Monday, November 30, 2009

Personal Statement- Cursing

Remember the first time you used a swear word?  I do.  I was in the fifth grade—embarrassingly late in the game, especially by today’s standards.  My best friends were a set of identical twins whose parents were very permissive in their viewing standards, buying them graphically violent video games and R-rated scary movies.  I credit these twins fully for the expansion of my obscene vocabulary.  Sleepover parties at their house generally made me feel an odd combination of devilish excitement, fright and guilt.  My own parents’ media restrictions were much more in line with the Classification and Rating Administration’s guidelines—they drew a hard line for PG-13 movies at my first teenage birthday. When my little sister spilled the beans about my viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, our parents promptly set a two-month ban on overnight stays at the twins’ house. This ban naturally served to intensify my craving for their corrupting company and, therein, my craving for explicit, forbidden materials.  Fortunately for my parents (and, admittedly, for me) separate high schools set me firmly back along the straight and narrow.  

I have often wondered, in hindsight, what would have happened if my parents had not levied such exacting restrictions on my media exposure. (MTV and VH1 were off-limits, too—even in high school.) True, the insecurity of adolescence makes one very vulnerable to the lure of ‘cool’ explicit materials.  But the line of demarcation seems most effective, to me, when it its parameters are gauged by the individual in question, rather than set hard and fast for a collective group.  The Classification and Rating Administration guidelines are called ‘guidelines’ for a reason.  In my experience, unyielding strictness has the subversive potential to seem arbitrary and unfair, encouraging exposure to profanity by heightening desire for it.  

I think it is important for the Media Bureau of the FCC to be sensitive to its potential to exacerbate the problem of profanity by enforcing limiting legislation.  Although I do not find it particularly pleasant to be confronted with the F-bomb while viewing an awards ceremony, I would rather hear it than hear about it being restricted by the government.  I agree with the FCC’s decision to forgive Bono’s comment, but think that they are operating by a double standard in restricting the context to use as a modifier only, not a verb.  To me, taboo words in all their forms and contexts should fall under individual discretion anywhere they are used, because the incendiary, emotionally troubling nature of these words does not change their classification as words.  I see the potential consequences of their effect being dulled by overuse as similar to the effects of eating PB&J for lunch every day.  Some individuals would tire of it quickly and switch to a different sandwich, whereas others’ taste for them is more resistant, allowing them to continue this indulgence unremittingly.  Others are allergic to peanut butter, just like some people take extreme offense to hearing prolific language. The degree of sensitivity to others’ allergies we operate by when eating a PB&J in public, just like the degree to which we restrict the use of colorful language in our own speech, is up to us.  In the grander scheme of things, consequential backlash by society to government restrictions on individual speech seem to blight concerns of prevented social ‘dangers’ that could come of that individual’s language, in a society that prides itself on free speech. 

On a related note, the most interesting thing I learned this semester is the extent of the heated reactions that can come from the act of banning, and its potential this act has to exacerbate the problems it attempts to subvert. 

Freedom to and freedom from

The question of banning is always, in this country, controversial. As Margaret Atwood points out in one of my favorite books, The Handmaid's Tale, there are two types of freedom: freedom to and freedom from. Supposedly we are guaranteed both in this country, but where does one person's freedom to interfere with another's freedom from? I think that's the question our class has sort of been getting at and many of the readings for today are getting at. The smoking in public places ban is a sort of compromise; it doesn't ban smoking, it only bans smoking in places where non-smokers are directly affected, and the health benefits have been seen after not very long, according to the article we've read.

Cursing on television or radio is sort of the middle ground between smoking, which directly affects others, and clothing, which doesn't actually affect anyone else. Pinker's essay and article are so interesting because they challenge the basis of our language. What do words really mean anyway? Why are we so scared of sex and poop? He points out that curse words aren't actually cursed- contrary to what South Park's "It Hits the Fan" might portray- and he points out that in and of themselves, there is nothing morally corrupting about a curse word. He also acknowledges the power of language though. I feel as if this debate is nowhere near over. I do think that there should be more freedom as far as cursing goes on the radio or on tv, because it just seems silly to me. There are parental locks on tvs if a parents doesn't want their child(ren) to watch a certain channel, and the chances are that whatever they aren't exposed to on tv will be exposed to them somehow in their daily lives.

The articles on the clothing were interesting to me because I wasn't aware of the origins of the baggy jean phenomenon. It reminded me of a documentary I watched recently called "Tough Guise: Violence, Media, & the Crisis in Masculinity" which is about the state of masculinity in this country in many different ways (it's really interesting- you should watch it). He talk about out at one point something similar to what these articles talk about- the origins of these trends. He says that young white or suburban men dressed in this manner to copy the black or poor men who dressed this way- but these young men got it from movies, and he cites The Godfather as one of them, and the circle it goes around. He points out, though, as one article does, that the real problem isn't the way these young men are dressing but rather, as a quote highlighted in the New York Times article we read, "The focus should be on cleaning up social conditions that the sagging pants comes out of." I think that part of this whole problem is that people are trying to cover up the consequences of a flawed society rather than dealing with the real roots of the problems.

This class has been by far my favorite English class I've taken at Loyola. It has challenged me to think for myself. I tend to read things written by people smarter than me and just get excited and agree wholeheartedly- this class set me up to agree with something in theory and then point out to me that I might not agree with it in practice. This class has compelled me to ask myself what my morals are, who I am, and what I'm made of. I have never contributed to in-class discussion as much as I have this semester. This class coincided with a sudden and passionate concern for social issues in this country and has asked me what I'm going to do about it, because at this point I can't see myself spending my life living only for myself. Beginning with the Kolvenbach speech, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility, which simultaneously makes me feel incapable but also strong. It reminds me of a quote from Gandhi: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." Now, seeing all the ways in which people try to limit each other, I finally feel like I'm headed in a vague direction towards my vocation. I probably won't know what it is by May, but I finally feel like I will at some point in my life... and this is encouraging.

Troubling Last Thoughts

Reading these contemporary articles on the banning of saggy jeans, cursing, and etc. has really opened my eyes—and made me look upon banning even more critically than I had before. On the whole, I was disturbed by what I read—how are bans like these allowed in a country which prides itself so heavily on personal liberties?

There were three sentences/phrases that I came across in my reading that particularly struck me as off-putting:

From Pinker’s “What the Fuck – Why We Curse”:
“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) […] is charged with monitoring the nation’s airwaves for indecency […]”
“The ideal of sex as a sacred communion between a monogamous couple may be old-fashioned and even unrealistic, but it sure is convenient for the elders of a family and a society.”

And from the article “Are Your Jeans Sagging? Go Directly to Jail.”:
Debbie Seagraves, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Georgia said, “I don’t see any way that something constitutional could be crafted when the intention is to single out and label one style of dress that originated with the black youth culture, as an unacceptable form of expression.”


I think that these three phrases essentially sum up what is bad about and at stake in banning of any kind. The first, describing the duties of the FCC, sounds like something ripped out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984. A bureau checking our airwaves for undesirable content makes me uneasy, though I will fully acknowledge that the FCC can be useful—particularly in helping keep kids’ shows kid friendly, for example. And while I could certainly see having, perhaps, a rating system for books like the one we have for movies and television shows, I just can’t say that I agree with the total removal of any book for any reason. Yet, it seems that the potential for censorship is in the FCC, looming ominously overhead, threatening to remove the perceived indecency from every corner of our lives.

The second two sentences, beyond giving me the “watching-my-liberties-go-down-the-drain” creeps, really speak to the heart of why we ban books: they either aren’t convenient for us, or they represent undesirable lifestyles labeled unacceptable for mainstream children. This is the idea I’ve just mentioned—the idea of removing what the majority sees as indecent from all of our lives. What troubles me most about this idea is the removal of personal choice. If I personal find a book disturbing, I don’t have to read it, and I can certainly advise my own children, friends, and family to avoid it. But no over-arching system should be in place to determine what is generally disturbing and remove it from our hands.

Nearly everything we’ve read this semester has fallen into one or both of the two categories mentioned above, though one book sticks out in my mind: The Color Purple. The lifestyles and people presented in this book, as well as the ideas and even the way the book is written itself (i.e., in the epistolary form), are immediately pegged as incendiary and kept as far out of reach as Constitutionally possible. Yet, the Color Purple is lauded as a classic, and there are valuable things to be gained from reading it. How can a school district, a church diocese, or the government declare at what point the “bad” in a book outweighs the potential “good” you get from reading said book?

I think what has surprised me most this semester is reading the reasons that people give for banning books—sexual themes, racism, foul language—because I don’t think those are the real reasons they're out banning books. As we’ve mentioned in class, these things, as objectionable as they may be, are not present in books without good cause (for example, the use of the “n word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and are easily found without having to give a book more than a passing glance. We’re so quick to diagnose a thing as malignant that we’re losing touch. We can’t be like the citizens of L’Engle’s Camazotz, lazily willing to give up all decision-making powers for ourselves to some higher being(s); we’ve got to stop allowing outsiders to skim books and use those brief findings to declare what is, and what is not, indecent.

Final Post

I began this class believing that I would find it absolutely unacceptable to ban any book from any middle school or high school, and I thought that reading the books from this course would only strengthen that conviction. I was also interested to see how I felt about the course because many of the novels I had already read. What I found to be most interesting about this course was my reactions to it. Reading Huck Finn was probably the most interesting experience, as it was my fourth or fifth time reading the novel. I found it hard to believe that I would be able to gain new insight from the book, yet looking at it with the lens of a banned book I was able to learn more about the novel and myself, despite my previous reads. Reading these books made me realize how important it is to have a guide. The way that the book is taught can drastically change what you learn from it and how you interpret it.

One of the most interesting articles was one challenging Huck Finn for not more strongly stating the negative side of racism. It made me question what I thought was right when discussing a problem. Should it be blatantly stated? Or more subtle? Which is more effective? I still do not know the answer to this question. Perhaps the only book that I found myself understanding why it should be banned at certain age levels was The Color Purple. I’m not sure that I would want my child in middle school to be exposed to the evils of rape, incest, and abuse that is described in the novel. Yet, is it right because I personally feel that way, that no other child should be exposed to it?

This course made me realize that more than reading the books itself, the discussion of the books is what draws me to English classes, and makes me love English Literature. It was said in class that many of these books do not provide answers, but rather provide questions. Without the class discussion of these questions I do not think I would have gotten nearly as much out of the text. Many times in class opinions are different from each other, and it is through this discussion that you either learn more about your convictions in your own personal opinion, or your opinion begins to change as you are exposed to a different way of looking at things. In the beginning of the year we were asked why we read. I responded that I read to find out something new about myself or the world I live in, and this class did just that. I was forced to read about uncomfortable situations, be exposed to worlds and problems that I have little or no experience with, and I learned how I felt about those situations, worlds, and problems in my responses to the text.

As I reflect on all I have learned in the process of this course, I find myself coming to the answer to my own question about banning. Should books be banned? And with the exception of age appropriateness, the answer is no. All of these banned books ask the reader questions, and it is only with questions that there can be change and growth. As I read over the articles on other situations of banning, I found myself once again debating within myself whether or not I agreed with the banning. On the one hand, I can see many of the valid points for banning things such as curse words, but then find myself baffled that personal expression such as tattoos can be banned. Where is the line drawn between the freedom of expression and disrespectful? I do not have the answer, but I am hoping that through the discussions in class, I will have a stronger idea of what the answer is.

harmful versus nit picky

            After reading the articles I was somewhat shocked.  I like to think that our society puts laws in place to better us as a whole however; some of the restrictions were absolutely ridiculous.

            First of all, language.  Personally, I don’t like excessive swearing, I think there are much better ways to articulate your emotions.  I think swearing can be somewhat offensive and first and foremost without some restrictions on the choice words, our children will grow up learning to express themselves in a less than acceptable way.  Further, it is no secret that the use of some words makes the use of others either more acceptable or easier to say.  For example, towards the closing pages of Huck Finn the “n” word no longer stood out on the page, it was no longer a shock to see or even read; the same will happen with the use of other words, we will familiarize ourselves with them and they will become common place in our vocabulary.  What’s worse is the risk of already controversial terms becoming more offensive, for example, the “b” word becoming the “c” word (which I might add is already frequenting our language).

            Television is obviously a place where we see these words used frequently. Lets be honest though, is the use of these words truly necessary or would the same effect be there if say actors replaced “crap” for “shit”.  It seems to me there are better ways to express emotions than the use of these words.  Likewise with words we don’t think of immediately as being swear words but many consider equally offensive and just as controversial.  Words such as “gay”, “fag”, and “retard(ed)” really have no business being associated with negative connotations.

            It seems to me with our society facing problems such as these there would not be uprisings about baggy pants or tattoos.  The fact of the matter is that excessively baggy pants are not hurting anyone and at some point the people who choose to wear them will most likely be forced to wear more professional attire.  Tattoos are equally as trivial, personally, I have a tattoo and I love it, it is an art form that I am very proud to wear.  Most people who sport tattoos feel the same way and pick things to put on their bodies that mean something to them.  Telling someone they are not able to have a tattoo on their skin is along the lines of people they can’t wear makeup or provocative clothing but obviously this is not regulated. 

            Baggy pants and tattoos really have no affect on others.  They are trivial things that people wish to ban.  Language and smoking can have very negative effects on others.  It is well known that second hand smoke can be just as harmful to a nonsmoker as smoking is to a smoker.  Similarly, the use and acceptance of certain words can have negative effects and risks as well.  At the end of the day our society needs to be more concerned with harmful issues rather than fashion or art.  

Final Blog: The discomfort of going against the convention

The most surprising element of the course was seeing the discomfort found within the different audiences. I would agree with L ‘Engle and say that the books on the banned lists are those worth reading. I feel that these banned works really engage readers to press at controversial issues. I also found that our seminar’s conversations were very insightful and leaving me wanting more. Many of the issues found within the classroom traveled back into my personal life and became a hot topic within my family and friends. This class not only demonstrated the discomfort of going against the convention, but it allowed me to see not just both sides, but all sides.

I find it fitting that we read the shorter articles on banning baggy pants, cursing, smoking and tattoos on the last day. These articles help us see the constant act of banning in today’s society and the fact that it’s not just books that are being banned. I also found it kind of ironic, because this seminar has inspired me to look to banned books for my next read. I found that most of the books we read would classify as the “great” books and I think the next time I’m on a hunt for a “great” book that I am going to look up a list of banned books. The irony found within this class lies with the fact that the people banning these books only bring attention to the novel they wish to remove.

I also find it paradoxical that most of the time; those who are banning the books are those who really need to re-read the book. I feel that if you are really passionate about a book that you want it banned, just demonstrates the effect of the author on your perspective. Maybe people ban books only to hide their discomfort and unwillingness to change?

Just like in A Wrinkle in Time L‘Engle “asks some version of the same question ‘What does it mean to be human and to be a child of God’” (4). What I took from L ‘Engle’s novel was that our free will is what makes us human. That by removing free will, you take away what makes us different. To me this just exemplifies my point which I made earlier, that the ones who are banning the books are the ones who really need to sit down and read them. These banishers could learn a lot if they could just sit down with an open mind.

Hettinga also states the novel as, “troubling” because “the values and authority structures established by the author…have vanished” (3). I find his reasoning to fit right in with what I stated before, that those who wish things to be banned are those who really need to listen to the message.

This class has allowed me to see that society is tricky, and the convention isn’t always ‘right’. Most of our readings covered the issue of conforming to the ‘norms’ of society and the dangers that come with following blindly. I felt that this course was a sort of wake up call, and it really let me that the society we live in is filled with these blind followers. One major lesson learned from reading these banned books, is to not let people restrict my free will.

I also would like to tie in my service-learning, and just state that Govans was a great school to do service at, and the kids probably taught me more then I taught them. Many of my experiences at Govans have travelled into this course and my Race and Ethnicity course with Dr. Norman. I find that service and direct experience not only help teach me solidarity, but it allows me to put direct contact to what is learned in the classroom. I can only hope that the students at Govans get their hands on some banned books, especially AWrinkle in Time.

Final Blog :-(, "Work in Progress"

In mostly all of my classes I’m not what you would classify as an active participant. I usually shy away from sharing my opinions out of fear that they aren’t enlightening enough or that I may be repeating something that was implicit in another student’s analysis. Throughout this semester this class has not only made me want to participate, but I have enjoyed it. I think this is because of the no holds barred conversations that emerge. This class has taught me to become a lot more open minded about social, political, and emotional issues. There are some classes where I have read a text that I have completely despised, but in this class I have enjoyed everything we’ve read. I truly feel like I can say how I feel and not be judged, but rather understood and appreciated.
For me, our class is much like the “Penguins’ Situation” that Hettinga talks about in “A wrinkle in Faith.” Our class, like the Penguin’s situation, creates true intimacy over time (the course of a semester), a safe environment (small class, like Mary Rose O’Reilly’s “Peaceable Classroom”), and the willingness of the participants to hazard risks (reading banned books). Home this weekend I was on the train with my family and we got to talking to another family. They had two young daughters and one young son. Out of nowhere one of the young girls looks over to me and says “Daddy is the laziest man I know and I love him!” I immediately burst out laughing and so did everyone else. The young girl felt no embarrassment for blurting out whatever she felt. I envied her, and it reminded me of the freedom I feel from the conversations in our class. The emancipatory model that Gailbrath is presenting is a strong tactic in understanding children. By reentering and reevaluating their own childhood I agree that it would be easier to support and negotiate with your child without breaking their innocent spirit, like the one I encountered this weekend. This innocent spirit is something that L’Engle has touched upon. Using Meg as her main character in A Wrinkle of Time she is able to solve the problems in her novel with the simple conclusion that Love conquers hate.
As an author, L’Engle is just giving readers a taste of what she feels life is like for her, and she is not afraid to say how it. The ability to say how you feel is not something that should be taken for granted, because today in polite society sometimes we feel it is smarter to keep our mouths shut. I have realized, like Alex has previously mentioned, that many people are afraid. They are afraid of speaking their minds, standing up for what they believe in, and mostly afraid of disturbing the “status quo.” Because of our class I have learned that its better not to be afraid, but to delight in the fear and press forward with issues that excite you.
I prepared my presentation for today’s class and focused mainly on tattoo banning. During my research I came across a quite colorful character (literally and metaphorically speaking). Lucky Diamond Rich, known as the most tattooed man in history, has covered his body with 8 layers of ink, claims he only has one tattoo, and believes that his work of art will not be finished until the day he dies as it continues to be a "work in progress". He believes that people tend to think that tattoos restrict you from life but that it is the complete opposite. In an interview I found on youtube he was asked about his tattoo “it still isn’t finished?”, and he responded “never will be…” Rich’s tattoos free him from the confines of social normality and this freedom allows him to grow and progress with every tattoo he gets. I was immediately intrigued and amazed by his devotion to this art and completely agreed with his philosophy.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

final blog..."wtf"

In response to Mary’s insights about bans on tattoos: I personally feel that it is absolutely an infringement on one’s right to self-expression when we ban tattoos. Furthermore, I think that the general conceptions mainstream society ascribes to individuals with tattoos create an environment where people are supposed to feel ashamed or self-conscious about their bodies; and I find this aspect to be the most upsetting of all. The articles on tattoo bans are outrageous. Even if someone does not personally feel inclined to get a tattoo or tattoos does not mean that other people should be judged for their decisions to do so. This form of expression is just one aspect of who a particular person is and should not be taken as signifiers of who they are altogether, but at the same time, why are tattoos considered to be something bad at all? No one has the right to dictate who or what another individual is or chooses to do as long as it is not doing harm to others.
One of the most striking things I have taken from this semester is the recognition of how scared people are. I think I knew this before, but working with, and discussing banned books and reasons for why things are banned has made me even more aware of how much society seeks to control and close itself off from things that are different, or from challenges to a set and accepted social convention. There is such a strong undertone of paranoia and taboo which drives so much of how society functions, and it has people paralyzed with fear to an extent that they do not even fully recognize or understand.
The children’s literature genre, in particular, must face this problem even more so. Adults want to protect their children from that which they see has harmful. There is more “justification” available to control what children are reading. But is it not more devastating to protect young children from the world only to have them discover the truths and ugliness later on? Isn’t there some sort of a balance where kids can be protected but not deluded?
In the Hettinga article, L’Engle is described as a “spiritual explorer” who refuses to be “pigeonholed.” Her writing is not tidy or controllable, and she does not clearly define herself. Although she is a Christian and a writer, L’Engle is often met with criticism from conservative Christians. I think this is because she does not stick to a preset, accepted version of what Christianity is considered to be.
L’Engle is not afraid to push her readers towards a message even if that message is something society does not address. The childhood icons of a blanket or loved stuffed animal express how L’Engle’s icons say more than what they literally represent. “The blanket…is not a blanket, nor is the animal a mere animal, they are icons of all-rightness in a world that early shows itself to be not all right.” For L’Engle, suffering is an essential part of life (Abernethy). She feels that it brings one closer to God and indicates that one has lived, but society tries in vain to shelter children and does not allow them to grieve for the circumstance inherent in their mere existence.
Children are much more perceptive than most adults tend to believe. L’Engle believes that we must risk in life. To be intimate and vulnerable with others is to risk, and there is a great fear in doing so. People, like penguins, “avoid intimacy to avoid pain” (Hettinga). But pain is not something one can or should want to avoid because it is a part of life and a part of being human. L’Engle has her own way of looking at the world and of reflecting on it. Her writing pushes readers to confront difficult and often uncomfortable questions and then deal with them.
Young readers should not be underestimated. Galbraith touches upon an interesting point when she recognizes “a shared human predicament of existence.” Children are similar to adults insofar as they are human beings and then peers. Children are often able to see things that adults can no longer see for themselves. Like children, adults want to believe in something, but children are simply closer to and more in touch with this very human desire. Rather than trying to keep children protected from the questions they will naturally come to, they should be stimulated and given the opportunities to explore further these very questions as they are presented in various works of literature.

Higher Standards

Of all the different non-literary bans represented in the articles for this week, the one I was most interested in reading were the ones involving tattoo bans, especially after having returned from a country where tattoos hold a special significance in the culture of the native people, and having picked up a tattoo of my own symbolizing the significance my time there. Not to say the other bans were not as interesting, but surely some of them had at least more reasonable grounds. As much as the “seven dirty words” brings up important issues of freedom of speech, one can at least recognize the power of words to injure and hurt, as especially evidenced in the article from The Atlantic, recognizing especially the painful associations many Americans carry with the word “nigger.” This isn’t to say that words should ever be banned, but at least there is hurtful power of words is recognized. This is the same with smoking, where the awful effects of cigarettes and of second hand smoke have been realized. However, with the issue of tattooing, and also of baggy, sagging jeans, even these arguments don’t exist. The reasons for such bans are feebly given answers related to issues of “public decency,” something that is hard to argue when saggy pants don’t actually expose private parts and tattoos are only indecent if the content of the tattoo is something objectionable. Would any really argue that a tattoo of a bunny rabbit or a butterfly is indecent? Sergeant Major Carlton Kent, from the article in Time, even has the audacity to say that this tattoo ban within the Marine Corps is because "Marines hold themselves to a higher standard than everyone else.” I have so many objections to this blanket statement it’s hard to know where to start. What standards might you be speaking of, Sergeant Major Kent? If you’re speaking of a moral standard, then it is certainly hard to believe that an outright ban on anything would ever constitute a higher standard, especially when you have many cultures where tattoos are a symbol of pride and the more tattoos one have may actually signify their higher standing in the community. Do the Marines then assume they are at a higher level of moral reasoning than these cultures? Now to be fair, the legislation is certainly not aimed at these cultures, but rather on the average Joe Marine who gets whatever meaningless bullshit tattoo he sees in the tattoo shop every other weekend. However, should Marines who view tattooing as a serious and symbolic body art be punished because a couple of guys getting tattoos of flaming skulls and naked girls on motorcycles lower the “standards” of the Marines? Besides, don’t you think simply saying that the Marines have a higher standard than everyone else seems just a bit pretentious doesn’t it? Using that “higher standard” phrase seems like a cop-out to me, like a way to use feeble moral grounds to justifying banning something that the greater powers simply don’t like.
This seems to be the one thing that surprised me the most about this course: seeing the truly feeble reasons people find to ban literature. Often it seems that such literature is the most important and vital to keep around for it changes the way people may think about the world and the way they interpret literature. For people to ban such literature on moral grounds is highly questionable, and shows that perhaps the real reason things are banned are because of people who are afraid of different world views, people who don’t want to see the world any differently, perhaps out of a sense of tradition or elitism, or as a method of though control, out of fear that others reading a “questionable” text may end up disagreeing with authority figures. However, it seems to me anyone who doesn’t constant question authority and the world around them doesn’t really understand the world at all, and thus keeping these books in circulation should be a high priority for lovers of knowledge everywhere. This is the true "higher standard:" not refusing to read literature because of the moral uncertainties contained within, but constantly reading and questioning one's morality to effectively have a better understanding of what that morality means.

Language and Perspective

What surprised me the most about this class was how many different interpretations can come out of one literary work. When I read each article or work for the first time, I found myself completely tuned into one or two socially controversial aspects; after a second or third read and the presentations of my peers, my mind was always amazed. Although the class includes students, mostly females, from seemingly similar backgrounds and educations, each one of us can take a completely different approach to the same reading. This class has taught me many things about society, religion, and perspectives of the past and present but most of all has shown me the power in difference and individualism. Without variety in world views, the class would not have gotten anywhere. I believe that the individual presentations added to the range of discussions in a way that no teacher alone could have done.

On the topic of individualism and the differences of perspectives, I think it is appropriate that we end the class with A Wrinkle in Time and the articles associated with the book’s banning and interpretations. From the interview between Bob Abernethy and Madeleine L’Engle, one can see that L’Engle herself promotes writing for the sake of writing and expressing oneself rather than for public acceptance. She sees writing as a source of personal therapy for the author: “I am very grateful that I have a journal, and that I can write because that helps me to objectify things that might just mess me around emotionally, otherwise” (Abernethy 2). From this standpoint, writing is for the author and the interpretation of the work of writing is the work of the reader. Just as I gather different ideas from readings than other students in the class, readers from different backgrounds (religiously, economically, racially, socially) apply their own perspectives to develop interpretations. How can we ban writing, a form of the author’s free and personal speech, when writing is not what causes differences in perspectives, and therefore conflicts of interest and potential banning, to exist?

The value of perspective is also limited by the basic methods of communication of writing and speaking. From the internet articles on the banning of curse words and from Donald Hettinga’s article “A Wrinkle in Faith,” one can see that language as a form of expression often proves inadequate for the emotions or ideas that the author or speaker would like to convey. Pinker’s article “Why We Curse: What the F***?” takes a scientific approach to the different interpretations of language and cursing in saying that “Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain” (Pinker 3), that certain words invoke certain connotations beyond the control of language itself. Hettinga’s article also discusses the incapability for language and writing to represent a whole idea or feeling in criticizing the way that some people try to literally interpret the Bible and to “reduce our understanding to something that fits human paradigms but misses the divine mark”. When people get caught up in literally trying to read and understand words rather than the whole idea, they often miss the point of the writing and develop misconstrued interpretations of works. Instead of getting caught up in what may seem like profound anti-religious or anti-feminist statements, readers should read a work and appreciate the author’s attempts to articulate his or her inner emotions and thoughts. Banning should not be applied to works of language when language has proven itself to be inaccurate and so easily misinterpreted.


In Pinker’s piece Why We Curse, he writes that “Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire.” This concept of language-as-weapon certainly helps illuminate what, exactly, is so threatening about literature. Though words are, in theory, “arbitrary labels” (Pinker in Freedom’s Curse) they nonetheless possess the power to alter the world in significant ways. That each book we have read over the course of this semester has been viewed as a “weapon” is evident: they have all, at some point in time, been banned. Yet perhaps part of the weapon-like quality of the books lies not in the books themselves but in the readers’ interpretations.

For example, Pinker writes that “the common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone.” He then evokes the example “To hear nigger is to try on, however briefly, the thought that there is something contemptible about African Americans.” While this word might be “weapon-like” to the extent that it may cause a reader discomfort or pain, its purpose in the type of literature we have been studying is rarely to harm. Rather, as in Huck Finn, its purpose is to enlighten; to cause the reader to consider the implications of a word by “trying it on.” The deeper understanding that ensues as a result of this discomfort is worth the initial pain.

I’m not attempting to refute Pinker’s point about the weapon-like quality of language entirely. Indeed, I agree with him that “the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs.” I simply think it worth noting that something that might appear weapon-like (i.e. the use of the n-word in novels like Huck Finn or the mingling of religion and science in novels like A Wrinkle in Time) is not necessarily so and that from these apparent weapons comes growth.

What I found most interesting about these articles was the extent to which they highlight the dangers of language and fiction. Though I argued above that not all weapon-like literature is truly destructive, I still appreciate Pinker’s point that language can act as a weapon. In Hettinga’s article, I think it particularly interesting when he writes “when fiction is not read as fiction but as philosophy or aphorism, the reader, however well-intentioned, does the writer a significant injustice.” I think this is a major danger present to the uneducated reader – especially those who interpret novels like A Wrinkle in Time or The DaVinci Code as actual philosophy or history. This type of literal reading is exactly that which we are taught not to do in the classroom.

Finally, what I found most surprising about this semester was the manner in which I was able to relate our readings to my world and, in particular, to my service learning. Never before have I taken a class that asked me to consider its content in the context of my surroundings and connect the two in such an explicit way. I don’t think a single week passed where I was unable to connect our course readings to the world and/or to my service experience. This method infused both the readings as well as my reality with more meaning and opened my eyes to the interplay between literature and life.

The Slippery Nature of Interpretation and Banning

Perhaps the thing that has surprised me the most about this semester is the reasoning behind the bans placed against the books on our reading list. Some reasons seem to suggest that the person may not have even read the book, such as the accusations that Ms. Whatsit is a witch and that A Wrinkle in Time promotes witchcraft seem way off base. Other bans seem to suggest a cultural reversion to judgmental opinions, such that The Color Purple should be banned because of the sexual relationship between Shug and Celia when I am not sure if I could label either woman as a lesbian, I don’t think that label would do justice to the transformative and profound nature of their relationship that is less about sex, and more about self-discovery.

For me, I would be more concerned about the violence and the accepting attitudes towards it rather than the description of love. Thus the bans seem misguided to me, and even more so, misleading to the reader who hasn’t read the book yet and is forced to adhere to one person’s interpretation rather than giving the person the opportunity to make an opinion of their own. Even more so than that, what makes something indecent? And what happens to free speech in the cases of banning?

This then transitions to Steven Pinker’s ideas on the legislation of the FCC that defines "indecency" as "material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities". And yet they rule that the use of the “F” word as an adjective is perfectly acceptable? Everything is subjective when it comes to bans or FCC fines because it is ultimately in the hands of a small group of people who cry foul that leads to censorship across the board. Perhaps a better definition for indecency could simply be any word usage that degrades or defiles a person. It’s strange to me that the FCC doesn’t factor in discrimination when they wrote their rules.

I personally have been desensitized to the “F” word due to the high exposure to it in school, music, movies, and sometimes just passing by a stray conversation. Thus it doesn’t offend me nearly as much as the “N” word or the “C” word. Earlier this semester, I reviewed a comedian’s performance on campus where he used both the “N” and the “C” word several times. And yet most people reacted to my review (in online comments) negatively saying that I was too uptight and oversensitive (and most not in a very polite manner for that fact). And there were a few people who defended me and some who thanked me in person. Language can be a very dangerous thing. And yet again subjectivity comes into play.

Shifting to the articles on L’Engle and literature specifically, I enjoyed Hettinga’s description of her as a storyteller over a theologian, an opinion that she echoed in the interview piece that we read. It is true that the answers to her questions have a faith-influenced principle to it and yet she is against literalistic interpretations of the Bible and often chooses the universal message. Parts of the author will and should show up on the page whether it is the style or their beliefs and yet to say that every story is a translated autobiography would take away from the fiction and the storytelling that she is really trying to get across. To see her as this mere philosopher would take away from her imaginative presence on the page. She gives a universal message but the message is only one piece of the pie. In addition to that we have seen in the multiple reasons behind bans how one interpretation certainly doesn’t account for all. Mary Gailbraith says it for me when she writes, “I don’t see that we are really getting to the heart of the literature we specialize in interpreting.”

final blog

The most important thing I learned in "Banned Books" was not only how to approach and understand the intimidation many people feel when it comes to controversial topics, especially when it comes to literature, but also how gratifying it can be to break down the wall that seems so daunting. In doing so, a person can gain a sensitivity that will never fail to bring compassion to another, and also a heart and mind that long to understand what it means to feel emotion from another's perspective.

This idea of people fearing discomfort ties into my thoughts after reading Bob Abernethy's "Profile: Madeleine L'Engle Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Profile," because the interview discusses the many rejections L'Engle faced when trying to publish "A Wrinkle in Time."

ABERNETHY: A WRINKLE IN TIME is a science-fiction fantasy that has sold more than six million copies and is now in its 66th printing. Readers still send Madeleine copies of that book and others to autograph, and she says she never tires of signing them.

MS. L'ENGLE: Never, because anyone who has received as many rejection slips as I have is not going to complain about autographs.

Why would people criticize and fear L'Engle's book? Largely because of it's controversial religious messages. Anything that might stir an uproar is typically feared by publishers, and L'Engles inclusion of witches and dark forces seem anti-Christian to many parents. L'Engle also includes religion and science together and views them as two juxtaposed and interrelated elements, which irks many extremists who believe it either has to be one way or the other.

David Hettinga's piece, "A Wrinkle in Faith," draws attention to the extremity to which L'Engle's book has been criticized. "Ministers preach sermons against her; books and articles denounce her and any Christians who evaluate her work favorably or even evenly; librarians in Christian schools and churches handle her books as though they carried dangerous
heresies, sometimes relegating them to back shelves where patrons must ask specifically for them, and sometimes banning them altogether," he explains. It is strange to me how widely L'Engle has been criticized for "A Wrinkle in Time," largely because, in my opinion, if a child were to read it, he or she most likely wouldn't understand the underlying religious meanings.

It seems that the main issue most Christian's have with L'Engle's faith is that she realizes that it is something that must be grappled with. She vascillates, leaving room for personal interpretation. She never tells anyone what to think, but she encourages us to ask our own questions. This makes her seem insecure in her faith, and so many strict Christians frown upon it--they would like things to be absolute, but L'Engle claims that things are never absolute.

Mary Gailbraith's "Hear My Cry: A Manifesto for an Emancipatory Childhood Studies Approach to Children’s Literature" emphasized that children should not be used as a mere device for parents to live vicariously. The recognition of children as a silenced group is a solid reason not to ban books in the first place. A child's creativity and wonder can be stifled by parents who try to protect them too much.

The articles on banning smoking, baggy pants, cursing, and tattoos also reinforced this idea of cutting off something that is controversial, but at the same time tied together the idea that stifling freedom of expression is also a product of fear. People want to believe that things should be one absolute way, and any questioning of authority challenges the way they see the world. Writers like L'Engle, however, make it known that the way the world is depends on what lense you use.

And for the finale...

I forgot to write about what I found surprising (or discomforting) about this semester. Probably the aspect of our class that surprised and upset me most was the ungodly amount of stereotypes our culture has. Now, we basically go out of our way to make sure we're NOT stereotyping, and sometimes, doing that makes us unconsciously commit the crime we're trying to avoid. In most of the books we've read, there has been some model of a stereotype, whether it be racial, social, economical, or just out of pop culture (Meg as the stereotypical nerd, anyone?) What I learned from this experience is to be open to new people as much as possible, even when you still have unconscious feelings you may not be able to control. I especially learned not to stereotype when it came to my service-learning site in Baltimore. I can now say I know the kids I've worked with, and I don't just see them as a "representative of a certain culture." Literature has revealed how biased and flat out unfair our society has been in the past, and it made me appreciate how much we have grown since then. On the other hand, this literature from the past still calls for social justice issues that are still present today to be addressed. That's the magic of a good book-- it works in any time and place.

discomfort, assumptions, and tattoos (oh my!)

The number one thing I learned this semester was that usually the discomfort a book caused was not the opinion of the author or narrator that I disagreed with but the discomfort intended by the author to imply a moral or ethical judgment. On the first day of class when we wrote about why we read and what we looked for in a “good” or “great” book, time and time again we came to the conclusion that the discomfort we felt usually challenged us or even changed our perspectives on the world. This experience made us want to come back to books over and over in order that we pick up new challenges and ideas to continue helping us grow as individuals.

In reading Donald Hettinga’s article, “A Wrinkle in Faith: The unique spiritual pilgrimage of Madeleine L’Engle,” I noticed that Hettinga regards the discomfort we seek and enjoy as “troubling” (pg. 3). Hettinga claims that “L’Engle’s refusal to be pingeonholed, her resistance to using evangelically correct language” was a “source of confusion” (pg. 2). I was surprised that something we love acted as a site for criticism. I wonder that if L’Engle’s piece no longer “troubled” us, would we ask ourselves the questions we asked last week, would we consider it a “great” piece of literature?

Hettinga continues by attempting to define L’Engle’s piece, A Wrinkle in Time, through the questions it raises and “L’Engle’s apparent transparency” (pg. 4). Hettinga asserts, “The informal structure and pretentious voice of these books invite the audience to join L’Engle in the sitting room of her mind, to eavesdrop as the author thinks aloud” (pg. 4). Does the author who “refuses to be pigeonholed” get defined by “structure” and “voice” as if she has no separate existence? Is claiming L’Engle’s “transparency” assuming that we understand all of her implications, goals, thoughts and personal questions? I feel like Hettinga’s attempts to analyze the thought processes behind L’Engle’s novel reduce her to a two-dimensional character and I wonder how accurate his conclusions are.

Lastly, I found Hettinga’s claims that I have pointed out highly incongruous with Bob Abernathy’s “Profile: Madeleine L’Engle”. L’Engle classifies herself as “an Episcopal laywoman” (pg. 1) separately from her writing. She says in Abernathy’s interview, “I am a writer. That’s it. No adjectives. The first thing is writing. Christianity is secondary” (pg. 1). If L’Engle claims to separate her own personal faith life from her work, does Hettinga have any right to doubt her? Obviously in separating these two aspects of her life, L’Engle is not defined by her writing, which proves that Hettinga’s assertions are off base and presumptuous.

As far as banning tattoos goes, I wanted to generally hear opinions on this piece as well as excessive tattoos and the idea of banning them. Personally, I feel like it is so hard to ban anything that comes in such a wide variety. My tattoo is quite obvious to anyone who stands behind me now that I chopped off all of my hair, but it means love, an unconditional love that realizes the worth of all human beings. It sits behind me to push me daily to see value in everyone I meet. On the other hand, my brother has a creepy devil’s face on his arm. (I wish I could explain it, but honestly, I have no idea). Thinking about the article about children’s literature, I would not want someone working with children to have a demon anywhere on them, but is my brother’s crown of thorns taboo also? I just want to hear opinions because I feel like this is a hard question that is possibly infringing on self-expression.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Zoot Suit Riot" Isn't Just the Name of a Song...

*Note: I have no idea to go about cursing on this blog, so I'm going to be discretionary enough to not offend anyone. On the other hand, I'm going to also try to be as explicit (as in 'clear') as possible.*

Our class had sort of a mixed bag of readings for this Monday's class, some of which were about L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, others articles about different bans on cursing, baggy pants, tattoos, and more. I'm going to try and fit them all together the best I can.

All of our readings focused on the ethical, and what dilemmas can arise out of these debates. In the L'Engle articles, the "problem" was mainly in the writings themselves; L'Engle's books have been banned for being too religiously-minded, and at the same time banned for being not specifically religious enough. Either way, when any books are banned, including hers, it takes away from the fantastical element of fiction by forcing some real-world truth onto the reader. I thought this quote from Hettinga's article A Wrinkle In Faith was spot on: "When fiction is not read as fiction
but as philosophy or aphorism, the reader, however well intentioned,does the writer a significant injustice."

Now, philosophy is all well and good, but sometimes it's dangerous to over-think certain works of art (fiction, painting, music, etc.). I was a little confused and disenchanted by the article by Galbraith on "Emancipatory Children's Studies." Her discussion of psychology and (her interpretation of) philosophy was very dry and didn't convince me in any way that Children's literature is something to be analyzed or studied. This is a very tricky subject, understanding Children's literature from an adult point of view, but as I said earlier, it's something that is sometimes seriously over-scrutinized. Let's be honest-- all the hints, underlying themes, etc. that reveal something about the world in children's literature usually remain unseen by children reading these books. A child's outlook on the world is often one of "blissful ignorance," and if not blissful, at least ignorant. Galbraith's article seemed more concerned with an adult's view of children's literature, and I am on the side of Rotpeter the Ape on this one: Once you cross over from ignorance, there's no going back.

This idea of ignorance is key I think to the defense of cursing and baggy pants. Tattoos and smoking I think are in a different ballpark, simply because the banning of Tattoos on a universal level is a ban on free expression, aka free speech in its artistic representation. Smoking is also a totally different thing, because smoking in public places affects the physical health of other people, sometimes against their will.

The articles about banning cursing and banning baggy pants gave historical background info on how these two "trends," I guess you could say, came to be. What was most interesting to me about the cursing articles was that most non-religious "swears" today originated probably to replace the blasphemous curses that used the name of God or other holy divinities. I also thought the articles were spot on in their discussion of how cursing bends the rules of grammar by not fitting in neatly in one grammatical category, such as verb, adverb, or noun. As a potty mouth myself, I also think it's important to note that not all curse words are meant literally. The defense that all people automatically think of sex when one mentions the word "f***" is ridiculous. If so, with my mouth I'd be thinking about sex 23 hours of the day, and I'm not.

I don't agree that people should be ignorant of what words mean or how trends came to be, but I think it's unfair to condemn people who are ignorant of "crimes" that they have yet to commit. For example, the trend of baggy pants apparently started in prisons so that those incarcerated could not conceal weapons, and were not provided with belts. The trend exploded in the 90s when hip-hop music became popular. People banning the trend claim that baggy pants are a representation of this prison lifestyle and a glorification of "defying authority." First of all, young men who wear these baggy pants probably have no idea where the trend originated, and second of all, condemning the trend would be partially condemning a crucial part of hip-hop culture. I guess you could fight for the claim of "indecent exposure," but until I see somebody's ass, I don't think that showing underwear itself should be a crime. A crime of fashion definitely, but not one that someone should be sent to jail for.

The ethical standpoint I have come to is one I already knew I believed in: the ignorant should not be punished for their ignorance. If people have a problem with the way the "ignorant" are acting, they should do something themselves and educate them. On the other hand, in the case of children's literature, by all means, keep them ignorant as long as you possibly can. Our society's greatest minds are probably at risk, but there's another dilemma there as well. The final question is: What's the greater risk, educating the ignorant, or ignoring the educated?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Understanding vs. Knowledge

At the beginning of the semester, I was excited at the prospect of reading A Wrinkle in Time, but a little confused at why such a beloved book from my childhood would be upon a list of frequently banned books. I figured perhaps after rereading I would understand and there would be some sort of subversive content that completely went over my head when I read it as a child. However, after reading the book as a 22-year-old, I still fail to see how anybody in their right mind would remove this book. There are certainly elements of the book that are anti-conformity, but in a country where individualism is so highly prized I can’t see this being problematic, at least in the USA. Perhaps this would make sense in the 1960’s when the book was written, because the anti-conformist movements were in full swing and the older generation perhaps had fears that putting such ideologies into popular children’s literature would essentially cause them to lose the upcoming generation, but even this seems like a weak reason to ban a book, especially when there is so much in the story that promotes typical biblical issues, such as good versus evil and the infinite power of love. There are passing references to the New Testament, and Jesus is once portrayed as someone who did much on earth to fight the power of evil, which seems like a quite positive thing, and leaves me just absolutely confused and disturbed that there are people so sheltering and so extremely close-minded as to fight for a book this wonderful to be removed from libraries or schools. Perhaps in communist countries this would make a little more sense, but not here.
One part of the novel, however, that it would seem highly difficult for anyone to take fault with is the running theme that intelligence must be tempered with understanding. It is one thing to have factual knowledge or to in a sense “know” the answers to problems, but it is entirely different than having an understanding of what this knowledge means and how one is supposed to use it in the real world in a way that will be beneficial to others and to “fighting the shadow” in the real world. This becomes clear when Meg starts reciting certain math problems in order to fight IT, but because the manner of her recital is so methodical, it has no effect. However, when Meg asserts that equal and like are not the same thing, using understanding rather than plain intellect, she is able to fight off IT for a little while longer. Although this concept of understanding seems relatively simplistic, it is vastly important. When volunteering with my first graders, one thing I always try to do in helping them solve math problems is to have them understand the bigger picture, even though the bigger picture at this point is simply understanding the reasoning behind addition and subtraction. One can use a shortcut in a math problem like Meg is so quick and able to do in the story, but this only has any relevance if one understands why the shortcut works. I think in particular of the counting table the students made several weeks ago in my class – simply put, the 10x10 chart counted from 1 to 100 and allowed the children to do more complicated subtraction or addition problems, such as 63-8 for example. The children could start at 63 and count backwards to get the answer. However, why does this work? The graph is only a physical representation of a thought process the students will be able to do in their heads later on. Thus, it is easy to just copy the teacher’s instructions and examples and get the right answer, but an understanding of why this physical representation works will lead to a greater understanding of math and will help them much better in the future. In much the same way, there are scientists and mathematicians who are incredibly smart and understand more about the way the world works on molecular and scientific levels, but use that knowledge in completely the wrong way in the real world, using it to build atomic and nuclear weapons instead of using that knowledge in beneficial ways. This, I think, is the primary message of the story, and is one that is especially vital for children.

You don't have to understand things for them to be

Just to see what it would be like, Laura Nieman and I watched the made-for-tv movie of A Wrinkle in Time over the weekend after we had both finished the book. Aside from the horrible "special effects" and the incredibly schmaltzy score, what annoyed me the most about the adaptation was the interpretation of the two main characters, Meg and Charles Wallace. Meg is stripped of her braces and glasses, and Charles Wallace is older than he is in the book (though that I can understand-- I'm not sure how many real-life five year olds can pronounce words like tesseract and speak in such a grown-up manner.

My main problem was with Charles Wallace. Instead of making him a calm, adult-seeming child who simply understands things, such as like "language" he talks about when he's explaining to Meg how he always knows about her, they basically turned him into a little kid. He was annoying. I didn't understand why they would make such a change-- was there a harm in showing kids that parents can let you down and be wrong while the children sometimes know more?

Though there were many reasons for this books being banned (L'Engle's liberal Christianity not flying with the Catholic Church being one), I think that a huge part of it was showing a strong female lead and having the strong male lead smaller than her in stature and age. The movie did include Charles losing himself to IT, but basically it watered down everything. I think that the biggest asset that the book has and that the movie lacks is that the book knows that children can handle it. The book is labelled for children 9-12, and those who have banned or challenged the book claim that it is unsuitable for that age group. It's tough for children, but it certainly isn't anything they can't handle. I was surprised to find that family values were a huge central theme in this novel, since it's been so controversial, and I was also surprised to see such lines as, "we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." It made me realize that there's always going to be someone who is offended by or disagrees with something in a novel. In an interview on the dvd disc, L'Engle says that she was "so excited" to hear that her book was being banned because, she says, "only the banned books really have something to say."

So when I heard her say that, I first of all agreed with her, and I knew that I would feel similarly if someone cared about something I wrote so much that they actively pursued its removal from libraries and/or schools, and then I wondered what A Wrinkle In Time was saying. She didn't say, exactly, but she did say that "it leaves you with unanswered questions [,,,] it leave you with the hope that the questions have answers." L'Engle doesn't underestimate the power of human understanding, but as she says through Meg's mother, "you don't have to understand things for them to be."
So when Charles Wallace is waiting for Meg in the kitchen, or when he is trying to decipher the songs on Uriel, or when he goes into IT because he thinks he'll be able to get out on his own, he is both more than and simply human. He has human faults, but a greater understanding than an ordinary human-- and the people he connects with most closely don't really try to understand him, they just let him be.

So even though the movie is horrible (L'Engle had to say about it, "I expected it to be bad, and it is"), it did offer a little insight into the book and what we present to our children and why. Plus one of my favorite actors is in it.

To be or not to be myself?

A victim of middle child syndrome throughout most of my youth, I am able to personally sympathize with Meg Murry’s adolescent anxt. I also hated feeling like the odd one out, the least gifted out of her siblings. After completing Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, I am amazed by how much you can get out of this novel. Although it is known to be a children’s novel I thought the message (or at least the message according to my critique) to be fairly advanced. Of all the terrifying things Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin encounter (the black thing, “tessering”, and the beasts) what is the most frightening is a large mushy brain sitting on a table in a vacant room.
For a child to grasp that this brain, representative of the inability to have a hold of your own functions and individuality, to be scarier than a huge beast is quite impressive. This brain, or “IT” rather, is the materialization of the fear of individuality. Those living in Camazotz are clear representations of those who relinquish their opinions and uniqueness in order to fit in or “go with the flow.” Camazotz itself is an allegory of “the gray sameness of those Communist countries” (pg. 4).
I feel like this is and quite sadly, will always be a problem that young children and adults will be forced to face throughout their lives. In grammar school, middle school, high school, and sometimes even college, kids are constantly being influenced, either by their peers or through media, to fit in a certain way, to act, to look, and to think “like everybody else.” This is the danger that Charles, Meg, and Calvin face on Camazotz with IT. Giving in to IT gets rid of any shred of individuality that a person has, making Camazotz’s inhabitants brainless zombies.
Throughout this book there is a huge emphasis on individuality. The reader is told ad infinitum how different Meg Murry is and how strange Charles Wallace is. When the three Mrs. W’s are introduced in the novel the children begin to realize that perhaps their individuality is special. What troubles me still is how Meg’s anger is seen as a positive. I do believe that a person’s passion and emotions are not necessarily a negative, but can be a reflection of their uniqueness. It angers me that Meg is told that her anger is a gift, but in the end does not use her anger but rather her love- the exact opposite of anger- to retrieve Charles Wallace. I feel like emphasizing Meg’s anger as a tool to expel IT was not the greatest device to exemplify a person’s uniqueness. It is quite obvious that what L’Engle is trying to get across is that love, above all else, separates people into two categories; those who embrace themselves for who they are and those who give up their individuality and become mindless zombies like those on Camazotz.

Darkness in AWiT

            Last Wednesday while I was at service the kindergarten class I work with were doing Thanksgiving activities.  They were each given a worksheet that was shaped like a turkey and had three phrases; “I will eat, I will have, and I will see”; each phrase was followed by a blank line for the children to fill in their answers.  Because it is a kindergarten class and they often write their letters backwards let alone be able to spell correctly the words to complete each phrase, the teacher took a consensus of the class for what everyone would eat, have, and see and then wrote each answer on the board for them to copy. 

            For the “I will have” phrase the class as a whole decided they would write fun.  I was working with Sekeia who was writing crabs under the “I will eat” section when I turned to the other table to see Deondre’s paper; he had already told me he was excited for Thanksgiving break and under the “I will have” section he wrote “cartoon time”.  Not only was this a pretty big development for a five year old boy to realize that over the holidays he would be able to watch cartoons rather than have to go to school, but I should also mention that his handwriting was immaculate and it was spelled perfectly.  Deondre is extremely smart and he is also seen to the other kids as being weird because of his abilities. 

            Despite Deondre’s learning abilities he is not different than the other children.  All of them have short attention spans and love to have free time and all of the children are also constantly being yelled at by the teacher.  It is really upsetting because it is completely normal for kids of their age to not be able to focus for lengthy periods of time; in fact, the fact that they go to school for a full day is overwhelming.  The kindergarten children need more free time and unrestricted activities, whether it be a longer recess or more resource class time.

            Deondre is like Meg’s character in A Wrinkle in Time, she is known as a misfit and has no real friends other than her own brother and later Calvin.  When I read the part in the story where the children learn of the prediction of earth essentially becoming a black hole and the artists and philosophers and religious leaders attempting to fix it I thought of what schools will be like for children if they lose the arts; the children will no longer look forward to long school days and they will be unable to express their creativity. 

            While in the workroom making copies one day a teacher had mentioned that the music classroom doesn’t have any instruments.  This is obviously sad because it means the children are deprived of an opportunity to learn specific instruments but it also means that the phasing out of arts is underway and can easily be executed.  The result in the story of the “darkness” was that everyone was robotic and acted the same, diversity was nowhere to be found and no one was unique.  Obviously this is a very extreme warning of what could possibly come but it does hold some truth, without music, art, gym, free time, and media time, there is a very real risk that children will not develop part of their identities that they may have had.  

what is IT?

As I read Madeleine L'Engle's endearing novel, A Wrinkle in Time, I was captured by the idea of "IT." What exactly is "IT"? Where did "IT" come from? What set Meg apart from everyone else as being able to beat "IT"? Finally, how does this make her heroic?

As I turned these questions over in my mind, I realized that "IT" does not necessarily represent one specific evil. Although it would be easy to say that "IT" is hate (the obvious archenemy of the love that Meg uses to defeat "IT")  I do not believe this is the case. "IT," in my opinion, is the culmination of aging, cynicism, and fear.

In the nature in which many grow up, they develop a defeatist attitude, much like that which Charles Wallace seems to possess after being hypnotized by "IT." The idea of the cynicism being a young person's greatest fear would make sense as a metaphor, because once "IT" gets them, they feel helpless, like there is no hope. They are blind to any other schools of thought--just hopelessness. 

When Charles Wallace repeats, "You've got nothing IT hasn't got," he is expressing the idea of many adults that over-thinking and rationalizing everything is the superior method. When a person disengages from emotions in this way, they are devoid of the will-power necessary to overcome emotional challenges, and thus they feel that they have no ammunition to defeat their problems. 

This way of thinking--over-rationalization--robs a person of their ability to experience and express their feelings, leaving the person robotic and diabolical, compact with bottled up emotions. As Meg defeats "IT" with love, "IT" being cynicism, L'Engle is making a statement about how easy it is to be taken by age and to forget that love and care is the most important thing. "IT" must be broken down with a childlike, boundless regard for truth and genuine will-power--the will-power that can only come from love--as opposed to a cynical person's approach. The cynical will always be forced to cower in fear. 

Empowerment of Children in AWiT

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle seems to present the same triumph present in most of literature: good overcoming evil. Meg, Charles Wallace, Calvin, and the “Mrs. W’s,” as Calvin calls them, are able to defeat IT and rescue Mr. Murry by using their special gifts and the all-powerful thing we all possess: love. Yet, there is more at work than this big issue, something worthy of protection from anti-banning efforts: empowerment of children.

I realize that sounds awfully lofty, but what I mean is that by having a rag-tag group of kids fighting the forces of evil, largely on their own, it helps kids sit back and think, “Wow! I could do something, too!” At the same time that kids can identify with the children, I think that they can also identify with the idea of being unhappy with themselves—like Meg’s self-consciousness and temper—and struggling to fit in.

I think that especially important is the fallibility of Mr. Murry, Meg’s father, whom she had previously deemed “omnipotent.” In an exchange between them on Aunt Beast’s planet, Meg reveals that she was so resistant simply because she wanted him to do everything for her—and he reveals that he wishes he could, too. This moment, however brief, is important for children to read and take away with them. Their parents can’t control everything, and the sooner they learn a little independence, the better.

Additionally, like we learned with Sydney earlier this semester, in his Defense of Poetry, it is possible—and likely—that a reader can learn something from characters in a poetic work, like this one. For instance, in the moping and brooding that Meg Murray does, a child sees that they do not want to identify with those traits of hers. But in her determination and ability to overcome evil, a child sees the positive things that they do very much want to identify with.

But the break from reality into fantasy is where this book gets into trouble. Whereas I am inclined to see the fantasy of the beasts and travelling the cosmos as innocent release for young minds, it seems that others are more inclined to damn them as too witch-like, satanic, or anti-Christian ideals. (I’ve read a bit ahead onto the essays for next week to get these ideas!) This seems very silly to me, because every character is compatible with the Judeo-Christian (and perhaps Muslim, though I don’t know much about Islamic beliefs) idea of things: we’re susceptible to evil, but if we keep ourselves wary of temptation and hold onto the love of God, we can overcome those things.

Since I don’t have service learning at the moment, I think I might take this time to talk a little about how I personally read this book—and tell a brief anecdote about the first time I read this book. The first time I read this book, in third or fourth grade, I think, we all were given copies of the book to borrow for the duration of our reading. My copy of the book was old, the pages were the color of nicotine-stains, and it smelled like what I imagined a crypt smelled like. Needless to say, the smell and general unattractiveness of my copy of A Wrinkle in Time utterly prevented me from enjoying it at all.

As I began my reading now, I didn’t remember the book at all. (I guess the stench of the old book caused a little memory loss, too.) But something that immediately struck me was that this novel did not talk down to children. Though the sentences were simple, the diction really was not childlike at all. I was very impressed that such a successful children’s book relied on its readers to do work, like looking up words they didn’t know or ask for help understanding the mathematics mentioned here and there. I think this goes back to the theme of empowerment that I mentioned earlier. By treating children like mature readers, I think (most) will respond like mature readers, taking on new burdens of reading, like putting in their own knowledge and experiences and time into the text. And I think that’s a really, really cool accomplishment from Ms. L’Engle—one worth protecting!


Lately, I have been questioning my plans for after graduation. I thought (for the umpteenth time) that I had some semblance of a plan when once again everything came crashing down instigated by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry of all things. I was writing about this glorious piece of art, when I started panicking. I mean, I chose English as my major because I LOVE literature, not so that I could use it to get somewhere else. I’m not saying that literature or language are my only passions or that they are more important than anything else, but I do think that many of my passions appear within the context of the wide ranging narratives and expressions of literature.

That being said, this weekend really helped me to discern further my plans for after graduation. I went to the Ignatian Family Teach-In and SOA Vigil down at Fort Benning, Georgia (near Columbus). As a part of the Teach-In, we were able to attend various sessions relating to whatever social justice issues intrigued us. The two sessions I picked were Discerning Post-Graduate Service and more importantly, Social Justice in Theatre. I picked the second of the two purely because I am attempting to put on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and receiving little to no supportL. The first part of the session, Social Justice in Theatre, comprised of listing art forms that both educate their audiences about issues related to social justice, and furthermore promote questioning and often times consequently action and advocacy in response to such issues. I realized when literature was mentioned and the people running the session asked for specifics that I could rattle of ridiculous amounts of books, oral narratives, poems, songs, etc. that have educated me about, caused me to question, and inspired me to act on behalf of a wide range of social justice issues. I began to question even more deeply why I am searching elsewhere for a way to explore and share my passions when they appear right in front of my face, in literature.

That all being said, I was reminded of the fact that in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, language is portrayed as lacking the ability to express, educate, explore and explain, which I just praised it for! The first hint of this occurs when Meg says to Charles Wallace, “But I never say anything. You just seem to know.” To which he replies, “Everything about you tells me” (pg. 31). The ability of Meg’s qualities to have a voice, which “tells” Charles Wallace what Meg “never says” seemed odd to me. Is Meg just that transparent in her naiveté? Does Meg express herself more clearly through character than she is able to articulate? Or does Charles Wallace somehow exist in a place superior to the necessity of language as a basis for communication and expression? Charles Wallace explains his ability in terms of “language,” saying, “It’s like being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees” (pg. 31). He describes an experience of “understanding” not of hearing, which struck me. He does not claim to hear what is said, to interpret the language of the “wind talking with the trees” as human beings interpret each other’s words, but he claims “understanding,” which goes beyond the concept of listening. In “talking” there can be miscommunications, misunderstandings, but Charles Wallace is beyond (or possibly above) that.

Later Calvin speaks of his inability to express himself through language, saying, “There hasn’t been anybody, anybody in the world I could talk to. Sure, I can function on the same level as everybody else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me” (pg. 45). His feelings of such superiority to “everybody else” are not expressed through relationships, but through speaking; Calvin says he cannot “talk” to “anybody in the world” while simultaneously being true to himself. He says when he does “talk” to those below him, “it isn’t” him. Similarly, in Meg’s encounter with Mrs. Who, Mrs. Who speaks at times in a language unintelligible to humans and goes so far as to say, “She keeps thinking she can explain things in words…you know, The more a man knows, the less he talks” (pg. 60). Not only does this concept degrade language, but it also degrades Meg. For L’Engle to point towards the limitations of language and of human beings in these ways seems misplaced in a novel, a message entirely dependent upon language and on human expression and understanding. What more is L’Engle trying to say that cannot be articulated? Or like her strong faith, does she put into words the indescribable because we are human and that is all that we have? I have no answers as to what she is trying to say, but I do know that I am deeply challenged by the idea of such limited means of expression.

This weekend was so complex I feel as though I could talk about it for days upon days, but I really can’t talk about it at all. Where do I begin? What do I say? How could I ever do the experience justice? I can’t. My language is limited. At the same time, I had an experience with a word, a single word that changed me. Presente. Present. I am present. I am here to witness. I stand holding my cross up and singing Presente after each name called of a human being whose innocent life was lost to violence, hatred and dehumanization. I hold my symbol of human suffering, my necessary human suffering, which grants me deep compassion. I hold the crosses that are painted white with innocence and purity for the love I feel for each and every name called. I sing Presente so that I remind myself to be present: mind, body, soul, spirit, and heart so that my entire being realizes that each time I sing I sing for a life lost to mindlessness. Presente is a mere human word, but it embodied my entire state of being and the act of speaking it allowed me to express that which I don’t think I could have expressed in any other means.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

love in A Wrinkle in Time

I think I was in the sixth grade when I was originally assigned Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, and all I could remember was that it was about travel, a kid named Charles Wallace, and spectacles; but reading the novel this time around, I can appreciate the value its message has for young children and people of all ages. Reading a children’s novel now created an interesting experience, and I was always aware and always thinking about its intended audience. The novel essentially places the reader in conversation with what it is to be human: and deals with friendship, understanding, the imagination, the world, independence and individuality, freedom, creativity, loyalty, fear, pain, and most importantly, love. I think that it is important to read novels that address such questions at an early age.

By setting up the planet of Camazotz, the ugliness of earth, at first, seems less tragic. On Camazotz, there is no individuality or difference (134), but the Black Thing surrounding earth is surmountable because human beings, as fallible as they are, have the capacity to love. Like Vonnegut’s Trafalmadorians, L’Engle’s fictitious planet of Camazotz reflects something about our own world by saying something about another and its relationship to earth and human beings.

Once Meg, Cal, and Mr. Murry land on Ixchel, we see how other, human elements may belong to others and a sense of connectedness with the universe is established. Aunt Beast’s love and care of Meg is similar to that of a mother’s relationship to her child. But the insight gained from the interaction between Aunt Beast and Meg is most profound when Meg tries to explain ‘seeing.’ “It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing...Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. O, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know…How strange it is that they can’t tell us what they themselves seem to know” (174,178, 183). The lines of communication drawn between Beasts and human beings create an inability to convey or explain meaning. It is not language which fails here, but a differing in the way different cultures see the world and find means for expression.

Whenever I am visiting another country or another culture, I often find myself in some kind of a cultural misunderstanding when I talk with people who are not American. Even if language does not get in the way, the way different cultures think and the way they see and live are unique and foreign. Concepts, like words, do not always translate. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you cannot explain a particular cultural phenomenon to someone who is an outsider to the culture, but this does not mean you shouldn’t try. “They [human beings] are very young. And on their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space…Oh…Aren’t they lonely?” (183). The observation of human beings by the Beasts aptly points out the potential to close oneself off from others and the consequences of doing so.

It is unfortunate that this often occurs within and without cultures all over the world. Different countries and peoples set themselves in opposition and apart from others and live as though there were no other ways of living. But by exposing this fallacy, the reader becomes aware of how trivial and meaningless it is to live in such a way. This becomes particularly hypersensitive to the reader when L’Engle expresses the common bond of human love. Love permeates all borders. It is Meg’s love for her baby brother which provides her with the strength and courage to endure IT and save him. And love is something which ought to bring all human beings together because even though we recognize our capacity for love, we do not exercise it enough in the world.

Paper Bags

As I sat filing papers at Cristo Rey, I found myself getting into a methodic zone where I was able to instantly spot the students name and find the appropriate folder. After a while I did not even notice what was on the papers that I was putting away, until one word caught my attention: bomb. Stopping for a moment, I began to read the essay. The assignment was to pick three items that you would put into an imaginary paper bag that describe who you are or how you feel.
One particular student chose only two things: a bomb that is about to explode, and a pencil. The essay went on to explain that the reason he chose a bomb that is about to explode was because that is how he felt all of the time. He found himself frustrated at his life and his situation. Frustrated that he did not know as much as the other students, because his previous school was terrible, frustrated that he did not have money, frustrated that his family constantly had to struggle, frustrated at the violence he saw in the world. He wrote that at times it almost seemed impossible, but that he said it was a bomb that was about to explode, because he was starting to feel like he might be able to stop it.

The second item in his imaginary paper bag was a lead pencil. He said that he related to a pencil. When you get a pencil, you use it and use it, but once there is no more lead, and the pencil has been used down to almost the eraser, you throw it out and discard it. He said he felt that this is how people treated him. Only using him until there was nothing left. I sat astonished at the words I had read and their gravity. And began to look through the remaining papers. As I read over what other people put in their imaginary bags to represent them I found myself saddened by the struggles that many of the students were expressing, but I was also thoroughly impressed by their ability to articulate how they felt, and by the overwhelming hope many of the students had. Some of the responses included family, god, the bible, a calculator, love, a best friend, money, justice, and music. Some students chose to take the assignment as items that represented them, others as items they wanted in their life, and others as items they wish were not in their life. One of the themes I noticed was a great appreciation for the education that they were receiving. They were able to recognize that through education they would be able to achieve their dreams, and that was something very refreshing to see.

In “ A Wrinkle In Time”, we see three children who are all encountering their own “dark thing”, their own evils to overcome and fight. This book, while using magic and a world of fantasy, reminds me of the battle that everyone must face with the darkness and challenges in the world.

The book begins with Meg sitting in her bedroom, concerned with her life, much as the students of Cristo Rey found themselves frustrated and discouraged. “ School. School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade. That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, ‘Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.’” (p.5) From the beginning of the novel we see a stress on the power and importance of communication and education.

Language and communicating is necessary throughout the challenges the children face, and literature is often quoted and stressed as important. In showing Meg’s frustration and stress over her education, and by demonstrating her actual intelligence and worth, it begs into question who is truly failing. Similar to the student’s at Cristo Rey, Meg had to take her fears, her flaws, and fight against the evil in the world. At the end of the novel, it is stressed that to overcome darkness, to overcome evil, and IT what you need more than anything else is love.