The speaker, watching their new son sleeping, asks, “When you dream, what do you dream about?”
Reading the Alice books has made us ask a lot of questions about dreaming. Can I know when I’m awake and not dreaming? How do I know that I’m not part of someone else’s dream? Can the person in whose dream I appear be someone who’s also part of my dream? (Alice proposes just that possibility in the final chapter of Through the Looking-Glass.) Do children have a special relationship to dreams and to the fount of dream-creativity, imagination?
But in Tuesday’s class, we also asked some questions about the word about. What does it mean to say that the Alice books are “aboutchanges?” Or “about the special relationship between children and imagination?” Or “about the inevitably fluid and unstable nature of conceptual categories”? Or just “about a little girl named Alice who has adventures in an imaginary Wonderland and on the other side of the looking-glass”? Continue reading “Thursday theme – When You Dream”
Changes would do pretty well as a one-word summary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, too, whether viewed through the lens of narrative structure or that of theme.
Carroll’s interest in change undoubtedly springs from many sources. One worth our notice is the Romantic movement in literature. For the Romantic generation of poets, active in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, change was an important theme. (Carroll was born near the end of this period, in 1832). Two of the major British romantics, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Percy Byshhe Shelley (1792-1822), both wrote poems titled “Mutability” (find Wordsworth’s here, Shelley’s here). The word mutability, a synonym for changeability, is etymologically related to the word mutation. Another synonym — one that shows up in Bowie’s song — is impermanence.
It’s hard to talk about change without talking about time, which figures prominently in the Alice books from the outset (“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” cries the Rabbit). Wordsworth’s “Mutability” speaks of “the unimaginable touch of Time,” linking change to another important theme of the Alice books, imagination. Yet another link connecting change, time, and imagination is the experience of dreaming. “Whilst yet the calm hours creep,/Dream thou — and from thy sleep/Then wake to weep,” says the speaker in Shelley’s poem. Both Alice narratives turn out to be dreams, though it’s far from clear that Alice’s awakening is an occasion for tears in either.
Like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, Bowie’s song seems to suggest that we should embrace the strangeness of mutability. Turn and face the strange, like Feed your head, could serve as a one-sentence interpretation of Carroll’s two stories. It nicely captures the idea that we can encounter strangeness simply through self-reflection (“So I turned myself to face me”) — an idea that becomes especially important in Through the Looking-Glass, whose very title symbolically references the possibility of gaining insight through reflection.
In their openness to the unfamiliar, the different, the fluid, the impermanent; in their insistence that identity is always a complicated matter, Carroll and Bowie stand in stark contrast to those who are today seeking to establish new legal rules around gender identity based on the idea that “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable [emphasis added] biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” These words are quoted in a New York Times article whose headline suggests one possible motivation for the new rules being developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Defining Transgender Out of Existence.”
One of the remarkable things about this effort, as reported in the Times article, is the claim that it’s an attempt to define gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
Setting aside the confusion here between gender (a social construct) and sex (a biological category), it’s important to recognize that the notion of sex at work in this effort is anything but “grounded in science.”
For an engaging and fascinating look at how complicated the science actually is, have a listen to Gonads, a series produced by RadioLab from National Public Radio. Or, if you only have time to listen to one episode in the series, make it the one below.
As the teaser on the episode website points out, “A lot of us understand biological sex with a pretty fateful underpinning: if you’re born with XX chromosomes, you’re female; if you’re born with XY chromosomes, you’re male. But it turns out, our relationship to the opposite sex is more complicated than we think.” The lead reporter on the episode, Molly Webster, discovers another Molly who exists “in a parallel universe” — or, to borrow Lewis Carroll’s language, on the other side of the biological looking-glass.
Our theme song today in ENGL 203-04 is “Windmills of Your Mind,” with music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. It’s performed here by Noel Harrison, who sang it as the theme to the 1968 movie The Thomas Crown Affair. “Windmills of Your Mind” won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Song. The title of the 2003 compilation album that includes this Harrison recording — Life is a Dream — suggests one possible connection between the song and our reading for today.
Among works that inspire what we’ve been calling follow-on creativity, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are practically without rival. In his 1995 Lewis Carroll: A Biography (Knopf), Morton N. Cohen writes,
. . . neither Alice book has ever gone out of print. . . . Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, they are the books most widely and most frequently translated and quoted. Over seventy-five editions and versions of the Alice books were available in 1993, including play texts, parodies, read-along cassettes, teachers’ guides, audio-language studies, coloring books, “New Method” readers, abridgments, learn-to-read story books, single-syllable texts, coloring books, pop-up books, musical renderings, casebooks, and a deluxe edition selling for £175. They have been translated into over seventy languages, including Swahili and Yiddish; and they exist in Braille. (pp. 134-35)
Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is “My Country Used to Be,” written and performed here by jazz singer-songwriter Dave Frishberg. Frishberg composed the song in the aftermath of the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The mood of Frishberg’s song is quite different from that of Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” written in protest of both slavery and the U.S. war with Mexico. Thoreau’s essay expresses outrage; this feels more like a lament. Despite the difference in mood, both express dissatisfaction with things as they are. Frishberg’s point of comparison is America as (he believes) it once was, while Thoreau’s is a “higher law” that America has failed to meet since its birth as a state whose founding legal document countenanced slavery.
Both represent contributions to the “unending conversation” among citizens of the United States as to what their country is, has been, and should be.
Thoreau makes his contribution through argument, using his night in jail (for refusing to pay the poll tax) as a springboard to explore the circumstances under which we do or don’t owe the law, or the state, our allegiance. Frishberg makes his contribution by re-purposing a patriotic melody — “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” — to convey his vision of an America that has lost its way.
Interestingly, we might understand Frishberg’s contribution to the conversation as itself an act of “resistance” or “civil disobedience.” In effect, he occupies “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (as well as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) in much the way street protesters occupy public spaces for a march or demonstration.
By occupying patriotic music with subversive intent, Frishberg participates in a venerable tradition. Even “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” belongs to this tradition, consisting as it does of lyrics praising America put to the tune of “God Save The Queen,” a patriotic song of America’s former colonial ruler, Great Britain.
“The Star Spangled Banner” has been occupied many times. In 1844, two years before Thoreau’s arrest in Concord, the abolitionist newspaper Song of Liberty published E.A. Atlee’s powerful four-verse “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” Here’s just the first verse:
Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light,
The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming
From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight
With its stars, mocking freedom, is fitfully gleaming?
Do you see the backs bare? Do you mark every score
Of the whip of the driver trace channels of gore?
And say, doth our star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
You can read the other three verses (and hear “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” performed) on the website Star Spangled Music, which provides an extensive guide to the history and cultural significance of the national anthem.
One of the boldest and most remarkable recent occupations of the anthem was executed in 2008 by jazz singer René Marie, invited to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s State of the City address. She plugged in the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem.” The mayor was not amused, and the governor, Bill Ritter, labeled the performance “disrespectful.”
One may also wonder how much any of those who found Feliciano’s rendition disrespectful actually knew of the anthem’s history, and whether any of them realized how distant their idea of a “normal” rendition was from the way it would have been performed in Francis Scott Key’s time.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
Walden made the two-word phrase “different drummer” a common expression in English. But not right away. We can trace the rise of this word-pair (a “two-gram,” in data-speak) using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which shows us that in books written in English, the phrase begins to take off in the 1940’s and rises steeply in frequency between 1960 and 1980.
It was in the early 1940’s that interest in Thoreau really began to grow, an interest both reflected in and fueled by the scholars and enthusiasts who founded The Thoreau Society in 1941, led by Walter Harding, who in 1956 joined the English department at SUNY Geneseo. (An earlier, smaller uptick in the appearance of “different drummer” may have had something to do with the fact that, as Harding himself has written, Thoreau’s message of simplicity resonated with life during the Great Depression. See “Thoreau’s Reputation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, ed. Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.8.) The big spike that starts in the early 60’s correlates with the rise of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement as well as a youth culture that prized self-discovery, self-actualization, and a broad rejection of commercial values.
In 1962, the bicentennial year of Thoreau’s death, 24 year-old William Melvin Kelley published his first novel, A Different Drummer. As Kathryn Schulz has written in a recent profile of Kelley for The New Yorker magazine, the novel
promptly earned him comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin. It also got him talked about, together with the likes of Alvin Ailey and James Earl Jones, as among the most talented African-American artists of his generation.
Kelley’s novel opens “in a mythical state bounded by Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico,” according to a review published in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 1962. One of the state’s inhabitants, Tucker Caliban, “decides to listen to what Thoreau, in his ‘Walden,’ called a ‘different drummer,’ to heed the voice of his conscience and refuse to participate in a society based upon inequality.”
The review, written by SUNY Geneseo professor of English Walter Harding and published under the headline “A Rare First Novel: Dynamic, Imaginative, and Accomplished,” continues:
[Caliban] destroys his farm land with salt, burns his home, shoots his animals, and departs for a new life in the north. His action sparks a mass reaction by all the other Negroes in the state, who overnight abandontheir homes and join him on the trek northward.
As his epigraph, Kelley used two quotations from Thoreau’s Walden.
Kelley appreciated Harding’s enthusiastic review of his novel (Harding called it “gripping from the first page to the last”), and the two began a correspondence that eventually led to Kelley’s spending a semester — spring 1965 — as a visiting professor of English at Geneseo.
We might consider one final connection between Kelley and Thoreau. Schulz claims that Kelley is credited with the first printed use of the colloquialism wokeas a synonym for a certain kind of self- and social awareness. The word appears in the title of Kelley’s May 20, 1962 op-ed in the New York Times on “Negro idiom” (linguists today call it “African American Vernacular English”): “If You’re Woke You Dig It.”
One can’t help but be reminded of how pervasively Thoreau himself uses the contrast between sleep and waking as a metaphor for awareness in Walden. The kind of awareness he has in mind varies depending on the context. Several different (if related) types of awareness are offered in rapid succession in paragraph 14 of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”: “intellectual exertion,” a “poetic or divine life,” attentiveness to Nature. But in the context of the meaning that woke has assumed in our present moment, one kind stands out. “Moral reform,” Thoreau writes in this paragraph, “is the effort to throw off sleep.”
It’s not hard to see why, for the epigraph to his own book, Thoreau plucked a sentence from paragraph 7 of “Where I Lived”: I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
As a bonus track offered with no pretense of a connection to Thoreau, here are Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong performing another song to which Eddie DeLange penned the words, the memorable “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” written for the 1947 film New Orleans.
More broadly, we get the idea that the good life is to be found in giving up “worldly things” (material wealth, fashion, gossip) in favor of a simple existence in harmony with Nature.
All of this is to say that one way to read Walden is as a member of the general literary category known as pastoral. Whether we call pastoral a “type,” “genre,” “convention,” or “mode” the point is that to invoke this term in an effort to understand Walden is to identify Thoreau’s work as a particular kind of thing; that is, to give it a certain identity.
But texts don’t have singular identities any more than people do. In our discussion of Walden, we’ve already seen that we can also identify it, in whole or in part, as a particular instance of several other types: social criticism (a category that arguably includes the words of Hebrew prophets like Amos as well as those of ancient figures like Socrates and Diogenes); the sermon; the useful lecture; the travel narrative; and, of course, autobiography. We could undoubtedly expand this list.
If texts can be identified in so many different ways, one might be forgiven for wondering if there’s any point in trying to pin them down with an identity at all. Aren’t we just forcing the amorphous stuff of human creativity into silly boxes?
Yet we can’t avoid the move to identify, for at least two reasons. First, in trying to understand a text, the first question we’re bound to ask ourselves is “What kind of thing is this?” The second is that writers themselves, like all creators, always begin from what has been created before them. They learn to write books by reading books. In building on the creative work of the past, they inevitably carry forward one or more traditions, whether they see themselves as doing so (and they frequently do) or not.
Identifying a work as this or that kind of work only gets us into trouble when we assume that the work has only one identity, and when we fail to recognize that identifying it as an instance of this reveals some of its characteristics (while obscuring others), and identifying it as an instance of that both reveals and obscures others. We only begin to get a full picture when we can see it as simultaneously this, that, and perhaps some number of other things as well.