I Am Not Myself Today, But Then, When Am I Ever

I wouldn’t describe myself particularly as a fan of Percival Everett. Going into this class, I had never heard the name before, and as I became more acquainted with his works, it became increasingly difficult for me to write about them. In one of the first class periods for this class, we discussed growth mindsets, and at one point in the semester, I believe I locked myself so effectively within the cage of a fixed mindset that I had difficulty moving past my own personal scorn in order to write professionally about Everett and his works.  This isn’t new to me, if I dislike an author, character, or work, I don’t shy away from saying so; at one point, one of my teachers genuinely recommended I become a critic because I try and pull direct pieces of evidence and thoroughly look into what it is that I dislike about it and why. With the works of Percival Everett, however, this was not enough, I was still writing with too much disdain in my written voice for a professional piece. It took a serious effort on my part to listen and learn from what Professor McCoy was trying to teach me about thinking through such strong emotions before including them in my writing. I could see the shift in my writing, and it pleased me to improve. I changed because I saw the opportunity, and I was willing to move forward. 

As Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier progresses, however, his protagonist is more accepting of moving backwards. Not Sidney becomes less inclined to correct people on his name; in the beginning, as a child, he tells his full name, persists on it even in spite of how angry it makes those he speaks to. As he grows older, however, and the events of the story play out, and he learns more, this effort fades. In Smuteye, when he introduces himself at the diner, he says his name is Sidney Poitier, finding amusement when Diana asks ‘“You name’s not Sidney Poitier, is it?’”; knowing full well what she means, he has fun at her expense and answers that it is. By the time he finds the body that resembles him, Not Sidney begins to contemplate his own identity as a whole, at one point coming to the conclusion that ‘if that body in the chest was Not Sidney Poitier, then I was not Not Sidney Poitier and that by all I knew of logic and double negations, I was therefore, Sidney Poitier. I was Sidney Poitier.’. He repeats the phrase ‘I was Sidney Poitier’ as if coming to terms with his new identity, it’s as if his identity changes ever so slightly through every portion of the novel, and this is his moment of clarity that a new shift has occurred, leading him to declare that ‘I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY’.

Not Sidney was not himself because he believed he had become Sidney Poitier. This, however, is quite a strong relation of one’s identity to a name. As soon as his name seems to change, he goes through a complete change in personality. And yet, he has been changing constantly throughout the novel, as regular people tend to change consistently throughout their lives. It is as if becoming Sidney Poitier was his way of acknowledging that change within himself, yet he takes it in the most dramatic direction. The more that Not Sidney goes through on behalf of Sidney Poitier, the more he finds himself merging with the separate being, as if he sees this as the only option left for him. He takes into account the moments of his life that led him to the stage, and rather than consider that it was the moments of his life in unwilling imitation of the Sidney Poitier films that led him there and created his personality, he decided that he is not Not Sidney, while also, by giving a speech as Sidney Poitier saying that he was not himself, is almost saying that he isn’t Sidney Poitier either. 

Most of the English classes that I’ve taken throughout my school years have tried to inspire individuality. Maybe that’s why it was so startling to me that Not Sidney accepted what appeared to be the fate laid out for him. Then, I suppose that most of Everett’s works, or at least the ones that we’ve read for this class, tend to deal with the matter of an identity crisis that leaves the narrator confused. In Everett’s Frenzy, he goes through the trouble of creating a new character tethered to Dionysos in the way that Not Sidney is tethered to Sidney Poitier. Not Sidney starts his life attached to someone else from birth. From his naming, he was threaded to the identity of Sidney Poitier, actor, influence, and one of the biggest names in cinematic history. By naming her son Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney’s mother at once binds him, and distinguishes him from Sidney Poitier; his name will forever remind people of Sidney Poitier, while at the same time telling them that Not Sidney is not Sidney, that Not is his own person with his own identity. However, due to the reference in his name to Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney tends to go overlooked in most introductions as the conversation veers in the direction of the actor, to whom he is not. 

Similarly, Vlepo doesn’t seem to know quite what he is, never mind who. He knows from the beginning that he is a tool of the god, telling the reader that he is ‘his aide, his chronicler, his mortal bookmark… I am not his creation, but I cannot claim a life away from him. My experience is, of a kind, my own, but it is shaped by what is chosen for me to see.’ (Frenzy). Vlepo begins the story without questioning himself, yet as the events play out, and he is flung from object to person, from mind to mind, he begins to grow, to pick up new things, new feelings and new knowledge of the world around him and the way other people think and feel. Each time he returns to Dionysos, he returns with a growing capacity for empathy, as can be seen in the section of the story in which Vlepo is brought to Orpheus, feels Orpheus’s struggle, and feels his own pain and aggravation as Dionysos retrieves his mother, through Vlepo’s repeating of Persephone saying ‘Fine’ and having that be all it took for his master, who couldn’t truly bring himself to care for anything at all. By the end, Vlepo has developed as a character to the point of at least wanting to be separated from his master, and knowing the only way to achieve that is through the murder of the god, and himself. He takes the most extreme course to become truly himself, and his own being, while Not Sidney takes the ultimate course to not have to deal with that decision.

I believe that reading has a way of flinging one into the minds and lives of others. Writing then comes as a way of expressing what has been learned, much like Vlepo interpreting emotion for Dionysos. Writing, especially for a writing intensive course, such as this one, can also lead to as much personal growth.This class, these readings, have brought me to seriously contemplate what it means to be oneself, really. I came to the conclusion that to be oneself is to be a collection of one’s experiences, and decisions that led them to where they are. I believe that this course has helped me grow in the way that Dionysos led Vlepo to grow, in empathy, in consideration of the world around me. As a writer, I see myself constantly developing in style, changing slightly with each teacher or professor that reads my work, and it will probably continue to change as I continue to learn and grow as a person. I think that it’s a strange thing to say that ‘I am not myself today’, I don’t believe we can ever truly be anything but ourselves, but that we can be different versions of ourselves at once, and that is what this course has led me to think about. Keeping to your own beliefs while presenting them with the highest standards one can have for themselves. That is what I’ve learned, and that is what I will continue to hold true.

Isolation in Everett

Bakkos, who is alone amongst the Olympians for his youth along the ancient. In Frenzy, Percival Everett’s adaptation of The Bacchae, pains are taken to emphasize how singular Dionysos is. He is the youngest of the primary twelve Greek gods, and perhaps would have been mortal had he not been re-birthed by Zeus. Dionysos is the only god, and one of the rare myths in which a child is born from a male figure. Even Athena was born from Zeus’s mind, she was never carried within a body, and she never had another parent. Dionysos, therefore is alone in this aspect, being the only Olympian to be twice-born. Everett takes pains in Frenzy to highlight each of the qualities that separate Dionysos from the other Greek gods, and this theme of isolation is one theme that persisted throughout the works of Everett that we’ve read for class.

Starting with a look into Frenzy, almost every character seems to exist alone. Besides Dionysos, who, in Everett’s version of The Bacchae, is a combination of god and mortal, Everett went out of his way to create a character to feel things for the young god. Vlepo, like his master, is isolated on behalf of the nature of his being. Throughout the story, there is much question into exactly what he is, and the bounds of his existence, that is, whether he is capable of human things. As the story closes, he comes to cease his questioning, and almost accept that he will never be like anyone, or anything that he sees. When once he felt love for Sibyl, in one of their final conversations, he is turned bitter and daring, and after she calls him a bitter man, he replies almost without hesitation ‘If a man I am’. Another time, as Bakkos requests him to bring the spirits along that may be Semele, Vlepo comments ‘and we all, god, shade, and whatever I was, filed out of that chamber…’. These quotes seem to identify his conceding to the wretched fate he has been given, and the shift of his mental state makes him cruel. His growing spite and cruelty only distance him more from the world, until neither he, nor Dionysos can tolerate the loneliness they feel.

Everett’s Frenzy concludes with Vlepo killing his master, bothar an act of independent will, and of compliance. In Everett’s variation of the Greek myth, he decides to make Dionysos the only of the Olympians able to sleep, and makes this a grand plot point as bystanders such as Tiresias watch him and ask if the half-god knows the danger of what he is doing, as Dionysos is also the only god that can die. As it happens, the wine god was aware of what his quest for sleep might lead to, as he asked of Vlepo, ‘After I have achieved sleep, real sleep, I want you to cut out my heart from this body and leave it unceremoniously on the ground.’ and proceeded to hand Vlepo the exact knife to do the deed. Everett’s Dionysos was a melancholy man, as aware of his mortality as he was of his immortality should no one kill him. Dionysos  could not bring himself to care about anything after his own discovery that time would eventually make everything meaningless. At one point, after Vlepo accuses him of wasting time with such Bacchic revels, the god responds “‘A waste of time?” he questioned, ‘But there is so much time. Do you know what I mean, Vlepo?” he asked, sadly. “There is just so much of it.’”. Dionysos cannot deal with an immortality of separation and distance, he couldn’t relate to anything, or anyone around him, and thus he couldn’t live with any of it. Separated from the world of mortals with the story of his birth, his parentage, and his powers over men, yet separated from the world of gods by his youth and mortality, Dionysos couldn’t tolerate his distance from the world.Separated from the world of mortals with the story of his birth, his parentage, and his powers over men, yet separated from the world of gods by his youth and mortality, Not Sidney Poitier did not understand how to approach his distance from the world. Throughout Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the protagonist begins his life distanced from others. Born of a hysterical pregnancy to a mother all believed to be insane, with no father in sight, and a name that confused most of his potential playmates into what he describes as ‘always receiving beatings from boys with whom I wished to play.’ Not learns to fesmerize purely to make it stop. He is distanced also from reality, through his life frequently slipping into the plot of a Sidney Poitier film, taking hold of him sometimes for months at a time, as in his experience in the South, getting arrested for being black, spending time in jail, and falling into the sequence of The Defiant Ones. Not Sidney’s life is anything but ordinary, and it is nothing that anyone else can relate to. Rather than death as a means to cope with the direction that his life has veered, Not Sidney, by the end of the novel, seems to become Sidney Poitier. This is an almost death that eradicates the confusion of calling someone ‘Not Sidney Poitier’, almost as if he is deciding that, rather than continuing to distance himself from the world, he would rather settle for being someone that he isn’t. Because for him, that falsehood sounds better than isolation.

Chained Together: The Binding of Vlepo and Not Sidney to Forces out of their Control

What is the point of Vlepo and why is Not Sidney only the shadow of his namesake? Every writer has their style, and nothing is quite as interesting as reading several works from the same author to truly understand their way of thinking. For instance, by reading several works by Charles Dickens, one can understand his plight to mend labour and living conditions for the lower classes, or by reading multiple works from George Orwell or Ayn Rand, one may be able to understand their fear and hatred of Communism. Each of these authors wrote with a specific goal in mind throughout their careers, one to provoke social reform in nineteenth-century England, the other two to admonish the spread of Communism. Based on the works of Everett that we’ve read in class, I believe that he writes with his own mission, more subtle than the three authors I’ve mentioned, but one that offers just as great of a statement. 

To begin my argument, I’ll discuss Vlepo. Vlepo, being the tethered companion of Dionysus, both friend and tool of the fledgling god in Everett’s adaptation of The Bacchae. Throughout Everett’s Frenzy, there is constant inquiry into the nature of Vlepo’s being, from both other characters, and from Vlepo himself who develops a greater sense of self throughout his many ventures into the minds of others. At one point, he is asked by Tiresias what he does for Dionysus, to which Vlepo explains to the seer ‘I observe. I report.’ prompting Tiresias’ disbelief as he asks whether a god truly needs him for that, and, rather than answering, Vlepo tells him that he feels things for his Bakkos (Frenzy, 79). Later in the story, it is revealed that there is no true purpose to Vlepo’s reports other than to kill time for the god. In this sense, Vlepo exists for no other reason than entertainment for the being that he cannot escape, or exist without. 

This is much in the way that Not Sidney is tethered to the existence of Sidney Poitier. Throughout the novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney grows up experiencing everyone he comes associating him with Sidney Poitier, as well as his actual appearance developing an uncanny resemblance to Sidney Poitier, and his life constantly careening in the direction of each of Sidney Poitier’s films. Sidney Poitier, of course, went through each of his roles as an actor, working for the entertainment industry. Not Sidney, however, has no such luxury, he  is sent into each scenario with real consequences upon his life, such as actually being incarcerated in the sequence of The Defiant Ones. As the novel progresses, the experiences he is sent through take very real tolls on him as he learns to be cautiously afraid of the South after learning the extent to which they are free to discriminate, as well as the many other ways in which he encounters racism, such as the blatant discomfort of the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner sequence. These experiences had no affect on Sidney Poitier, despite him being the unknowing cause of all of them occurring for Not Sidney, much in the way that Dionysus sends Vlepo wherever he pleases, into any scenario with no consequence to himself, while Vlepo is consumed each time with greater feeling. 

At one point in Frenzy, Vlepo is asked what he feels for Dionysus, and his reply is ‘Many things. I often feel lost and empty, wanting more. I often feel inadequate and small. And though I feel these things for him, they are not his feelings, and though he lays claim to them, he does not own them, or feed them, or even hold them close to his breast.’ (Frenzy, 81). In this explanation of Vlepo’s, he describes what he goes through as something Dionysus never can. Really, he is going through the experiences decided by the greater force that he cannot escape, making him largely similar to Not Sidney in that sense that the universe, the writer, bound them to another source and they are left with no choice but to follow in the path laid out for them. Both of them feel the cage around them, they both feel ‘inadequate and small’ compared to the more renowned person they are bound to. They might want for more, but Not Sidney ends up losing the battle of not becoming Sidney Poitier, and Vlepo cannot leave his Bakkos for prolonged periods of time. So why write them like this? Authors like Orwell and Rand wrote of characters tethered so closely to society that they did as they were told, they did not think for themselves, but their thoughts originated from the source they were bound to, with stories that began when those characters began to have their own thoughts. With characters like Vlepo and Not Sidney, Everett takes these models of dystopian fiction and spins them on their heads. His characters are free-thinking from the start, and the experiences that are forced upon them by the invisible thread that keeps them bound only helps them learn more about themselves, and helps them grow. That is, until the end of each story. In Frenzy, Vlepo decides that his only means to ever be free is through the killing of Dionysus, and thus himself as well, while I Am Not Sidney Poitier ends with the blurring of the line between what is Sidney, and what is Not Sidney. While most dystopias ending with the protagonist finding freedom after breaking the link between them and their origin, Everett’s works are less hopeful, tending to conclude with the sense, for me at least, that escape can only come, for these two characters, with the ending of their own selves.

The One-Man War of Not Sidney Poitier

Works such as Joseph Keller’s Catch-22, or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five are both examples of novels that bothered many of my friends, while I happened to enjoy them. Both of these works, much like I Am Not Sidney Poitier stray off the conventional path as they tell nonlinear stories; Slaughterhouse-Five even does something similar to Everett’s work by jumping between lucid dream states and chaotic realities. In trying to articulate why I could tolerate one over the other, Professor McCoy suggested that I look at I Am Not Sidney Poitier as an anti-war novel. This got me thinking, and so, I tried to separate the differences in order to connect the similarities, and maybe shift my perspective. This post is what I came up with.

I’ll start with a direct comparison, a vague summary of both pieces. See, Vonnegut’s work was distinctly anti-war, moving between the protagonist’s experience as a war captive, and the alien abduction scenes representing his mind trying to cope with what happened to him in Dresden. Everett’s work on the other hand, moved between the protagonists experiences as the subject of hatred and racism and the Sidney Poitier film sequences. This tactic of Everett’s to pair many of Not Sidney’s most trying experiences with themes of Sidney Poitier films, I believe, may have been used similarly to the pairing of many of Billy Pilgrim’s most difficult experiences with his imagined memories of living amongst aliens for a period of time in Slaughterhouse-Five. By this, I mean that Not Sidney may be imagining the similarities of his life to that of his almost-namesake as a way to understand the type of world in which he lives, a world that still carries the same prejudices of ages past. 

For example, in the portion of the novel in which Not is arrested in Peckerwood county for no other reason than the colour of his skin, and he is launched into the plot of The Defiant Ones. In the novel, however, Not Sidney is shown far more hostility from the white Southerners than Sidney Poitier had in the film, made worse by the impression that the novel is set closer to the present day. After encountering the characters of Sissy and Bobo, Not Sidney is introduced not by a name, but again by a slur for the colour of his skin. It is at this meeting that Sissy tells Not Sidney about how her grandfather had been a slave owner with a plantation; only after this does Not Sidney falls asleep to dream of himself in the film Band of Angels. This Sidney Poitier picture follows a slave named Rau-ru (or ‘Raz-ru’ in the novel), before and during the American Civil War, as he seeks some semblance of justice for his enslavement. Not Sidney goes through this dream not as a bystander but as if he truly were going through the experience. 

Outside of this dream, this portion of the book shows the treatment of Not Sidney as if times have yet to change in the South from the way things were before the Civil War. In many ways, this holds true. At the end of this encounter, Not Sidney leaves on the train back to Atlanta without waking Patrice, Bobo, or Sissy, stating that he ‘left them sleeping there where they belonged, with one another.’ (p.79). For the entirety of the sequence that shadows The Defiant Ones, he had been as helpful as his conscience would allow, yet there is a distinct shift in attitude following the Band of Angels dream. After this dream,  Not Sidney seems to become more aware, and more vocal in his thoughts concerning the repulsive qualities of his company and their small-minded discrimination. 

I should also bring up Everett’s choice to have his protagonist take after Sidney Poitier, one of the most prominent black actors in cinematic history for being one of the first non-white actors to star in multiple Hollywood films. Despite this, Sidney Poitier was still mostly confined to roles designed specifically for an African American actor, and thus to fit with the racially staggered society of the mid twentieth century. This contradiction of a star in a movie that perpetuates discrimination against that star, is the same kind of highlighted hypocrisy that I’ve noticed in the anti-war novels that I’ve read. Everett’s renditions of Sidney Poitier plots for Not Sidney Poitier to follow tend to show something closer to what the reality must have been at the time those movies were made. Under this light, one may be able to argue that I Am Not Sidney Poitier follows the convention of an anti-war story in the ways it strays from standard novel writing and uses a chaotic style of formatting and storytelling in order to capture the character’s own chaotic reality. In novels such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonists tend to be the only one to see the state of disorder  they are forced into, and, similar to Not Sidney’s experience confronting someone he trusts, such as the characters of ‘Ted Turner’ or ‘Percival Everett’, they are met with odd answers that tend to confuse them and spike their sense of injustice. To highlight the injustice of war, novels such as Vonnegut’s or Keller’s, much like Everett’s, tend to throw their protagonist into the most unjust of situations in what I can only imagine as an attempt to make the reader see the injustice of war, the injustice of a society that would threaten the lives of others in the name of justice. Looking at I Am Not Sidney Poitier as an anti-war novel casts it as a work more racially charged than it had been through my initial reading of it. One can argue that it was written with the intent of wartime-satire, and uses such similar methods of showcasing issues of injustice as so many anti-war novels in order to depict the chaos of the social war still being fought in modern America. Everett may be seen as emphasizing the battle for equality in respect and social treatment still being fought by many similar to Sidney Poitier.

What’s in a Name

I Am Not Sydney Poitier, by Percival Everett was less my cup of tea than it was a cup of iced coffee I was given instead. That is to say, the novel was a touch too bitter and too cool for my liking. That isn’t to say that I couldn’t get through it without moment’s of enjoyment, moments in which I found myself submerged in the words and the meaning of the work, and could enjoy it for the work of literature that it is. The reasons I dislike it came more from the portions that detached me from the work, aspects that made me focus more on the author’s reasoning for stylistic decisions than on the meaning he was trying to convey through them. 

This, for me, was most prevalent in the creation of a character that shared Percival Everett’s own name. When I saw Everett’s name first appear in IAm Not Sydney Poitier, I found it as amusing as I believe was intended by Everett himself. When the plot progressed after this, however, and the fictional version of Percival Everett emerged as one of the two most important ancillary characters in the novel as a whole, that amusement began to subside. The entire novel of I Am Not Sydney Poitier can be looked at through that common bit of advice for writers to ‘write what you know’, and while Everett clearly distinguishes his characters from their namesakes in reality, through both their zany actions, as well as a written disclosure there is something about a writer giving a character their own name that I can’t move past. The disclosure in the beginning of the book sparked a memory in me of the disclosure in the beginning of Huckleberry Finn in which the reader was warned not to look for meaning. In Everett’s case, though I am aware he might not have intended any similarities beyond the names, it is certainly the intent to see Not Sydney become closer to Sydney Poitier, and I had to wonder if we were meant to catch a glimpse of the real Percival Everett as well. 

The way I viewed that choice, as a writer myself, was that writers are frequently guilty of placing bits of themselves in their characters, particularly characters that already have qualities that the writer feels they share. In these characters, the writer will sometimes attribute flaws or strengths that they also might attribute to themselves. I don’t mean to say that I believe Percival Everett to have written himself in his own book, or even to call him a narcissist, only that at times, I was taken from his writing back into reality. I was drawn to look at descriptions of the character that wore his name and wonder which qualities were owned by fiction, and which qualities were simply rented. That is to say, I was left to wonder if some descriptions were less fiction than they were Percival Everett projecting his own views of himself, or his own ideas of how he wished to be, or wished to be viewed. 

Again, I want to say that this doesn’t mean anything more than a personal nuance, and something that fascinated me for all that it irked me. It always appeared to me that one of the first rules of writing is not to implement yourself into your work, not to implement your name unto one of your characters. The fact that Everett did this very thing seemed distasteful, yet led me to consider the countless other times authors break from convention. Writing is something as crucial to society as the spoken word; in my earliest years of schooling, my teachers always gave us rules, indisputable and enforced until they were engrained in my mind. This was done, I know, to help me master the basics of written communication before I could venture into the realm of experimental prose, but there will always be a part of me that notices authors doing the same like headlights coming out from around a corner. Looking back on my own experience with literature, I’ve recalled how some of my favourite writers have made arbitrary those guidelines that had been taught to me as law. 

The difference, I suppose, is more that I believe Everett may have gone too far in his decision for the benefit of the book. That the presence of his character, to me, felt too much like Everett throwing meaning at me without a certain trust that I as the reader could figure it out on my own, something I have never quite enjoyed, so perhaps it is only me.

And Scene. What does it Mean?

In class last week, Professor McCoy brought up a quote from Laura Mulvey referring to women ‘as [the] bearer[s] of meaning, not [the] maker[s] of meaning.’ This quote, when repeated in class was from Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, though it was said without supplying background information on the piece. That being said, my initial thought upon hearing the quote was also ignorant to the context of the piece, and got me thinking about the concept of meaning, and if it is really possible for anyone to make meaning, or bear it at all. 

Let me explain a little bit about the essay. Mulvey’s context places her statement at the end of the  second paragraph. In that space, she argues that it is the ‘unconscious of patriarchal society [that] has structured film form’ (Mulvey). She discusses how women are represented in film almost as a kind of threat of effeminacy for the male, as well as a foil or juxtaposition to highlight male masculinity, male strength,  and power. Woman, in this sense, is the object of desire for the masculine, as well as a creature in desire of the masculine; Mulvey’s argument places women in film structure as revolving around the male, a ‘signifier for the male other’ (Mulvey). 

Oddly enough, this concept reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend last year. We were both learning more about film and film technique, and we encountered something close to the concept Mulvey spoke of: of the amount of women in a scene indicating the lack of men. One of the things we noticed (and went on to fact-check) was that it was strange for us to watch a scene in which there was an equal or greater amount of women compared to the number of men. When we researched it to figure out if we were simply imagining this, we found that it is actually a sort of norm to include copious amounts of men in a scene in comparison to women. 

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which conducts an annual study, 2018-2019 saw less than half of speaking roles in broadcast, cable, and streaming sites given to women, hitting about forty-five percent, which was still higher than the last collection of data, as well as the percentage of speaking roles given to women in the top one hundred movies of 2017-2018, which totaled at only thirty-three percent according to another study conducted by a ‘Women and Hollywood’ interest group. Women comprise half of the population of the real world, but it puts a scene on edge to have that same ratio represented in cinema. 

In her essay, Mulvey says that woman is the bearer of meaning because she is objectified by her male counterpart, the mirror to bounce off male meaning, as the man represents the object of meaning, as it often does in other forms of art as well.

Looking back at my original thought before carrying the context of Mulvey’s argument to spin the direction of my own thoughts on the matter, I was left thinking about meaning. True meaning. It’s my belief that meaning can’t be made for a party, it can only be determined by each individual within. I believe that people make meaning for themselves, each person decides what is important and that thing can grow or lose importance as the individual learns and grows into themself. 

This being said, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the wording of Mulvey’s quote. I spent a good deal of time thinking over whether anyone can make meaning; once I had begun thinking of that, I started to question the accuracy in anyone’s, not only women’s, ability to bear meaning. If people make meaning for themselves, is it possible to bear meaning? I find it difficult to consider that someone can carry meaning with them for another. My problem with her wording is that I believe people can represent an idea or concept that others can choose to find meaning in, but I don’t believe that ‘bearing meaning’ is the same as this. 

Diction aside, the quote still conveys the intended meaning. It insinuates that women, the women represented in film, at least, are incapable of creation or independence of mind, that only men possess that vital ability to form thoughts, think for themselves and recognise the meaning in the world around them. In the context of Mulvey, in discussion of film, it sums up one of the many problems that still exists in the portrayal of anyone that strays from the qualities of straight, white, and male. In this, the issues in film and television portrays the issue underlying in the world that produces them, that is the underlying meaning of the issue, and it is for each to realise on their own, and then decide how to address it.

Genre’s Little Boxes

What is genre? Dictionary.com defines it as ‘a class or category of artistic endeavor’. While The Bedford doesn’t offer its own definition for the word, it does identify a variety of different phrases that qualify as genres, such as satire, comedy, and drama, which we’ve discussed in class already. Both in class, and in Literary Analysis, however, it has also been discussed that genre can be limiting, overbroad, or simply ill fit to describe something. In Literary Analysis, it was mentioned that most three-dimensional works aren’t contained to any one specific genre either, rather, they capture several, making them difficult to classify. 

At that point in the reading, my mind went to one place in particular: the 2001 film Donnie Darko. When I first saw the film earlier this year, I remember being amazed at the way it seemed to jump genres, how every twenty minutes brought an almost seamless transition to something new, carrying the story in a sharp turn from where it looked to be heading, and making perfect sense all the while. In class, in the discussion of the September video series, I couldn’t help but think of the film once more. We, as a class, had been asked to place the videos in a genre, in a box, as is human instinct to categorize the things it comes across, however, what is one to do when something can’t be neatly packed away?

The September videos could have been classified as music videos, parodies, remakes, or any number of other things. It was for that reason that my group found it exceedingly difficult to place a tag on it for just one thing, a problem I had also found with Donnie Darko, which began with all of the signs of a typical horror film, then transitioned to the signs of a romance, sci-fy, etc. and ended on a philosophical note, almost allegorical in the way it depicted Donnie as a Christ-like figure for his final sacrifice. Such is the problem with genre, such is the problem with categorisation. 

In class, we discussed the limitations of genre, its faults and shortcomings in accuracy. Some of the things my group had brought up involved how vague a category could be. As with humans, human creations such as works of art often protest any assignment as a single thing, a single label that defines their entire being; no human is just one thing, and thus, most works of art aren’t either. To put a label on something is to pick out one characteristic, whether it is obscure or prevalent to that being, and can lead some to look at the object of discussion, the thing labeled, in only the angle that its label presents. This can lead to dangerous situations, often leading to the formation of stereotypes. For instance, as people may classify each other by their nationality, socioeconomic class, education level, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. readers, r audiences in general, tend to make judgements on films or literature based on their categorisation into fantasy, horror, drama, etc. As was brought up by one member of my group, someone may snub their nose at the word fantasy, but take interest in an actual description of the work. 

And yet, genre is not without its benefits either. As I mentioned earlier, it is human nature to categorise things, primarily because it may help to discern how a certain situation should be handled, if one is able to distinguish specific characteristics in a person. It may also help one to find something that helps them relate their feelings, in cases of choosing a form of entertainment to fit their mood (i.e. a comedy for a lighter air, or a tragedy that may allow one to project their own emotions or current thoughts. Categorising art forms into genres can thus help one find something that they think they will enjoy at the moment, at the expense of looking past anything they think they won’t. 

Really, I suppose genre is harmless until one adds weight to it. When one begins to dismiss certain works on behalf of their genre, without any real consideration of it as its own entity, they may have glossed over something they may have enjoyed. Or, if one makes a similar predetermined judgement based on genre around something that they have to read, say, for a class, they may find it more difficult to get through the work or concentrate on it than if they had started out with an open mind. But then, that can apply to most anything.

And Orpheus Turned.

Songs of old and songs of sorrow, songs and stories told through time, over and over, again and again. But why do we tell the tales we know? Why sing the songs with the saddest ends when we know what will come like sun meeting snow? 

First, let’s look at what this is, this sense of the audience already knowing that which the characters have yet to discover. It is known as dramatic irony, for reasons I can only assume to be the helplessness of the audience to change the story they know so well. It may be the most heartbreaking kind of irony there is. 

Take the myths; dramatic ones and comedy, the tragic ones of love and loss, like Orpheus and Eurydice. Particularly recently with the production of Hadestown popularising the myth of such a love that stands through death but not through doubt, we are left to wonder what makes us relive tragedies with the wound still fresh. Maybe because of the way it is told, maybe we fall in love with the relationship between the characters, or the characters themselves. Reading, or any other form of absorbing a story relies on the empathy of the audience in order for the words to take meaning, and the story to take life. If we cannot directly relate to Orpheus with his lyre and his quest in which success balanced not on bringing his love back from the underworld necessarily, but only that they should be together, we, as an audience, can empathize in the wanting for a relationship like that, which is why we can empathize with Hades for letting them leave. Letting them try. 

‘And Orpheus turned.’

We can empathize with the doubt in Orpheus’ mind as he traveled, lacking the ability to see Eurydice, feel her touch, or hear her footfall behind him, not knowing if she was truly there, or if it was all a trick of the god to get him out of his domain. We know what it’s like to come within an inch of something you long for, only to make a mistake that costs your goal. We can relate to Orpheus through his wanting. 

The line I’ve taken for this post, the title line, is taken from the portion of Percival Everett’s Frenzy, in which he details the myth of the star-crossed lovers in what I saw as an attempt of Dionysus to study humanity and the capabilities of the human heart, learning how far it can go. In the end of the observation, I believe he understands the passion, but not the point of it if it doesn’t always lead to satisfaction and often leads to pain. Frenzy in itself is a retelling of a myth, another old song to be sung, another that ends in disaster for most, if not all involved. 

Perhaps then, it is the new style of telling of the ancient tales that captures our attention and keeps them from growing tired. Everett adds a philosophical aspect to the Bacchic story and an added humor; shows like Hadestown as well tell the tale in a new light with added poetry in its scenes, again adding another myth to juxtapose the main story. Both retellings, as many retellings do, add to the original stories with the aspects of the time period in which they are being retold, picking new things that best compliment the old. 

We can also consider that people enjoy the melancholy or mournful from time to time. As the cliche goes, you can’t know joy without first knowing sorrow. Sometimes heartache, even secondhand can be so strong of a feeling that it wakes the senses, opens a deeper feeling for things than has been felt in a while. Or, sometimes it can just make you think about the world, think about why something failed, or why it was doomed to from the start. Orpheus’s sorrow was caused by the doubt that exists in human nature, Pentheus failed for his pride in The Bacchae, and other characters from other classics, other epics or tales from when show different things, tell different things to those willing to look and think on them. 

Maybe we simply commit to retellings because the story strikes something in us. Maybe we enjoy the plot as well as characters and lessons learned. Sometimes the ties of another time and hint of magic are enough to strike our fancy, whether it turns out well or woeful, and we find something that we can embellish upon and add an air of our own. Really, these stories stay with us because they connect us in our joys and missteps, and tales older than modern time have a way of peaking our interest no matter the content, as a way of knowing that the ancients felt and danced and loved and mourned with as much passion as the present, knowing that something exists outside of time, for us today.

The Irony of Being Earnest

In the given epigraphs, Percival Everett had said that ‘real irony is far more sincere than earnestness’ 

The definition of irony, taken in range and source and sifted down, equaits to an outcome or appearance contrary to expectation. The Bedford Glossary offers the etymology of irony with an anecdote from Greek drama, in which a weaker character defeats their braggart opponent through misrepresentation. Misrepresentation, misinterpretation, miscalculation. This is what irony is; from the Greek, it is eiron, it is the ‘dissembling’ of a social situation, often comical, in drama, stressful. So why associate it with earnestness, which includes the word ‘serious’ as description in two out of three definitions? 

Perhaps because what one expects is often a window to the way they think. 

Earnestness is typically associated with the urgent, with something that needs to be said, and said in great passion, as a confession of love, or a warning of present danger. Irony takes those confessions and admonitions and flips them on their heads: a misinterpretation of something harmless as something deadly, a character singing songs of passion to the wrong love interest they’ll end up with in the end. And yet, irony is something so much more than the tension of knowing that a character is travelling in the wrong direction, whether that be for dramatic effect, or comedic. 

Irony is people seeing what they want to see, it is the expectation of reality to be glossed in the rosen tint of their imagination. This is where it opens the window to another mind. Knowing what someone had expected for themself can tell you about what they think of themselves, or imagine they deserve. A character with a secret admirer may imagine them to be one they know, or one whose beauty they can fawn, or as a trap to poke fun at them. If they were to assume their admirer to be someone they know, it may be because they admire that person enough to hope that it is them, whereas they may automatically assume the admirer’s beauty or lack thereof based on their own self image, or who they think they could be worth. The character may ignore logical signs as to whose fancy they’ve captured because they want it to be someone else, which gives the audience insight into a desire the character may not have otherwise expressed, as people may not otherwise express. 

Earnestness, however, finds its limit in someone’s willingness to offer their emotions to other people. Not many would care to show just how much they care. Earnestness and honesty, because of such a general lack of willingness to show the depth of yourself in everyday situations, can often make real attempts to convey the way you feel, feel less genuine than if they had tried to hide it through a joke. People aren’t accustomed to earnestness as something separate from urgentness. Earnestness can come across as an excuse, or a plea, when irony has a higher chance of coming off as a genuine mistake. Earnestness carries the expectation that others will take a situation as seriously as you would take it. In embarrassing situations, this is particularly difficult for others not to see the humor in whatever is described. 

Everett, in his explanation, claimed that ‘to accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it’. He goes on to argue that accepting sincerity implies that someone believes they know all there is to know about the given situation. Yet this doesn’t always have to be so. Accepting the sincere in the earnest can suggest an expansion of empathy, an understanding akin to the kind in irony, yet deeper run because it can connect two individuals to each other’s lives and minds  rather than offering a general connection to all of humanity, which can feel too grand a concept to comprehend. In a way, acknowledging the absurd to draw us together is equally as pretentious as pretending to understand something. This approach to irony can be a cliche in thought, imagining that you are recognising all of mankind in an action or event, regardless of whether you truly are, it can even signify narcissism if the person making the acknowledgement is separating themselves from the situation to do so.

That’s what irony does, disassembles situations, takes consciousness outside of the literal event and makes you see something more. It’s the laughter that escapes your lips before you realise why, after everything that could have possibly went wrong did just that and the only thing left is a universal truth that earnestness could never bring to life in the same way. Irony brings the sincerity of mistake, in the way that earnestness is the sincerity in the desperate wanting another person to understand the way they feel, the way they think, and the emotion that can’t remain within them. It is forced, where irony comes naturally to a situation, and thus creates the chance to empathize and find the greater truth where you wouldn’t have otherwise looked.