Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The old monsters

As part of the SF and fantasy course I mentioned in my last post,  the last few weeks I have been reading Dracula, Frankenstein and some stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe. It is difficult to say if I am enjoying these reads. Dracula was interesting, but having read that story a few times, the last part seemed like a dull load. Frankenstein was unappetizing from the very beginning - the romanticism of the writing, the flowery language, the grandiose descriptions - they all seemed like monsters of their own.
I could not help thinking how uni-dimensional the characters in these books were - take Dracula for example. The black and white characters in it are clearly marked. Except for the mad-man, everyone is singularly good or evil. The story seemed like a preaching sometimes, extolling Victorian virtues.  Here is the little essay I wrote for the reading
The atmospheric work from Bram Stroker reads like a Biblical tale in a modern setting. With use of modern symbols and interesting art forms (journals, multiple narratives, mystery), Stroker attempts to deliver key themes of Christanity to a modern audience who might feel disconnected from the ancient stories.
The strongest Biblical symbol is Dracula, shown as a metaphor for Satan and described both as tempter and deceiver who uses people's weakness in order to deflect them from the path of good. This can be seen in how he entices Renfield by falsely promising him eternal life, convincing him to let him enter the hospital. He (with other vampires) fosters sinful desires: Jonathan Harker is tempted by the three women in Dracula's castle, while Lucy calls out to Arthur in a voluptuous voice to kiss her, before her fall.
Like in the Bible, Bram Stroker illustrates that Dracula's temptations can be resisted by being alert, by prayer and by relying on God's faithfulness. In the story, characters struggle to stay awake; many a tragedies occur while they are asleep or in trance. Dr Van Helsing strongly advocates keeping a crucifix on person when in proximity of Dracula. This crucifix, a symbol of God, saves the party from harm. Mina constantly resorts to prayer, never wavers in her faith, and is thus saved from the influence of Satan.
Stroker's technique is very similar to the technique of Biblical story-telling in modern theatre - perhaps an influence from his theatre background. He tries to internalize the story for his audience by keeping the script simple, breaking up the story into scenes or chapters, keeping fixed locations (the castle, Whitby, hospital), and tracking the emotional journey of the characters. This keeps the reader interested and imprints the Biblical teaching of virtue over desire very vividly in his mind.
Reading Frankenstein was even more difficult, but there was a singular anxiety that is reflected in that writing - the anxiety of being alone. Perhaps it stemmed from the isolated environment Mary Shelly was when she first wrote the story. My somewhat formed thoughts on this which I presented as an essay:
Alienation appears as a dominant theme in Mary Shelly's novel. The three narrators- Walton, Frankenstein and the monster, are all disconnected from the society around them and experience angst on account of this alienation. This alienation mirrors the feelings of the 19th century European society which was witnessing rapid industrialization.
Before Industrialization, people produced for self-subsistence and therefore had a direct relationship to their labour's fruit. However, in Industrial era, because the product would belong to capitalists, workers felt alienated from their work and therefore not in control of their lives. Frankenstein's labour, though frenzied, is still dissociated from its final outcome (He never thinks about the life he is creating). Upon completion, he runs away from it. Mary Shelly has captured the worker's estrangement with his work very succinctly through this analogy. Frankenstein, like Walton and like the modern man, spends a lot of time away from his family and natural surroundings to pursue secondary relationships with his work. They all work in alien environments (a cottage, aboard a ship, a factory). Their isolation causes them anxiety and dissatisfaction with life.
The monster's alienation is of a different nature, but still relates to the working man. He feels powerless to do what he would like to do: find friends and lead a peaceful life. He finds "human senses as insurmountable barriers" to achieving his natural state. He struggles against this powerlessness and seeks revenge. The working man similarly feels powerless to determine his fate, which is increasingly dependent on the decisions of the capitalist. He either submits to this power and feels unhappy, or adopts unlawful means (robbery, thieving, murder) to protest and regain his lost power.
With her theme, Mary Shelly seems to endorse the Romantic view that Science, Modernization and Industrialization have created antagonism in human nature.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A new look at the old

A few days ago, in one of the Ted talks, I came to know about an initiative which provides Online education through a collaboration of elite institutes: Coursera. I was quite impressed with the idea, and decided to look through some of the courses offered. These courses are offered for free (at least for now, but there is a possibility of them becoming paid in the future, albeit affordable). Having come from an Engineering institute and being interested in Humanities, I decided to hunt for a few courses based on Literature/Art. I found one which looked interesting: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, a course offered by Prof Eric Rabkin at University of Michigan. The course aims to explore both these genres as insights and art forms. Unfortunately I was already 10 days late into the course (and hence missed one assignment), the reading seems to be a lot given my current pace with books, and the overall workload looked daunting. Nevertheless, I registered last week, and went through with the reading of Grimm's Fairy tales (I needn't have as I could not submit that assignment anyway) and then Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the looking Glass.

My first readings of these books were in childhood, and those must have been abridged versions adapted for classroom reading. I have had a sort of refresher into these stories with Tim Burton's Alice and the latest HBO series Once upon a time which revisits the fairy-tales with seemingly dark shades. Both screen adaptations are made for a mature audience and I thought they took much liberty with their base material. However, when I revisited the readings, I discovered that the books themselves contained so many dark themes, and encompassed ideas far beyond the reach of children. For instance, Alice's story is rich with themes of death, cultural misinterpretations, teenage angst - concepts alien to me on my first readings. The Grimm's fairytales had more witches than fairies in them and constantly re-emphasized rebellion, cunning and the Universal truths that if you are beautiful, your lies are not necessarily evil and that beauty is a marker of moral superiority.
Of course it is not a new discovery or a complete surprise - leitmotifs from these stories keep cropping in many readings and therefore you learn to acknowledge them as more than just children stories, but re-reading them with this sensitization is a new experience - something I am enjoying so far.
Here is the little note I wrote on Alice (there were word limits of course, which helps me be in check and chose words more carefully, unlike this blog!)

While creating a fantastical world which serves to amuse, Alice's story centers around the theme of growing-up and the angst associated with it. In the beginning of the story, Alice follows after a rabbit, seen as a sign of fertility, and goes into a long tunnel. Both these symbols indicate puberty and developing sexuality, as does her fascination with gardens (an allusion to Eden). At this stage, interacting with world always seems most difficult, as the individual constantly double-guesses herself, which can be seen in Alice's reference to being two different people . Alice's constant need to re-adjust her size is an effort to fit into this new world, not very different from young people constantly trying to adopt new styles, ideologies to feel in place with their peers.
Lewis Caroll attributes this growing-up anxiety to the many rules which children are suddenly exposed to and are expected to follow. While as children they spend most of their time in a homogenous environment, in the outer world they meet people of different status. They are expected to show concerns over the feelings of those weaker, and defer to the stronger. Alice is constantly worried that she would slip up on these rules and say something hurtful; her encounter with the mouse in the beginning shows her constant struggle to remember this. But as time goes forward, she gets more comfortable in these rules and is more careful of what she says to the mock turtle.
The simpler anxiety of forgetting rules is replaced with more complicated ones like political ideas, power games and unfairness, which cause more angst. The young deal with it either through rejection (Alice waking up from a dream) or alternatively with playing by the rules to become more powerful themselves (playing the chess game to become queen). In each case, they lose their blissful ignorance.

This week, its a read of Dracula, and despite the fact that I had done a second reading just 5 years back, I am still finding myself hooked to the book as if it was some new thriller.