Thursday theme – The Tyger

Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is a musical setting of the English poet William Blake’s “The Tyger,” composed by Andrew Miller and performed here by the Concordia Choir.

Each of the poems we’re looking at today — including Blake’s “The Tyger” — exists in multiple versions. This is what makes them fluid texts. But what do we mean by a version? Continue reading “Thursday theme – The Tyger”

Thursday theme – Waters of March

As we turn to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, our theme song for today is “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”) written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (aka Tom Jobim) and performed here by Jobim and Elis Regina.

For Graff and Birkenstein, academic writing, at its heart, is a conversation, and, more generally, “writing well means entering into conversation with others” (4th ed., xiv). In their introduction, they quote the philosopher Kenneth Burke’s famous description of “the world of intellectual exchange” as a kind of un-ending conversation at an interminable party.

Here’s the full passage from Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Where does the drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
(1941; 2d ed., Louisiana State University Press, 1967, 110-11.)

It’s interesting to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s use of Burke alongside Alasdair Macintyre’s claim, which we discussed in class, that “conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general” (Michael Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics, New York University Press, 1984, 133).

By putting the activity of conversation at the heart of what makes humans human, Burke and Macintyre are pursuing a line of thought that grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe (especially in the writings of J.G. von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt). Interest in the origins of human language and in the relationship between language and culture led for some during this period to a re-definition of human identity in general: it wasn’t the capacity for reason (as Aristotle, for example, had supposed) so much as the capacity for language that separated human beings from other animals.

(It’s interesting to consider the fluidity of human identity at this scale. Not only does each of us, arguably, possess an identity that changes over time, but the various attempts to identify a defining characteristic of humanity as a whole means that it may be useful to think of humanity as existing in a variety of “versions.” Wikipedia’s list of names for the human species is instructive here.)

Macintyre describes conversations as “enacted narratives” (133), highlighting the way our conversational engagements often represent the unfolding of some kind of story. This way of thinking about conversation fits his definition of human beings as “story-telling animal[s]” (138). Graff and Birkenstein treat the subcategory of academic conversation as a kind of game characterized by a fairly circumscribed set of “moves,” but there are clearly narrative elements in their conception as well, as evidenced by their quotation from Burke and their advice about “putting in your oar.”

But the Regina-Jobim performance perhaps suggests something even more fundamental about conversation than its narrative element, something about the sheer pleasure to be found in conversation’s back-and-forth dynamic, even when it doesn’t involve an exchange of ideas with what Macintyre calls a telos – that is, a projected goal. If you look at the song lyrics (in either English or Portuguese), you see that Regina and Jobim are simply taking turns running down the items in a list; they’re not conducting the kind of conversation Graff and Birkenstein have in mind at all. There’s no advocacy here, just the pleasure of moving the song forward by taking turns. At the same time, they’re clearly singing to each other, not just trading off. You can see it in their gestures as much as you can hear it in their voices.

I get the same sense of the pleasure inherent in the interactivity of conversation – prior to and apart from its intellectual content – watching this video of a nonsense conversation between twin babies that went viral in 2011. As a basic human activity, conversation doesn’t seem to be entirely about the content of the words.

Tuesday theme – Sit Right Down

To balance the high-tech communication tools we’ll be discussing, the theme song for ENGL 203-04 today evokes an older, slower medium of expression. “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was written in 1935 by Joe Young (lyrics) and Fred Ahlert (music) and was made popular by the great jazz pianist Fats Waller.

Of course, since the singer (let’s call him “Waller” for now) is describing a letter he’ll be writing to himself, he won’t have to watch the mail to learn what’s in it: so maybe this isn’t such a slow-paced communication after all.

This theme song also looks forward to the discussion we’ll have on Thursday about Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say. The book’s premise is that academic writing typically takes the form of conversation, even if the conversation is one between the writer and an imaginary interlocutor. Waller’s letter will be from himself to himself – but he’ll be imagining it’s from his lover.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you

The song’s wit lies partly in the way it becomes a song about writing, and indeed about the singer’s own power as a writer.

I’m gonna write words oh so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet

This amusing prediction of self-astonishment (which is also, perhaps, an expression of authorial self-satisfaction) has tripped up some performers. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald get the pronouns wrong in this version, telling the listener, “I’m gonna write words oh so sweet,/ They’re gonna knock you off your feet.

She also substitutes “you” for “I” twice in what should be “A lot of kisses on the bottom, I’ll be glad I got ’em.”

Sarah Vaughan, too, sings “knock you off your feet,” but then recovers for the “kisses” line.

Both Fitzgerald and Vaughan are more interested in the music of this song than the lyrics, of course; and we might usefully think of them as entering into conversation with Ahlert (and Waller as the song’s canonical performer) through the way they play with the melody. At the same time, their slips are an indication that there’s a bit of psychological complexity to the singer’s situation.

Is this a jaunty, playful song or a sad one? Why must the singer pretend to write a letter in the lover’s voice anyway? Evidently the lover has failed to write. Why? The singer doesn’t appear too hopeful about their relationship, or it wouldn’t be necessary to “smile and say [taking on the lover’s identity], ‘I hope you’re feeling better.’” And, come to think of it, whose smile is it – that of the lover (in the singer’s imagination) or of the singer? If the singer’s, it could be a smile of pleasure (at the singer’s own cleverness), but it could also be a smile of resignation (in accepting the reality that the lover isn’t smiling … or writing).

The air of loneliness that hangs about this song of one-way communication imagined as two-way communication is reinforced, in Waller’s version, by the urgency with which he repeats the phrase “make believe” three times at the song’s conclusion, as if trying to persuade himself that he can be persuaded – if only he tries hard enough – that the letter is from the uncommunicative lover:

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter,
And make believe – make believe – make believe it came from you.

And for whom are these urgent words intended? For whom is the song itself a kind of love letter? Why, the very same lover who hasn’t written and, for that very reason, probably isn’t listening – assuming the song even reaches them. Perhaps, after all, the song, like the imaginary letter it describes, is merely from the singer to the singer: a perfect and self-contained act of make-believe.

Thursday Theme – Tomorrow is My Turn

The theme song for today’s class in ENGL 203-04 is “Tomorrow is My Turn.” Here it is performed by Rhiannon Giddens:

As performed by Giddens, it comes across as a declaration of agency that feels very much made for our present cultural moment:

Tomorrow is my turn
No more doubts no more fears
Tomorrow is my turn to receive without giving
To make life worth the living
For it’s my life I’m living
And my only concern, for tomorrow is my turn

(Read the complete lyrics on Genius.)

But the song was originally written in 1962 by Charles Aznavour and Yves Stéphane and was originally titled “L’amour c’est comme un jour.” The original lyrics (read them here in Italian and French) sound a very different theme from the English version (released in 1964 and performed by Honor Blackman, who, as it happens, played Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger). Listen to Aznavour sing it here.

It was Nina Simone’s inclusion of the English version on her album I Put a Spell on You (1965) that gave it its present effect of boldly asserting a marginalized identity (perhaps more than one). Listen to her live performance here.

Both “L’amour c’est comme un jour” and “Tomorrow is My Turn” now have independent and continuing lives. Aznavour has performed the French version as a duet with Sting.

You can read more about the history of “Tomorrow is My Turn” in this story about Giddens from NPR.

Alice’s Adventures Underground at the British Library

Alice UndergroundThe British Library holds the manuscript of Charles Dodgson’s Alice’s Adventures Underground (1864), the forerunner to his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which he published in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. On the library’s website, you can leaf through the 90-page book and view Dodgson’s 37 illustrations. How does the experience of reading the story in this format differ from the experience of reading it in a typeset edition on paper, or as plain or formatted text on a screen?

In class, we discussed the 1903 silent film version of Alice. You can find that at the Internet Archive.