Honestly, trying to sit down and write this blog post has been a lot more challenging than I anticipated. All of my other final assignments have just been a regurgitation of facts, so switching gears to form my own opinions has been weird. I can tell you why Pluto is no longer considered a planet and trace the path of Alcibiades’ capricious loyalties all through Ancient Greece. My brain physically ached for a while from so much cramming, although that’s not even possible since the brain has no pain receptors. But, a broad question like “What has the point of this semester been?” is a whole different playing field. I drew a mental blank for three days before I even tried to sit down and write. Continue reading “A Step Back From The Semester”
I grew up surrounded by literature. My dad is an English professor with a specialty in Early American Literature, it’s just always been a huge part of my life, even to the point that Edgar Allan Poe was my bedtime stories.
My favorite way that my dad’s profession bled into our home life, though, was always his colleagues and the talks that he would let me come with him to see. I love to hear people talk about what they are passionate about and do what they love, so I tagged along to as many presentations as I could.
The best event my dad ever brought me to was Dr. Marc Napolitano’s performance of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Dr. Napolitano was relatively new to the department that year – I think it was 2013 – and I hadn’t met him before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the story of A Christmas Carol, everyone knows the story. I’d never read it, I was still in middle shool, but I was familiar with the plot. I’d seen renditions of it through disney animations and such. Worst case scenario, what I was walking into was some professor standing in front of a crowd and droning on about the significance of the story or something else that wouldn’t hold my attention.
It absolutely was not that.
For two hours, I sat next to my dad, absolutely riveted by Dr. Napolitano as he stood in front of a full room of students and other professors and gave a one man performance of A Christmas Carol, with voices and expressions and a passion that I’d never seen before. He was the only person up there, but each character was unique and all it took was a shift of his shoulders and a different lilt to his words for me to know that someone different was speaking. He was phenomenal. This was A Christmas Carol as it was supposed to be.
Looking back on it now, Dr. Naoplitano’s performance was a perfect example of how little it takes for an old work to take on new life. He was so passionate about this text that he was willing to memorize it in its entirety and stand in front of a crowd to bare his heart as he performed it so that he could share it with others the way he saw it, which was no small feat especially since Dr. Napolitano was a small, quiet man with a gentle smile and an even gentler voice. None of his shyness was present during his performance, his voice was booming. Even now I can hear him.
“Are there no prisons?! Are there no workhouses?!”
The fluidity of A Christmas Carol comes to my mind as we start to tackle it in class. After seeing that performance, I’ll be honest, no other adaptation of Dickens’ work has been good enough for me. Somehow, Dr. Napolitano had taken this thing that so many people knew by heart and made it his own. He made it new and he made it riveting, and I know all too well how hard it is to make a room full of cadets at USMA pay attention for that long.
After that first performance and until three years later when Dr. Napolitano left the academy, my family made it a tradition to go see his performance. In 2015, he left USMA and accepted a job offer at USAFA, and my childhood best friend who is a current cadet there assures me he’s still continuing his tradition of sharing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with anyone willing to listen.
Throughout both of Lewis Carroll’s works Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, language conventions and linguistics are turned on their head. Commonplace words and phrases are used outside of their familiar meanings, sometimes so literally that attempting to find a figurative meaning can only leave the reader befuddled. One very unique instance where Carroll uses this technique is in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in the fifth chapter entitled “Advice from a Caterpillar.” During Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar, she is asked two very distinct questions. “Who are you?” and “Who are you?” The same three words, but two very different meanings. The first is exactly what it sounds like. Upon first noticing Alice, the Caterpillar asks her to introduce herself. She has difficulty coming up with an answer for his inquiry, though, having only just finished arguing with herself about whether or not she is really Alice or if she had somehow changed into another little girl. At this moment, her own identity is a mystery to her.
But what is interesting is the second posing of the question.
‘Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; ‘all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.’
‘You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ‘Who are you?’
No longer is the Caterpillar asking Alice to identify herself. This question has a bitter edge to it that implies it asks more than a name; the words may have been “Who are you?” but the question was “Who do you think you are?” It is meant as a sarcastic comment, but it raises an interesting question.
Are who you are and who you think you are two different things? And if so, which is more important? Even as Alice stumbles along trying to figure out if she is Alice or Ada or Mabel, is she ever anything other than Alice? Does her belief that she must be someone else make it so? Facing the two questions by the Caterpillar, Alice does not answer either of them because she does not have the answers. She does, however, go on to explain that, out of everything, she would feel more herself if she could regain her old height. Although Alice is still Alice, she sees herself a certain way and finds her security in identity in that self-image. She is not Alice if she does not fit that image, so, at least for her, who she is and who she thinks she is are separate but dependent things. In this way, even if Alice is still Alice, who Alice thinks she is is what matters the most.
In the Conclusion of Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes about what he learned while living at Walden Pond and what he came to understand there. In the fourth paragraph, Thoreau writes about the simple path he wore through the trees from his cabin to the pond, and from there makes the transition from experience to theory. He writes about this path and wonders how easily paths must be worn in other areas of life, as well, because “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” If, in only a week, a man can walk a path enough that it endures for years after he is gone, what can years of traditions do to a society? In this theorizing, he extrapolates his own experience and projects it onto the greater world around him. The shift from experience to theory here is very gentle, and although it happens suddenly the reader is not aware of the change until it is already well under way. This is because of how smoothly it fits in, both with the structure of the passage and the content of the previous paragraphs. The transition ties in with the beginning of Conclusion, where Thoreau writes about boundaries people set for themselves, closing themselves in and limiting their own lives when there is no reason to do so. In the same way, he worries “that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open.” If others have begun to use the path that he created, he is the origin of a boundary that they conform to and that is not what he desired to achieve with his time at the pond.
I think this passage is especially interesting. In it, Thoreau takes the simple and hackneyed idea of a well-worn path and pushes his audience to look at it applied to the bigger picture. The sentiment also links back to the idea Thoreau wrote about earlier in Walden about how people should choose their own courses and not let other people’s opinions influence their choices of how to live their lives. The world is full of traditions and precedents, but just because they are the most obvious or easy choices does not mean that they are the only choices.