Paola P.

A qwriting.qc.cuny.edu blog

Notes on a Scandal

I was very entertained by Zoe Heller’s book. Though the narrator, Barbara Covett, warns the reader right at the start, “this is not a story about me,” it is no secret that this is nothing but a story about her (4). First of all, I have to admit that after reading that Barbara uses stick-on gold stars to mark “the truly seminal events,” I started seeing her as a rather creepy person (25). The first aspect that grabbed my attention is Barbara’s self-centeredness. It is comic, or rather pathetic, Barbara’s view of herself, or as Sheba calls it, “delusions of grandeur” (251). Though Barbara is aware of her miserable existence, she can’t help it but think that her company is the ultimate company. It was funny to see how offended Barbara was when Sheba talks to another school colleague rather than to Barbara; “it amazed me that Sheba would bestow kind attention on such a cretin while ignoring me” (40). And she confesses to have believed at some point, delusional indeed, that Sheba’s high spirits were because of her: “at the time I rather imagined–I dared, that is, to hope–that [Sheba’s] high-spiritedness had something to do with me” (133). Not matter how much she wants to make believe this is not a story about her, she just can’t help it but to center everything around her. It is her self-centeredness precisely what blurs her objectivity at times.

Thus, Barbara’s descriptions of others sometimes turn out to be descriptions of herself. She seems to have a keen eye to read people, and even herself, but sometimes she just cannot admit to her own flaws. For instance, when she is at Bangs’s apartment, she describes him as the type of person in whom “you can detect the seeds of madness… they function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine… how their seeds might have sprouted little green shoots of weirdness, or even, with the right sort of antinurture, blossomed into full-blown lunacy” (203). Does this description remind you of anyone? Interestingly, this description takes place just before she betrays Sheba; Barbara’s “seeds of madness” and lunacy not only have sprouted, but they are in full bloom. The fact that she uses the word “seeds” makes me think that, 1) she does not take responsibility for her lunacy and mad actions (for a seed to germinate, some external agent has to plant it and nourish it), and 2) she is implying that her actions are almost a natural process following a natural course.

Finally, I have to mention the superb passage, mentioned by Erica and Romina in their posts, about why everybody confides in Barbara. Barbara goes, “all my life, I have been the sort of person in whom people confide… Being told secrets is not–never has been–a sign that I belong or that I matter. It is quite the opposite; confirmation of my irrelevance” (201). Sharing a secret involves intimacy, trust, and in a way, gives people a sense of belonging and privilege. But not quite for Barbara. Sharing secrets and asking someone to keep them, other people’s secrets, is not inclusive, according to her; it is actually a way of showing someone their marginalized position, almost as saying, “I can pass the burden of my secret onto you because I know you are such a foreign, aloof person who talks to no one, so my secret is safe and there is relief for me.” (Of course, one could also argue that perhaps Barbara feels above everybody because keeping so many secrets for so many people makes her a very, very powerful person. Secrets can be used as weapons of mass destruction.) Anyway, not in vain the wanna-be-insider Barbara is named “Barbara” by the author; no matter how hard she tries, she is an outsider, a foreign woman, after all.

“Where Do You See Yourself?”

And through whose eyes anyway?

After finishing all the readings for this week, I’ve been thinking, is one’s identity a private matter, a secret matter, or a public matter? Does this depend on the type of identity one has? How is one’s identity constructed? Is it through public opinion, or private reflection, both, neither, how? Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with any concrete answers yet. I guess, it depends. For example, when it comes to one’s sexuality, it appears as if it should be a private matter, yet this changes if one sexuality does not follow the crowd; thus, if one is gay, then one’s sexuality might pass from being private to being secret. And yet at the same time, because of the politics around homosexuality, if one is gay, one’s “secret” sexuality becomes a public matter. I don’t know about you, but I feel a rhizomatic line of thought in my head right now.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking about Weir’s text, which I love, more specifically, these lines: “Maybe that’s what gay means: ‘Critic.’ My body is a text. I read it in the aqueous light of public display” (97). His body is a text, a text read and reread by the public, a text he maybe wanted to keep secret, but it’s been opened and displayed by the public who dissect it and expose it through their distorted view. Perhaps he cannot keep his secret, because in the public eye, and innocently from his part, he is a walking secret; he is the secret. He too reads his body through the interpretation, the reading, “the aqueous light” of the public. (This brings to mind Sedgwick’s idea that, if I understood correctly, through opposing binarisms, the “minoratizing” and “universalizing” views, homosexuality is perceived and read by society, by the public in a very limited way.) He is not even the author of this text, this body, but he becomes a mere “critic” of it. The text has already been written for him; the meaning of it has been set and interpreted. Weir continues, “I watch my gay body float. But it isn’t my body. I mean, it isn’t only my body, it’s also Zack’s body, exposed and naked” (97). Weir’s body is no longer his, but it’s a part of “the gay body,” written, read, interpreted and retold, exposed and naked, by the public’s perception and response. And the public perception of homosexuality is sad, and scary at times. So it’s no longer him on the stage, it’s the public version of him, which he sees floating in a surreal grotesque “reality.”

Seeing oneself through the public eye, which is not always right, can be alienating, and understanding oneself through the public’s watery “light” can be violent to one’s identity and knowledge.

Reflections on the Research Process

1. The component of the draft prospectus I found most productive for exploring or organizing my ideas was the statement of motive. Though my topic description was, unfortunately, not as descriptive as it should have been, when it came to motive I clearly knew my reasons for wanting to take on something like what I called “topic,” and felt eager and motivated to take on this challenging quest. The statement of motive made me feel free as a literary scholar. While the topic description and the research questions were more of a obliging, forced, artificial task, the statement of motive drew from me a more natural, organic response.

2. I have to admit that the whole assignment was frustrating for me. I felt frustrated because I could not focus; I knew the components of the draft prospectus were supposed to help me, but I was not able to take advantage from them. I tried too hard to do too much. The assignment was not confusing; I knew what I was supposed to do. But having so many options out there to explore was intimidating; having too much made me feel uneasy, it was like I just could not visualize or grab one single piece among the many. Ironically, having too much freedom made me feel restrained in my mind. I put unnecessary pressure on myself, which in turn made me feel insecure and lost (And I feel like I’m the only one who is lost in space, all over the place). I could not find the inspiration soon enough.

3. The number one question about my draft prospectus that I’d like a reader to answer for me now is, “do you think, honestly, that I’m going somewhere with this draft prospectus, or should I start over?”

4. The number one question about the research process (from beginning idea to finished essay) that I’d like us to discuss in class together is, “does one have to start the research process necessarily with a clear “beginning” idea, or is it “normal” to be all over the place in the beginning (having, of course, some parameters) and become more aware of one’s possible focus during the process?

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, made me think of the role of the community in the creation of the individual, of the self. More specifically, in the chapter titled “The Market-Place,” the section in which the “goodwives” of the community, the “gossips,”  speak about the “malefactress,” Hester Prynne, reveals how the “ladies” feel Hester Prynne has brought shame upon all the women of the community. Hester’s attitude seems to assent the community’s ideology. There is a communal sense of womanhood, a public female body, which was obviously hurt by the actions of one individual (two individuals in reality, but all the accusing eyes are on Hester). Because Hester committed what is considered to be a sin before her community, she is marginalized and treated as a scapegoat. Thus, Hester is deprived of her individuality, of her own sense of “private self” (or whatever was left of it) by the public body, more specifically, by the “gossips.” Then, Hester’s sense of self is nothing but a mirrored version of what the public eye sees, not what she as an individual could have seen. Hester is allowed to be nothing but what she is expected to be by her community — a living, walking red “A,” whatever the “A” means. It follows that the private self is created by the “gossips.” The private self then is a privilege, an allotment granted only by the public eye and discourse. Thus, gossip is the ultimate creator, the real “god” in Hester’s ultra religious community. Hester obviously internalizes the public self, the sinner, she is to be, forgetting anything else beyond the “A,” and the community executes its role, that of authority, especially moral authority, to perfection. It is an almost systematic institution, which seems to be endless, indestructible, powerful even after it has ceased to have a function. So, I think that in Hester’s “market-place” or society, social discourse or gossip is a public, bureaucratic force which creates and dominates the mirrored lives of individuals.

Emma

One of the sections that grabbed my attention in Emma is the one describing the attack of the Gypsies against Harriet. While reading the novel, I was surprised by the sudden, completely unexpected apparition of Gypsies. This section reminded me of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony; the narrative appears to be flat and going nowhere, just like the symphony, and suddenly, the reader is awakened by violent Gypsies or a surprising, unexpected chord. So the narrative comes back to life and the reader is awakened. We thought Emma had given up matchmaking, and yet it is thanks to the apparition of the Gypsies that Emma’s inner prowess comes back to life; now she sees potential between Frank and Harriet. While there are many approaches one can take regarding the Gypsies, for the purpose of this blog I’ll just mention what I found interesting about it. The first interesting aspect is that the Gypsies’ victim is Harriet; this made me think of a mysterious parallel between the Gypsies and Emma herself, after all, Emma is said to “make matches” and “foretell things,” occupations which can be also connected to Gypsies (13). The narrator tells us that Emma “could not but hope that the gipsy, though she had told no fortune, might be proved to have made Harriet’s,” — in my opinion, the Gypsy being Emma herself (319). Also, like the Gypsies rob Harriet’s purse, it is Emma who in a sense robs Harriet of her own judgment and persona, unintentionally of course, by trying to convert her into what Emma believes to be the best and marry her to whom Emma believes to be best. The Gypsies rob Harriet probably because of necessity, and yet Emma does it out of boredom, which is perhaps a critique of the social structure — an example of how much free, idle time women of high social positions possessed, which can obviously be very dangerous, not that it was their fault though. Finally, it is thanks to the Gypsies — who are a matter of gossip, too, and the bearers of important changes and transitions, and profound realizations especially for Emma — that the whole community revives and has something else to talk about besides last night’s ball.

Mini-lesson

From Answer to Question:

1. Why does Sansay focus on the “pleasures of sociability” (social body) rather than on “the pains of the flesh” (physical body) throughout the novel?

2. Sansay’s novel seems to suggest that social reproduction is at the core of colonial politics; if this is indeed true, how does the author fuse history and fiction with the domestic and the public to accomplish this?

3. How is the history of the colonial and creole social production and reproduction related and/or connected to the history of the early American novel? Which frameworks of early American studies might be useful to analyze this possible relationship?

Secret history, or, The horrors of St. Domingo

I really like the way Leonora Sansay’s book, Secret history, or, The horrors of St. Domingo, starts. In letter I, she writes about what the people are “murmuring” about, and says that there is not much amusement except “now and then a little scandal” (66). She also speaks about the latest scandal — the one about Madame Le Clerc — and though she acknowledges that one might laugh about it, she admits that it is gossip such as this what makes “the news of the day” (67). Thus, one soon learns what people are doing most of the time, and the tone of the entire book is set.

Moreover, one of the things that grabbed my attention in Sansay’s book is the way in which governmental — public — decisions are made. In letter VIII, for example, we learn that the general lays an embargo on all vessels in the port simply because he wants to prevent Clara from leaving. The general thinks she is being forced to leave; thus, he makes such a crucial decision solely because of his personal wishes. Another instance is found in letter XIII; all passports recently issued must be returned. Again, the general makes this public “proclamation” based on his personal interests — to stop Clara from leaving. In short, the general’s private interests are the true reasons for the public decisions being made, which is incredible but true.

Finally, another thing that grabbed my attention is the writer’s attention to detail about “supposedly” trivial matters; for example, she speaks about the “badness of teeth” of the people because of the “segars” and about who is making love to whom — i.e., the general’s intelligent valet who makes love to one of Clara’s servants. I think that by mentioning details like these in such a casual yet detailed manner, the writer shows how “trifles” are one of the most, if not the most, influential and important, intricate, yet common, aspect of a community. Or as Sansay puts it, “On what trifles depends the destiny of man!” (78).

A Journal of the Plague Year

After reading A Journal of the Plague Year, I found an interesting parallel between this book and the excellent presentations we had in class last Monday. In Defoe’s text, one sees that the notions of the “public” and the “private” are sometimes lost in a chaotic reality that no longer distinguishes the differences between these two; this lack of distinction made me think of the following questions, does the public create the private or vice-versa? Or does the public destroy the private or vice-versa? For example, in an instance when Defoe is describing how the “locking up the doors of people’s houses… looked very hard and cruel; and many people perished in these miserable confinements,” he ends up by saying that “it was a public good that justified the private mischief” (54). Thus the sense of “public” eliminates in a sense the “private” because one’s private space becomes a “public-private” confinement, and at the same time, that same notion of “public” good eliminates the “public” space of those confined in the “public-private” space because they can no longer return to the “public” sphere. The “public” and “private” then appear to be two inseparable aspects of the same paradoxical force which both destroys and creates at the same time; the preservation of the “public” space preserves the “private” space of those not infected. (I hope I’m not sounding too confusing here.) Also, A Journal… tells us that these undistinguishable notions of “public” and “private” can not only be found in the “many” as seen above, but can also be found within the “individual.” At one point, after visiting the “pit” and after an unpleasant encounter with a group of “blasphemers,” the narrator reflects upon his own reasons for feeling afflicted by their insults, “I was doubtful in my thoughts whether the resentment I retained was not all upon my own private account, for they had given me a great deal of ill language too–I mean personally” (78). The narrator is feeling confused about the notions of “public” and “private;” did the blasphemers offend him because they were insulting the “public” good, the notion of the plague as a judgment of God, or because they invaded his “private” and personal sphere, his inner self? Thus the narrator’s reflections reveal that during the chaotic plague-year it was difficult, if not impossible, to define and differentiate the “self” or “private” from the “public.” I wonder, is it different during non-chaotic times? And, is it different today?

Lady Windermere’s Fan

In Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde, “society” is depicted as a constantly changing “being” which is made up and sustained by lies. When I think of “society” and the base of it, the first thoughts I usually have are those of “family,” honesty and truthfulness, yet after reading LW’sF, I think society’s base is nothing but a bunch of lies. My interpretation of LW’sF tells me that society’s morals are built on unmoral practices — lies, adultery, deception — and yet such practices are a necessity for society to function harmoniously (how ironic). Some examples of this irony include, Lord Windermere’s willingness to pay Mrs. Erlynne’s silence to preserve Lady Windermere’s true parentage and hence his and Lady Windermere’s reputation and position in society; Lady Plymdale’s remarks on how women like Mrs. Erlynne (a woman “with a past,” i.e., experienced in sexual matters) are “most useful… for other people’s marriages” — I have to admit this was so comic for me — among others (Wilde 40). It is true that the characters lie and change their views quickly according to the listener (with the exception of Lady Agatha and her “yes, mamma,” of course), yet it is undeniable that they do so in order to survive and “fit” into society. Since “society” is made up of overt and covert corrupt practices, one must become corrupt him/herself in order to be a part of it (i.e., Lady Windermere’s silence about the true happenings involving her fan found in Lord Darlington’s house in order to preserve her marriage and status). This brings to mind another important element for society’s survival — “concealment” — as seen in the following quote, Lord Darlington’s to Lady Windermere, “you would have to be [Lord Windermere] the mask of his real life, the cloak to hide his secret” (41). Lord Darlington’s instigating and provoking tone implies that being fake and dishonest should be unacceptable practices before society, and Lady Windermere agrees with him, and yet it is ironic that in this play most characters do not know how to live without their masks and live their whole lives being someone else’s cloak (i.e., Lord Darlington himself is offering in this scene to be Lady Windermere’s cloak if she decides to leave her husband). Finally, I have a question that might be rather boring, but who is the “good woman” in Lady Windermere’s Fan?

Othello

“Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ: this may do something. The Moor already changes with my poison: Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons. Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, but with a little act upon the blood. Burn like the mines of Sulphur” (Shakespeare, lines 359-366).

For my first blog entry, I am going to try to do a close reading of the passage above, which obviously has a very malicious tone. When I first read Othello, I felt horrible for Desdemona, disliked Iago, and loathed Othello. It is true that Iago starts the rumors full of slander about Desdemona, which are “trifles” and “light as air” since they carry no weight because they are no true — and thus we learned Iago is a horrible person — yet Othello’s extreme jealousy, and in a sense arrogance, is what ultimately destroys everything by converting such slanderous rumors into a holy truth. (Othello is just like the husband in “The Manciple’s Tale” — extremely possessive, controlling, and a first class coward.) Moreover, I love Shakespeare’s comparison of Iago’s slanders with “poison;” Iago’s “dangerous conceits” are indeed pernicious and harmful, but again, they are only like an unused instrument which becomes alive, and in the end mortal, once they get into Othello’s blood, which is already altered by his extreme jealousy. It is Othello himself who “turns on” and “plays” the slanders, which will consume Othello’s mind and heart and ultimately “burn” his soul to death with their poisonous melody.

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar