‘Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction’ (A Review)

Hermeneutics-A-Very-Short-Introduction-SDL494637640-1-50e98

Oxford does it again! Once again the good folks over at the Oxford University Press release a well written, cogent, and exemplary ‘very short’ introduction to a topic which is vital to furthering the capture of knowledge. Jens Zimmerman’s introductory primer to the act of interpretation is not only a bonafide guide to the field as it is practiced in its various disciplines, but also a text which should be in any Humanities’ student library.

Told across seven chapters, Zimmerman’s book informs the reader on the nature of interpretation, also called ‘hermeneutics,’ hence the namesake’s title; these chapters explore the history and practice of interpretation as it pertains to the fields of philosophy, the humanities, law, religion, and the sciences, with a couple of chapters acting as a brief overview of what hermeneutics is and a brief history of its application.

Each chapter holds true to the name of the parent series: in a ‘very short introduction’ you will receive a very short chapter. Each chapter functions as a speed teacher whose only goal is to get you caught up the bare bones essentials. Generally, the outline is as follows: you are introduced to why interpretation in a certain field is relevant and needed, the major proponents of certain theories of interpretation as it relates to that field, and then you are introduced to some controversies or problems and the subsequent current research which attempts to articulate and overcome the problem.

Soon after you are sent off onto the next chapter to repeat the process all over again. It is a tried and true formula to educational guides and it works well in this volume. More so since Zimmerman manages to squeeze in a short appendix of major hermeneutic debates; inserted at the end of the primary chapters, the appendix expands upon the major ideas of the text without bogging down the initial reading. It is an ideal set-up and allows for learners to take the new information and re-read previous chapters with a newly deepened understanding of specific chapter controversies. If you wanted to go a level lower, you could even say that such a reading prompts the reader’s own inclusion in Hans-Georg Gadamer ‘hermeneutic circle.’ But perhaps this would be reading too deeply.

As a very short introduction, I still managed to learn ideas which I did not already know, despite having some familiarity with many of the concepts before I started my read through. Specifically, the chapters on philosophic hermeneutics, and hermeneutics in the legal and scientific fields, offered some food for thought and pushed what I already knew into new territories. Something which many introduction are only able to accomplish with an expanded number of pages.

The reason Zimmerman is able to accomplish so much with so little pages, however, is because they write in a clear and concise style. Academic writing is not always so easy to follow—anyone who has read Derrida can attest to this—but Zimmerman’s straight to business, no nonsense prose manages to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. So, new readers will trust that they will be softly led by the hand as they cover each new chapter and its unique approach to how we, as humans, interpret in order to understand and order our world.

In the end, I enjoyed Zimmerman’s introduction. It helped me. It expanded what I already knew and filled me in on what I did not know. It was not a hassle to read and it remains a sleek and elegant addition to my library of titles. So, even as their Heidiggerian approach may alienate some philosophically minded individuals, I was able to overlook such discretions and focus on the informative center, the educational nougat. Zimmerman’s miniature book manages to do what it promises—educate, inform, and do so without a headache. Any student searching for a means to help them understand ‘hermeneutics,’ the practice of interpretation, should look no further.

Jen Zimmerman

Hermeneutics: A Very Short Interpretation

159 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $10.75 (Print), $6.15 (Kindle)[1]. 2015.

 

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon and were accurate at the time of writing.

Into the Woods

AYLI

As we walked into As You Like It, our last play of the week, at the Festival Theater, we were given a cloth bag with a tree branch, a love poem hand-written by a seventh-grader, a clothes pin, and a blue fan, and we found Robin Hutton already on stage, in jeans and a vest and long coat, holding court.  “Welcome to Newfoundland,” she said to the puzzled Californians in the front row.  She sipped on her drink.  “Have you got your tree branches, now? . . . Show us your bush . . . You, over there, are you going to sing for us? . . . Hello, balcony . . .  I hope you’ve got those stars . . . We’re going to have a kitchen party here.”   Eventually, she introduced herself as Hymen, the goddess of marriage (who indeed appears at the close of As You Like It, to bless the various “country copulatives”), cued the band (guitar, fiddle, accordion, drum), brought out the cast and called a lively traditional dance, “Running the Goat”: “Circle to the left . . . now to the right . . . swing your partner . . . first couple, now, promenade.”

That was just the first fifteen minutes.  This production of As You Like It was set in 1980s Newfoundland, which the director, Jillian Keiley, characterizes as “a dance-together culture,” in which “art is not to be examined or observed but to be experienced by all of us, together in a circle.”  The atmosphere throughout was raucous and participatory.  When Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone fled to the forest, we all waved our branches, and they fought their way down a row, carrying their luggage, pushing greenery out of the way.  We clipped our poems onto branches for the characters to pluck off and read; we waved our blue fans in unison for the seaside scenes; the balcony’s stars illuminated the night; characters roasted marshmallows on coals held by the audience, plucked carrots from audience members’ hands, and shot at rabbits passed along the rows.  Hymen continued to address us directly, cueing our props and commenting on the various couples falling in love–“Look, here’s couple number one”—and telling us it was “time go have a pee” at intermission. Other characters occasionally encouraged our responses directly, too—for example, in the wrestling scene in Act I, where musclebound Charles played the heel and we all cheered skinny, long-haired Orlando as he said, “You mean to mock me after; you should not have mock’d me before,” slipping on his checkered headband.   The fight was pure WWE, full of ostentatiously fake blows and exaggerated reactions.  Lisa said the whole thing was like a London panto, joyous and vulgar and self-aware, and that seemed about right to me.

Somehow, miraculously, in the midst of all this, a smart and funny play broke out, too.   As You Like It is one of my favorites of the comedies, because of its playful intelligence, its heroine, and its literary self-consciousness.   The characters go off to the forest and adopt conventional attitudes—pastoral idealism, melancholy, romantic love, carnal desire, sophisticated court irony—and test them against one another.  The play has a relaxed, discursive feel: characters meet, talk, try out various tropes and postures, move on.  The spirit of parody and mockery is everywhere.  We encounter an actual lovesick shepherd (at our performance, the audience tinkled sheep bells on his arrival) and his scornful mistress, who makes fun of the idea that her unkind looks are killing him:

Now I do frown on thee with all my heart,
And if mine eyes can wound, then let them kill thee.
Now counterfeit to swound; why, now fall down . . .

After hearing Orlando’s conventional Petrarchan verses about Rosalind (“Let no face be kept in mind/But the fair of Rosalind”), Touchstone says, “I’ll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners and suppers and sleeping hours excepted”:

If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So be sure will Rosalind . . .

“’Tis good to be sad and say nothing,” says the melancholy Jaques.  “Why then,” Rosalind replies, “’tis good to be a post.”  Rosalind, brilliant and generous, one of Shakespeare’s greatest female characters, is at the center of all of this comic play, testing Orlando’s love in a boy’s disguise—taking him to husband school, as one of my students said last spring.   In the end, court society recreates itself, transformed and renewed: Hymen blesses all of the couples; the evil repent; the exiled and usurped are restored.

As it turns out, this play adapted itself to 1980s Newfoundland quite easily.  The forest characters wore plaid shirts and stocking hats, split wood and went fishing; the songs (there is a lot of singing in this forest) were accompanied by fiddle and accordion and had you tapping your feet; the court world was populated by men in white linen suits and women with big hair, holding Rubik’s cubes and gigantic portable phones.  (In general, this all reminded me of the first Die Hard film, which came out in 1988, and which my family watches every Christmas.)  I kept looking for Donald Trump in the history plays, but he was actually here, as Duke Frederick, a coarse bully with blow-dried blond hair, a model on his arm, barking orders and making threats.  It was a relief to move from his world to the Newfoundland forest and coast, where the Duke’s sister, Duchess Senior, and her friends were singing, reading, and talking, in a more democratic and congenial environment, and where we might find a disheveled lover greeting his mistress with flowers and fresh-caught fish.  The open, unpretentious, participatory spirit of this imagined Newfoundland gave the play its comic and regenerative force and infected the entire production, audience and all, with its joyous energy.

The cast was very strong, again.  I can’t say enough about how consistently good the acting was, all week long, with a largely different group each night.  Petrina Bromley’s Rosalind was lovestruck and forceful by turns, and she was entirely convincing as a boy, with her baggy jeans, loose white shirt and pencil-thin moustache.  Her epilogue—a pastiche of Shakespearean texts—was a small tour de force.  Cyrus Lane, who had excelled in a comic turn as the Porter in Macbeth the night before, was an appropriately goofy and engaging Orlando.  But I thought Trish Lindström stole every scene she was in as Celia, whom she played as a sort of Valley Girl, struggling through the forest with pink sunglasses and a hatbox.  I would have paid money just to watch her split wood—she ended up trying to sharpen the axe with her nail file–or to watch her dance with excitement as she told Rosalind that Orlando was in the forest.   Seana McKenna also gave Jaques, the melancholy outsider, unusual dignity and grace; her delivery of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech was mesmerizing.  (This was, with Brigit Wilson’s Duchess Senior, one of two traditionally male roles played brilliantly by women here.)

Jaques leaves the happy scene just before the end, because she knows what is coming.  “I am for other than for dancing measures,” she says, sadly, on her way to an “abandon’d cave”—and there was certainly plenty of dancing at the Festival Theater after she left, including members of the audience who had been prepared before the show and joined the cast on stage.  “Now, thread the needle,” Hymen said; the line of dancers snaked through an arch made by two of their number; we stamped our feet and clapped.  It was a great way to end the week.

—Dan  Gunn

 

Dark Shadows

Macbeth

We saw the Breath of Kings sequence at the Tom Patterson Theater—a simple, barn-like structure on the Avon River which became a festival venue in 1971.  (Patterson was a journalist who had the idea for the festival in 1952, hoping to develop something new for the town’s economy following the departure of the railroad industry.)  Macbeth, by contrast, was at the Festival Theater, a much larger and more impressive building, in a park overlooking the river, surrounded by flower gardens, with a gift shop, a lounge, and glossy video presentations on technical aspects of the season’s productions.  The building was designed to look like a tent, in memory of the festival’s earliest years, and it features a beautiful thrust stage in dark, polished wood, three steps high, with a large balcony supported by wood posts and flanked by curved staircases.

This Macbeth was a mainstage show—in every way bigger and more impressive (and more traditional) than The Breath of Kings.  The lighting was generally dark, brooding.  The set was full of moss, dead branches, uncanny hanging shapes.   There were claps of thunder, distant shrieks, and eerie bass notes.  The actors wore rough, shaggy period costumes and exhibited a trace of a Scottish burr here and there.  The weird sisters were grotesque, robed crones, stirring a cauldron, their faces half-hidden in darkness.  Macbeth was tortured and ambitious, Lady Macbeth desperate not to miss her chance. There were striking, remarkable, even breathtaking effects and transitions.  For example, after the three murderers chased Banquo and Fleance down off the stage and into the aisle, there was a momentary cut to black and then a dramatic burst of light and sound to introduce the banquet, already fully in progress.  Banquo’s ghost appeared from nowhere a few minutes later—he must have stepped from behind servants, but it was like a magic trick—and the mechanics of Macbeth’s terrified vision, his movement in and out of the feast, were handled seamlessly.   In another spectacular scene, the weird sisters hung Macbeth from a tree and anointed him with blood as they showed him the future kings of Scotland.  Sound was deployed and calibrated with great skill throughout, both electronically and on stage, as characters shouted or fought or cried “All hail!” in unison.   There was brilliant stage fighting in the final battle, particularly between Macbeth and Macduff, with sword and shields.  (I meant to say that this was a noticeable feature of Breath of Kings, too.  Hal and Hotspur battled up and down that long stage, handling heavy swords and long spears at the same time.)  The acting was assured, professional, impeccable, up and down the cast.  This was an excellent production, in every way.

But still.  It left me cold, finally—Lisa, too–and I’m not completely sure why.  Is it perhaps that the play is too familiar—overexposed—and so has lost some of its force?  Perhaps.  And then there was the relatively white bread nature of this production, strong as it was: at every turn, the expected thing, visually and thematically; the dark castle; Lady Macbeth in a nightgown, wringing her hands; Macbeth center stage, grasping at an invisible sword or holding a bloody one; Macduff, bewildered by grief (“All my pretty ones?”); the witches scowling into the cauldron.

But I have repeatedly had the experience of being moved  by material just as familiar—by Richard II and As You Like It just this week, in fact—so that can’t be the whole story.  I find myself thinking of Jayne Decker saying, after a rehearsal, that there was just no energy in a scene—or, conversely, of the increased power and force—energy—I have felt from other actors when we finally found ourselves in front of an audience, after weeks of playing to empty seats.   What I am talking about is in some sense ineffable, impossible to describe.   But it comes from an irrational place, deep down; it is communal, interpersonal, transformative; it is a kind of fire.  Somehow, I felt this energy all through The Breath of Kings; I believed every word the actors were saying; they seemed up, consistently, for six hours.  But it was missing, a least for me, in Macbeth, in spite of the quality of the production.   Lisa said that for her the power in Breath of Kings came from the language—from the characters, speaking–but in Macbeth it came largely from the set, the sounds, the dramatic effects—and I would agree.

Still, in spite of these reservations, I was very glad to have seen the play, and I have to say a word in praise of the two principal actors—Ian Lake as Macbeth and Krystin Pellerin as Lady Macbeth.   They gave accomplished, professional performances, and who knows why the unknowable black magic of theater did not occur for one gray-haired person in the orchestra, off to the side? In Pellerin’s opening scene, reading a letter from Macbeth and then calling on spirits to “unsex [her] . . ./And fill [her] from crown to toe topful/Of direst cruelty,” she was electric, in exactly the way I’ve been trying to describe—and I can still hear the anguished tones of her “To bed, to bed, to bed” after the sleepwalking scene.   And Lake delivered the “Tomorrow” speech slowly, with a beautiful, understated desperation, emphasizing the repetition and monotony in the lines:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
Unto the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I have seen Macbeths who became so shrill and unhinged in the earlier speeches that they had no subtlety or introspection left for this moment in Act V.  But Lake made it the highlight of his performance.

Finally, walking back to the car, Lisa and I wondered if we just weren’t ready, on this night, for so much  darkness.  Macbeth is so despairing—so much evil, so little redress—and perhaps we couldn’t go there.  As the victorious forces shouted “Hail King of Scotland!” and Malcolm restored order at the end, the weird sisters looked covertly out at the audience, sneering, unconquered.   We went and had a drink at the Queen’s Hotel.

—Dan Gunn

 

Three Kings

shakes

Stratford, Ontario, is a small, Midwestern town, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a flat terrain of cornfields and square brick farmhouses with railed porches.  Since 1953, it has improbably hosted a distinguished summer Shakespeare festival, which now runs from May to October in four theaters, presenting not only Shakespeare but plays like A Chorus Line, Le Malade Imaginaire, and John Gabriel Borkman.  My wife, Lisa, and I are here to see this summer’s Shakespeare offerings—four performances in three days.

Yesterday we saw the four plays of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy condensed into two remarkable performances—Breath of Kings: Rebellion (Richard II and Henry IV, Part I) in the afternoon, followed by Breath of Kings: Redemption (Henry IV, Part II and Henry V) in the evening.  The Stratford title comes from Bullingbrook’s bitter comment to Richard II after the latter has reduced his banishment from ten years to six:

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.

The phrase suggests both the strength and the fragility of the king’s power: the breath of a king can wipe out four years in a moment, but it is still human breath, tied to a mortal human body.  Two plays later, as Bullingbrook (now Henry IV) lies dying, his son Hal looks to see if he is still breathing:

By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not.
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move.

The king’s breath can fail, because he is merely human—a point which Breath of Kings: Rebellion makes in its opening scene, by stripping Richard to the waist and then representing his anointing, enrobing, and coronation while a murder he has ordered takes place at the other end of the stage.   How can the king be both human and “God’s substitute”?  What does it mean, in human terms, to assume the awful weight of kingship?  These are the central questions posed by this extraordinary sequence of plays—not just in Richard’s complex amalgamation of self-indulgent narcissism and regal posturing but in Henry IV’s agonized brooding (“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”) and Hal’s conflicted movement between tavern and court.

Seeing all four plays in six hours in a single day brought into relief not only these recurring thematic concerns but broad story arcs extending over several plays—in particular, the momentous deposition of Richard and its afterlives; the development of Bullingbrook’s character as he deposes Richard and becomes a powerful and then sick and tormented King; and Hal’s emergence from the “foul and ugly mists/Of vapors that did seem to strangle him” at Eastcheap to become the hero of Agincourt.   There was an overriding sense of unity not just in each of the two Breath of Kings performances but in the day as a whole.  As Henry IV has trouble sleeping, for example, images from the early plays haunt his dreams: hooded figures chant Carlisle’s prophecy that “the blood of English shall manure the ground” if Richard is deposed, and soldiers wear masks of Richard’s face.  Northumberland’s character spans three plays, appearing first as a bold supporter of Bullingbrook, then as a conspirator against him, shying uneasily away from battle.  The moving scene in which Hal publicly rejects Falstaff—“I know thee not, old man”—has more pathos when the earliest scenes of them carousing and drinking together are still fresh in our minds.

The plays were performed here by twenty energetic and talented actors, all of whom played multiple roles, representing nearly fifty separate characters.  Their performances were casually and un-self-consciously color- and gender-blind, with women frequently playing men, moving easily back and forth across gender lines, and color and ethnicity having no apparent significance in the action.  There were one or two instances of self-conscious play—for example, when the actress playing the Dauphin deftly removed a doublet, unfurled a white skirt, and became the Princess Kate in a matter of seconds, or when the actor who had previously played Falstaff spoke about him, as Fluellen, with a knowing and playful expression—but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.  The costumes were spare and eclectic: Lisa said that it seemed as if the actors had been turned loose in the wardrobe room and invited to take whatever seemed appropriate for their characters: skullcaps, jerseys, doublets, animal skins, gunbelts, eye patches, robes.  The lozenge-shaped stage was relatively bare, covered by bark mulch and surrounded on all sides by steeply-tiered seats.  (The mulch was often manipulated for dramatic affect: a body dragged through it left a gash; cross-shaped lines were raked through it; it  became the earth when Richard returned from Ireland and knelt to touch it.)   The actors played skillfully to the entire house, turning gently and naturally during long speeches.  They also used the periphery of the stage and even the audience’s space: Richard stood high up in an aisle, with scepter and orb, to address Northumberland from the walls of Flint Castle, before descending “like glittering Phaeton”; as they entered Hal’s coronation scene, Falstaff and his cronies moved through the audience and said, “Excuse me, I think these are our seats,” sitting on the stunned patrons’ laps.

The effect of all these production choices was to place the emphasis on the language, which the actors handled with great skill and feeling, driving the story forward and articulating its themes.  Astonishingly, through the two long performances, we never felt that the production dragged: we were pulled along by the lucidity and energy of the speeches.  It was all one story.  The pace was often rapid, with entrances and exits coming from all sides of the stage, but there were quiet, introspective moments, too—for example, Richard’s melancholy speech about the death of kings, or Henry IV’s dying speech to his son.   As the evening performance moved into its triumphant phase—the celebration of Henry V’s victories in France—the Elizabethan equivalent of Boston fans talking over the 2004 ALCS–the production reached its own triumph, in Henry’s ringing speech at Agincourt (“We few, we happy few”) and the multilingual courtship scenes between him and Kate.   After spending the better part of the day in this world, we were genuinely sorry to have to leave.

The actors in the principal roles were all impressive:  Tom Rooney’s Richard was tense, unpredictable, witty, poetic, fascinating; his presence (alive and dead) dominated the production.  Graham Abbey showed an astonishing range as Bullingbrook and Henry IV. At first, he was like an English football fan on his best behavior: there was a suppressed, mulish force just below the surface even of his most gracious speeches, and he outfaced Richard even in the deposition scene.  But he evolved into a complex, vulnerable, guilt-ridden old man, lying on his deathbed with the crown next to him on a pillow.  Although he was slight of stature and seemingly lacking in presence at first, Areya Mengesha grew into his performance as Hal and Henry V.  His forceful reply to the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls was one of the highlights of the evening performance.   But Geraint Wyn Davies’s Falstaff deserves special notice.  Wyn Davies, who played the ham actor Henry Breedlove in season 2 of Slings and Arrows, commanded the stage during the tavern scenes and (especially) Falstaff’s soliloquies.  He was buoyant, shrewd, unsinkable—and his corrosive deconstruction of court virtue served as a counterpoint to the play’s main themes. “There’s honor for you!” Falstaff says, looking down on the corpse of Sir Walter Blunt.  Indeed. The strength of Wyn Davies’ performance raised real questions about the value and trajectory of Hal’s heroic evolution.  Can it be right for Hal to turn aside from Falstaff’s ironic knowledge to become a hero and a king?

–Dan Gunn

 

 

Philosophy and Literature: How to Read (A Review)

bd

Review by Curtis Cole

Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze stand among as the contemporary world’s most influential philosophers. Each have contributed dynamic new understandings of how to view the world and life itself through original ontological interpretations; while both thinkers once stood in stark opposition to one another—Badiou went as far as to denounce Deleuze’s philosophy as ‘fascist’—both share a kindred spirit: as Jean-Jacques Lecercle illustrates, both minds are bent on maintaining a dichotomy between literature and philosophy.

Lecercle’s effort in his short but dense book Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature is to give a comparative analysis of each philosopher; moreover, however, his effort is to do more than simply describe the differences but chart out how and why each thinker has based their hermeneutic outlook. Lecercle thus constructs his idea of a ‘disjunctive synthesis’ within the context of a ‘strong reading’ in order to demonstrate how Badiou and Deleuze are theoretically joined together and how from that union’s moments of divergence, each built their respective philosophies.

Because of the dense nature of Lecercle’s book, it is too much to be able to give an outline of even a fraction of the material. But it is of vital concern that readers at least understand the basics of this ‘disjunctive synthesis’ and the ‘strong reading.’

At its most base, a disjunctive synthesis is a Deleuzian concept. Lecercle writes of it as having “a strong paradoxical flavor, as it seeks to connect and separate at the same time, to keep together what must ultimately remain apart” (17). Indeed, it is a “logical operation” demonstrative of absolute difference instead of “the traditional philosophy of identity and representation” (19).  So the reader should see how it relates to Lecercle’s project in connecting two divergent thinkers within a literary matrix: he uses it, in other words, as a dialectical reformulation of post-Structuralist theory which seeks to decipher the road of intellectual intensification between Badiou and Deleuze.

But, of course, there is more, and this concept, however brilliantly utilized by Lecercle, is of little value unless directed by an overarching intellectual movement. This is where the notion of a ‘strong reading’ arrives. Lecercle outlines six characteristics of a strong reading, they are: (a) it goes against convention; (b) this fight against convention is aimed at the extraction of a problem; (c) once a problem has been extracted, the ‘construction which grasps it’ must be created—the central idea, in other words; (d) persistence is vital to a strong reading as unless one continuously returns to the problem, the reading lacks the staying power needed to problematize the text and legitimate the seemingly counter-intuitive reading; (e) that the sum total of the previous points amounts to not an interpretation, but an intervention—the uncovering of a truth rather than an formative opinion; (f) and finally, the last characteristic of a strong reading is that it provokes readers and summons a ‘counter-reading’ which initiates a new string of argumentation and research (68-70). For a textual engagement to qualify as a strong reading, it must have all of these six traits.

This outlook is all well and good, but the question still remains—is this idea of a strong reading guided by a disjunctive synthesis a proactive theory? Yes, it is very proactive. Lecercle’s engagement with Deleuzian and Badiouan outlooks is nothing short of astonishing. The reason for this book’s existence is because of an inflammatory book where, much to the dismay of Deleuzian loyalists, he seemingly savaged Deleuze’s thought. What Lecercle does in his effort is to provide context for Badiou’s form of reading Deleuze before embarking upon the theoretical journey meant to illustrate what would happen if a ‘strong reading’ where incorporated into Badiou and Deleuze proper; this is done via recourse to examining each thinker’s previous engagements with literary traditions—French poetry for Badiou, and Anglo-American literature for Deleuze. Through each chapter Lecercle interrogates the nuances of each of his subject’s reading philosophies and their logical conclusion.

In the end, Lecercle provides an experience not to be missed by anyone with an interest in literary criticism of a philosophic variety. Not only does his undertaking provide the basis for a thrilling intellectual engagement with two of history’s greatest philosophers, but it provides a simple introduction to each thinker’s thought. Anyone who enjoys critical theory, philosophy, literary theory, or just a strident academic work which broaches new horizons, should pick up a copy of this indispensable book.

Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature

Jean-Jacques Lecercle

213 pages. Published by Eidenburgh U.P. $30.50 (Hardcover), $20.46 (Paperback)[1]. 2010.

 

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Doomware by Nathan Kuzack (A Review)

doomware

Review by Curtis Cole

In the century of Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama, what can really be said about the ‘End of the Earth,’ especially after epics like The Walking Dead, Left 4 Dead, and George A. Romero’s portfolio? Hard to say, personally, but evidently not for Natan Kuzack who manages to deliver on a (un-)surprisingly divergent take on the zombie end. Surprising for it being a well-written literary experience and unsurprising for its blasé take on technological determinism.

Plot wise, we see this: David is an ‘acybernetic,’ someone whose brain rejected the so-called ‘brainware’ which propelled humanity into the golden of near-immortality and Godlike biological and interconnected prosperity. He is a modern black sheep and faces discrimination due to his inability to fit in with the crowd. Fortunately, he does not have long to suffer his torment since a devastating virus wipes out humanity thanks to a ‘bug’ in the brainware; thus, billions of people are instantly killed while others become ‘reanimated’ carcasses who wander the Earth as biological machines—brainware working but biology long deteriorated.

So David leads a solitary life of scrapping by on whatever is left over from the great end. He scavenges for food, entertainment, and tries his best to cope with the unending horror of hostile dead and insufferable loneliness. That is until one day when he encounters a young boy; a fellow survivor who he eventually adopts as his son and has many heartwarming moments protecting. Not long after he meets his adoptive son, he meets a strapping solider-man who makes all of his romantic and existential dreams come true. Or, as many as possible when the rotting cadavers of Mom and Dad still walk about, screaming for your flesh.

I guess what I am trying to say is this—the story is well-written. The characters develop smoothly, and the internal machinations of the universe assist rather than degrade the uniqueness of the apocalyptic happening; the idea of implanted machines leading to the near-extinction of humanity after a virus shuts down the central processing center of the depended upon machines, makes for an interesting reading experience which is a breath of fresh air in a stale horror sub-genre. This is greatly welcomed since with every passing day, there grows more fetid pieces to capitalize upon the zombie craze, written by Johns and Jane Does who think they can pen an engaging zombie epic.

But, for all of Doomware‘s strengths, for how visceral the author is able to write action scenes and how much emotion he is able to convey, much of the novel is simply ‘good,’ not ‘amazing,’ just average.

My objections ultimately boil down to this—although the idea of brainware dooming humanity was a different take on how zombification happens, it was still an old-hat in the pantheon of reasons why humanity is overthrown; the notion that humanity unknowingly plants the seeds of their doom by being overeager to use technology as a crutch is a tired affair. Moreoever, it is a deeply reactionary affair, pessimistic in what humanity is able to achieve. It is the status quo screaming for stability in an economic order increasingly shaken by its own internal contradictions.

Doomware has multiple instances of the author preaching against technological dependence and, by extension, advancement. Entire pages are sometimes dedicated to religious-like soliloquies on technology and its boring, underlying neo-luddite ideology which hankers for the good old days of natural humanity. One may argue that the novel may not explicitly argue for a neo-luddite re-imagining, but considering that the digital version is free, it is also hard to argue that it is anything other than, in the very minimum, another unexciting piece of anti-technology propaganda.

I have other issues with the text—from the forced religious metaphors and stand-ins to the ‘trying too hard’ attitude of the author when it comes to self-referentiality—but the preaching against cyborg initiatives is my main beef primary because of its reactionary thinking, and partly due to its eye-rolling prominence  among modern artists.

Another moment which I found myself barking at was directed toward the romance… there was little need for it. I can enjoy reading a satisfying romantic entanglement between two people—hetero-or-homosexual—but this was one of those instances where you find yourself scratching your head at why it is important that these two people fall in love and what it adds to the story, especially since the romance itself does not seem to be the primary focus of the text’s consciousness: the protagonist survives, meets a boy he is grateful to save in order to redeem humanity, and then meets an intriguing older-man. The text wants to be about family but manages only to speak about familial relations on the periphery. What one ultimately reads is a familial-oriented story muddled underneath the exact motives of the protagonist and survival itself.

But the romantic deficiencies is simply a symptom of a deeper, subtending base, that of the rushed ending compounding its shortcomings. The book is short, at just under three hundred pages but feels as though there should be another hundred in order for it to feel whole. Case-in-point, the final twenty-percent of the book feels like it should be the final forty-percent; meaning, that when reading near the finale, one feels as though there should be, at least, another twenty-percent before your turn the last page. Instead, the book ends on an unsatisfying and vague conclusion which is closed enough for a stand-alone novel but open enough for the author to revisit should he choose to do so. In other words, the text gives you just enough closure mixed with just enough wonder enabling the author to have the best of both worlds. A rookie cop-out.

Even so, at the end of the day, Kuzack’s title is, as far as I know, his first full-length literary production. Because of this, certain shortcomings can be glossed over; every writer’s early work is to be expected to have some ‘bugs,’ so to speak. Ideological differences aside, there is much to enjoy in Kuzack’s writing since it is well-crafted and worth looking into since the Kindle versions of his works are free; so anyone short on funds should not be afraid to look at his library if you want a different take on sci-fi and horror. One should simply be prepared for the customary gulf of experience which comes alongside any new author.

Doomware

Nathan Kuzack

298 pages. Published by Nathan Kuzack. $0.00 (Kindle), $7.85 (paperback). 2014.

An Heir to Thorn and Steel (A Review)

25813474

Review by Curtis Cole

Fantasy, especially High Fantasy of the variety popularized by J. R. R Tolkein, has lately fallen into a malaise; the clichés and platitudes, predictable plucky farmboy protagonists, walking cardboard cutouts… and the plots… suffice it to say that fantasy lately has been plagued by a spell which attempts to do the impossible, i.e., bring Tolkein back from the dead, or at least his spirit. In the Indie scene this is all the more prevalent. One only need to briefly browse through the Amazon’s E-book marketplace to see what sort of cancer this impossibility has wrought; I will save you the trouble—scores of poorly written, unedited, textual shambles which deserve no role in the civilized literary world. So this is to say that whenever I delve into a new Indie fantasy novel, I am, in a word, suspect. So diving into M.C.A Hogarth’s An Heir to Thorns and Steel, I did not know what to expect. Would I enjoy discovering a new gem, or chide myself at slogging through yet another messy manuscript filled with half-baked ideas?

AS it turns out, I was able to pat myself on the back; not only was Hogarth’s yarn concerning a crippled graduate student’s struggle to find his origins between two powerful races while battling his own frailty, a beautifully realized tale in a skillfully written Victorian-esque setting, the book re-affirmed my faith in Indie authors to pen tales capable of challenging those published in the mainstream. Before I go any further, however, let me sketch the plot.

Morgan, the protagonist, is a graduate student studying at a prestigious university in a (American) Colonial era inspired country which, following their revolution to overthrow the monarchy, has become a republic; finding peace among his many books and classes, Morgan pines for the simple life of pain-free living, for you see, he has a debilitating illness which renders him useless and inflicts great harm on his body. One day, two furry creatures (‘genets’) named Almond and Kelu, emissaries from a far-away land, inform him that he is actually a prince, heir to an Elven kingdom. Though, of course, hesitant to believe them, Morgan reluctantly agrees to travel to this foreign land, lured by the promise of a cure to his illness; along the way he meets characters whom challenge him in more ways than one and toward a destiny which is something he never before imagined.

Read the full post »

Surmounting the Void: Reviewing “Hollow Space: Venture”

Xantoverse

Long time science-fiction warriors C.F. Barnes and T.F. Grant, graduates of the London School of Journalism and Open University, debut their latest series (“Xantoverse”) with a bang: hitting all the high-water marks with gusto, Hollow Space: Venture reminds readers that even during a time of mass-market clones, of vapid copy-cat stories shamelessly raking in on a pop culture fad, there are still proponents of the craft for whom writing is as personal as breathing; with engaging characters more than the sum of their cardboard cutout parallels, and a morally and politically thrilling plot concerning self-determination and labor, this array a soft[1] sci-fi installations mix fantasy and science into one delicious cocktail of neophyte fiction.

The story is one of war. The people of the Crown Republic have been locked in conflict with the alien Markesians for many years. During the course of the altercation billions have died, reducing the human race to a mere gaggle of survivors scratching-by in colony ships. Destined to settle new planets and repopulate the human race, the colony ships represent humanity’s last hope; and yet, the last of these ships, the Venture, navigated by protagonist Sara Lorelle, is ambushed by a Markesian fleet.

Taking heavy damage and forced to make a retreat, Sara initiates a blind warp jump, desperate to escape her attackers. However, an anomaly happens. Instead of jumping out at a random point in the system the Venture is brought to a mysterious region of existence called “hollow space” by its denizens; short circuiting all of the Venture’s electronics, forcing them into an even more deplorable condition, Sara and her crew are coerced into accepting the aid of Tairon Chauder, the son of the infamous Miriam Chauder, and a major crime syndicate leader: one of the ruling bodies which control the space station known as Haven, a mysterious relics left behind by an extinct species of aliens called Xantonians.

Read the full post »

‘Darkness Brutal’ by Rachel A. Marks (A Review)

darkbrutal

Review by Curtis Cole

                Do you have a hankering for Young Adult (YA) Urban Fantasy novels? If so then good news! Rachel A. Marks has you covered with her first installment in the “Dark Cycle” trilogy. Featuring all of the hallmarks of YA literature (hormones, passion, intimacy, emotions, etc.) with a healthy dose of inspiration taken from the television show “Supernatural”, readers of such works will be delighted to partake in the latest addition to the ‘up and coming’ sub-genre of urban fantasy; with the author having previously won an award for her novella “Winter Rose”, one should consider it an added bonus that the name behind the pen is talented as she is dedicated.

So what is the plot of this YA release, you ask? One of very expected content: Meet Aiden, a seventeen year old boy. He has special powers, including, but not limited to: the ability to read (and speak) in numerous ancient languages, see and communicate with demons, fighting said demons, and see peoples’ emotions waft from their bodies as colorful hues. Aiden must protect his little sister (Ava) whose (mysterious) importance is so vital to demon-kind that they have hunted her ever since she was a little girl; they congregate every three (or so) years—on her birthday—to make an attempt on her soul. People tend to die when this transpires and so Aiden, diligent to prevent any more innocent people from being torn to shreds, becomes desperate to protect her from the darkness, to find a lasting cure for her “demon problem”. In a bid to stave off the monsters he brings Ava to the home of Sid, a magically inclined gentleman who deals in the supernatural for a living, alongside his crew of “uniquely talented” youngsters. Though protected under Sid’s roof by his array of enchantments, things quickly become complicated for Aiden once he meets Kara and Rebecca; from here on out his life becomes a swirl of raging hormones and arcane secrets from his past—his mother’s death at the hand of demons somehow one of the keys to saving the world.

It is all standard fare. It is equal parts Supernatural and Harry Potter mixed with a bit of H.P Lovecraft. To Marks’s credit, much of the writing is handled exquisitely. The characters, for the most part, feel authentic: there is drama and emotions preserved in narrative layers; just when you think things become settled, something new transpires to throw everything out of orbit. Though there are many different sub-plots nothing ever feels too “out of whack”. Although some of the narrative aspects could have been more fully realized (such as a character or two or a plot thread), Marks should be congratulated on managing the largely successful fusion of so many different elements in a whole. Many authors, especially new authors, make the mistake of balancing too many balls in the air and end up crashing to the ground: Marks meanwhile juggles with pride.

So with this being said, I wish my opinion of Darkness Brutal was better, but quite frankly, I cannot lie: I found this book to be trite to the core. Though it may simply be I am not the target audience, I feel this only mitigates a fraction of the damage—I have read other YA novels containing far more substance. To make a list of my complaints: (1) the protagonist was jarring, (2) the plot itself easily recycled material from a wide range of supernatural and fantasy canon, (3) the drama needless and eye-rolling, and (4) some of the preaching, moralizing, and how it combined with the plot twists were laughable. Though there are many positive components to this books, these listed aspects were inexcusable mistakes.

First and foremost, the protagonist: he was thoroughly unlikable. Numerous times while reading, I wish I could shake him and/or punch him—he was a clueless, melodramatic, male chauvinist hiding behind a “nice guy” persona. His ignorance became more glaring with each chapter; his refusal to confide in people, ask for help, divulge information—along with his general arrogance juxtaposed with his stereotypical ‘I can handle anything since it is my responsibility to protect my little sis,’ when he is clearly outmatched—made him a target with legs in my eyes. His attitude was irrational and highly irksome since it was lazy writing on the part of the author; indeed, with Aiden she dropped the ball: truly he is nothing more than a walking amalgamation of tropes and clichés of the worst kind.

Another factor which pushed my literary buttons was Aiden’s disposition towards sexual activities. While this complaint factors into the various drama sub-plots, I found it to be a weakness of the author, and so subsequently attached it to her conservative social position; although the protagonist is on the cusp on adulthood, and openly remarks about his desperation to “get laid” and lose his virginity, he never engages in sexual activities when an able, willing and age-appropriate partner presents a consenting possibility.

To be clear: I am not railing against the fact that there are no sex scenes. No matter the genre, I prefer my literature to be free of pornography, as I feel it distracts from the narrative. What I am frustrated with, rather, is Marks’s moralizing and poor character design. Simply said, this seems of an authorial imposition: though I do not wish to make blanket statements about young people, I feel that many youth in Aiden’s position would have partook in a chance at sexual intimacy instead of passing up the offer. The fact that he refuses encounters extended to him by a willing, similarly aged, consenting partner, which even leads him to the fulfillment of the narrative’s major sub-plot, is indicative of a reactionary theist-oriented stance on human relations; Marks is building a world where youth resist the temptation of “sex before marriage” and are rewarded by divine powers. A position collaborated when seen contrasted to depictions of those who indulge in premarital carnal relations (i.e., deformed, sinful and unwell life forms who bring hardship upon their loved ones). With procreation constituting the major theme of the book (hardly surprising since Mormon extremist Orson Scott Card gave the title a sterling endorsement), and Aiden’s redemption of “The Mother(s)” achieved precisely through such conservative means, the aroma of sex negative thinking pervades the text.

For a teen and young adult novel, Darkness Brutal was a jarring read thanks to the overwhelming emphasis which conservatism occupied. The majority of the book’s inter-character drama played out against sexual desire and its repression. While the author did try and elevate non-sexual activities (like kissing and hand-holding) to a higher level of importance, the net-product was more condescension than reality. I felt that the focus of the plot was being subsumed. In place of an active engagement of Aiden as a uniquely talented individual, the focus of the narrative centered more on carnal delights which were only present due to the gifts given once rejected; in short: Marks does not know how to write youthful heterosexual males, a visibility made even more acute with the frustratingly cardboard “emotional wreck” of a love interest (“Kara”). It was needless and hapless preaching on the part of Marks; a kind whose obsolesce appeared all the more antiquated due to its awkward visibility in a genre usually devoid of such backward positions (teen novels such as Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies depict how much a teen novel can get away with in terms of sexual philosophy without losing sight of the characters as driven agents).

All of this said, Darkness Brutal is still a fine read. Assuming one does not mind a great deal of cursing (or angst filled characters), I would recommend this as a suitable read to a teen or young adult with a penchant for the supernatural and otherworldly. The writing is evocative and the author knows how to keep the plot going. While she does trip over herself on more than one occasion, I do not feel it severely impedes the narrative to an unreadable degree; though I should be honest and say that I think this book can only be recommended to persons still developing a taste in this kind of thematic material; anyone, after all, who has read and watched more than a handful of similarly constructed texts, will be sure to find this a drab read. So, at the end of the day, while this is bound to be an adequate birthday-party bash for any number of young readers, older lovers of ‘the dark’ should stay away—nothing but ‘kiddy’ parties here!

Darkness Brutal

Rachel A. Marks

422 pages[1]. Published by Skyscape (NewYork). $4.99 (Kindle)[2]. 2015.

 

[1] Page estimates taken from Amazon.com.

[2] Prices were accurate at the time of writing.

Humanities Spring Reception 2016

gretdan

The Division of Humanities (which includes the Department of English) each year hosts a spring reception to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year. Faculty members Pat O’Donnell (UMF’s Trustee Professor), Kristen Case (Little Arias), and Jeffrey Thomson (Fragile) read from recently published work or work  in progress. Miriam Cohen and Roshan Luick provided music.

DSC03024

Students (and their faculty sponsors) who received Wilson Scholarships  were recognized: Curtis Cole (sponsored by Lorna Hughes), Nathaniel Duggan (Shana Youngdahl), Jill Gingras (Gretchen Legler), and Timothy Stokes (Daniel Gunn).

Several students were honored for receiving awards and fellowships from organizations outside UMF, including several Fulbright Fellowship winners (which will enable the students to pursue research or creative projects or teach English as a foreign language): Travis Bent (a history major minoring in French and Spanish whose Fulbright will allow him to serve as an English teaching assistant in Spain); Kyle Manning, who graduated in 2015 as an English and Creative Writing double major, and who will be spending a year in Quebec researching bilingual comic blogs; Caroline Murphy, Secondary Education-English (also a 2015 graduate), who will be an English teaching assistant in Bulgaria.  Additionally, Creative Writing and English major Kim Arthurs completed a semester with the Movies from Marlboro program for young filmmakers.

The ceremony also announced several BFA awards: Senior Award (fall): Nathaniel Duggan; Senior Award (spring): Sarah Winchenbach. The Beth Eisen Memorial Scholarship went to Sarah Williams.

Bryce Cundick, librarian at Mantor Library, announced the winners of the Mantor-sponsored On Our Minds writing contest. All three winners were Humanities students: First, Jinni Workman; second, Mariah Haggan; third, Aimee DeGroat.

Humanities students won several other writing prizes over the past year: Aimee DeGroat was a finalist in the Hollins University Fiction Contest for her story “Feel Something.” Tim Bushika took first prize in UMA’s Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival Student Poetry Contest for “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean.” Nathaniel Duggan won the COPLAC (Consortium of Public Liberal Arts Colleges) David J. Prior award for outstanding essay on the public liberal arts experience for “Liberal Arts Degrees and Lobster Tanks: A Lesson in Stopping to Smell the Fishy Roses.”

Each year the Division of the Humanities Presents two honors for achievement in the the field of English, the Eleanor Wood Scholarship and the Maude L. Parks Award. In 2016, there were ten students who were finalists for the awards. There were two winners, and eight students who earned honorable mention. Honorable mention went to: Samuel Bennett, Tiffany Bishop, Julia Fletcher, Tyler Gadaire, Carolyn Newhouse, Janelle Noonan, Laura Pulito, and Kristen Simmons.

The Maud L. Parks Award was presented to Holland Corson.

The Eleanor Wood Memorial Scholarship was awarded to Brigid Chapin.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.