Final Reflection Essay: The Irony We Find in Reflection

The interesting thing about irony for me is that real irony is far more sincere than earnestness. To accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it. Utter sincerity suggests a kind of belief that one knows all there is to know about a given circumstance. That is not to say that one should ever make light of serious and grave and important issues, but that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation. Irony is not always funny. Humor is not always ironic. — “Coming Home from Irony: An Interview with Percival Everett, Author of So Much Blue

For my first blog post titled “Humorous and Dramatic Irony,” written all the way back in September, I chose the epigraph above concerning irony and sincerity. Therefore, I find it only fitting that I once again choose this epigraph in order to illustrate and communicate my own growth throughout this course as I write this final essay; I feel, if I were to choose another one of the epigraphs, I would not be able to achieve the same depth in the analysis of what I’ve learned in this course. Though the epigraph above might not be as simple or subjective as, say, the “suspicious pants” tweet, I feel that with what abilities I’ve gained taking this course, I will be able to fully and adequately dissect both this epigraph and my own journey through English 203: Percival Everett Intertextual, and the throughline that runs through them.

I began this course with the goal of improving my skills at analyzing narrative and understanding storytelling; a goal that, now, seems to not quite line up with the core of what makes up English 203—what we learned ended up being a lot more philosophical and a lot less storytelling-oriented that I had originally anticipated. I suppose, then, I should pull irony into this part of my personal story. This class is an English class that seems more philosophical than the usual English course (I say “usual” loosely in this context; I’ve only taken two English courses at Geneseo so far, and English 203 was one of them), as even though we paid attention to key definitions of literary terms (common dives into The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms come to mind) the questions that were asked in the classroom generally surrounded philosophical ideas, such as the Ship of Theseus. Which is an idea that, over a long period of time, you continuously change the parts of an object out for new parts, if then, after you have changed out all of the parts, that object could still be considered the same object. 

I realize that though the quote contained in the epigraph above concerns more than just the idea of irony, I have boiled down its meaning to just discovering where irony has displayed itself within my own experiences in this class. This is not my intention. Though, yes, the last passage considered how irony has cropped up due to my own expectations being thwarted through what we’ve learned in this class, the quote also considers how through noticing irony in the events of our everyday lives, we may become privy to the underlying humor that surrounds the choices everyone makes—and I believe my expectations being thwarted follows this idea. I came to Geneseo to learn how to be a better writer—a writer of fiction, specifically. And I expected to learn about fiction and narrative in this class—and though I did indeed learn about those things, I learned about them in a way I did not quite expect. This, in the end, is humorous to me, specifically because Percival Everett’s writings were the opposite of what I expected. Possibly because, in the end, I did not have many expectations to begin with.

Before this class, I had heard nothing about who Percival Everett was. I only knew that, during Freshman Orientation last July, I had to take an entry-level English course in order to pursue an English major on the Creative Writing track. In fact, the only true reason I chose this course aside from the requirement for my major was because of Percival Everett’s name—I am partial to medieval romances such as King Arthur, and Percival was the name of one of the Knights of the Round Table (until, in later legends, he was replaced by Galahad, usually cited as Lancelot’s son and pursuer of the Holy Grail). I had no expectation that this course would have anything to do with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—the professor who had assisted me with signing up with my courses, Dr. Paku, had told me that Percival Everett was an African-American author and most of his work was recent. But, ironically, maybe that differentiation from what I usually spent my time studying was what caused me to enjoy this course so much.

Alongside the new textual material that was unfamiliar to me, I was also confronted with new forms of submitting my writings—that being in the form of blog posts. I have found throughout my time spent in my class, that I greatly enjoy this form of writing. I find myself leaning comfortably into a conversational format—and I find it much easier and more fluid than the essay formats that have been ingrained in my brain since middle school. By beginning with a concrete fact such as a quote from one of the texts or a definition for a word or phrase, I can then go on to elaborate on the abstract idea that was inspired by that phrase. This all began with that first blog post “Humorous and Dramatic Irony” and the epigraph that I was given. I believe that starting with a blog post that forced me to use an epigraph allowed me to naturally move into this structure that I’ve practiced with my blog posts—that being starting with a concrete, and ending with an abstract. In later blog posts, if I did not begin with an epigraph, I almost always began with some concrete quote or definition.

In fact, before beginning English 203, I had already known what an epigraph was. I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of them and had used them in my fiction writing beforehand. In my writing, before starting a new chapter, I would first write an epigraph commonly depicting a piece of written work from the world I was writing about. Because I wrote medieval fantasy, this would commonly be a letter or excerpt from a fictional book. I find it ironic, then, that now I am able to use them in my academic work—I find it enjoyable, and as I stated previously, I adapted quickly to the format and naturally derived my own system of writing blog posts from it. Though this detail may seem inconsequential to this reflective essay, I find it important to point out the little details that impacted my time in English 203. Though I had to abandon some familiar ways of writing, I was also able to retain some of the enjoyable formatting that I had practiced previously. I just enjoy the idea of epigraphs. Aesthetically, they look good on the page, while also providing important context for the written work of the writer’s that follow.

To begin to conclude, and to point out another irony, I would like to draw specific attention to Everett’s works that we analyzed in class. Specifically, the Greek myth-adaptation Frenzy and the experimental comedy I Am Not Sidney Poitier. As stated previously, before coming to this class I considered myself practiced in analyzing classic and common storytelling arcs and techniques. I knew what the Hero’s Journey was, knew about inciting incidents and falling actions, and knew about character archetypes and how to write a generally cathartic story. However, as I elaborated on in my “An End Goal of Catharsis” blog post, in this class I was exposed to radically different ways of writing novels. Frenzy’s deconstruction of madness through the questioning and answering of the god Dionysos and his assistant Vlepo allowed me to witness how a story arc doesn’t have to be the center of a narrative, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s incorporation of allusions to The Defiant Ones (1958) and Lilies of the Field (1963) showed me how intertextuality has the ability to communicate a much deeper meaning in literature, even if that allusion and intertextuality may tread too closely to plagiarism. In the end, the story arc, plot, and characters aren’t what make a novel hold a deeper meaning—it’s what you do with that story arc, plot, and characters that promotes questioning and deeper contemplation.

Finally, to return to the epigraph that I used earlier on in the year, Everett stated “to accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it… that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation.” Throughout my time in this class I have accepted a handful of absurd situations—from stating a fact in class wrongly, to waiting until the last two days before the deadline to submit my last two blog posts. But that is humanness. Absurdity, and the second half of this quote, curiosity. I find it incredibly remarkable that the human mind has the capability, and even the inclination, to look back on what we’ve done and accomplished and find the ironies and coincidences that were never intended. Absurdity and curiosity. Perhaps, beneath learning all of the literary theory and writing forms, that’s what I took away most from this class. If we do not keep these two truths in mind: absurdity is humanness, and curiosity is remarkable, we might lose sight of many things in our lives and the way we learn. So with that, I conclude with this: there is so much to be gained in looking back and reflecting, and even more to be gained if one explores what might be ironic and unexpected throughout it all.

The Ship of Theseus and Identity

According to myth, Theseus was an ancient Greek king who fought many battles, and founded the city-state of Athens. Because of Theseus’ success at naval battles in particular, the people of Athens chose to dedicate a memorial in his honor by preserving his favorite ship. This “ship of Theseus” remained in their port for hundreds of years, and as time went on some of the planks of Theseus’ ship began to rot away. In order to prevent the ship from breaking down entirely, these rotting planks were replaced with new planks made of the same material. However, could the ship still be considered Theseus’ ship, if it was no longer made of the same planks that Theseus himself walked upon? If the bed in the captain’s cabin was replaced by a bed of the exact same make, could it still be considered the same bed Theseus slept on? By placing a new plank next to an original one cause it to absorb some of that older plank’s experience, or does that hold no value?

It is a philosophical question that resembles the sorites paradox (sometimes also called the paradox of the heap). In a similar manner concerning identity, the sorites paradox can be summarized by asking this question: when is a heap of sand no longer considered a heap? By first accepting that removing a single grain of sand cannot turn a heap into a non-heap, what happens when enough grains are removed until there is a single remaining grain? Can this still be considered a heap? If not, when did change from a heap into a non-heap? At two grains? At three? Instead of considering identity directly, this paradox instead focuses on when a change from one identity to another specifically occurred. In the context of the ship of Theseus, this paradox considers when the ship could no longer be considered Theseus’ ship. Is it still Theseus’ ship even when there is only one remaining original plank? Or did the change in identity occur before that? Is there even an instance of change like that? Or does that change happen over a long period of time?

When it comes to philosophical questions like these, I liked to listen to what my common sense tells me. Before diving in to a possible answer to these paradoxes (something that I will not attempt in this blog post, as these theories are called paradoxes for a reason), I like to answer them quickly and without much thought, if possible. It provides a basis for me to go off of. Therefore, to quickly address the paradox of the ship of Theseus, my common sense tells me that if you replace one plank, the ship can still be considered Theseus’. But if you replace the whole ship, that ship is no longer Theseus’. And if you replace the whole ship up until there is only one original remaining plank, then it’s just a new ship with one plank that was part of Theseus’ ship. To address the sorites paradox, I believe that the heap of sand is no longer a heap when one would look and the sand and not call it heap. If one cannot look at two grains of sand and call it heap, then it is not a heap. When this change occurs does not depend on the grains of sand being taken away; it depends on who is observing it and what they consider to be a heap or non-heap.

So what is the point of delving into these paradoxes? If I am not trying to answer the paradox surrounding the ship of Theseus or the sorites paradox, then why am I writing this blog post? Because I believe that, commonly, these paradoxes are applied to what makes us us. Could the question of identity surrounding a material object apply to a sentient person? If a person transfers their mind into a computer, leaving their biological body behind, are they the same person? If a person changes so much over many years, many decades, can they be considered the same person that they were all those years ago? To provide myself as an example, am I the same Liz that entered kindergarten at six years old? Or am I someone else now?

To once again practice quickly answering a paradox before delving in to find or attempt to find a truer answer to the question, my answer is yes. I am still Liz, and I am still recognizable as Liz—I am not a clone or a copy, just a Liz who has grown throughout the years. 

There is a common saying that states the human body fully replaces itself every seven years. An interesting idea, the thought that our body is brand new after seven years—reminiscent of the ship of Theseus, is this the same body that we lived in seven years ago? Unfortunately, this saying has proven false—though others might state that it’s actually ten to fifteen years, the truth of the matter is we do not fully replace ourselves in the matter the saying implies. And, in the end, I don’t think our body replacing itself matters to the question of identity. The difference between the ship of Theseus and a human person is an observation of sentience. We know that we are the same person, because we observe ourself in that way, and know this is true. Just as we might observe a ship in front of us as Theseus’ ship, or just a normal ship.

In Defense of Romanticism

Upon my first reading of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, I marked it down as another novel deconstructing the nature of cynicism and the absurdity of life. And perhaps, it can still be observed as a novel of that nature; by just reading of Not Sidney’s disposition to view the other characters around him in a sort of blasé, detached and uncaring manner, and how each event is passed over without much growth or weight to them, the theme of how life can be absurd is still certainly present—but I am not sure that the hard cynicism that I first observed is. Unlike other classical novels with strict structure and plot, I Am Not Sidney Poitier communicates its themes and lessons not through the weight of the events in the story, but by what Not Sidney absorbs as he moves through time, and the intertextuality that can be read through Everett’s implementation of films starring the real Sidney Poitier—such as The Defiant Ones and Lilies of the Field.

My idea for this blog post stemmed from a particular moment in I Am Not Sidney Poitier and the allusion to the film The Defiant Ones. On page 79 of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, this passage occurs:

Patrice pushed the jar towards me, but I waved it off. I watched them drink themselves unconscious, and I realized it didn’t matter where they were, they would never be going anywhere.

The train’s whistle blew. It was coming and I was the only one awake. I did not wake them. The locomotive passed, and I walked to the tracks. Just as Sis had said, the train was moving very slowly up the grade. I found an empty boxcar and easily climbed into it. Alone. I left them sleeping there where they belonged, with one another.

In comparison to the scene to which this passage is alluding to, that scene being from the 1958 film The Defiant Ones, the difference is polar opposite to what occurs here: instead of getting on the train and leaving his accomplice behind, Cullen, Not Sidney’s equivalent in the film, jumps off the train to stay with Joker, the equivalent to Patrice in the novel. There are other aspects that differ in the book and film alongside those, however I will not mention them here simply because they do not apply to the core of this post. Here I am questioning the use of romanticism versus cynicism in storytelling, and what little differs between the book and the film is, in this context, irrelevant.

As defined by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, romanticism is “a broad and general term referring to a set of beliefs, attitudes, and values associated with… an emphasis on emotion, innovation, nature, the individual, and subjective experience.” Furthermore, romanticism can be defined as containing the belief that “emotions are more reliable than reason” and pertaining to a confidence in “the essential goodness of human beings.” In defining romanticism, I am reminded of simple optimism, and I suppose, in this blog post, romanticism can be likened to optimism; it is The Defiant Ones’ version of the events, the hope that there will be a happily ever after, and that the characters will grow to be better versions of themselves by the end of the story.

In contrast, cynicism can be defined as “a dark attitude toward the world, especially toward human beings… [the belief that] human beings are basically motivated by greed and self-interest; they are distrustful of others, usually very negative, and suspicious of sentimentality.” For the purpose of this blog post, I am posing cynicism as the opposite of literary romanticism; just as romanticism means the belief in the goodness of human beings, cynicism means the belief in the evilness of human beings. And just as romanticism can be likened to optimism, cynicism can be likened to pessimism. This is I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s version of the events, the apparent truth that Cullen should have remained on the train just as how Not Sidney got on the train by himself in the book, and the idea that what occurs in books should reflect what would most likely happen in real life.

To add a disclaimer, I consider myself a romantic. However, deconstructions of films such as The Defiant Ones in context of its time period, subject, and problematic aspects should not be dissuaded simply because “Oh, it’s just a movie, can’t there be a happy ending?” A film such as The Defiant Ones, which contains a subject concerning race and racism, should be deconstructed, because it is incredibly likely that the film glosses over how dire the problem of racism truly was. In short, it is absolutely not my intention to glorify the romanticism in The Defiant Ones. This because the romanticism in that film likely contributed to a skewed view of racism and a softening of a problem that should have been, and should still be, viewed and debated with the utmost care.

Instead, I would like to conclude this blog post with a return to the title: “In Defense of Romanticism.” To reiterate, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a novel that does not follow the standard story structure and plot that many readers are accustomed to. Therefore, there is no need for romanticism; the novel can communicate its theme successfully without it. However, The Defiant Ones is a film that does follow the standard story structure (for example, the inciting incident is the prison bus’ crash at the beginning of the film), and therefore romanticism suits it well, because in this way it is able to communicate its own theme: an idea of friendship grown through hardship might not be able to beat the odds, but it might allow one to come to terms with their situation in life. In conclusion, I will defend romanticism when it is implemented in a standard story structure, however, I understand for novels such as I Am Not Sidney Poitier, romanticism is not necessary.

An End Goal of Catharsis

I find myself on repeat beginning my blog posts with something that is concrete; whether that be a quote from one of the books we have read in class, or a definition from Wikipedia (which may or may not be considerably less concrete, depending on which professor you ask), and I believe that this blog post will be no different. Because, while whether or not a novel resolves in catharsis is up to the reader (and therefore not concrete), the definition of catharsis is concrete. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, the definition of catharsis (katharsis) is as follows: “the emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience.” While this definition is true, I would like to dispute the use of “tragic drama.” Catharsis can be the result of not just tragic dramas; I would like to argue that it can be the result of any story that has a definitive end. However, the amount of catharsis has the capacity to change depending on the story being told and the one who is reading it.

Previously, I have often found myself considering catharsis to be synonymous with satisfaction; a word that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “the fulfillment of a need or want.” Furthermore, the definition of satisfaction could be elaborated to “the fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this” according to a simple Google search. What is crucial in this elaboration is the word expectations—as it is common, in most stories, that expectations are developed in the reader, that are later hopefully paid off to high effect by the author. This, in my observations, has produced the feeling of catharsis—or satisfaction—that I have defined. For an example of this technique in story writing, look no further than the writing trope of Chekhov’s Gun: the idea that, if in the first chapter it is stated that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter that rifle will go off. The setting off of this rifle has satisfied an expectation that has been developed, hopefully creating catharsis in the reader.

I find it ironic that in my previous blog post “Rats from Rags and Dust” I cited the Greek philosopher Aristotle on his theory of spontaneous generation, and I find myself, once again, citing him on his ideas on catharsis. Be that as it may, according to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Aristotle was the one to introduce the idea of catharsis to literary criticism; but instead of viewing it in the context of audience satisfaction, catharsis originated as an idea of purgation or purification. The word “catharsis,” or its Greek equivalent, “katharsis,” literally means these two things. As stated by The Bedford, Aristotle sought “to explain the feeling of exaltation or playgoers commonly experience during and after the catastrophe (which invariably foregrounds suffering, defeat, and even death).” How could an audience feel catharsis, a feeling similar to satisfaction, following a tragic event that resulted in the defeat and/or death of a play’s protagonist(s)?

To put it simply, you do not have to have a happy ending to have catharsis. To return to the idea of purging and purification, catharsis can also be viewed as a release. The Greek tragedies that Aristotle examined typically built up fear and pity in the audience, which continued to grow as the tragedy became more and more evident, until, finally, there could be a release when the catastrophe—defined by The Bedford as “the culmination of the falling action in the plot of a story or drama”—revealed itself. This, in turn, would purge, or purify, the viewer of all emotions of fear, pity, and overall tension, because what they had been dreading for the protagonist finally occurred. It is in this way that Aristotle believed that attending plays could be beneficial for the audience members, because they could experience a sensation of relief and exaltation.

If that is the case, and stories or narratives with cathartic endings are viewed and beneficial and more satisfactory to the audience, should catharsis be the end goal of every novel with a consistent plot? In our ENGL 203 course, we have read two concrete narratives by Percival Everett—the first was Frenzy, which drew from historical Greek plays such as “The Bacchae” (a tragedy not dissimilar to the ones Aristotle would have studied in an attempt to define catharsis), and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, a less structured novel which was more fluid in its telling. When considering these narratives in the context of catharsis, I have come to the conclusion that Frenzy’s conclusion was arguably more satisfying than I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s. 

Catharsis is an element familiar to classical stories that follow highly structured narratives—more similar to Frenzy, as it draws inspiration from classical Greek plays, and resolves with Vlepo killing his master Dionysos, something that could have been foreseen with all of Dionysos’ talk of sleep and his difference from other gods. In comparison, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a more contemporarily-structured novel, and Not Sidney almost seems to end up at his conclusion, stating “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” as the novel concludes. Therefore, though catharsis may be present in more classically-structured works, other contemporary novels do not necessarily have it as their end goal.

Rats from Rags and Dust


From rags and dust

A rat is formed in the cellar.

It was not there before.

Only rats and dust

—Percival Everett, “Logic” from re: f (gesture)

Spontaneous generation is a theory that suggests that living organisms have the capability to arise from nonliving matter. It is an intriguing idea, the thought that mice could be produced by simply leaving cheese wrapped in rags and leaving it in a dark corner for a week—the theory altogether ignores the idea that mice might simply be attracted by the cheese, and instead hypothesizes that mice were created from the cheese. Aristotle (384–322 BC), the Greek philosopher, has been noted as one of the earliest scholars to engage with the theory of spontaneous generation. He proposed that life had the capability to generate from nonliving material, but only if that material contained pneuma, or what he called “vital heat.” To support his theory, Aristotle cited instances of animals appearing in environments that had been previously devoid of those animals, such as the “seemingly sudden appearance of fish in a new puddle of water.”

The whole idea feels similar to the works of medieval alchemists, who searched for a way to turn lead into gold, perfect an elixir of immortality, or create the philosopher’s stone. And indeed, the theory of spontaneous generation would remain largely undisputed until the seventeenth century. To many, I suspect, it mattered little where mice and fish originated from, whether that be from the environment directly or from normal reproduction—all that mattered was that they were present, and that cats could catch the mice that fed on the wheat in their barns, and the fish in the water could be caught and eaten for dinner.

It would not be until 1668 that the theory would be officially debunked by Francesco Redi in his experiment involving maggots and rotting meat. Some may remember this experiment from their high school biology class, but if not, Redi conducted his experiment by setting three jars containing rotting meat out on a table: the first open to the air, the second sealed tightly with a cork, and the third covered in mesh. At the end of the experiment, there were maggots on the meat in the first jar, none in the second jar, and maggots on top of the mesh on the third jar. From this, Redi concluded that spontaneous generation theory was unfounded.

Upon reading Percival Everett’s fifth poem in the collection titled “Logic,” I was immediately reminded of this medieval theory. Though I was more familiar with the instance of mice from cloth and cheese rather than rats from rags and dust, the idea still stands; what is described in this poem has many similarities to the medieval theory of spontaneous generation. “From rags and dust/A rat is formed in the cellar./It was not there before” speaks clearly to this idea of spontaneous generation; the idea that something organic and living can arise from something that is not, and can arise spontaneously.

In our ENGL 203 class, we were asked by Professor McCoy to read these poems in the contexts of New Criticism and intertextuality—what meaning could be gained from these poems if we looked at just the poems themselves, versus the poems in the context of what we knew? If I was to read this fifth poem of “Logic” without the background knowledge of spontaneous generation, a majority of the meaning of this poem would be lost to me. The history of the idea the poem is depicting would have to be entirely ignored; instead, all that would be left is the instance of a rat arising from rags and dust, something that was not there before. Something that most people today know cannot happen because of Francesco Redi and other historical scientists’ work on the subject.

And perhaps that is what Percival Everett was trying to say when he wrote this poem. In a broad observation, the poems of this collection attempt to communicate meaning without referencing much of any outside work or context. The are, in the simplest sense, “logic”—givens and universal truths, like in the sixth poem, where the idea that the number seven cannot be destroyed, but seven men can be. However, if the fifth poem in this collection is viewed the same way, what would be communicated is a blatant lie—rats do not come from rags and dust, they come from the reproduction of other rats. In this case, if this poem was read with a mindset of New Criticism, all sense of logic would be lost.

It is for this reason that I believe that this collection of poems can be observed as Percival Everett’s critique of New Criticism. Or, at least, these poems offer and explanation as to why we shouldn’t only read works of literature through the lens of New Criticism. If we neglect the intertextuality of different works of literature, that literature has the capability to both lose meaning while simultaneously communicating false or confusing ideas. The reader, in a sense, falls into the mindset of the medieval people who believed that rats could simply arise from rags and dust.

Description Without Metaphor

Percival Everett’s “Body” intervenes in the blazon form. More specifically, the poems may be understood as celebrating the capability of language to convey an artistic form without the use of literary devices such as, and especially, metaphor. Throughout the entirety of the work “Body,” not a single concrete metaphor is used—a complete divergence from the standard blazon form, which, aside from typically describing  “the physical attributes of a subject, usually female,” (something that “Body” participates in), almost always deals in concrete metaphor. While most blazons include lines like “her goodly eyes like sapphires shining bright,” Everett’s “Body” does no such thing, and yet it is still recognized as a blazon, perhaps not just because it describes a female body, but because it describes a female body with language that can be described as artistic in form.

It’s a difficult idea to wrap your head around. Metaphor is one of the most simplest and well known literary tools known to writers and readers alike. Especially in poetry—when one must convey an idea with as few words as it takes to fill a stanza, metaphor is a powerful tool to communicate that idea across with what can be as little as three words (“eyes of sapphire,” for example). But what happens when metaphor is taken away? What happens when you can’t form an analogy, or tie an idea to another well known idea in order to communicate how you feel about a subject? What sort of language do you use? Will your reader understand what you’re saying? Will it even be considered objectively “artistic” if you do?

Everett’s “Body” is an example of what happens when one doesn’t use metaphor to communicate an idea when writing poetry. Instead, the poems are almost completely description; description of physical attributes, and description of action. It is the words and phrases that Everett uses in order to convey a tone of praise and sensuality. In the first poem “The Hyoid Bone,” all the Everett does is describe an “arch of bone, greater cornu, reaching/reaching, stretching above the lesser.” Words and phrases such as “violence” and “sick pain” convey a feeling of discomfort to the reader, without using metaphor to describe it. Everett does not write “violent as a stone might fracture” or “the sick pain of a dog” because stones and dogs are not present in this occasion. In this occasion, only the body part being described exists.

To use a metaphor (or, more specifically, an analogy) of my own, think of “Body” as if it were a stereotypical piece of modern abstract art. Either sculpture or a painting, but no recognizable objects can be seen, just an unidentifiable formation of colors and shapes. For example:

Randy Akers, red clay quarry

To compare, your standard blazon is your stereotypical piece of Romanticism art. Art that focuses on glorification, and, different from the abstract modern art above, has identifiable objects recognizable to most people. For example:

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night

These recognizable objects, such as the figures and the trees and the sky, can be compared the metaphor that characterizes the blazon. While both “Body” and your average blazon have words and phrases describing the physical attributes of their subjects, “Body” has no metaphors, no allusions to an outside world, only describing the focus of the poems: the subject. The body. Which, in itself, is a form of praise, I suppose; nothing else exists to cause confusion, or to muddy the picture that is being painted. All that is present is the body. But I diverge. Just as both the abstract art and the Romanticism art can both be described as paintings, both “Body” and your standard blazon with metaphors can be described as blazons. Just one common element has been excluded.

However, there is a downside that I am able to identify in “Body” because of its lack of metaphor. Metaphor and analogy are more than just flowery prose and artistic language; they are tools used to grant clarification in a work of writing, and they can be used to describe something that is otherwise indescribable. They might not be able to paint you the perfect picture, but they can paint the next best thing. By not using metaphor, “Body” comes off as not fully comprehensible; at least, not to anyone who doesn’t know Latin or hasn’t study human anatomy. Many of the words, especially the anatatomical names, hold little meaning to your average reader. At best, they can convey meaning through how they might sound; “cornu” in “The Hyoid Bone” has the same “o”  sound as “bone,” keeping consistency with the cracking, solid tone of the poem.

Regardless of whether or not Percival Everett intended for “Body” to be read by someone who had studied anatomy and Latin or not, I believe these poems can teach us an important lesson about what separates artistic and scientific language. For the past few days in ENGL 203 we have been investigating what the purpose of metaphor is; from reading the article “Metaphor is Hard Science,” by Dr. Valerie Prince, to today’s reading “Science, Space and Nature,” from Interdisciplinary, by Joe Moran. With this reading of Everett’s “Body,” I have arrived at the conclusion that the use of metaphor does not separate art from science, or subjectivity from objectivity. There can be art without metaphor, just as there can be science with metaphor. The two are not mutually exclusive, or else “Body” would not succeed as an artistic work. 

Should Genre Fiction be Considered Lowbrow?

Wikipedia defines genre fiction as “a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.” One might imagine a writer of genre fiction to already be familiar with the genre that they are writing in, having knowledge of its literary tropes, archetypes, and clichés—and choosing which of these elements to implement in their work, or not. A genre writer of fantasy might choose to implement the “chosen one” trope, but might not include the overly-common setting of a medieval Europe-esque kingdom. Regardless, that writer’s work would be considered genre fiction—a work that was constructed to fit a pre-existent literary category.

But does this make a work of genre fiction on a lower tier when compared to other works of literature? The opposition to genre fiction is commonly cited as literary fiction, or a work that is generally regarded as having more literary merit than genre fiction. But why is this? And what dictates literary merit? First, I wish to address what the definition of literary merit is. As I understand it, literary merit is meant to clarify the quality of a work of literature. If a work is said to have high literary merit, then that piece of work is most likely high in value. It might have a stronger narrative, pose and grapple with more philosophical ideas, and can be viewed as “highbrow.” Conversely, if a work is said to have low literary merit, then that piece of work is most likely low in value. Think of works such as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which by a majority of the readerly population are seen as objectively “bad” books.

But how can one accurately say that a book can be objectively bad, when the word “bad,” in itself, is a very subjective term and is almost always tied to one’s opinion? What is “bad” and “good” concerning the quality of a literary work? I realize that I am raising more questions here than answers, so I will return to the idea of literary merit—which is different from the broader terms of “good” and “bad.” Literary merit is the literary critic’s word for defining whether or not a piece of literature is good, but it is also more than that. The goal in defining a work’s literary merit is not in deciding how good a book is, but instead the value and quality of that work—how strong is its prose, how real is its dialogue, how sound is its narrative?

So, genre fiction can be defined as work that has less literary merit because it was written with a pre-existing literary category in mind, right? Well, no, not exactly. Just because a work was written using pre-existing fabricated tools (such as fantasy or sci-fi tropes, which have transferred from writer to writer since the creator of that trope first used it in their story) doesn’t mean it has less literary merit than a contemporary novel of literary fiction. For a popular example of a work of genre fiction, let’s look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—a young adult fantasy series, this is a textbook example of what one might consider “genre fiction.” It is a book that is meant to be read for escapism and pleasure, not provoke philosophical questioning and debates, right? Once again, this is not necessarily true. Philosophical ideas are questioned in the Harry Potter series—though those who deem it a simple work of genre fiction might dismiss them. Ideas about love, death, and growth are implemented heavily throughout the story. Because of Harry Potter’s fame, there have been articles and research done on these ideas—but I feel that other great works of genre fiction don’t receive this treatment, because they are commonly dismissed by some literary scholars as “lesser” because they might be fantasy, science fiction, or other non-contemporary genre.

There is also the discord surrounding the science fiction genre. Usually labeled as a variant of genre fiction, science fiction usually garners more attention from literary critics when compared to fantasy or romance because of the way it can address philosophical questions that our society hasn’t arrived at yet—questions surrounding artificial intelligence, what it means to be human, and so on. This discord has even showed up in my ENGL 201: Foundations of Creative Writing course. In this course, we only address works of contemporary and historical fiction and cannot submit works of genre fiction (including works of sci-fi), however, one of the example short stories we analyzed in one of our discussions was a work of science fiction called “Zimmer Land,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Clearly a work of sci-fi, “Zimmer Land” displays use of virtual reality to pose questions about justice how violence should be represented in a future society. Many, including my professor in that course, would label this as literary fiction, while others, who were simply told that this short story had sci-fi components, would have simply labeled it as genre fiction without a second glance, preventing an in depth analysis from being made.

This blog post stemmed from an idea I came across during our class time spent researching the definition of genre in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Unfortunately, I could not find the definitions for genre fiction, literary fiction, or literary merit, though I do have the definition for genre, which we found in class: “from the French for “kind” or “type,” the classification of literary works on the basis of their content, form, or technique.” I would like to clarify that it is not the classifications themselves that has resulted in the demotion of genre fiction such as fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and others. Instead, it is the literary critics who have refused to dissect works in those genres because of the way they perceive them as lowbrow. If my opinion was asked, and I would have to answer the question “should genre fiction be considered lowbrow?” my answer would be no. Genre fiction, just like any other fiction, literary or otherwise, should not be classified as lesser simply because of a pre-existing stigma surrounding works resembling other works.

The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes, both a structuralist and a poststructuralist over the course of his career, was one of the first to strip the author of a unique role accorded by Western culture and traditional literary criticism. In “The Death of the Author” (1967), Barthes characterized the author not as an original and creative master manipulator of the linguistic system but, rather, as one of its primary vehicles, an agent through which it works out new permutations and combinations. —The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms on “Postructuralism”

They [contemporary semioticians] are especially indebted to Barthes, who in works such as “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”) (1967) and S/Z (1970) pronounced the death of the author; emphasized the role of the reader (or, more precisely, lecture, or reading); and differentiated the lisible (readerly) text (one that provides readers with a world replete with fixed meanings) from more open, scriptible (writerly) text (one that invites readers to create meaning). —The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms on “Structuralist criticism”

At the end of my last blog post titled “Dionysos the Author and Vlepo the Reader,” I spoke briefly about the possible representation of the actual occurrence of an author’s death at the end of Percival Everett’s Frenzy. Throughout that blog post I argued that, in the text, Dionysos shares many traits with an “author” archetype—and, additionally, Vlepo shares many traits with a “reader” archetype. If this analogy stands, I argued that Dionysos’ death by Vlepo’s hand at the end of Frenzy can be viewed as the literal death of the author. And, like the reader finally finishing the novel Frenzy, Vlepo is left alone to do what he will with the knowledge he’s gained. There is no Dionysos to guide him, just like there is no author to guide the reader—what matters, in the end, is the reader’s own interpretation of what they have read, and not what the author’s original intentions might have been. 

In this blog post, however, I would like to thoroughly analyze what the Death of the Author theory means by defining, discussing, and citing relevant examples—and, in so doing, I might arrive at a deeper understanding of how a reader can interact with a piece of text. Before I unpack that, however, I would like to clarify some details of the Death of the Author historically. The theory was first mentioned in Roland Barthes’ essay of the same name (in French, “La mort de l’auteur,” published in 1967). From there, it developed as a facet of structuralist criticism. Structuralism, as defined by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is the “theory of humankind whose proponents attempt to show systematically, even scientifically, that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as a system of signs.” Because the Death of the Author emphasizes the separation of the author’s intention from their work in favor of the reader’s interpretation, it refutes the connectedness of structuralist ideas.

To define Death of the Author more simply, it is the theory that the author’s intention regarding their work before, during, and after writing holds no more weight than any other factor when a reader determines an interpretation of that work. Whether it was intentional or unintentional by the author, what a reader interprets cannot be wrong, even if it does not align with what the author’s idea originally was. Books are ultimately meant to be read, not written, so the ways readers form interpretations are as important and “real” as the author’s intention. However, the Death of the Author is a theory that continues to develop to this day—as media changes and evolves, what the Death of the Author means when it comes to intention and interpretation also changes.

How Death of the Author can be interpreted in the works of Percial Everett, however, is a different matter. In my previous blog post I spoke about Dionysos and Vlepo in Frenzy, but Everett introduces a very different element that may be important to the Death of the Author theory in his book I Am Not Sidney Poitier. In this novel, instead of presenting the blasé, humorous character of Dionysos, he introduces himself as a character—the Professor Percival Everett. While I may do an entirely separate blog post on what Everett is trying to communicate by having “himself” as a character in his novel, for now I will only lightly dissect it as it pertains to the Death of the Author theory.

Should we take what the character Percival Everett says as what the author Percival Everett says? Is not the entire book I Am Not Sidney Poitier “what” Percival Everett is saying, or what he has said, because he was the one to write those words down? This I do not dispute—the book is Percival Everett’s, but how does this relate to the Death of the Author? If the author’s intention does not matter any more than the reader’s own interpretation, does that change if the author inserts themselves into their novel as a character, who shares their name and their personality? All of these questions are highly situational, and may change depending on what book you are reading, but it is an interesting question to ask—and it is a question that Everett may or may not have intended to present by including himself as a character in I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

In the end, the Death of the Author can be defined as the theory that the author’s original intention for their work and that author’s background matter no more than the reader’s own interpretation of that work. What matters is what the reader gains from the story. Before I conclude this blog post, I suggest reading Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” essay for more information. It clearly clarifies how one can separate the text from the author, and provides the best example of the beginnings of the theory. Going forward, I do wish to pay attention to how Percival Everett includes the theory of Death of the Author in his work, but for now I am satisfied with my analysis of both Frenzy and I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

Dionysos the Author and Vlepo the Reader

While reading Frenzy by Percival Everett, I found myself paying close attention to the relationship that Everett depicts between the central characters of Dionysos and Vlepo. Among the many additions that Everett made to the original story of The Bacchae, Vlepo was perhaps the largest—the reader now had an entire character written in first-person to empathize with and live vicariously through in order to experience the story more deeply than reading it in the original Greek verse-form. And perhaps it was from this acknowledgement that I ended up at the idea that perhaps Vlepo was meant to represent a reader-like form, a spectator. And if Vlepo was meant to represent the “Reader” so-to-speak, that would have to make Dionysos the “Author,” or the active to Vlepo’s passive, the all-knowing to Vlepo’s unknowing—wouldn’t it?

Regardless of whether or not this was Everett’s intent for the interpretation of these two characters, the symbolism of Vlepo the Reader and Dionysos the Author makes some sense. Throughout the entirety of the novel the characters of Vlepo and Dionysos are engaged in an exchange of question and answer. Whether it be in the presence of other characters, or in between scenes depicting the story of The Bacchae or other Greek myths, Dionysos and Vlepo are questioning each other and their reasons for existence. The first of these exchanges can be observed on page nine: 

“It makes very little difference where my fetus found completion, Vlepo,’” Dionysos said to me. “It matters only that I am.” He paused and regarded me. “I am here not simply because rumors spread by Kadmos through his daughters about my being a false god and no son of Zeus, but because—” He paused and held his forehead in his hand. “Can apathy produce an honest request?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I did not understand the question.

“I am a god, Vlepo, but I will die. That makes me different from other gods.”

Already the characters of Dionysos and Vlepo are untied from the plot that they were considered a part of. Where in The Bacchae Dionysos was the god whose purpose was to teach a lesson to the wrongful Pentheus, he is now a tool that Everett uses to question the meanings of life and existence. Dionysos is lost in a sort of blasé humor, uncaring about the world he populates, and though he searches for meaning, he ultimately accepts his fate, and is killed by Vlepo. And though Vlepo was not originally in The Bacchae, and thus no comparison can be drawn, he is as untied to the plot of the novel as he is tied to Dionysos—together they float from scene to scene, asking questions that seemingly have no true answer. 

It is with this in mind that I assign the roles of Author and Reader to Dionysos and Vlepo. Thought this is not all that they are or all they can be interpreted to be, I believe they fit into these roles—or archetypes—because of the way Everett writes them and how much agency he gives them to question and think deeply throughout the novel. With all the questioning about existence and life, Dionysos also utilizes Vlepo to look into the heads of other characters. He seemingly “throws” Vlepo to see what goes on inside the minds of mortals. The first of these is the mind of Semele, which occurs on page 14: “I saw into the head of Semele, gazing deep into a well of light: Love is devouring. It eats me hourly. Like poetry, death holds no sway over love. I hate myself because I can find no power to love more than I do… The dialogue continues, and usually these passages where Vlepo gazes into a mortal’s mind lasts for a single long paragraph, until he is pulled out again.

How do these excerpts serve the idea that Dionysos is representative of the Author and Vlepo the Reader? To begin, Dionysos is directing Vlepo. He is the one who throws Vlepo into the minds of different characters, each with their own viewpoints and each taking part in their own stories. Throughout the novel, Vlepo looks into the minds of Semele, Kadmos, Pentheus, Agave, Tiresias, Eurydice, Orpheus, Sibyl, Ariadne, Theseus, the Minotaur, and Lykurgos. Each time, Vlepo gets to witness the internal dialogues of the characters and what they are experiencing at that moment in their stories. Like a reader who reads what an author writes, Vlepo is witnessing the thoughts and emotions of mortals and, though these mortals were not fashioned by Dionysos, it was Dionysos who directed Vlepo to those characters’ thoughts.

It is an analogy that perhaps does not line up perfectly, but it is an analogy that I believe has some importance when interpreting Everett’s work of Frenzy. The novel is an incredibly introspective work, and it focuses more on character and how their emotions and thoughts make up who they are than plot and a chronological timeline, and therefore I believe that this type of interpretation is fitting for the ideas that Everett pursues. Before I conclude, I would like to point out one more observation: at the end of Frenzy, Vlepo has perhaps the most agency he’s ever had throughout the entire novel. While before he had been a mere tool of Dionysos, he now takes action, and slays the god where he sleeps. For some reason, I could not stop thinking about the idea of “the death of the author” here. The idea that, after a work is complete, the author’s original intention makes no difference; it is what the reader does with it that gives the piece true meaning. If my analogy stands, then Dionysos’s death by Vlepo’s hand is the literal death of the author. And, like the reader finally finishing the novel Frenzy, Vlepo is left alone—to do what he will with the knowledge he’s gained.

Humorous and Dramatic Irony

The  interesting  thing about irony  for me is that real  irony is far more sincere  than earnestness. To accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it. Utter sincerity suggests a kind of belief that one knows all there is to know about a given circumstance. That is not to say that one should ever make light of serious and grave and  important issues, but that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation. Irony is not always funny. Humor is not always ironic. — “Coming Home from Irony: An Interview with Percival Everett, Author of So Much Blue

When looking at choosing an epigraph to base my blog post on, the question of sincerity and accepting the humanness of a situation is what caught my eye in this particular circumstance. The idea that Percival Everett puts forth—about whether or not it is more sincere to be ironic than earnest in a situation—deals majorly with the concept of humor, and deciding if something is appropriate in a given situation. Of course, deciding if something is appropriate depends on that specific situation, but Everett’s argument remains: “That is not to say that one should ever make light of serious and grave and important issues, but that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation.” Is that true, however? Should we embrace irony in any situation, because of its open and genuine intellectual curiosity?

In my own first few weeks of English 203, irony seems to have found a comfortable place in our own classroom discussions. It is a common part of conversation, something a lot of us revert to and pick up on as a way to diffuse tension, and create connections with our peers. As an aspect of humor, this is to be expected. And this irony is not unwelcomed. At no point, as far as my observations can tell, has anyone made light of a situation through irony that has seemed inappropriate or distasteful—and we have covered a handful of serious, grave, and important issues already. Going forward, I would like to pay more attention to the use of irony in our class, maybe as a sort of experiment—but I digress.

To return to my own question: should we embrace irony in any situation, and should it never be a casualty, as Everett says? Regardless of whether or not we should, I believe that it’s true that there will always be those who will send an angry glare in the direction of the one who makes the ironic joke during a grave situation. With that aside, before I answer this question, I’d first like to try and define what Everett means by “casualty.” Does he mean that the use of irony in a conversation causes the end of the conversation itself? Or does he mean that the irony itself is the casualty? For the purpose of this post, I am going to agree with the former.

The reason that Everett gives for why irony should be embraced, and what drew my attention to this epigraph in the first place, is that irony is more sincere than earnestness. That “to accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it.” Once again, this sort of belief is very situational. For one to be earnest in this way, there must be an absurdity to identify first. But that seems obvious. At this point, I’d like to look to one of the texts that we have been studying in class. In Frenzy, by Percival Everett, the god Dionysos seems to utilize irony frequently. In fact, throughout the novel his tone seems to be majorly based around the concept of irony. Either that, or some similar form of blasé humor. 

“Still, there is something missing. I think the true cell of a god is conceit,” says Dionysos on page eleven of Frenzy. There are a multitude of moments in the novel where Dionysos makes observations such as this—many times when he is examining his own existence. The true irony, an irony that doesn’t quite catch up with the humorous kind, I believe, is that while Dionysos is seen as the god of frenzy and experience, he is prevented by his own divinity from experiencing full sensation—a fact that this quote supports, as Dionysos goes on to use Vlepo to try and gain that full experience, seemingly to no avail.

At this point, I’d like to differentiate two different varieties of irony that I can observe. There is the humorous, intellectual kind of humor that Everett talks about in the epigraph above, and there is the dramatic irony, the kind of irony when one examines the existence of Dionysos in Frenzy. The kind of irony that is the product of a sequence of events and apparent misfortune that pertains more to one’s empathy than to a sense of humor. In the end, Everett engages in both—but it seems that it may be more acceptable to play upon that light, humorous irony than the dramatic in conversation.

In this blog post I’ve engaged an amalgamation of ideas—Everett’s idea that irony is perhaps more sincere that earnestness, whether or not it is appropriate to embrace irony in any situation because of its open and genuine intellectual curiosity, and the potential difference between humorous and dramatic irony. In the end, I believe it comes down to a matter of opinion , whether or not irony is appropriate in a situation. As for my opinion—I recognize the sincerity of it. So on that end, I agree with Percival Everett.