The Mad Aardvark

Critical commentary on culture…

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Light Summer Reading

Posted by madaardvark on June 24, 2010

June 16 came and went, and I spent most of the day at work.  This year I made it through the Telemachus chapters of Ulysses and through the first Bloom chapter before Bloomsday was over.  Bloomsday is never the raucous event that I always pretend it’s going to be.  But I kept the day in my heart and made my students listen to the Dubliners while I lectured.  There were a few complaints.

Meanwhile, my daughter poked me in the eye during finals week last semester and I had an eyepatch for a few days.  It was acting up again, so I went to the eye doctor.  She told me that they don’t use eyepatches anymore because they can cause infections.  So much for my Joycean portrait.

I’m on to Hemingway, now, and have been for a little over a week.  Papa makes me feel better about where I am in my struggles and inspires me to move forward despite adversity.  A student came into the Writing Center looking for help with his research paper yesterday, which happened to be on Hemingway.  I don’t believe in destiny or fate, but I do keep my eyes open for synchronicity.  I don’t know how much I actually helped him, but I did open his eyes to Hemingway a little more.  He left with the insight that there is more to Papa than drinking and fishing.

I’ll be teaching Women’s Lit next month, which will be an odd and welcome contrast to the Hemingway I’m reading now.  My sister doubts my qualifications to teach it based on my dislike for Jane Austin, which is strange since I tend to be in the anti-Austin pro-Feminism camp in my analysis.

Here are a few of the women writers I do like:  Mary Wolstonecraft, Mary Shelly, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Willa Cather, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Louise Erdrich, Charlotte Smith, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson sometimes, Maya Angelou occasionally, and Virginia Woolf always.  That’s not a complete list.  It’s going to be an interesting class.


Posted in Art & Literature, books, summer jobs | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Of Pigs and Men

Posted by madaardvark on May 13, 2010

People, please read more than one work of literature in your lives, and stay away from Orwell, especially if you’re politically minded. Everyone always misunderstands Orwell because they think he writes well and they want to agree with him.

Orwell was a communist, through and through. 1984 and Animal Farm are (ironically) about the way people misunderstand and misuse what Orwell saw as true communism for their own purposes, and how the ideals of revolution are ultimately betrayed by new totalitarian regimes.   Neither one is about the evils of communism, and even suggesting that they painted capitalism as the opposing evil to good and pure communism is incorrect.

Even though Orwell knows how to turn a phrase, those works are not exactly considered the height of literature.  Both of those books are severely limited by the time in which they were written and can rarely be applied to contemporary politics. Unless you can take into account the European and American post-WWII, early Cold War, Russian Revolutionary political climate, stop using Orwell to support your OWN culturally limited views.

Incidentally, here is the webpage that had the header picture I borrowed.  A nice blog entry here about postmodernism at its worst.

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Theory of mind in literature

Posted by madaardvark on September 14, 2009


I had been reading Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, and I had some reservations about it.  I will have to explain what I perceive that the book is about, and what I imagine that the writer is thinking that I will understand from her perceived idea of who I am and what my background may be.

Why We Read Fiction was published in 2006.  There has been an increasing push in literary studies to draw outside disciplines into the discussion, and Zunshine follows suit by attempting to apply psychology’s Theory of Mind to literary analysis.  The idea behind Theory of Mind is that we have the capacity to imagine that other people are animated by other minds, and that we are able to understand people’s actions based on that imagination.  We are not privy, after all, to the exact thoughts or emotional state of anyone but ourselves, and it requires the ability to intuitively make abstract the subtle information that we receive from them (facial movements, body language, tone of voice, etc.).  Zunshine believes that this has an impact on how we read fiction, that we appreciate fiction because we enjoy the game of imagining hypothetical social situations involving imagined people.  It lets us stretch out brain muscles and get ready for the real thing.

I get troubled by a number of things:

1) Zunshine is writing from the perspective of a student of literature, so she makes no allowances for quality.  Her examples are Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway), Nabokov (Lolita, primarily for shock value), and Henry James (just name it).  Aside from a section at the end of the book about detective novels, she’s entering this conversation by using people who are experts at their craft and are generally encouraging people to respond a certain way, rather than letting people just wander into it.  I do not like the agency of the writers being removed in this fashion.  This is another postmodernist attempt to give the reader the power to do whatever they want with the text.  The closest I see Zunshine getting to quality and writer agency is by suggesting that getting James ‘right’ lets the reader understand a deeper nuance, and thus a richer Theory of Mind experience.

2) She suggests that it doesn’t matter if people are correct or not in their assumptions about the people in a work of fiction for them to enjoy it.  They could be completely wrong in their imaginings of what the characters are thinking, and they would still get something out of the reading, or enjoy the reading simply for the chance to play the imagination game.  I have to disagree.  By misinterpreting those fictional mental states in a work of fiction, the reader is often left confused and angry because the perceived mental states do not make contextual sense.  Again, we need some agency put in the hands of the writer, who, if they have done their job well, will guide the reader through the mental states accurately.  If a reader is not reaching a properly conceived idea of those mental states, either the writer is not doing his/her job correctly, or the reader is unaware of how those mental states could possibly be – either through mental deficiency or through a lack of…

3) …experience.  Zunshine makes no allowances for experience, which is necessary for a proper (or, at least, less likely to be incorrect) Theory of Mind.  The ability to imagine another mind is all fine and good, but that imagining must be based on experience and understanding of both ourselves and others for it to be at all accurate.  If it is habitually inaccurate, how could it evolve into a necessary component of modern human minds?  This, of course, goes back to my previous two points, suggesting that the writer must have the skills necessary to guide a properly ordered mind towards a believable outcome.

4) My final concern is less about content and more about delivery.  Zunshine relies on postmodernist language to deliver her message, which is confused, conflated, and contrived.  First, there is the invented terminology.  I don’t care if Zunshine coined this or the cognitive psychologists did, but I hate reading the word ‘metarepresentationality.’  Seriously, do we need a new word to suggest that I can imagine that someone else has a brain?  Second, and perhaps more importantly to me, I get tired very quickly of Zunshine’s reiteration of ideas by breaking it down into ‘plain old’ English.  I constantly feel like she is saying “HERE are the educated words I use to describe it to people who are LITERATE, and here are the words that I will use to explain it in simple terms, for simple people, like yourself.”  Make no mistake that I can understand her inflated vocabulary.  I read a critical work as though it was meant for me to read, as a peer, and I get offended by the suggestion that she has to dumb down her argument for me.  More likely, if she spoke plainly and directly, she wouldn’t have to explain herself a second time.  She even asks the reader, “why do we need this newfangled concept?”  Newfangled?  Is she intentionally using language that suggests I am an uneducated hick?  Or am I supposed to be on her side of the joke, laughing at the people who just don’t understand her genius?  I get offended because I find myself disagreeing with her, and her approach to any argument against her is to turn to this ‘local dialect’ speak.  Clearly, if you do not agree with her, it must be because you just don’t understand her argument, so she has to dumb it down for you.

She asks early in her work why we assume, in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that Peter Walsh’s shaking is attributed to his mental state and not a physical ailment.  Her naswer is that we automatically assume it’s a mental state because that’s what we do with fiction.  The truth is this:

1) The passage came and went, and was never again mentioned.  The brevity suggests that it is a mental state and not a physical ailment because it is never mentioned again for the rest of the novel.

2) We have known people who have shaken due to emotional distress, or have shaken ourselves.  Knowledge and experience.  Parkinson’s disease is and was a rare thing.  Why would we assume the less likely reason behind something?

3) Woolf is a writer with serious control over her craft, and is writing a novel based on states of mind.  That is, the entire novel deals with what people think or feel while performing actions.  She guides us to that conclusion intentionally through her writing, because she understands what our experiences will imply to us, and she is very good at it.  We were supposed to conclude that based on what was written.

4) I am not an idiot, nor should we assume that anyone reading Mrs. Dalloway is an idiot, nor is Virginia Woolf.

…of course, here is a complaint of mine, for a nice rant to finish off this blog entry.  Poorly written works, including anime and Batman Beyond, have an underdeveloped Theory of Mind.  Simply having a Theory of Mind (or metarepresentationality ability) does not mean that it is developed healthily.  The people who like these works either do not care about the accuracy of mental states in the work or in other REAL people (such as anyone who liked The Dark Knight – the characters could never possibly exist mentally, let alone biographically) or are confused as to the general mental states of others (such as anyone who likes anime).  Good writing does not have to be High Art and Literature, but it does have to maintain a healthy Theory of Mind rather than rely on ‘making a point” and ignoring character development.  This rant will, from now on (thank you for that at least, Zunshine) suppliment previous rants I have had about misunderstanding characterization or motivation, because it’s damned important to the conversation and damned accurate.

Posted in Art & Literature, books | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

First Post – Potter and Batman, I hate you.

Posted by madaardvark on July 22, 2008

This post begins yet another experiment with blogging.

I started a blog a while ago that didn’t go very far.  People I had been talking to insisted that the Harry Potter books had “more depth” than Charles Dickens, so I tried to read them side-by-side.  For every chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, I read two chapters of the first Harry Potter book.  I only managed two posts before I gave up.  I couldn’t get through the third chapter of Harry Potter.  I’m so glad that last book finally came out, because the trend has already started to die out and I’m getting a little happier about that.

Unfortunately, the masses have been acclaiming The Dark Knight, hypnotized by flashy special effects and wild visuals.  Unfortunately, the writing is terrible, the dialogue is rediculous, and the characters are poorly motivated.  What I hate most is that the film is pretty accurate to the comic books, post 1998, and fanboys won’t let me forget that when I point out the irritating problems.  I don’t care how accurate it is, I’d rather see the Joker motivated by something other than, “I’m crazy, so there.”  Nicholson’s Joker was nuts, and it was a character I could believe existed.  Ledger might put on a good performance, but I just can’t take him as seriously as Nicholson.  But what do I know?  Nothing is scarier right now than child molesters and terrorists with no motivation, so let’s throw those two together with clown makeup.

Posted in books, movies | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »