you weren’t actually working out when you thought you were.

#FACT #sorrynotsorry #keepinitreal

Continue reading