Saturday, February 27, 2010

Beware of Becoming a Rhinoceros

One of the biggest ironies in Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, is that those in Berenger’s town who should be the most intelligent and logical are just the opposite. The Logician, for example, uses flawed logic in the first Act.

In the first Act, Berenger meets with his friend Jean at a Café, where Jean berates Berenger for his unkempt clothing and hair, and for his lateness. Jean also points out that Berenger has been drinking a lot, noticing his hang-over. Berenger is contrasted to Jean, who is wears neatly pressed clothing and a perfectly straight tie. It is during their conversation when a rhinoceros suddenly stampedes through the town square, surprising everyone. The Logician then pipes up, saying “Fear is an irrational thing. It must yield to reason” (10). After the interruption, Jean and Berenger’s conversation is then mixed with that of the Logician and the Old Gentleman who sit behind them at the café.

Bestowing much wisdom to the Old Gentleman, the Logician begins to explain syllogisms: “Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.” The Old Gentleman points out that his dog has four paws, to which the Logician replies: “Then it’s a cat” (18).

The Logician obviously uses flawed logic; an irony that is not lost on the reader. He presents syllogisms as synonymous to logic, though syllogisms are known to use flawed logic. The Old Gentleman, however, is impressed with him and takes him to be an intelligent person. He marvels: “Logic is a very beautiful thing” (19).

The Logician’s logic is flawed because he does not take into account other animals that have four paws. Having four paws does not make something a cat. If a cat were missing a leg, then, according to his logic, it would no longer be a cat. But this is, of course, not true. What else would it be if not a cat?

Wayne C. Booth brings out that it is important to supply evidence to your claims, and to supply objections to those claims. He advises writers in The Craft of Research:

If you plan your argument only around claims, reasons and evidence, your readers may think that your argument is flatfooted, even naïve. You will seem less like an inquirer amiably engaging intelligent but feisty colleagues in conversation than like a lecturer droning at an empty room…You have to imagine them [your readers] asking questions.

Booth states that if you do not offer objections to your claims and only present your evidence, your argument will not be a strong one. This is exactly what the Logician doesn’t do, he only offers supporting evidence of his bizarre claims, not allowing the Old Gentleman to prove him wrong.

One important line that the Logician tells the Old Gentleman is that: “Logic means justice” (24). This is the point of the play. Logic can be manipulated to prove things that are not true, and can get people to do things that are irrational or even horrible. So the Logician is actually proving the opposite, that “logic” can bring about things that are not just.

Ionesco wanted to warn his readers of blindly following the group. Assuming the claims made by those in authority or the “educated” are automatically logical, without closely evaluating them yourself, is a dangerous thing. Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros as an explanation as to how the Holocaust happened. People turn into rhinoceroses in Ionesco’s play, starting out with one person, then with many who give up their humanity in order to become a part of the increasing group of rhinoceroses. Even those who at first state that they would never assimilate, do, like Jean, who presents himself as a perfectly well-mannered and logical human being. This group-mentality is what made the Holocaust possible.

The Logician and Old Gentleman’s conversation is interrupted by Jean who tells Berenger that he is not logical. Another irony in the play is that Berenger is actually the only one who is logical in the entire town, and by the end of the play, Berenger is the only one who refuses to turn into a rhinoceros. Berenger adamantly declares: “I’m not capitulating!” (107) at the end of the play, when he is the last human being left.

Works Cited:

Smith, Peter, ed. Rhinoceros and Other Plays. New York: John Calder Publishers, 1960.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Hairy Ape

Yank is a hairy ape. In Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape, his main character, Yank is struggling to find where he belongs, fighting to prove to Mildred and ultimately the upper class that he is not an animal.

Throughout The Hairy Ape, Yank and the other fireman who work in the Transatlantic Liner are compared to animals or Neanderthals. The stage directions in scene I, describe the men as “Neanderthal” men are “hairy-chested” (251). Paddy’s face is “extremely monkey-like with all the sad, patient pathos of that animal” (254). In scene III, the men are again described as having “inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas” (269).

Yank is at first proud of his power and his place in the world. Though he realizes that he apart of the lower class, he argues that he is the one who makes the ship move, and therefore “belongs.” Long, another fireman on the ship, is not so comfortable with how things are. He points to the Bible and says that “All men is born free and ekal” and that all of them, and ultimately the lower class are “on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship” (256). Yank dismisses Long’s rant and his religion, and calls him “yellow.” Paddy, an older fireman, joins in on the conversation, agreeing with Long. He compares himself and all of them as being “caged…like bloody apes in the zoo” (259). Yank again disagrees, saying that “We move, don’t we? Speed, ain’t it?...We split dat up and smash trou—twenty-five knots a hour!” (262)

Yank first questions his previous attitudes when Mildred, the daughter of the president of Nazareth Steel, insults him. She decides to come down from the upper deck (where the upper class stay) to see the bowels of the ship out of curiosity, as well as to defy her aunt. She is shocked at Yank’s attitude and appearance, who is unaware that she is behind him. Yank curses as he shovels coal into the furnace, angry that the whistle from above is being rung by the engineer, telling the men to shovel the coal faster. Yank, enraged, “brandishes his shovel murderously over his head in one hand, pounding on his chest, gorilla-like, with the other” (272). Mildred almost faints, calling Yank a “filthy beast” (273).

Though Yank is continuously compared to a beast, he is also described as a “highly developed individual” (252). In the first scene, he berates the other firemen for making noise, telling them “Can’t youse see I’m tryin’ to t’ink?” (254). At the beginning of Scene IV, after being insulted by Mildred, Yank’s stage directions say that he is “brooding…seated forward on a bench in the exact attitude of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ ” (274). Yank constantly thinks. He is compared to Rodin’s “The Thinker” throughout the play, at the beginning of scene VI, and again in scene VII.

Yank struggles between being an animal and a being a human being at the same time. He is aware enough to want to find his place in the world, but not enough to know any answers. The Hairy Ape is certainly a comment about the social order and class issues, but it goes deeper than this. We are all like Yank, we are all, really, apes. Yank is confused not because he is the only hairy ape, but because those of the upper class pretend that they are not. After his contact with Mildred, Yank asks the others “ain’t she de same as me?” (279)

Etta Worthington states in her essay An Essay for The Hairy Ape:
On the surface The Hairy Ape might seem to be a fairly political play. There is a marked contrast of the sweaty fireman whose brute strength propels the ship that provides diversion and pleasure to those privileged class denizens who inhabit the upper deck. There is obvious reference to the exploitation of the workers. But The Hairy Ape…is really about the existential condition of man, namely that humans rarely feels like they fit in, that they are always essentially alone and separate.

Worthington brings out that reading The Hairy Ape without analyzing it thoroughly will make it seem that the play is just about social issues. The Hairy Ape is about more than this, however; it is about the state of all of mankind, about how each human experiences this isolation. We are all really animals, unable to know absolute truths, while still possessing a mind and the capability to question and to wonder.

In The Hairy Ape, Yank decides to take action. He at first tries to take out his anger on the upper class. In scene V, Yank goes with Long to Fifth Avenue, waiting for the rich to come out of church. Long wants to talk with them, while Yank wants to start a riot. Long eventually leaves when Yank gets out of hand. Yank is unable to move the upper class, however. When they come out of church and into the streets, Yank insults them, calling them names. It does not faze any one; in fact the rich are not aware of Yank’s presence at all. Yank then gets physical, punching a man who is trying to get on a bus. The man is hardly fazed, and is only a little annoyed because he has missed his bus.

The rich citizens are all enamored with the monkey fur for sale in the store windows, which enrages Yank. Yank is the monkey, the ape, and he sees the fur being sold as a personal insult, as if the fur was taken from one of his brothers.

Yank then tries to join the I.W.W., or the Industrial Workers of the World, who are suspected of causing riots. When Yank tries to join, he is very enthusiastic, and talks of making trouble for the rich. He is suspected of being an undercover cop, and is kicked out. The secretary of the I.W.W. calls Yank a “brainless ape” (302).

In the last scene, Yank goes to a zoo, where he talks to a gorilla. Yank frees him from the cage, and the gorilla hugs and crushes Yank, putting him in the cage. Yank dies there, where he “perhaps…at last belongs” (308). Yank belongs more with the gorillas than with his own kind. But he doesn’t belong completely with the gorillas either, because he is a “thinker.” Yank, therefore, does not belong anywhere. This is Yank’s paradox, and the paradox of mankind.

Works Cited:

A.R. Gurney, ed. Four Plays by Eugene O’Neill. New York: First Signet Classic Printing, 1998.

Worthington, Etta. "An essay for The Hairy Ape." Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Feb. 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Is there “a” truth? Could we find it if there was? Jorge Luis Borges explores these questions in his short story The Library of Babel.

Published in 1941 in a collection of fictions called The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges lays out a universe that is an enormous (perhaps never-ending) library. The people or “librarians” that live in this universe ask many questions that we ourselves ask about our own existences.

They realize that “the” truth must be out there, as their library contains every possible book that could be made. Their reasoning is that one of these books must contain all possible truths: “There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in some hexagon” (115). And so, they wonder what the truth is, and some even go out and explore the library to find this one book that contains all truth. No one ever finds it, however.

They also wonder about their own truths, and some search out The Vindications, which contains future prophecy about each individual’s life. No one finds their Vindication, some die while searching, others have gone insane. The librarians also have speculations as to how their library formed, and search the books for answers, though, after four centuries of searching, “clearly, no one expects to discover anything” (116).

Clearly, the Librarians are us. They wonder about themselves and about truth, and come up with different explanations to answer these questions. The narrator of the story is a man who has searched the library for answers all his life, and is now dying and writing the story. He wants there to be a truth, an order. He writes: "I pray to the unknown gods that some man—even a single man, tens of centuries ago—has perused and read the book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification" (117).

The narrator does not care if he himself will not ever know the truth, just as long as there is “a” truth, as long as someone else has or will find it, so that the library will find “justification.” This echoes one of Thomas Hardy’s poems, Hap, which was written in 1891. The speaker of the poem also wants there to be an ultimate truth. The speaker wishes for a god, even if the god is vengeful. He would even endure suffering inflicted by this god: “Then would I bear it, clench myself and die…Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I/ Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.” But the speaker must admit “But not so.” There is no god, vengeful or no.

The narrator in The Library of Babel explains that there must be an order: “If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope” (118). He will settle for “an” order, any order. He does not even hope, now, for a benevolent god, or even a specific purpose, only just an order.

Many can relate to this. Many of us want, and some believe, that there is “a” truth. We look for order in a chaotic world. Borges story echoes this existential theme: searching for truth, but never finding it, wanting an order in a world that seems to have no order or no purpose at all.

As Dennis Vannatta writes in Reference Guide to Short Fiction:
He [Borges], his narrator, and the librarians who haunt their carrels are concerned with the most fundamental questions: Where are we? Why are we here? What is here? How do we know what we know? As is always the case with Borges, by the end we are no more—indeed, far less—certain than we were at the beginning. The reason for the uncertainty is the nature of the library (universe). The vast majority of the books contain what appears to be gibberish, or at least languages unknown to the librarians. The occasional recognizable phrases—‘Oh time thy pyramids’ (translated by James E. Irby)—are generally as inegmatic as life. The only thing certain about the exceedingly rare books (frequently fragments) written in a recognizable tongue is that somewhere in the universal library is another that contains the first's refutation. Where, then, is truth, certainty? Nowhere in the Library of Babel.

Vannata points out that there is no certainty in Borges universe. Because the library contains every possible book, any "truth" found in one book will certainly be refuted in another book somewhere in the Library. The narrator is aware of this ever present uncertainty. At one point in the story, he addresses the reader directly: "You who read me--are you certain you understand my language?" (118) The Library of Babel emphasizes questioning, and not ever being able to answer these questions definitively. All that the librarians can be certain of are their existences. This is existential.

Works cited:

Andrew Hurley. Trans. Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc. 1998.

Vannatta, Dennis. "The Library of Babel: Overview." Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Feb. 2010.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Narration

When I started to read novels, I began journeying to places that did not exist and I met people who did not exist. But it all did exist, somehow, in my mind, and I think it was this that got me hooked.

I became in love with the feeling that, by the end of a novel, I knew the characters; and I myself was transformed somehow, having gone through an adventure and experienced what the characters experienced. I was there with Lyra and her daemon in their rescue mission to save Roger, and with them in their fight to stop Mrs. Coulter’s horrible experiments in The Golden Compass. I knew Jonas, who was so different from others in his society, burdened with the truth about “releasing” of older persons and sick children in The Giver.

At first, it was mostly about the adventures and the characters. It became more, though, my junior year in High School. My English teacher opened my mind to symbolism in the text and the depth of meaning that needed to be sought out. It was no longer just about the plot, but about what the text said about humanity in general.

My senior year, I took a literature course with the same teacher I had my junior year. One day, at the start of class, she put up on the board a large white piece of poster paper on which was drawn in black marker the setting of the play we were about to read. A bare tree, on top of a black line, representing the “country road.” She gave no indication as to what the play was about. She had already assigned the reading parts, setting aside four desks at the front of class for the four readers. She told us nothing except “this is like nothing you have ever read.” And then we started.

The play was Waiting for Godot. I was confused at first. What did this mean? Why was nothing happening? Though I was confused, I got the sense that this must mean something, and whatever it was, it was profound. After reading Waiting for Godot, I bought an anthology of Beckett’s works, including his plays, short stories, and poetry. I looked up other absurdist writers. I began reading Franz Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, Eugene O’Neil, Harold Pinter and Albert Camus.

The absurdists are different. Their texts are ambiguous and abstract. Their language is disjointed, fragmented, and unclear. The plots seem to be about “nothing,” where drama rarely happens, and what is emphasized and drawn out is the mundane and “boring.”

As Terry Niehuis, an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University said, in his article An Overview of Waiting for Godot: "The play has a beginning, but the beginning seems somewhat arbitrary because what happened before the beginning does not seem to be important.The play has an end, but the end seems to recall the beginning and create a sense of circularity rather than the traditional sense of closure that conventional stories generally provide. So Beckett's play could perhaps be described as 'all middle.' This, of course, reinforces the Absurdist or Existentialist idea of human life as having no clear purpose or direction, of life being an interminable waiting for a sense of purpose or closure that is not likely to ever arrive."

My searching out existential and absurd works continued. I did research on my own. Anytime I could choose the topic of a paper for a class, I chose to write about something to do with literature, usually the absurdists. I wrote about the French absurdists for French I, existential philosophy found in the works of the existentialists for Intro to Philosophy, and so on.

This is how I came to love absurdist literature. Why I love absurdist literature is another question, and a harder one to answer. It is the searching that I like, but it is more than that. It is seeking out truth, the meaning of truth, and about what we can know. It is about everything--about humanity, what it is to be human, existence, isolation, and questioning. This is why I will always be fascinated, maybe even obsessed, with absurdist works.

Works Cited:

Niehuis, Terry. "An overview of Waiting for Godot." Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Feb. 2010.