“The Ship” (and Not Sidney?) are Not Themselves Today

During our class period on Friday, it became Susanna’s job to yell “The ship!” every time the philosophical problem of Theseus’ ship was applicable to some aspect of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Indeed, Susanna said this on multiple occasions (and with amazing delivery!) throughout our discussion. In particular, I would like to examine how this pesky problem applies to the formation of Not Sidney Poitier’s identity in the novel.

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Questions of Origin and Identity in English 203

“Thank you,” I said. “I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it. What I’ve discovered is that this thing is not here. In fact, it is nowhere. I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself. My mother is buried not far from this auditorium, and there are no words on her headstone. As I glance out now, as I feel the weight of this trophy in my hands, as I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say:

I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”

–Percival Everett 

The first time I read this epigraph in the English 203 syllabus, I had little knowledge of what this class would entail, except for what I could extrapolate from the course description. In all honesty, I didn’t even know what the word “epigraph” meant. That being said, the quote still struck me; the exact thought that popped into my head was something along the lines of “huh, that’s relatable.” Everett, in this quote, captures the image of a person lost and searching to find themselves again. I think on some level, many people have been that person trying to “connect with something lost;” I know I have.

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Psychoanalyzing Alice—Carroll’s Take on Self-Concept and Identity

In Alice in Wonderland, Louis Carroll comments frequently on the topic of identity as it relates to self-concept. He often achieves this by presenting the reader with an internal-dialogue, where Alice seems to be talking to herself. This type of depiction gives insight into her most personal state of mind in terms of how she perceives her environment, both spatial and temporal. Shortly after Alice enters Wonderland, she begins to question the nature of who she is in relation to an apparent passage of time:

“Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Alice remarks at how queer everything is today, as if her perception of time has an influence over who she feels she used to be, rather than who she thinks she is in the present now. Such feelings are well understood in the current field of psychology, known as self-concept theory, which dissects the self-schema into three primary functions: past-self, present-self and future-self.

Reading the passage through this lens, we see that Carroll presents Alice’s self-concept (or self-identity) as a dynamic principle. However, her perception of identity is not only dictated by her past, present, or future conceptions of self, but by who she feels she is in the world. She states that if she is not the same (in terms of her self-schema) then, who in the world is she?

This denotes an important step in human-development that orients the individual toward identifying themselves with more generalized physical or mental identifiers (hair-color, intelligence, gender, etc.). Such identifiers often mold our self-concept around how other people view us in society.

Building on this idea, consider this last addition to Alice’s internal-dialogue:

“And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.”

Alice suggests that there may be a difference between how the children used to see her and how she supposes she is now. This is the key-question of the passage, which asks, “If Alice’s self-concept and self-identification are changed in some way, are these changes audible to those around her?”

Carroll cleverly weaves all of these concepts into one short paragraph. The notion that Alice is not quite who she was yesterday, or that she does not yet know who she is to the world is a question that every person is said to deal with at some time or another according to the conventions of modern psychology. In this way, Carroll could be seen as explaining certain aspects of the human psyche (of Alice especially, who is still a child) as they relate to self-concept and identity.

Tuesday theme – Changes

Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is “Changes,” written by David Bowie, first released in 1971, and performed here by the Melbourne, Australia-based Brentwood Duo.

When he died in 2016, The Atlantic described Bowie as “Rock’s chameleonic maestro.” Change, fluidity, and ambiguityespecially in connection with gender expression — were at the heart of the persona he created for himself.

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.

Physicality vs Substance

The ambiguity of identity is what makes it so convoluted in formulating a direct definition to encapsulate it’s core idea. The direct definition of identity is ‘the fact of being who or what a person or thing is’. However, that interpretation of identity leaves many blank spaces in the answer to our question; What actually is identity? Is it the state of being, or is it the narrative of being a physical entity.  We are given the idea that a person or thing is tied to a singular identity, however, when we change those circumstances, does it retain its identity?

In class, we briefly discussed the issue of identity in defining a book and whether it is the narrative of the book, or its physicality, that represents that definition. In Alice in Wonderland  by Lewis Carroll, questioning identity is a reoccurring and prominent theme. Multiple times, the story makes Alice and the reader question the reality of the situations. However, not all these questions of identity stem from Alice’s time in Wonderland. In the very beginning of the story, Alice and her sister were laying under a tree while Alice’s sister ‘read’ a book. “Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversations?'”. The purpose of the ‘book’  is not the focus of this blog post, but rather the definition of such object as a book. Is the identity of the book validated by the physicality of the material its made of, or rather the narrative its meant to have?

 The identity of the book in regards to the passage is ambiguous because of the lack of answer. the passage toys with the question because Alice leaves it open for interpretation. As we have seen from class, the answer to this is up to perspective.  Many people may side with the physicality of the book as what defines its identity, while some may side with the narrative. However, maybe identity should stay ambiguous. Let it be what it is.

 

Tuesday theme – My Country Used To Be

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.”

Felix Contreras discusses Marie’s and four other memorable performances of the national anthem in his 2009 report for National Public Radio, “The Many Sides Of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'” At least three of these performances (by José Feliciano, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye) might also be seen as occupations of a kind — not through the substitution of new words for the traditional ones, but simply through their re-interpretations of the melody. Listening to Feliciano’s quiet and soulful version, performed before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, it’s hard to believe that he, too, was accused of disrespect. Was it really his version of the music people objected to? Or was it the fact of his laying claim simultaneously to his Puerto Rican and American identities through the re-mixing of musical traditions?

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.

Thursday Theme – Spanish Pipedream

Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream.”

It’s the refrain, of course, that connects with our examination of Thoreau’s Walden:

Blow up your TV,
Throw away your paper,
Go to the country,
Build you a home.
Plant a little garden,
Eat a lot o’ peaches,
Try to find Jesus,
On your own.

Granted, neither TV’s nor peaches put in an appearance in Walden, and Jesus merits just a single passing reference; but we do get the railroad, the paper (in “Where I Lived” paragraphs 18 and 19), beans, and something like a personal search for God (“God himself culminates in the present moment …”).

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.