Freitag, 17. August 2007

Gone missing

+ Wake-up Call + Wake-up Call + + Wake-up Call + Wake-up Call + Wake-up Call +

I have not yet received all term papers - so those of you, who have not yet handed in theirs - be so good and get them ready as soon as possible (!), hand them in at the office in U9, and - be done with it.

+ Wake-up Call + Wake-up Call + + Wake-up Call + Wake-up Call + Wake-up Call +

Dienstag, 7. August 2007

I schedule the Apocalypse


August 15 is drawing near, oh, so near - don't forget that this is the last day to submit your term papers...if you want, you can just drop them up in the office in U9, or alternatively, drop them in my mail box. And here I mean the physical thing: I want a printed copy to rub my red in, not just a word or pdf file.

Mittwoch, 18. Juli 2007

This is the End

Apocalypse Now it was today, or parts of it. The passage Kurtz is reciting is from a poem by T.S. Eliot - The Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form shade without colour,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

Note that the poem's header reads - "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" - which is itself a quote, from Joseph Conrad's
The Heart of Darkness
, on which Coppola's movie is partly based.


Our seminar took us, to draw a concluding line, a long way through American literature and culture...

We started in

- Session I (April 18, 2007) -

with a reading of the Apocalypse, the one of St. John the Revelator, resident of the isle of Patmos.

Next, we took the apocalyptic to the American scene and in

- Session II (May 2, 2007) -

analyzed how it can be interpreted as one of the early defining moments of early American culture:
we had a look at John Winthrop's The City upon a Hill, which, as it turned out, soom came to have
loads of problems to tackle.

And then - tadaa! - Cotton Mather entered the class room, to stay, for a while. In

- Session III (May 9, 2007) -

we read parts of his Wonders of the Invisible World and analyzed his portrayal of the not quite so new danger
that had crept unto the colonial site, witchcraft.


- Session IV (May 16, 2007) -

we went even deeper into the text and saw how Mather is defining his own role as a public intellectual in the face
of what he perceived as a world-wide and world-threatening danger to humankind.

And let me just silently hush over

- Session V (May 23, 2007) -

where we had an all too boring look at Jonathan Edwards and his notebook on the apocalypse.

- Session VI (May 30, 2007) -

gave us a first overview of the class and the materials we had read so far. It also introduced Herman Melville and
his protagonist Ishmael, as a carrier of a specifically modern, 19th century sense of the end.

- Session VII (June 6, 2007) -

then finally got us into the waters of the Mississippi river, which we shipped down on board the Fidèle, the stage
of the Confidence Man. In restrospect, I'd say we managed to get quite something out of that difficult, but darkly
funny novel.

Moving deeper into the political and allegorical structure of the novel,

- Session VIII and Session IX (June 13 and June 20, 2007) -

gave us the time to scrutinize Melville's use of Indian Hating - and the function it has in the novel.

A more easy-going text was the basis of our next meeting -

- Session X (June 27, 2007) -

and we read Jack London's The Scarlet Plague and its treatment of the annihilation by plague.

Into the weird then it was, when we read two stories by HP Lovecraft, followed by a New Puritan short story.

- Session XI and Session XII (July 4 and July 11, 2007) -

And that was about it, of course - that left us a class session to deal the peculiar charm of the zombie apocalypse
(as laid out in Shawn of the Dead) and of course, the dark symbolism of Apocalypse Now, the Coppola movie.


So. What do we take from the class? May I propose some bullet points?

  • 1) Apocalypse was one of the earliest and strongest intellectual and cultural movements in US history.
  • 2) Apocalypse is not necessarily about destruction (though it can be as much) - it's about revelation (of a truth, religious, spiritual, historical, etc.) and transformation, or the lack thereof (such as transformation of a body of
  • believers into post-apocalyptic post-history).
  • 3) There are differences between religious apocalypses and secular apocalypses. There are also continuties, and
  • often the two concepts, religious and secular, will exchange concerns. Think of how real apocalypse was as a historical force for thinkers like Cotton Mather - on this life, this world, this site. It was happening here and had definite effects on the present time.
  • 4) Apocalypses happen in all genres (we read, among others, sermons, historical tracts, short stories, and a novel) and on all levels. It is neither exclusively a high cultural nor low cultural thing - it comprises literally the whole body politic.
  • 5) Apocalypse is also about power. Think of the great influence preachers like Cotton Mather had on their populace: apocalypse and the apocalyptic threat could be used to move people. Also think of the ways London's The Scarlet Plague narrates a power struggle: here, apocalypse is also the liberation of the proletariat, and the novel seems to warn against it.

Mittwoch, 11. Juli 2007

Lovecraft/The New Puritans - Sessions XI & XII - July 4 & July 11, 2007

Lovecraft it was, on 4 July, of all dates: The Colour our of Space & Nyarlathotep.

Again, I guess I could have done a better job pointing at the ways he uses his apocalyptic theme in these stories: maybe it's because I've been working with these texts for so long that I'm dumb to the fact that not everyone easily recites large quantities of L's text.

Anyway, The Colour out of Space.

The story was written 1927 - and yes, it is colour, not color. Lovecraft cultivated as a mannerism the use of English spelling, and he also cultivated himself as, really, a sort of displaced Englishman who for some reason had been cast on American shore: in his works, he is definitely American, so American Gothic that it screeches with pleasure - Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Brown, Bierce: he's tracing them all.

The Colour out of Space is generally counted as one of his strongest stories - that despite the fact that he barely does plot. Very little goes on in terms of actual action, but each scene is carried on and on to create an atmosphere. Also, there are hardly any reference points in the story for the reader to identify with, and that is also something Lovecraft had the habit of doing. You are alone, on your own in the story (and that is very much working towards the atmosphere - think of wandering alone through a haunted castle: isolation sucks when the planet is struck with terror and horror.

CoS is a sort of nuclear apocalypse - not that L thought of that explicitly, but the signs are there: the color has strange material attributes and is difficult to handle in a labaratory, it scorches the countryside and turns nature into a grey, brittle mass. Lovecraft was normally more explicit about his aliens - we looked at some images of Cthulhu with all his tentacles - and here he creates an abstract alien: destructive, completely inaccessible (you can't talk to the color or make it do things, it's just devastating the site, draining its lfe force: people go insane, and still they can't leave the place.

Apocalypse is, as we have seen, also a synonym for transformation - and the people here undergo a very curious transformation - literally one into nothingness. They are falling apart to grey pieces and chunks...without ever fighting the color in any way. This apocalypse may be secular, but it's still inevitable and cannot be halted in its course, quite like the biblical model.

Nyarlathotep -

a strange one. I admit. The story fascinates for its sheer linguistic - how would you call it? - whirliness. He's pushing the prose, tries to create a breathless stream of words that builds up into that maelstrom at the end of the story. Nyarlathotep conquers and the world goes down, while the idiot gods in the background play their drums. On an interesting note, Nyarlathotep shares many of the features that are commonly associated with Antichrist-figures in quite conventional evangelical writings on the apocalypse. I'm thinking of evangelical (or "evangelical") fiction like the Left Behind-novels (which also place a great stress on the event of the rapture: we had that today): he's extremely charismatic, very confident in his use of fashionable technics and technology, yet also very intimidating and horrific. He moves the masses at his will, and at the same time destroys their world: ain't that clever.


Today: some Puritans return. Huh. It was for a reason it came to this, a very obvious reason: we started with the Puritans, and now we're gonna take them back to England.

The collection our story was taken from is called, All hail the New Puritans, and Puritan, as we found out, is more a description of their prose stylistics, not so much of their morals. I quote here the 10 point manifesto, as jotted down on Wikipedia -

  1. Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form. (that's a good one - they believe in prose. I would like them even if that was the only sentence in the manfesto)
  2. We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms. (That's pretty much nonsense - true, prose dominates over poetry on the present literary market, and poetry has moved deep into academic discourse and out of public discourses, but that doesn't mean you have to shun poetry. It can still do things.)
  3. While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations. (Wow! That's so completely...unoriginal, really. That's what innovative writers have been doing for 2,500 years, and no big deal. Lovecraft did it very routinely, mixing horror and science fiction and infusing apocalypse into the two of them.)
  4. We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides. (That is a strong makes their prose very immediate, very firmly locked on the present, and no nonsense.)
  5. In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.
  6. We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation. (That also sounds strong, but really it gives their prose a plainness that is not always favorable.)
  7. We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real. (Interesting, isn't it? Are they writing fiction, or history? Or both? Again, they go down into the present moment, their prose has to work right here and now - much like original Puritan prose, where you also always read a clear and definite utilitarian purpose. Literature is never just expressive of beauty, it does things, it works.)
  8. As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future.
  9. We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality. (But they don't promote an ethical reality by their interpretation, the way the Puritans did in their theocratic state. The New Puritans observe, first of all.)
  10. Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.
The story we read was written by Scarlett Thomas, titled Mind Control - an odd little piece of prose around the lives of three people - the narrator, male or female (we can't really tell), Mark's dad (the fish guy), Mark's mom (the ice lady). They seem traumatized, all three of them - and only later did we realize the obvious (and I was the last to do so), namely that this trauma might be based on Mark's death, as explained in the opening paragraph.

The fishman is into the apocalypse: and his daughter in law guards the radio to filter the news on the last things he might receive when listening to what's-his-name from Indiana...of course, the Indiana preacher is interesting to Mark's dad not so much when he delivers the apocalyptic message in a religious way (he doesn't listen to the Jesus-songs), but more when he's going into details on the worldly preparations that need to be taken care of (mind the water purifier).

The fish? What do the fish do? They are not religious symbols (as in loaves and fish), but still seem to hold some spiritual meaning to the dad. Maybe he also projects his son into the swarm of fish - and so when the fish go, he re-experiences Mark's death once more.

So. The world is going down (or so the Indiana guy has it), and who cares? Does it all matter? Nah. It's more a media phenomenon that you can get involved in however far you like (like, take the secular, but not the spiritual preparations), apocalypse à la carte, if you will.

Montag, 9. Juli 2007

The Apocalypse will go on the Road, some.

Note that the upcoming class session on Wednesday, July 11 will not take place in our regular class room. NO. There has been another room change. We will be in...

M3/126N (!)

- that's in the big main building...

See you there...

Mittwoch, 4. Juli 2007

To read...and write: Notes on the Term Paper

Alright then. Some pointers...hmmm...

As I see it, no one will want to to write their essay on Michael Wigglesworth, right?

1) How about the poetry of Edward Taylor (1642-1729)? As a poet, as an artist he was way more accomplished than Wigglesworth & in fact is more interesting to read. A small selection from his works are here. You could read some (2-3 to them) to analyze how he gets the second generation Puritan experience (the decay of the Puritan belief - the war(s) with the native population - the Puritan community in danger - and so on) into verse. Or you could concentrate on his unlikely revival in the 1930s - when his manuscripts were re-discovered...and link it with the general revival of interest in Puritan colonial times, pioneered by, among others, Perry Miller of Harvard University. Possible working titles like "The Puritan Revival: 1920-1960" come to my mind here.

Sound exciting? Or not yet exciting enough?

2) The apocalyptic Fringe

Throughout American history, apocalyptic cults have had a considerable influence - think of the Millerites, a highly influential 19th century religious group, or, more recently, the Branch Davidians, who went down in flames in Waco, Texas? What elements (of their belief, of their position in society, of their cult actions, etc.) did they share, what happened to them, what influence do they have on modern American society? You would have to work with their texts, mind you - pdf copies of the Millerite Journal, The Midnight Cry, are even available online.

3) Apocalypse now...and over the last 30 years, or so.

Ever since the 1970s, apocalypse has been a hot topic in American culture, thanks also to evangelical media-preachers like Hal Lindsey. The Left Behind - series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has had and still has an amazing success - what do they do with the end of the world? Are their novels religious novels? Why do they appeal to such a wide readership? What view of the world do they present - what are the historical and socio-political constellations? You would have to read at least one of the Left Behind-novels, which I realize is a punishment, but one that is worth it.

4) California Apocalypse

We read Jack London - with him in mind, you could read George R. Stewart's Earth Abides - a fascinating 1949 novel on a post-apocalyptic world being (sort of) recolonized once again? What happens to society? Education? What is going on with the countrysite and how does Stewart write about it? Will civilization return? Why was Stewart writing a novel like this at the time he did?

5) Ecological Apocalypses

You might not think of it this way, but ecological thought (as in "Greenpeace" or "Green Party") also may be interpreted as a reaction to the final days to come, to nature's apocalypse. You could read John Christopher's No Blade of Grass (1956), an interesting novel describing the final days after an unwholesome virus plague has practically destroyed the worldwide stock of grass seeds - the world is starving to death. What concerns does the book talk about? Have any of them come true? How is the apocalypse treated, what do the protagonists do in the final days? Is there an echo of the pastoral tradition?

6) Apocalypse now, now, now!

You might want to read and analyze Cormack McCarthy's The Road (2006) - what is his view of civilization? His style in describing its downfall? What tone does the novel have? What is the character constellation and what effects does it have on the plot? The book is on hold in the library, just in case you're wondering.

7) Apocalypse Now - but now for real

You're all familiar, I guess, with the 1979 movie of the name. You could analyze the movie (and its literary backdrop - Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, which you would have to read - and try to understand and describe the apocalypse presented there? Where is it happening in the book, where in the movie? When is it happening? Does the movie describe the Vietnam War as an apocalyptic experience? What role does race play as an issue? Are there religious undertones?


Some more approaches that came to my mind...

8) Apocalypse and Heroism

Ever seen movies like Armageddon? Or The Core? Or The Matrix? Or 12 Monkeys (Bruce Willis again)? You could base your term paper on a reading of these movies (or any other disaster movies you might know and enjoy), but I would insist that you resort to at least one written apocalypse, of your choice - for example, Matthew P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, a short and very exciting turn of the century novel: how is heroism used and portrayed there? How is it used in these more modern movie apocalypses? What relation do the characters have or build toward the planet? What are their motives? Their ethics, their religion? How do they handle the end of the world?

9) Nuclear Apocalypse

After 1945, nuclear apocalypse was an actual option, and it was soon adapted into fiction. We read, last time, on July 4, Lovecraft's The Colour out of Space, an early nuclear apocalypse (long before the Manhattan project was completed) - other famous novels of that genre include Neville Shute's On the Beach, a pretty scary and intimidating novel. How is the apocalypse treated here? How is hope (for survival, among other things) dealt with? What stand does the novel take on science and on progress? On history, in general? What stylistic devices does the author use to write his apocalypse, what atmosphere does he manage to create?