Archive for the ‘school’ Category

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Essay 1 for Contemporary American Lit

April 27, 2008

This is an essay I wrote about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for my last lit course of college. This class has interesting books for us to read, but the lectures are pretty slow and boring. Mostly I’m just putting in my time, waiting to graduate. There’s nothing that will kill your enjoyment of a good book faster than being required to pay attention to EVERYTHING and jot it down in the margins as you go, so I’m trying to avoid that, too.

The following essay won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book. Since I wrote it starting at 3 in the morning, it might not make sense, even if you have.

When I first noticed the tense shifts, my first idea was to jump to a conclusion about their relevance to Bromden’s sanity. I thought that it was related to his fogging out, and how time seems to slip away from him a lot. That’s sort of right- his psychosis certainly does have a temporal element, but the tense shifts aren’t there to point that out; the narration does a fine job of that on its own. The tense shifts are there to signal the Chief’s struggle to claim and retain a sense of agency, and that sense of agency is directly related to his mental health. As the one becomes more secure, so does the other, and the places where the tense shifts from present to past and back are strategically selected to emphasize this internal struggle without being so clumsy as to write it on the wall.

The book starts in the present tense. At this point Bromden is clearly nuts, and very passive. “So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling a big load. I hold my breath and figure, My God this time they’re gonna do it!”(p.5) Even when his hallucinations show him things that he is afraid of, he doesn’t take action to escape them, he only watches passively.

“This morning I plain don’t remember. They got enough of those things they call pills down me so I don’t know a thing till I hear the ward door open.” P8

When Bromden remembers an incident in which he saw another patient try to seize control of his own situation, the prose slips into past tense. Old Pete is making his last stand against Nurse Ratched: “Then old Pete was on his feet. “I’m tired!” was what he shouted, a strong, angry copper tone to his voice that no one had ever heard before. (p.45)” Bromden has sympathy for Pete’s struggle, and the first hints of a latent desire to reclaim control of his own life are symbolized in this use of the past tense. A flashback using the past tense might seem to be a hard sell as being particularly symbolic, but this passage begins a pattern that continues to the end of the book.

During the television vote, Bromden’s perception changes from present tense to past tense within the same passage: “McMurphy’s got hidden wires hooked to it, lifting it slow just to get me out of the fog and into the open where I’m fair game. He’s doing it, wires…No. That’s not the truth. I lifted it myself. (p. 123)” The whole passage is in the present tense, except for the sentence where Bromden takes credit for his own decision, which is in the past tense. In the very next sentence, the prose shifts back to the present tense. “McMurphy whoops and drags me standing, pounding my back.” Bromden has again surrendered his agency, and is back to being dragged along by McMurphy.

Later, as if to suggest a growing ease with claiming responsibility for himself, there is a passage of extended narration in which Chief uses the past-tense, but does not immediately describe any real agency on his part. “The way the Big Nurse acted so confident in that staff meeting, that worried me for a while, but it didn’t make any difference to McMurphy. All weekend, and the next week, he was just as hard on her and her black boys as he ever was, and the patients were loving it. (p. 137)” But when that passage moved beyond narration to immediate action, we see that this bit will show the Chief asserting control in his life again. “But this one night, a few nights after the big meeting, I woke up and the dorm was clean and silent; except for the soft breathing of the men and the stuff rattling around loose under the brittle ribs of the two old Vegetables, it was dead quiet. A window was up, and the air in the dorm was clear and had a taste to it made me feel kind of giddy and drunk, gave me this sudden yen to get up out of bed and do something. (emphasis mine, p. 141)” Up to this part in the story, the Chief hasn’t had a spontaneous urge to do anything. Even something as simple as walking to the window and looking out at the night is forbidden, and his transgression of this law is an uncharacteristically active thing for him to do.

And then, within a single paragraph, at the instant this small bit of agency is taken from the Chief, the tense shifts back to present: “The dog was almost to the rail fence at the edge of the grounds when I felt somebody slip up behind me. Two people. I didn’t turn, but I knew it was the black boy named Geever and the nurse with the birthmark and the crucifix. I heard a whir of fear start up in my head. The black boy took my arm and pulled me around. “Ill get ‘im,” he says. (p.143)”

After McMurphy realizes that he’s one of the very few inmates who is committed, he seems deflated, tired. At this point in the novel, the final swing of agency from McMurphy to Bromden begins in earnest. The chapter ends with: “The two technicians come back from coffee and go back into that room [the Shock Shop] across the hall; when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door. “I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind…. (p. 168)”

After seeing McMurphy in that state of human doubt and fear, some part of the Chief begins to realize that the benefits that McMurphy has brought to the ward will not survive him without the other inmates taking responsibility onto themselves. The next chapter starts and continues in the past tense. “Crossing the grounds back to the ward, McMurphy lagged back at the tail end of the bunch with his hands in the pockets of his greens and his cap tugged low on his head, brooding over a cold cigarette.” And later… “I wanted to tell him not to fret about it, and I was just about to come out and say it when he raised his head and shoved his hat back and speeded up to where the least black boy was walking and slapped him on the shoulder and asked him, ‘Sam, what say we stop by the canteen here a second so I can pick me up a carton or two of cigarettes.’” In this brief scene, Bromden is right on the verge of breaking his decades-long silence to comfort McMurphy when Mack makes his decision: he’s going to go to war with Nurse Ratched, and to hell with the consequences. Although Bromden doesn’t do anything in this chapter, he gets yet closer to his eventual escape. And at the same time McMurphy starts down the road that will lead him inexorably towards his merciful death at Bromden’s hands.

The pattern repeats itself throughout the rest of the book, culminating in the final battle between Ratched and McMurphy. Each new defeat McMurphy inflicts upon her brings more confidence to Bromden, and each setback takes a little bit of it back. By the time Part IV rolls around, almost everything is written in past-tense, and Chief Bromden becomes a more and more active character, rather than merely a colorfully unreliable narrator. The only exception to this starts on 241, where Bromden and McMurphy are in the Disturbed ward, where the police state aesthetic is even stronger, and Bromden is afraid they have gone too far. “[a nurse] handed us each a little paper cup. I looked in min, and there are three of those red capsules. This tsing whirs in my head and I can’t stop. “Hold on,” McMurphy says. “These are those knockout pills, aren’t they?” As the inevitable consequences of their rebellion fall upon Mack and Bromden, Bromden regresses, loses the self confidence to claim his own agency and begins to hallucinate again.

During electroshock, his sense of time slips again, and he flashes back to his time in the Army and his childhood. When he comes to, he finds himself at the crisis point and is forced to make a decision. He chooses to fight to control his own destiny. “It’s fogging a little, but I won’t slip off and hide in it. No…never again… I stand, stood up slowly, feeling numb between the shoulders. The white pillows on the floor of the Seclusion Room were soaked from me peeing on them while I was out. I couldn’t remember all of it yet, but I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and tried to clear my head. I worked at it. I’d never worked at coming out of it before. (p.249)” Kesey underlines this with a mid-sentence (!) tense shift, and the novel remains in the past-tense until the final page.

The pattern linking tense shifts to Bromden’s agency is clear, but the reasoning behind was difficult to puzzle out. I suspect that the past tense is used to symbolically emphasize Bromden’s ability or inability to put his past behind him. The traumas in his life primarily revolve around being helpless in the face of an uncaring world, and they remain looming, half-remembered figures in his mind for most of his stay in the hospital. At the end, he begins to focus on the future, his past becomes clear to him, and it is just as clear that it is over and the future is what matters.

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Take Home Final

March 18, 2008

This is the actual pair of essays I turned in for my world lit and history class.

1)

This excerpt from John Mandeville’s Travels reads like the sensationalistic B-movie version of Marco Polo’s Travels. Polo plays down the scale and majesty of the wonders of the Far East that his readers expected to hear about, going so far as to only mention the more outrageous examples as second-hand stories about inaccessible islands, and not something that he actually saw himself. Mandeville doesn’t do that. You want griffons? He’ll give you so many griffons they’ll be coming out of your ass. You want amazing geography? How about a river of fucking diamonds that pours out of Paradise into an eternally flowing sea of rocks? How’s that catch yer wanderlust? Mandeville’s Asia has so many wonders that by the time he gets around to the beast men, they seem boring. Oh really, they grunt? Yawn. Show me the new stuff, man, the hot stuff. A castle made out of gemstones that glows in the dark? Wow! That’s the shit, man! Game on! Read the rest of this entry ?

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Paper #3 for my Theory of Authorship class

February 26, 2008

In Foucault’s “What is an Author?”, he summarizes his theory of what he calls the authorship function as having four distinct characteristics. The very first of these is that “the author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses.” He more fully explains this passage as the “penal appropriation,” and argues that authorial ownership is first appropriated on behalf of the writer by the relevant local judicial authorities- whether the writer wants it or not. The story that is related in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” is a good case study for the practical implications of Foucault’s penal appropriation.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Great Moments in Procrastination

February 23, 2008

I woke up at the crack of 1 pm today, and realized that I had 9 pages worth of essay to write for two different classes. One will require that I read another essay I have yet to go over and then apply its ideas to a book that I hate, and the other will require that I find 5 sources to back up a stupid medieval travelogue I’m supposed to compose. It was off to the salt mines for me.

Then I realized- wait, it’s Saturday, not Sunday.

Fuck yeah! Team Fortress, here I come!

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Dilemma!

December 22, 2007
I’ve finally started to write in my book again, but I’ve come up against a sticky problem. A lot of the prose seems dead and pointless, like I’m just going through the motions, and normally I’d be fine with that because this is a first draft after all. But I’m concerned that if I keep writing bland pages, I’ll either get frustrated and give up, or I will come to accept bland pages as acceptable even during the edit process because I can’t see any way to spice them up.

So I’m considering rewriting what I’ve got so far with the present-tense, to see if that helps things. The present tense is nice because it naturally lends itself to active sentences, and if used well can be very fun to read.

The problem is that I was already planning to use the present tense as a way to distinguish a dream sequence that will be coming up in a few chapters. I thought it would be nice to use it as a way to cue the reader in to the fact that the events of that scene take place outside of the regular timeline in a dream. But if the whole book is written in present tense, then I lose that. I suppose I could just make the dream sequence past-tense, but I don’t think the contrast would work as well that way.

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Oh, The Angst!

November 18, 2007

One of the problems that I’ve found with writing a fantasy is that I don’t know how much to tell people about it when it comes up in conversation. I’m not really concerned that somebody is going to “steal my ideas” or any such nonsense, because honestly ideas are cheap; it’s the execution that’ll bring in the money, and I’m the only person in the world who can execute an idea the way I would. (I mean this in the most arrogant way possible)

No, what I’m really concerned of is giving too much away. Surprises are good. Surprises make me respect the author. So I want to put surprises in my books. But the best surprises are always the ones that have just enough foreshadowing that you know that something is up, you just don’t know what.

For example, the opening scenes of the Matrix make it pretty damn clear that something which is both unbelievably cool and sinister is happening. When we find out that the whole world is an elaborate game of Pong, we are surprised.

In Evangelion, we know in short order that Dr. Ikari is planning something. When, no, if the viewer manages to figure out what Ikari is really after, he or she is surprised.

Well I don’t have any cosmic mindfucks in store for my heroes (at least not in the first book), but I do have some surprises. And I’m not sure how to talk about the plot with the people in my workshop group without giving up the game. I can’t afford to do that, because if I do, then how am I to guage the surprise’s effectiveness?

Another problem I’ve found is coming up with all the gritty little details that make a world breathe. But most of my workshop group (or at least the new one) doesn’t seem interested in helping me worldbuild. I don’t think it is Literary Enough for many of them. (If, by any chance any of you are reading this and know who I am, then you know who you are. You heard me.)

That second problem, I suppose, could be solved by just, you know, asking for help, but for some reason I haven’t thought to do that yet.

Oh the troubles and toils of the aspiring fantasy writer!

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I Am The Buddha of Disinterest

November 13, 2007

I have reached such a plateau of indifference towards my schooling that I have become almost transcendent in my apathy. I walk out of lectures when they’re only half-way finished. What do I care? It’ll all be on the hand-outs, or in the books. I barely studied for my astronomy midterm, and I got an A. I didn’t study at all for my Global Lit midterm, and I got a C.

I write papers the day before they are finished, and that feels like I’m striving to be an overachiever.

Even putting in the minimum effort for my classes seems like a waste of energy. The only exception is, as usual, my writing class, which continues to be a grubby beacon of occasional joy and sporadic fulfillment, far and away the most enjoyable class I have this quarter. When the stories I’m critiquing are good, the class is great. When my work is up for critique, the class is even better. When the stories I’m critiquing are bad, then the class is painful. But still, it’s at least significant to me.

So 2/3rds of my classes are a waste. I want good grades, but my desire not to do any of this pointless busywork is just as strong. They balance into a beautiful equilibrium of ennui.

I am the Buddha of disinterest.