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Great Expectations Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by A.D. Melville (Oxford)

There was a pool, limpid and silvery,
Whither no shephard came nor any herd,
Nor mountain goat; and never bird nor beast
Nor falling branch disturbed its shining peace;
Grass grew around it, by the water fed,
And trees to shield it from the warming sun.
Here–for the chase and heat had wearied him–
The boy lay down, charmed by the quiet pool,
And, while he slaked his thirst, another thirst
Grew; as he drank he saw before his eyes
A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart
A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.
Spellbound he saw himself, and motionless
Lay like a marble statue staring down.

As long as we prize youth and ideals, Narcissus’ spirit lives on. Like our vain, self-loving mythic hero, Beauty, Truth, Purity, and Justice seem to be just within grasp in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip is just as vain, just as full of pride that spoils quickly to greed, and, like Narcissus, he falls in love with the beauty and refinement represented in Estella, whose ladyship is no more real than Pip’s dream of becoming a gentleman. Like Echo and Narcissus, Pip and Estella are mirrored twins, though the gender roles may be reversed, both represent the very best ideals of youth, beauty, charm, admiration, and potential, and both are raised to redeem their benefactors, to make up for the corrupt pasts of their guardians.

Narcissus and Pip cling to their own innocence, which equals beauty. Think Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. If we truly “live, as we dream–alone,” as Conrad wrote, then we have only our self to love and our partners are mere reflections of those aspects we idolize and idealize. God made man in his image or man made God in his image. No matter how we boil it down, we essentially want to return to ourselves. Enter Plato’s Forms and Kant’s Absolute Spirit.

Great Expectations is less a story of rags to riches, than a tale about Life as hell. The novel opens with Pip meeting the living dead, first the violent encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard, soon afterward he’s ushered to Miss Havisham’s, a living coffin. Before his journey from boy to man even begins, Pip’s already condemned to live a life of sin. None of the characters have much of a chance “to live” because of their poverty or their sins, which are often one in the same. Dickens plays with duality often in this story. Scenes between Miss Havisham and Pip reflect the myth of Janus, joining the old and new, in female and male counterparts, Pip looking forward and Havisham lost in the past: “So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!'”

Dickens’ own childhood of abandonment comprises the genetic makeup of each characters’ story. Everyone in turn is abandoned. Estella’s heart is abandoned for Miss Havisham’s revenge. Miss Havisham was jolted at the altar and therefore abandons her world. Pip, our central orphan, abandons Joe, Biddy, Magwitch, and his own integrity. Yet, in their abandonment, each desperately clings to another. Havisham searches for redemption in Pip, as does Magwitch. Pip looks to Estella, his bright, distant star. Funnily enough, the only person who is true to herself, aside from Biddy and Joe, who Pip readily casts away, as cold, love-lost, and love-less as she is, Estella, an echo of Hard Times’ Louisa Gradgrind who is also over-calculating and devoid of feeling, Pip’s one true love upholds her integrity throughout the novel. Estella knows exactly who and what she is and accepts because she has no other option. Money links people together, shackling Pip to Magwitch and Pip to Miss Havisham as well as Estella. Whether poor or rich, these characters need each other; they cannot escape the necessity of human relations.

As in Bleak House, original sin permeates Pip’s universe, and Pip longs to escape his wretched past. He essentially chases his own tail, and in his pursuit we learn Pip’s principles, and perhaps are own, are far too lofty, much too impossible for anyone to meet, especially his beloved Estella. Pip soon discovers everything he longs for most is no better than his own humble origins.

Pip, like any classic hero tries to be something he’s not. Prometheus bound, he longs to be Great only to find there is no such thing. In the end, Dickens warns us, quite violently, not to cling so tightly to our ideals. Pip’s maturation means to DESTROY his ideals. Ultimately, our life is not our own, so urges Dickens. Fate and the will of others toss us about on a ravenous sea. We may be forced to give up some dreams, and we may not always be willful agents of our own lives. The conscious decisions we are allowed to make, the choices we are free to act on become that much more significant and sacred, certainly not to be taken for granted. When Pip decides to return to his loved ones, to pay tribute to Miss Havisham or Magwitch, these acts of his own volition are true signs of divine compassion. Pip learns to love what is real and true, transcending his own vanity, pride, and greed. His love for others becomes his saving grace and finally sets Pip apart from his lonely and tragic waterside predecessor.

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“George Harrison went to India and brought back a sitar”

Just the shot in the arm needed for inspiration, Terence McNally on his KPFK show, Free Forum, has introduced the source of holistic, systems thinking and the mastermind behind the philosophy of Ecological Awareness, Fritjof Capra. His work seems to have inspired much admired writers, activists, and social workers such as Leny Mendoza Strobel and her new Center for Babaylan Studies.

Will have to crack open this new universe and explore fully, but for now, here’s a small audio tasting. Capra interviewed by Terrence McNally, April 7, 2009

http://64.27.15.184/parchive/mp3/kpfk_090407_120100freeforum.mp3

and…

Abstract from “A Crisis of Perception” |  Integral Studies | Thomas Maxwell | University of Vermont:

Ecological Awareness

This widening of our “circle of understanding and compassion” requires a new mode of perception which transcends the illusion of separateness to discern the unity, the “unbroken wholeness” from which emerges the diverse forms of existence. This awakened perception gives rise to a more integrative, holistic, and ecological perception of the cosmos. Capra (1996) asserts that this emerging holistic worldview, which he calls “deep ecological awareness”, “recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature” (p 6). Although this vision can be elaborated through science, its principal grounding is in spiritual experience. It will require an integrated epistemology that embraces both the rational knowledge of scientific empiricism and the inner knowledge of spiritual experience. “Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence. It is not surprising that the emerging new vision of reality based on deep ecological awareness is consistent with the so-called Perennial Philosophy of spiritual traditions, whether we talk about the spirituality of Christian mystics, that of Buddhists, or the philosophy and cosmology underlying the Native American traditions” (p. 7). This “deep ecological awareness” fosters a vision of the cosmos as fundamentally sacred.

Capra’s universe is fortuitously right next door, to boot!

The Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to education for sustainable living.

We provide information, inspiration, and support to the vital movement of K-12 educators, parents, and other members of the school community who are helping young people gain the knowledge, skills, and values essential to sustainable living.

We base our work on these four guiding principles:

  • Nature is our teacher
  • Sustainability is a community practice
  • The real world is the optimal learning environment
  • Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place

The story of our time and the City of Ourselves

At Home in Venice, Los Angeles

In search of a suitable port for Spanish galleons coming from Manila, Antonio de la Ascension arrived on the island of Santa Catalina with Spanish troops in 1602. Ascension recorded one of the first written historical accounts of Los Angeles and it’s native peoples, who would later be called the Gabrielinos, after the San Gabriel Mission.  Antonio de la Ascension recorded the encounter in “Along the Coast, 1602” published in Los Angeles: Biography of a City.

The soldiers ran all over the island and in one part of it fell in with a place of worship or temple where the natives perform their sacrifices and adoration. When the soldiers reached this place inside the circle there were two large crows, larger than ordinary, which flew away when they saw strangers, and alighted on some nearby rocks. One of the soldiers, seeing their size aimed at them [the crows] with his harquebus, and discharging it, killed them both. When the Indians saw this they began to weep and display great emotion. In my opinion, the Devil talked to them through these crows because all the men and women hold them in great fear and respect.

Ascension depicted a very violent genesis of a city where cultures have always seemed to clash and collide. Today, over eighty languages are spoken in the City of Angels. Culture clash is a way of life. In his, inaugural address, “A City of Purpose” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa  affirmed, “Los Angeles is not only the one city that best embodies bold dreams. It is the destination of people’s imaginations, all around the world, whether or not they ever set foot here.” For some Los Angeles is a dream of promised American ideals and for others it is a nightmare of urban sprawl and catastrophe. In commemorating the death of Raymond Chandler, the LA Weekly also commemorates El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Judith Freeman in her article, “Raymond Chandler: 50 Years Dead,” writes:

He said he was the first to write about Los Angeles in a realistic way. To write about a place, he said, you have to love it, or hate it, or both, alternately, the way you do a woman. Vacuity and boredom were futile. L.A. never bored him. He found it banal, maybe, but never vacuous. He both loved it (when he first arrived in 1912) and hated it (by the time he left in 1946), until finally, he said, it became a tired old whore to him. Never mind that he, more than any other writer, helped to turn Our Lady of the Queen of Angels into a woman of the night. He got this city better than anybody else, its rhythms and rudeness, its gas stations filled with wasted light, the houses in canyons hanging in the blackness, the smell of the air, the feel of the winds, the very pulse of the place, which is why his novels never seem dated: He captured the essence of the city, not just its temporal surface…

Toward the end of his life Chandler said, “The story of our time isn’t the story of war or the atomic bomb. It’s the story of an idealist married to a gangster and how their children and home life turn out.” He could be describing The Sopranos.

Only it isn’t The Sopranos. It’s us. It’s the story of our time, just as he said, the unending and timeless tale of America, with its idealists on one end of the ideological spectrum, and its gangsters on the other, be they Wall Street crooks or your ordinary garden-variety thugs. We are the children he spoke of. And we are still waiting, 50 years after Chandler’s death — with ever more urgent concerns filling our minds — to see just how our collective home life will turn out.

Seismically fractured and infinitely diverse, the experiences Angelenas/os face are not strictly unique to the City of Angels but mirror the world. Chandler knew this and gave us to ourselves. His words still haunt a city that represents the very best and the very worst of our nation. Our City of Angels, the place that I called home for so long, will always be a reflection of ourselves and our inextricable links to [an]other.

Review of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism

From The GoodReads Review:

Pico Iyer opened his New York Times review of Yiyun Li’s latest novel, The Vagrants saying:

All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this constant glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes) along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Kenya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.

From our Latino landscapers, to our South or South East Asian nurse technicians, to our U.S. Banks inextricably intertwined with international banks, as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there” because “there” is here, and the other is us. The world is hot, flat, and crowded, so says Tom Friedmann. How do we stay cool, calm, and compassionate? Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a philosophy and world view in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which outlines how we can stretch our imaginations, why we should inhabit the sounds and philosophies different from our own, and how we can reinvent ourselves and our worldview while we struggle to co-exist on this shrinking, ozone-depleted, big, blue ball. Like our 44th president and like most people of younger generations, including myself, Appiah is of mixed race. His mother, English, his father from Ghana, Appiah was raised in his father’s homeland and currently teaches at Princeton University. In Cosmpolitanism he speaks compassionately and honestly about pluralism; his philosophy obviously and insightfully infused with his own multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-national heritage.

Filled with critical examinations about how we are all inter-connected, whether we like it or not, debates on cultural property, evaluations of facts versus faith, and questions against our own prized rationalism, Appiah succinctly defines his philosophy of Cosmopolitanism at the beginning of the text as: “the one thought that cosmopolitans share is that no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilites to every other.” Though he warns at the beginning, “There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.” His philosophical treatise is crammed with enlightened and engaging anecdotes about his father’s tribe, the Akan, and stories he’s heard from colleagues or lifted from the news. Appiah, overall, makes a strong case in explaining his philosophical ideals, yet at the conclusion he problematizes his thesis when he tries to argue why we should be responsible for another life clear across the big blue ball.

In the concluding chapter he bookends his thesis with a reference to a Balzac story, Pere Goirot, and this fiction is his last scrap of evidence to reason a pressing yet stubbornly abstract argument. Why use fiction as support, especially when trying to convince us to make living, breathing connections across a very real and often volatilely physical world? As a fiction writer, I’m honored that a philosopher would turn to story-telling and invoke, therefore virtually vindicate a genre often excused as anachronistic entertainment. Appiah pays tribute to the magic that stories conjure. He praises how fiction allows us to imagine alternatives in what could otherwise be a cold and unforgiving world. Still, this nod to stories and their import is at the cost of his entire thesis, and, as a Composition instructor, as well, in the end, his case doesn’t hold water if he’s going to refer to the make-believe.

Students in my Argument & Research were assigned to read and write about Appiah’s book, and they grappled with complex ideas, seeming to be genuinely interested in the principles Appiah critiqued and proposed. Inspired by Appiah’s sincere and compassionate treatise, I was able to develop some very creative and urgently relevant formal writing assignments. As a class, we were all humbled by the complexity and diversity of humanity, and, as Appiah so gently nudged us to do, we actively felt more connected to the world at large. Mission accomplished!

A Gen Xer’s Comeuppance

Excerpt from article posted on Ruelle Electrique:

Holland Cotter’s recent New York Times article, “Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters” on the Boston Museum’s latest exhibit “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” is so brilliantly written, like a searing, soaring comet, we are urged to turn our gaze from our daily activities and pay closer attention to a specific corner of our artistic universe.

Titian first poked his head into our stunted and skewed Reality Bites in the 1990’s while we tripped through pseudo-scholarly undergraduate studies on the sun-beaten campus of UCLA. In Renaissance & Baroque Art, a survey class taken to fulfill our Humanities GEs, we snickered and yawned when our professor, whose name, unfortunately, is long-forgotten, tasked our ignorant Generation X for equating the great Renaissance artists with four ninja-fighting turtles. In a huge auditorium filled with some fifty to a hundred impatient and guileless students, over a scratchy microphone, she set us straight with a lecture about how Donatello pre-dated, by centuries, his supposed  contemporaries, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. And, if the TV execs really cared about the youth, they would have named Titian as the purple masked, bo-staff wielding, amphibian super-fighter.

To read more, click here:

“A Passion for All Time: A Generation Xer’s Comeuppance” | Other Bohemian Activities | Ruelle Electrique

The Ubermensch Pair

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Earlier this year, PBS aired Masterpiece Theatre’s latest adaptation of Emily Bronte’s hauntingly favorite story, Wuthering Heights. After the terribly dry and awkward rendition with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, I had my reservations about a new resurrection. WH is such an oddly abstract and metaphysical tale. In highschool, I didn’t quite fathom its complexity but just took it more as atmospheric.

Fifteen years later, I understand a little bit more of what Bronte was trying to do with her immortal characters. The characters are psychologically and psychically complex–and in their psychic connection they remind me of Clarissa Dalloway’s transcendental connection to Septimus Smith. Cathy and Heathcliff are two souls commingling on another plane. Part of their connection is spiritually inherent and tied to Nature and Place–and the other part is tied to their willful defiance of a society that has condemned and belittled them, most cruelly, for their lowly status, Heathcliff especially, of course.

The pair are essentially the ubermensch couple, a la Nietzsche’s Superman and they defy the codes of the day, the strict mores of their socio-economic status and turn both Egdon Heath and Wuthering Heights inside out into their own perverse reality of revenge. Together, as willful agents, they turn the shackles their family set on them against those who denied them  happiness, and end up dragging everyone else into the misery they were cornered into. Cathy becomes a businesswoman, in her own way, and attempts to raise her and Heathcliff from the confines of their life through the only means she had available, marriage to Edgar Linton. Marriage as business transaction in the most perverse sense, indeed.

Both Cathy and Heathcliff try to transcend their material roles, physically and economically, though I’d argue their spirits, metaphysically, are already soaring among heights that many of us can’t reach or fathom because we’re not the wild, free, willfully awakened spirits they are. Their story is Promethean. They are both Icarus vying for a greater glory– to be free and united as they were on the wild moors. And in their Elysian pursuit, in the face of reality and society–they are burned–but they’ll take the rest of us with them if they must go down. WH is Romanticism at its headiest and most ideal.

I could go on about Nelly, and the frame, meta-narrative told by the servant who becomes author and therefore authority to the tale. The MT production was not so much a disappointment since I armed myself with low expecations. Heathcliff, played by Tom Hardy, who was wonderful in MT’s 2008, Oliver Twist, seemed to have eaten one too many bangers and mash and pasties. And, as for Charlotte Riley’s Cathy, ever since I read Olivier’s biography, where he adamantly states that the only actor who could match Catherine’s fire was Vivien Leigh, I’ve been biased and second his sentiments. Though I have to give this adapation credit since all revelations listed above were borne from the 2009/8 Masterpiece Theatere production. Catherine & Heathcliff live again, and scour the earth like a doomed and fiery comet, leaving us as breathless and restless as they are.

Come on, Barbie, Light My Fire

Born March 9, 1959, the same year that graced us with Stephen Patrick Morrissey, another fantastical cultural icon,  the toy everyone loves to hate came into being. I have to admit, as a young girl, I was an avid Barbie enthusiast . I loved my Barbie Miko doll, the Hawaiian counterpart to our mainstream Euro Am heroine. Blessed enough to have the Barbie Doll Townhouse with pulley elevator, I fashioned a custom-built bay window for Miko’s living room, complete with a nook to sit and read in cushioned comfort. My Townhouse had an extended kitchen with a mini fridge and a regular-sized Barbie fridge. Miko and her friends enjoyed evenings in the Barbie hand-pumped spa, where I was once horrified to find a huge, grotesque beetle of palm-sized proportion. Sometimes my Barbies enjoyed a little California sun and fresh air in the cul-de-sac outside my house when Miko and Ken went out for a drive in Miko’s battery-powered convertible Corvette.

Yes, Barbie perpetuates an unrealistic and therefore dangerous image for young girls. Yes, she’s the Satanness of consumer culture and Diva of Mall Rats from Malibu to Macon. Because of Barbie we have Forever 21 and BeBe and anorexia, and bulemia. This afternoon, NPR aired an engaging segment on the founder of Barbie and the origin of our infamous and ire-raising toy. Ruth Handler, credited as the creator of Barbie, insisted that little girls like to play like they’re big girls. Though toy-makers, at the time, were concerned that mothers wouldn’t want to purchase for their daughter’s a doll so well endowed with buxom breasts.

Despite all the anatomical uproar from the start about Barbie’s controversial figure, she was borne fully formed like Venus from the sea, and in the mid-80’s, I spent countless hours entranced and immersed in her world–which was, in truth, my world. I was the creator, the storyteller and master mind. And from my dolls, I learned how to weave narrative, provoke conflict, and rake desire. My parents might have spent a pretty penny granting my Christmas list year after childhood year with Barbie accouterments, but I squeezed every enjoyable, fantasy-filled minute that I could. As a storyteller, Miko and her friends were just another elaborate canvas for me to play act and dream, and I don’t regret a minute of the Barbie-inspired fuel that ignited my childhood imagination.

The Wooly Mammoth of Literature

Newspapers are dying. Two weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicles‘ break out story was its own possible demise, a week ago, the Denver newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News joined the ranks. I’ve been working on the literary blog, Ruelle Electrique, whose theme I’ve just changed to a crisp, clean, three-column design–which, ironically, follows the same longitudinal format as newspaper columns. The times are a changing–yet old habits die hard. The wooly mammoth of literature rears its head, electronically, but still can’t generate revenue from print to save itself from the sticky black tar pits of financial ruin.