A Statement of Some Purpose

In looking for a file just now, I stumbled across this statement of purpose I wrote up for graduate school. I was accepted to Oxford and to University College London that year; and chose UCL; for the same reason that Virginia Woolf might have chosen London over life in the country.

It’s strange, of course: I wonder if this is still the same statement of who I am now. Dani said, when we were having coffee the other day––”Yes, but you seem fairly stable,” meaning that she felt I was rather secure in myself; even if the world is still trying to make up its mind about me; and me about the world.

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            Elizabeth e-mails me to say, “I think I believe in astrology now. I want you to visit this web site and have your birth chart generated,” and so ok, ok––and after entering information such as name, time of birth, date of birth, sex, and so on, a five page so-called description of who I am appears. There is something beautifully intimate about the line that reads, “Rich Russell is eccentric, intelligent and lucid. Complex love life. He is happy in his imaginary world and thus is happy nowhere…”––because I take “his imaginary world” to mean the world of literature and of writing. And how could the real world ever hope to compete with that symbolic dreamscape?

            In my Honors Modern Fiction class at Northern Highlands Regional High School (Allendale, NJ), we read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in January. I like to wait until everything is a little colder and more desperate before starting upon my favorite book in the course. My high school students, I fear, bright as they are, are, in general, either turned off by Faulkner’s polyphonic prose or forced to merely feign interest on account of my much-professed admiration for the work. There are few students who will defend Addie Bundren in discussion, most finding her selfish, manipulating, and, as one student wrote in a recent paper, “noxious.” Maybe the students who sympathize with her most are also those who understand her well enough to know that for Addie, who thought language was so inadequate, that Addie would not want some prolix declaration of support. So the closest I have come to “rescuing” Addie, during my now three years teaching HMF, is a student’s journal entry admission that he cried after reading the last line of the book: when Anse replaces Addie with the new Mrs. Bundren. And I cried a little too, at his words this time and not Faulkner’s.

            I try to explain to my students Addie’s philosophy. “Isn’t it true,” I state, “that, what Addie says of love––if love exists, then there is no reason for us to have a word for it: that the word love would just be ‘a shape to fill a lack’ as she declares? Wouldn’t it be the same for something like happiness––that if we truly were happy we wouldn’t need to provide the term?” And now, as I reflect upon Addie and my students and that line from the birth chart, I’m struck by the possibility that I am content nowhere in life because I am most content in literature and in language: I am more happy in the word happy than I should ever be in a state of happiness.

            And so graduate school: my students first suggested the notion to me. I know the classroom is where I want to spend my waking life. I continue to realize that my life isn’t that of your typical Bergen County resident. Lunching at the Applebee’s in Paramus on a recent Saturday afternoon, the restaurant packed with shoppers talking about their cars or their clothes, my friend Amanda and I were having a heated chat concerning Beowulf, and the teaching of it in high school. “We have an obligation to our students. Our students (and, in fact, most people) outside of school might not pick up Beowulf on their own––” and then after pausing a moment to consider this, I conceded, “Well, I mean,––I read it on my own. But that was only because Seamus Heaney had written his new translation.” Amanda smiled and gently mentioned, “You do realize that you’re not most people, Rich. You do realize that you’re not normal, right?”

            “What makes you say that?” I asked, still upset over the prospect of a Brit Lit sans Beowulf. “Is it because I spent last Friday night watching three different film versions of Jane Eyre––or because I just joined JASNA [The Jane Austen Society of North America]?”

            Amanda smiled. “So what are you going to study?”

           I am still a student of twentieth century authors myself. That beautiful synthesis of expectation and despair that prevailed during the first half of the twentieth century––how would I give that up? But as a focus, I should like to explore British novelists between the wars [World War I, World War II]. In many ways, that period seems symptomatic of our current American circumstance––waiting for the next turn of the gyre, as it were.

            For in addition to a love of literature and a desire to pursue teaching at the college level, I want to enter graduate school for the same reason Jude Fawley wished to go to Christminster: to be a scholar. I want to return as a full-time student, having now occupied the other side of the teacher’s desk, and work towards my doctorate and a chance to serve the University. I can think of no place I would be as happy.

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Bangs & Beard Go to the Museum. Later that weekend: Men Who Brunch; A Most Uncharacteristic Peppermint Mocha.

Madison & I drift through the European wing on the second floor of the museum. Here, a little Dutch room, where I imagine myself very happy; in Het Scheepje (The Little Ship).

Madison seems to much prefer the English drawing room. Would Lord Shelburne have ever expected part of his home to end up here; in Philly?––his dining room shipped off to the Met in New York. The autopsy performed; and the house on Barclay Square chopped-up & sold to these Americans.

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In the ceremonial tea house, Madison tells me how she had wanted to spend time in a Buddhist ashram when she was a teenager; but we both know how those things go. So many projects abandoned; left like toys out on the drawing room floor. I almost trip over the new ukulele I’ve just purchased.

We descend a side staircase to have coffee & hot cider in the great hall, serenaded by loud, Cagey music. Should we have dinner somewhere (else)? We wander out into the night, which is cold but not unkind (a relief since I am wearing but a cardigan for comfort) and find ourselves outside the Eastern State Penitentiary, where Madison had her first date with the guy she’s seeing. There is a converted firehouse/restaurant across the way.

On the walk back to the car, I ask, “But you don’t regret the path your life has taken?” But we don’t regret: and what I have done, I would have to do again. We have made choices, at least, and that is to our credit. “And your new bangs!”––I remember to compliment. But me with my newly-cultivated beard; which seems to have accompanied a great sadness this month. I said to Devin and to Jessica: “Do you think the beard has effected such sadness or has my recent sadness only served to condition the beard?”

[Stray dialogue that doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere else.]

“Let us all live near (if not in) the museum.”

“Can we get a Xerox machine & make zines all day?”

“And if we can’t afford heat, we’ll just press ourselves up against the copier for warmth.”

[Let it be decided.]

Sunday I knot a bow tie, pull the jacket from my new three-piece suit & drive down to Cape May Point to meet Tyler for brunch. As I drive into the fog, I think, This is the end: of not only New Jersey but of all of what was/seemed to be. This is where we come to see what might be again; what we might imagine. A new world to amend for the inadequacies of the old one. (Oh, little ship!)

I order baked eggs, and immediately wonder if I will regret the baked eggs later. Tyler & I kibitz about life & what will be/why. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t all just a bunch of awkward Harolds with our purple crayons, sketching out temporary shelters for ourselves as we move through life.

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Good, then, that I bought all of those new crayons earlier in the semester…

The fog has begun to lift by the time Tyler & I leave The Red Store.

[The curtain rises on the final scene.]

Dani meets me at Target, where I am musing among the cards. I thought about opening a stationery store last week. A non-stationary, stationery store; just boxes of cards set up in the back of a van; to drive from town to town selling cards; sending them to anyone who will listen.

But I forget to tell her this. There is much I neglect to tell.

We go to Starbucks and, most uncharacteristically for me, I order a Peppermint Mocha. It is good going down, but later I will be left with an aftertaste. “I get depressed around Christmas,” I admit to Dani. “Everyone seems so set on consumption to fill up their otherwise empty lives/relationships; getting snippy at salespeople. When all I can think about are the little match girls…”

Huddling outside the Consumer Squares, striking a match––once, twice––then the light going out forever.

All of us, just these little matches; striking & striking ourselves; to set something on fire––finally. To finally get something that will burn in us. For warmth, as it were.

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And so, the Crash.

My hard drive crashed this week; or last week maybe. I have been without a computer since then; frantically checking e-mail and Facebook when/where I am able to (the zombie voices that just keep calling if not cut back; if not culled), and––

At first, I felt very calm. At first, I might have even…

I told one of my classes yesterday: “I feel as if my house has just burned down around me. All of those memories that were there: all lost. I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” I admitted, and one girl smiled,* and I was glad that she did; because at first I might have even.

It is only now; when they handed it back to me today at the Apple store earlier: I felt the panic setting in. That I again had a computer and was meant to get back to it; to start downloading; to get scrolling and commence buffering; to make with the pinning and the bookmarking.

So I turn this thing on; some Byronic beasty come back to my little apartment to take up precious brooding space on the kitchen table. More like a stranger now, it seems; or like a lover with whom one has quarreled, and I’m not sure why you came back or if I know how to find a way back to you (or if I even want to, is the worst of it; see, I was rather happy this week, I now realize. Without you, when you weren’t here, I would wake up and drink my coffee in silence, and not while half-listening to NPR while checking e-mail, eyeing my bank statements and Google reader; you always seemed to demand too much of my attention, all the time, and I gave it to you, I will admit, because I didn’t think what I really wanted; and I think sometimes I just want to stand in the kitchen in my socks, in silence, and imagine a new world and not the one you are always so insistent upon showing to me; first thing, every morning; god, if you only knew how tiring it can be at times!).

And everyone always asks you, “Well, didn’t you back everything up?” But, no, not everything; not photos or music or files from this past year; this past year: wiped clean. But everyone will always ask you this. But it always felt like there would be more time. (No one ever sees the crash coming…) And even all those files stored on “the cloud” now seem so: uncertain. (I always liked building sandcastles closest to the waterline…)

And isn’t this what I have been wanting, in a way; have been waiting for? To just start over. To be forced to begin again. (With everything seeming so precious now.) Part of me wants to complete it: to go in and to start deleting more files. To delete everything down to one file; then even to that, then.

But here is my confession: when I got home from the, from the store this afternoon, I threw out half a bag of apples that were gathering dust in the fruit bowl. They were not so much bad as I deemed them no longer good. It felt so good to just throw them all out.

Not just sandcastles; what I loved most when I was little, was not the building of Legos, you see; when I would tear them apart with my teeth (is that why I now have this toothsome gap there), it was the taking-apart of the cities; that is what I loved most; that sometimes I think I built them just to un-build them better.

That everything goes and we let it; we hold fast, and then––

That is what I have learned from this. What I am remembering.

*When another student said, “I saw you drinking your coffee and reading your newspaper earlier in the campus center,” and I asked him, “Why didn’t you say hi?”––but he said he was in a rush. And the student who smiled when I told her about the crash, said to him, “I said hi when I saw him this morning;” and she did. But maybe we have forgotten how to; how to recover that.

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World Literature, Week 5

In my sections of World Lit this week, we’ll start looking at graphic narratives/novels. Students are reading Guy DeLisle’s Burma Chronicles for next week.

1. Literary terms to use when discussing comics/graphic narratives:
panel, a single box in which dialogue and/or pictures appear. We refer to the first panel, second panel, third panel, and so on on a given page.
caption, text that appears in a box giving scene or character descriptions.
dialogue, what the characters are “saying out loud,” indicated in word bubbles (bubbles with straight lines). Thought bubbles (what the characters are thinking to themselves) are indicated in “fluffy clouds.” Thoughts can also be indicated in the caption boxes.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is an excellent source for anyone interested in learning more about this genre.

2. The appeal of graphic novels/narratives. (Note: “graphic” denotes that there are pictures, though some graphic narratives are also graphic.) How does the experience of reading graphic narratives (comics/graphic novels) differ from the way a traditional book/novel is read? Did you find it easier or more difficult to read the first half of Burma Chronicles and why? Do you feel more or less immersed in a graphic narrative than you do in a narrative that “only” includes words/text? Why has the graphic novel/narrative genre become so popular in recent years, including with members of “The Academy” (college students and professors)?

3. Graphic narratives of war. Read this article on Iraq war comics. (Be sure to look at the picture-excerpts from DMZ.) How is this allegory (and others like it) an effective means of discussing the Iraq War? (Or is it not?) You might also consider that The 9/11 Commission Report was adapted to this form. Why was it? Who would the audience be? Is this “appropriate”?

4. The influence of Maus. Read highlights from the interview with Art Spiegelman (or listen to the entire interview: 30 mins) on Maus, Maus II, and his new book MetaMaus. (Excerpts from the original Maus are available here.) What metaphor does Spiegelman use in his book Maus? Why has it been such an influential work? Is there anything from the interview with Spiegelman that you found especially interesting, poignant, or surprising?

5. One more (non-required) reading: “Plain Ink: Comics for the Developing World” (Andrew Price).

Next week we’ll look at Burma Chronicles!

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World Literature, Week 4

This week we’ll be discussing Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. In addition to reading the text, you can rent the 1994 film online (directed by Roman Polanski).

1) I usually have students, in groups, research the following topics to provide a better context for the play: (1) Ariel Dorfman; (2) President Savador Allende (government/policies of); (3) Augusto Pinochet (dictatorship of);(4) President Patricio Aylwin (policies and Rettig Commission/Report).

2) In anticipation of their first paper, we also discuss New Historicism. New Historicism (along with Reader-Response Criticism and Postcolonial Criticism) is the other major literary criticism we should consider in World Literature. New Historicism places the literary text alongside sociological and historical texts dealing with the same time period, in order to see how the fictional and the presumably non-fictional “talk to” and inform each other. BUT, to New Historicists, history to a certain extent is just another literature: constructed by certain authors and subject to interpretation, mis-interpretation, and re-interpretation. (There is an interesting but dense/nerdy article about New Historicism, as well as Postcolonial Criticism and others, on the Bedford Literature site.) History is not a context for understanding literature: it is a co-text. (Confused? Don’t be confused. Just consider these questions… What kinds of historical documents outside of the literary text seem especially relevant for shedding light on the literary? How are social and political values contemporary to the literary text reflected or refuted in that text? This can lead to questions about economic divisions and even male/female relationships.)

3) Questions we consider in discussion (which I’ve surely stolen from other sources): a) What was the function of the commission to which Gerardo was appointed? What is Paulina’s opinion of the commission and of Gerardo’s role in it? b) Does Gerardo change as a character throughout the play? Does your impression of him change? Explain. (What is your opinion of him?) c) Does Paulina’s character change throughout the play? Explain. What is your reaction to Paulina? d) What is the purpose of the last scene of the play in the concert hall? With what impression does it leave the audience?

4) In the comments section below, you might just post your own reactions to the film and the characters.

Here’s the first paper assignment:

Paper #1: Postcolonial Criticism and New Historicism
English 201-OL01 with Professor R. Russell

DUE: Monday, October 15, 7 P.M. Submit your final paper using the “Paper #1” link in the “Submit papers here” folder under the tool bar. Late papers lose points.

ASSIGNMENT: Choose one of the following two critical approaches to analyze either Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.

CRITICAL APPROACH ONE: POSTCOLONIAL CRITICISM. As discussed in class last week, postcolonial criticism looks at “the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period” (Bahri). Consider the following questions in relation to Things Fall Apart: How did the experience of colonization affect those who were being colonized while also influencing the colonizers? How were colonial powers able to gain control over non-Western societies? What were the forms of resistance against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the culture and identity of the colonized? (In addition to the novel itself, you will want to consider some of the background information you and your classmates gathered on Pre-colonial and Colonial Nigeria.)

ADVANCED OPTION: In Week 4, you read a short excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. If you would like to read this novel in its entirety, research the Belgian Congo during the second half of the 20th c., and write a postcolonial critical analysis of TPB, have at it! I would imagine you could also write an interesting postcolonial comparison paper between TPB and TFA.

CRITICAL APPROACH TWO: NEW HISTORICISM. As discussed this week, new historicism argues for a side-by-side reading of literary and non-literary (historical) texts, usually from or about the same time period as the novel; in short, new historicists study the historical context alongside the literary co-text. Look at information about Pre-colonial/Colonial Nigeria and Things Fall Apart or info about Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and Death and the Maiden. Consider: What kinds of historical documents outside of the novel seem especially relevant for shedding light on the novel/play? How are social and political values contemporary to the novel/play reflected or refuted in the novel?

Caution: Once you have chosen one of the two approaches, you will first need to do some (further) research about the country and time period. In addition to the novel you are analyzing, you should have two (2) additional articles to provide a context (or co-text) for your analysis.

Your paper should have a specific, sophisticated thesis statement (based all or in part on the questions provided above) in your introduction paragraph: this is what you will spend the remainder of your paper defending with examples from the texts (both articles and the novels). Include direct quotes from the novel/play and the articles and be sure to adhere to MLA format (in-text parenthetical citations and Works Cited). For more on thesis statements, you might review the “Writing About Literature” page at the Online Writing Lab.

FURTHER REQUIREMENTS: This paper should be typed, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, in 12-point, Times New Roman font. Be sure to include a proper heading (your name, my name, the course, the date) and header (your last name and the page number in the top, right-hand margin of each page). Your paper should have a dynamic title (that is, something other than “Paper #1;” the title can be as “simple” as “A Postcolonial Critical Analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart“). Do not include a cover page. Your finished work should be 3-4 pages in length. (Further tips on formatting here.)

Reminder: Be sure to write in the active, present tense and in the third-person. Even though you read the novel/play in the past, it still exists in the present. Do not use pronouns like I, me, my, you, your, we, our. I understand that you are the writer behind the scenes writing the paper. Be objective in your analysis.

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World Literature, Week 3

Sorry! Sorry!––I did not forget about you. This last week of September has ended more with a bang than a whimper.

Anyway, here are some resources we use for discussion of Things Fall Apart.

1) Postcolonial Criticism. As we explore World Literature from a 21st c. perspective, we begin to consider the field of Postcolonial Criticism or Postcolonial Literature/Studies: “the study of the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period” (source). In Things Fall Apart, we see the beginnings of British rule in Nigeria. This gets into issues of translation, as well, which we should explore in a future class (most of the works for this class, after all, have been translated; the writer makes a political decision to either write in English or to write in a native language). I think the most important questions in postcolonial criticism become: How did the experience of colonization affect those who were colonized while also influencing the colonizers? What influence is left from the European nations during these modern times of postcolonialism? (That is, after these once-colonized countries have gained their independence: how are European influences still seen in these independent nations? (This leads to the first paper students write for the course, which I’ll post next week.)

2) As we shared resources this week on Pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial (Modern) Nigeria, one student noted the Library of Congress site (“Country Studies: Nigeria”) as being an excellent reference. (And it is, James; it is.)

3) I also usually mention The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (one of my favorite novels–and one of Oprah’s!), the story of a missionary family who move from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959. This polyphonic narrative (“a story of many voices”) tells the tale of their struggles and the struggles of the country itself (as it achieves independence) through the perspectives of the four Price daughters and their mother. You can read an excerpt here.

I also sometimes give them Chris Abani’s essay “The Lottery” (from The New York Times), which discusses the mob violence he witnessed as a child in Nigeria during the 1970s.

4) A few questions for consideration in writing: 1. How does Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” (from which the title for Things Fall Apart comes) relate to Achebe’s novel? What are themes/messages that are similar in both works? 2. The chi or personal spirit is a recurring theme in the novel: a spiritual belief important to understanding the main character Okonkwo. Interpret this proverb, spoken of Okonkwo: “When a man says yes his chi says yes also” (27/Ch. 4). Trace further references in the novel to the chi (hint: Chapter 14). What role does Okonkwo’s chi play in shaping his destiny? 3. Consider Aristotle’s definition of tragedy and the tragic hero. In what ways do you see the plot of Things Fall Apart and the protagonist (main character) Okonkwo as adhering to conventions of Western tragedy and the tragic hero? In what ways might they depart from Aristotle’s definition?

4) Question for the comments section: What was the most significant passage/scene in the novel? (Many students choose Okonkwo’s exile. Some others, of course, when the missionaries arrive. What do you think?)

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Creative Writing, Week 3

1. READ THIS >> “Trading Stories: Notes From an Apprenticeship” (Jhumpa Lahiri; The New Yorker, 13 June 2011).

1a. While you’re at The New Yorker site, let’s all READ THIS, TOO >> “Creative Writing” by Etgar Keret (The New Yorker, 2 January 2012).

2. TO CONSIDER >> “The Writer’s Life.” Where do you write best and when? How do (or how will) you schedule time for writing in your daily life, both this semester but also long-term? Feel free to post your responses in the comments section.

3. TO WRITE >> “But she came back.” (I feel like I stole this from another source, which I can’t remember right now to credit.) Anyway; write 2 pages of either pure fiction or creative nonfiction on a topic of your choice. The other stipulation is that everyone’s response must end with that sentence: “But she came back.” You’ll have to do some of what we educators call “backward planning” and decide how you will get to But she came back. Post your responses below.

4. Don’t forget to continue >> your writer’s notebook.

“When I became a writer my desk became home; there was no need for another.” ––Jhumpa Lahiri

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