Letting Go of Star Wars

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia with the recent blitzkrieg that is the marketing campaign for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Instead of the pure excitement and anticipation that many have felt, I felt trepidation. Not just because I was burned by the prequels, but mainly because I was worried that, if the film was good, I still wouldn’t feel the same joy that I once felt when I was young.

Nostalgia is not just longing to return to a place or a past where one was once happy. It is a type of pain. It comes from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain or ache.” My forty-year old edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a form of melancholia caused by a prolonged absence from one’s home or country.” Nostalgia was seen as a disease from which people could die. Of course, it was only in the twentieth century that it became a wistful longing for the past. Yet when I look at the current waves of nostalgia that are saturating our current pop culture, no one seems hurt. There is no longing; there is glut. We wanted there to be more media of our many beloved fictional universes, and we got what we wanted. Everyone rejoices in this plenty.

When nostalgia was first coined, it was used to refer to soldiers who missed their home. I wonder what it means for several generations to be nostalgic for a place and a time that doesn’t exist. But isn’t that the problem with nostalgia, what we long for was always a fiction. Soldiers return home to find both themselves and the ones they left behind changed. The idyllic childhood is result of a child’s limited perception and the flaws inherit to memory. Perhaps our obsession and our love of fictional universes reveal a certain jadedness that our culture has. We look around us and realize that the world we want to live in could only exist in fiction.

I suspect it’s a mistake to focus on the longing for place when considering nostalgia. Place simply provides the details, but what one is longing for is a time. The soldiers who originally suffered from nostalgia were longing for a time before they knew war. Perhaps the thousands of people who are buying The Force Awakens tickets are longing for their childhood or at least the good part of their childhood. Many have leveled that criticism at different fandoms. Yet when I examine my own nostalgia for Star Wars, I can’t help but be struck by how unhappy a child I was. In Elementary school, I escaped my daily life by reading Anne of Green Gables (and its many sequels), Animorphs, and the Star Wars Expanded Universe books. I suspect what I long for isn’t a return to childhood, but a return to whatever comfort those books provided me then.

Star Wars BooksI finished the Anne of Green Gables series in late elementary school, and the Animorphs series didn’t end until high school (by then I could read an individual Animorphs book in two to three hours). These series loom large in my memory, but I have not returned to them. They ended, and I was moved. I will probably never reread them. I fear that, if I returned, I would only find the flaws of memory and the ways I’ve changed. However, Star Wars never ended. The expanded universe always kept me supplied with new books and new adventures. I read them through my undergrad years in college. Worse than leaving home and returning to find it changed is to stay home and watch yourself change until home is like a foreign country. I stopped enjoying the expanded universe novels.

I told myself that it was just the expanded universe that I was tired of. Its need to retcon developments in characters to keep them familiar and the fact that there would never be an actual ending was what had turned me off. These reasons were part of why I’d never been able to get into superhero comics. Surely, I thought I would feel that familiar joy when I re-watched the original trilogy. I haven’t re-watched it in years. I don’t want to sit down and realize they had been reduced to a fun popcorn movie in my mind. I refused to return because I feared I would find the experience different then how I remembered it.

I saw the The Force Awakens on New Years Eve, and it was a good, fun movie and nothing else. What the film made me feel was the nostalgia for my former relationship with the expanded universe—the collection of stories the film retconned. I missed those characters, and, while the ones I was introduced to are interesting and sympathetic, I didn’t feel for the same excitement I once did. I still like Star Wars, but I can no longer define myself as a fan. They’re fun movies, but they no longer fill me with the excitement and the joy they once did. Why does this make me so sad?

It bothers me that I miss being able to get lost in this fictional universe. It’s just movies and merchandising; it shouldn’t be so important to me. I still lose myself in movies and books, but the way I do is different. Why does this difference matter to me? Is it representative of a more naïve and optimistic viewpoint? I doubt it; I was a pretty jaded child who hated beloved classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Disney’s Snow White. I remember watching Disney’s Little Mermaid over and over and loving it so much, until I didn’t. That loss never bothered me.

Maybe it was because I built part of my identity around being a fan of Star Wars, and now I must say “I’m no longer the person I once thought I was.” If my love of a series of movies and books can change for no clear reason, what else can change? I’m left wondering what person I’ll become without willing it. I worry that I’ll lose my sense of awe and whimsy. I worry that I’ll lose joy in trivial and mundane things because, while the things themselves may be banal, the joy they can give never is. That joy is why I can’t criticize those who still find it in the films, even if they are twice my age. Perhaps, I’m worried that I’ll become the caricature of an adult—no joy just grind. Or maybe nostalgia is just emotion that we all feel, and, if I didn’t feel it for my former relationship with those stories, I would simply miss some other fiction.

In Praise of Endings

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

I have a habit, where, as I’m reading a book, I turn to the last page. I don’t read the last page, I just see what it is and calculate how many pages I have left to read. I do this whether I am enjoying a book or not. The other night, as I was reading Because They Wanted To: Stories by Mary Gaitskill, I noticed that the last sentence didn’t have a period or closing quotation marks. There was no flyleaf or an about the author page. My copy was missing the last four pages. Google books let me preview several pages, in fact a surprisingly large amount of pages—but not the last four. I’ve checked several libraries and have discovered that there is no e-book version of the text that I can quickly check out. They did have physical copies, so I was able to Xerox copy those missing pages.

I wish I made this discovery earlier in the book, when I could have contacted the bookseller and got a different copy. But since I was 220 pages in, with annotations, I’m just going to hold on to the copy I have. Never before had I felt so much like the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

We are all frustrated when we are denied the ending of a book, a film, or a television series. We want to know how the story turns out. But recently, I find myself not longing to know what happens next, but wondering how things will end. There was time when I devoured the books in the Star Wars expanded universe, but somewhere in my twenties I lost interest. One book would introduce a new idea with interesting consequences, and the next would find a way to get rid of the consequences and return the characters to the status quo. I once was a fanatic about the show Supernatural, and considered the ending of season five near perfect. It would have been perfect if it had ended five seconds earlier, removing the cliffhanger that would lead into the sixth season. When I meet other fans of the show, they are shocked and even suspicious of me. How could I allow the characters to remain in such an awful situation? Didn’t I want to spend more time with them? However, the continuation of the story cost the fifth season’s ending its catharsis.

Once I just wanted to spend time with the characters, and I still do, but catharsis has become much more important to me. Even if that means things don’t go well for the characters that I love. Now I’m not knocking those who turn to fiction only to spend time with characters they love—it’s just that we have different tastes and want different things from our fiction. I also enjoy ongoing series. However, I’m aware that if a series goes on long enough I will eventually lose interest, even if it is still good, because it’s denying me the end, the catharsis.

Perhaps the reason that I find endings so satisfying is because things do end. People break up, retire, and die. The hero of one battle is rarely the hero of the next. Yet the longer a series goes on, the hero becomes more and more central to the universe. Eventually the universe seems to revolve around them, and, when that happens, it becomes unbearable claustrophobic. The protagonist becomes the most important person in that world. No longer are they just a human being fighting against fate, but they are mythical in their power and influence. While there is a certain pleasure in reading about characters whose importance is of mythical proportions, I prefer when the characters start out mythic rather than becoming so through each new edition to the story. Perhaps the best example of this transformation is that of John McClane, which has been noted by many people. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that John McClane is an everyman, a regular cop, who finds himself in an extreme situation and rises to the occasion. However, several movies later he has become the supreme bad ass. All sense that he is a regular guy is gone, which means the tension of the original is gone. We know he will succeed because he’s no longer is a mortal man. He’s something more. Also, the bit of escapist fantasy that is in the first one—a regular person winning against near insurmountable odds—is gone. I like John McClane, but I rather his story ended when his universe was big, and he was only one somewhat believable man.

Of course there is also a certain aspect of escapism that comes with an ending. Yes, a person dies, but humanity will continue. When humanity dies, life will continue even if its just molecules on the sea floor living off the heat from volcanic vents. When the sun goes out, the universe will continue. The events of our life are rarely tied up in neat cathartic bows. No one really has the last word. In the Grace Paley story, “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father asks her to write a story like “‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov.’” She attempts to write the story, and, when she finally gets one that her father likes, she frustrates him by adding a scene beyond what her father considered a good ending. The narrator then says of the character that she has just created, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)” If stories in someway mirror life, then, yes, endings can feel arbitrary. After the story ends, the character—unless died—will continue living and making choices.

I think the best endings leave room for the knowledge that time continues. You feel that, when you close the book or turn off the film, the characters’ lives don’t stop. You sense that they will continue with their lives for better or worse, but that they are changed. Or maybe the characters aren’t changed, but the audience is. You have observed the characters go through a set of events that makes you realize something you hadn’t before, and part of the satisfaction—albeit a more melancholy one—is understanding what the characters fail to understand. That is what a good ending provides: a sense of consequence. We are changed by it. We understand how the characters will be dealing with those consequences for some time. I think one of the best examples of how an ending can do this is the new film The Babadook. (Obviously there are spoilers ahead, so go watch the film if you haven’t yet. I highly recommend it)

Poster for The Babadook

The Babadook ends with the titular monster locked in the protagonist’s, Amelia’s, basement. Amelia is caring for it or at least feeding it. I like this ending for several reasons. If you interpret the story as literal—this woman was actually dealing with a monster—the ending suggests that the monster is so powerful that it can never be killed. The Babadook is a curse she can’t rid her family of, but it is one that she can contain and keep from harming her, her son, and others. If you interpret the film as being symbolic, the Babadook representing her chronic depression, then we see the ending as her learning to manage mental illness. She will continue to suffer from it, but she has found ways to deal with it and still live a good life. As I walked out the theater, I discussed the “what ifs” with my husband. It was a fairly long conversation. I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen next for Amelia and her son. However, I do not want them to ever make a sequel to The Babadook. I do want the director and the actress and everyone involved to continue making films, but the ending is so satisfying I don’t want to lose it.

The risk of every sequel, of each new edition, is that it will somehow undermine the consequences of the original’s ending. The couple who started a relationship in the last story are suddenly divorced at the beginning of the new one. The lesson that was learned is forgotten. A sequel to The Babadook would perhaps eliminate one of the possible readings of the original. If the Babadook attacks a new family, I would have to view him as real rather than the manifestation of the protagonist’s mental illness. I’d also wonder what happened to Amelia and her son, whose survival I was so invested in in the first film. If they are killed off to tell this new story, I would be livid. If a sequel returned to these characters, there is a chance that I will lose the interpretation that the Babadook is a supernatural monster.

While it is possible to make a good sequel, doing so without undermining the ending is hard. Part of the reason I think so many people disliked Alien 3 was because the character whose survival was key to the tension of Aliens was killed off at the beginning. Suddenly your joy at the little girl, Newt, being rescued by Ripley is taken away and off-screen at that. For a lot of people, the new film doesn’t change the enjoyment of the old one, and I wish this was true for me. But whenever I sit down to watch Aliens, I can’t help but watch Ripley’s rescue of Newt with sadness because I know that she will die soon after the credits roll.

Once again it’s not to say a good series or sequel can’t be made, Aliens certainly proves that, but sequels can alter how we feel about the original’s ending. Hell, I think that the third sequel to Alien could have killed Newt and still have been a good movie. However, since her survival was a key part to the ending of the second film, her death needed some of its own time. As it stands in the film, it feels like they simply got rid of the character because she stood in the way of their new plot. The consequences of the last film were not explored, instead they were brushed aside.

Perhaps I’m not writing in praise of endings but rather in praise of consequences. Like I keep stating, serialized stories can be good, but each new edition must feel like it is building on the last story. Sometimes the new situation created by the ending can lead to a new story. I feel that the best ongoing series, whether book, film, or TV, acknowledges these consequences. However, when the series does not acknowledge them, the impact of these consequences are negated, and the characters become either caricatures of themselves or just empty vessels that are used to better advertise a product. When a story ends, whether it be realistic or fantastical, I want a sense that what has just happened has some sort of impact on the character’s life and is not just another adventure in a set of adventures that becomes, no matter how extraordinary to us, a boring routine for them.

Questioning the Tomes

I just finished War and Peace. Yeah, you read that sentence right. Get the streamers; uncork the champagne. I read War and Peace, and it only took me a year. War and Peace is one of those books that is perhaps more famous for not being read than read. It looms, taking up an obscene amount of bookshelf space, and seems to say, “don’t even pretend like you’re going to read me.” Well, screw you book, I read the hell out of you.

What really struck me as I was reading was that I didn’t already have an idea what the book was about before I read it. Yes, I knew it was about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but that’s like saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, that Slaughterhouse-Five is about the bombing of Dresden, or that Oliver Twist is about the economic stratification of nineteenth century England. However, I’ve rarely picked up a book that would be considered part of the “Western Canon” without already knowing the main conflict. Long before I read either novel, I knew that Moby-Dick was about Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the albino whale that ate his leg and that The Brothers Karamazov was in part a murder mystery about which brother killed their father (perhaps this knowledge was why I was so frustrated that the despicable father remained alive so long). I haven’t read Great Expectations, but I know it’s a bildungsroman about a boy who aids a convict, plays with crazy Miss Havisham’s ward, and comes into unexpected wealth. The list goes on. If a book is widely read, its plot leaks into the collective consciousness. After a while, everyone knows what these books are about, yet I was wholly unfamiliar with the plot of War and Peace.

I suspect that some will say this ignorance is due to the fact that War and Peace is more famous for not being read. It’s one of those intimidating tomes that people demur from reading. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think of Tolstoy’s novel as being like Mt. Everest—it’s big and intimidating and that challenge attracts people. Around 4,000 people have climbed Everest. I bet a lot more have read War and Peace—it’s much less expensive than mountain climbing. I daresay that, like me, others will shamelessly brag about their accomplishment, which should be enough to get some of the major plot points into the larger culture.

What I think actually keeps the plot of this book out of the cultural consciousness is that we view it with such respect. It is one of the great literary classics, and to read it shows that you have refined tastes and that you’re an intellectual who ponders what others cannot hope to understand. Talking about the plot would rob the book of some of that mystique. True, it’s hard to summarize a book that follows about a dozen characters and that takes place over the years 1807 to 1819, but let’s take one character, Pierre. Pierre is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. His father has made him his heir, but Prince Vasili tries to convince the father, who is on his death-bed, to write Pierre out of the will. The father does not, and, when Pierre inherits the fortune, Prince Vasili manipulates Pierre into marrying his daughter, Hélène. Hélène probably had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. We’re not even through the first quarter of the book, yet this bare bones summary is starting to sound a bit melodramatic. And as we all know, there is nothing more counter to literary refinement than melodrama.

The brief summary that I gave above isn’t fair to Tolstoy’s work; as with all summaries, it cuts away the nuances of character and language. Still the novel is filled with moments that would be equally at home in a soap opera. When describing what was happening in the book to my friends, I would sometimes refer to it as The Days of Our Lives: The Napoleonic Wars Edition. Often when we talk about literature, especially books with a reputation for being “Important,” we fail to talk about the parts that share similarities with writing done for pure entertainment. I’m often surprised by how fun some old books are to read.

There is nothing more absurd than going into battle wearing white pants.

One of the most surprising aspects of War and Peace was how funny it was. Tolstoy is trying to make the point that great men aren’t the ones who change the world, but rather they just get caught on top of the cresting wave of change. To do this he often shows the chaos of the battlefield—how orders from generals are based on old, often wrong, information and how the soldiers on the field are reacting to a different set of circumstances so cannot possibly follow said orders. He also shows how the bureaucracy of war keeps anything from getting done, officers vying for advancement and trying to sabotage each other. As far as Tolstoy is concerned, wars are won or lost regardless of the generals and their tactics. During these sections, I started to refer to the novel as Cluster F***: A Victory. Another thing that Tolstoy taught me about war is that it causes traffic jams: people fleeing the coming army, soldiers marching to battle or retreating from a loss. Another title I used to refer to the novel was Traffic Jams and Bureaucracy.

Less surprisingly, Tolstoy interweaves the moments of humor with moments of horror. Officers vying for advancement, no matter how pathetic and funny they may seem, still make their power-plays with men’s lives. The chaos of the battlefield can seem funny one second, and in the next second a cannon ball has obliterated a person. In one scene, Pierre, a civilian, goes to a battlefield just to look. Tolstoy paints a humorous picture of this bumbling tourist wandering about, yet, when Pierre barely escapes with his life and the soldiers he stayed with are all killed, we are terrified. After the capture of Moscow, Pierre is taken prisoner by the French. Tolstoy superbly shows Pierre entering a dissociative state in order to survive: he focuses on counting trees rather than realizing that his friend was just executed.

Strangely, one modern genre that War and Peace reminds me of is that of the internet comment. Tolstoy is angry at historians and how they paint history. There is chapter after chapter, with many great insults, where he picks apart the Great Man theory. He mentions that many historians believe that Napoleon lost a certain battle because he didn’t personally oversee it, as he was suffering from a cold, which means, according to Tolstoy, that the servant who failed to dress the French Emperor in warm clothes was actually responsible for the outcome of the battle. Basically, Tolstoy read some history, became enraged at it, and wrote a really long comment. I imagine that if Tolstoy lived today, he would be a terror, albeit an eloquent one, of the Amazon reviews and the YouTube comments section.

It may seem like I’m being disrespectful to a great piece of literature, and you’re right, I am.

While I read the novel, I was moved, I laughed, I gained new insight, and I yelled at it. I’ll praise what I thought was good, and I’ll criticize what I thought was not. I disliked how he presents peasants as an ideal of Russian identity and Christian suffering rather than as people, and how he presented two of the women as representations of true womanhood whose identities are consumed completely by their husbands and children. Still, I loved how he showed war as absurd. I like to interact with the books that I read. One of the ways that we can kill a book is to treat it like an untouchable relic behind glass in a museum.

This post, no doubt, has revealed my suspicion of dividing literature into the categories of high culture and low culture. I find the elements that low culture is derided for (sex, violence, bathroom humor, melodrama) are often in the works of so-called high culture, while I’ve discovered moments of transcendence and have seen the human condition laid bare in low culture. Admittedly genre or pulp fiction often provide nothing more than an escape from the everyday, but sometimes Literature, with a capital “L,” is nothing more than empty intellectual posing that only reassures its readers that they’re better than that ugly rabble. The latter has always struck me as more dangerous. It disturbs me that I feel a sense of accomplishment in reading War and Peace, which is, as we discussed, primarily known for being long, whereas I was reading fantasy series where individual novels were just as long in my teens. I too am guilty of being awed by the dubious reputation of “Great Literature” and “Important” books, when all that makes a book great is that it helps you understand the world in a way that you haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if this understanding comes from horror novels, fairy tales, or chick lit, as long as it makes you re-examine who you are and how you interact with the world.

As I was finishing War and Peace, I was also giving up on another famously long, much more recent and read novel, The Goldfinch. I was listening to The Goldfinch audio book on my commute, and, for whatever reason, that medium wasn’t working out for me. I’ve had this happen with a few other audio books—sometimes I just need to experience a book through the printed page—so The Goldfinch is now on my to read pile.

Recently a Vanity Fair article came out discussing the growing divide over the novel. Is it awesome that a literary novel has become so popular, or is it an example of the decline of letters that such a book could even be considered Literature? As I haven’t finished the book, I don’t feel comfortable in saying whether I think it’s good or not. However, reading the criticisms of Tart’s novel, I was struck by how much of it was about keeping all that adventure stuff, that escapism, that ability to be enjoyed by teenagers away from important literature. I’m guessing that some of these critics aren’t big fans of Treasure Island. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of this criticism, because it reeks of the old high culture versus low culture view. What seems to decide the boundary between the two is the critics’ aesthetic tastes. However, if they weren’t moved to reflection or didn’t gain some kind of insight, I can’t blame them for dismissing the novel. Still, as an outsider and member of the rabble, I can’t help but wonder if there is some literary guarding of the gates going on here.

The only really good negative review of the novel that I read was one from Salon. The reviewer points out problems with The Goldfinch’s portrayal of its characters of color. What makes this review good is it does what good literature does: it made me reflect. The reflection was on myself and my assumptions. I had already encountered four of the characters she mentioned, and I only felt bothered by the doorman. In fact, I assumed that what we initially saw of the doorman was part of a professional persona and that there would be more to his character. However, when I heard the part about the maid who offered to work for free because she loves her employer so much, I didn’t even register what a B.S. statement that was. It’s like when, in War and Peace, Pierre asks one of his serfs if he wants to be free, and the serf says no. While I believe that Tolstoy wanted his readers to see that statement as sincere, I read the character as being guarded with his master and saying that which most insured his safety. Why I didn’t have a similar realization with The Goldfinch, when the maid basically tells the narrator’s mother that she’s such a good boss that cleaning the mother’s house is reward in and of itself, reveals my own ignorance. Notice that the maid didn’t say she wanted to be friends—which would create a more equal power dynamic between the two woman—but that she wanted to continue to serve even without compensation. I’m not  happy realizing that I too didn’t think anything of that scene when first heard it, but I’m glad that this critic pointed out the problematic assumptions inherent in such a view.

I suppose what I’m looking for when I read is an interrogation of the world and myself. While I enjoy escaping from time to time, I’ve never seen escapism as being opposed to that interrogation. Vampires, spaceships, and afternoon tea can help shatter illusions about the world. However, because books are by people, they will be inherently flawed like people with dangerous blind spots that allow us to remain secure in a false sense of superiority. When I was talking about my problems with the portrayal of women in War and Peace, a friend said, “Yeah, but it was written over a hundred years ago.” “So it was of its time,” I said, “that doesn’t mean that I should excuse either it or its time.” Let us praise the books that make us feel, but let us never excuse or ignore when they fail to question dangerous assumptions—these two activities are not exclusive.

It’s Probably a Metaphor but…

The great evil rears it ugly head once more.

One of the few memories from high school that stands out to me is a substitute teacher struggling to teach twenty bored teenagers about William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow.” He asked the class, “What does the color white represent?” Students would answer goodness, purity, innocence. By the end of the class, “The Red Wheel Barrow” had become an epic poem about the struggle between the good and innocent white chickens and the satanic red wheelbarrow. I may have actually sprained my eye muscles from rolling them so often.

Over a decade later, I now stand in front of a room full of college Freshman and am tasked with teaching them about poetry—well, about analyzing texts, I’m just lucky to have a little freedom with my curriculum and get to select those texts. Most of the students groan with dread when I tell them that for a portion of the class we’re going to read poems. The idea of not loving poetry, for me, is like not loving music, but I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t like music if all they know of it is “My Achy Breaky Heart” and “Hey Macarena” and had been forced to write 1000 words on their deeper philosophical meaning. Ideally, the best way to introduce students to poetry is to show them its breadth of styles and subjects and let them find what works for them. You don’t like the stilted forms and elitist attitudes of Victorian poetry, lets listen to spoken word instead. Eventually, I believe I could find a poem for everyone. Still I must teach analysis, which has the potential to reinforce the idea of a poem as a purely symbolic puzzle.

When I read “The Red Wheelbarrow” to my classes and ask, “What is happening in this poem?” students sigh, admit that they don’t get poetry, or roll their eyes. Once a student trying to shock and show his disdain said, “Someone is going to have to shovel chicken shit.”

“Yes!” I yelled, “You understand the poem!”

I’ve always found the literal meanings of poems just as important as any symbolic ones. A reader of Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose” does not need to interpret the titular flower as the representation of the chivalric view of love to enjoy the poem. Not that I want to discourage students from those deeper readings, I just want them to be aware that they don’t always have to try to find the “Truth” (note the capital “T”) in the poem to enjoy or understand it.

Sometimes trying to find a symbolic meaning for an image can hurt one’s reading of a poem. In one class, we read Adrienne Rich’s, “Living in Sin.” Many of the students discussed the lines, “That on the kitchen shelf among the saucers/ a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—/ envoy from some village in the moldings.” Most of the students assumed that this line was an ambiguous metaphor for the mental state of the woman. When I inquired what the metaphor was, once again many confessed their own ignorance to poetry, some saying that they could never ever understand it. “What if we read that image as literal, as something that’s actually there? What’s in her cabinet?” I inquired. The class agreed—it was a bug of some sort and gross. Once they started looking at the poem for the literal, much of what seemed unsolvable riddles became interesting descriptions of everyday life. As one student wrote while reflecting on her work in the class, she now understood that “sometimes a ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ is just a red wheelbarrow.”

This approach to reading poetry has made my first reading of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil interesting to say the least. I was even tempted to ignore my own lessons. First of all I neither speak French, and therefore must rely on translations, nor am I particularly familiar with the French tradition, so there is probably a lot of things that I’m missing. The particular poems that stood out to me were “The Dance of Death” and “The Martyr.”

Danse Macabre by Ernest Christophe

Even the title “The Dance of Death” suggests a symbolic reading, as it is a reference to the Medieval idea that no matter our position in life we all will succumb to death. A myriad of Medieval and Renaissance pictures show images of kings, popes, knights, and peasants dancing with a fearful skeleton. Since the poem is also dedicated to an artist, Ernest Christophe, who made a sculpture of death as a beautiful woman dressed for a ball, we can see that Baudelaire is placing himself firmly in that allegorical tradition. However, as a reader I can’t just jump straight to the meaning of the allegory—which is usually the most boring part—I need to imagine the scene as the poet presents it. I like the image of death as “Proud, as a living person, of her height,/ Her scarf and gloves and huge bouquet of roses,/ She shows such nonchalance and ease as might / A thin coquette excessive in poses.” Baudelaire does a good job rendering the appeal that death can have. However, the poem takes an uncomfortable turn in the lines, “Yet who’s not squeezed a skeleton with passion?/ Nor ravened with his kisses on the meat/ Of charnels.” This image is not one that anyone would want to dwell on—I suspect that the immediate reaction is to jump to the symbolic. With the symbolic, we can talk about the romanticism of death and the association between poets and suicide, all more pleasant than imaging the speaker with necrophilic intent. Yet, it’s that image that surprises and is remembered by the reader.

I was suspicious of my reading of the poem. At first, I assumed that it was simply being colored by the translation.  I had read Roy Campbell’s 1952 translation. William Aggler’s 1954 translation, “Yet who has not clasped a skeleton in his arms/ Who has not fed upon what belongs to the grave?” makes the speaker not as overtly necrophilic (though he’s still snuggling up to a corpse), but a bit more cannibalistic. Still this image is equally asdisturbing as the other. Lewis Piaget Shank’s 1931 translation, “Yet, who has not embraced a skeleton?/ Who on the thought of the tombs has never fed?” is by far the least interesting, but I suspect the translation most likely to make it into a high school textbook. By making the speaker snack on “thoughts of the tomb” instead of its actual contents, Shanks tells the reader that they should be focused on some deep emotional truth and not dwelling on those unsavory images. It reassures the reader that the images are just allegory, just symbolism. It takes away all the images’ shock and impact. Which of these three translation is the closest to the meaning of Baudelaire’s original lines is unclear to me, ignorant monolingual person that I am, though I suspect Campbell and Aggler are the ones closest to the mark. When I put “Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette,/ Et qui ne s’est nourri des choses du tombeau?” in Google translate I got “But who has hugged a skeleton,/ And who has fed things the tomb?” Obviously, Google translate missed something, but I do like this new befuddled speaker who seems to be saying “Why do you always have to be so dark, Baudelaire?”

I still distrusted my own reading of the text. A speaker alone in a tomb making out with a dead body: surely I was being obtuse, morbid and missing the point made by this well-respected and lauded poet. Yes, he was considered scandalous and had his work banned in his day, but he lived and wrote in the 19th century where everything was considered scandalous and lewd. Here he was saying something important about humans’ relationship to death, and I was imagining his speaker as a degenerate ghoul. Then I read “The Martyr.” In the first two stanzas, Baudelaire describes a sumptuous room, but in the third stanza, “A headless corpse, cascading in a flood/ Hot, living blood, that soaks, with crimson stain.” Later in the poem he writes “The vengeful man, whose lust you could not sate,/ (In spite of much love) nor quench his fire—/ Did he on your dead flesh then consummate/ His monstrous, last desire?” Let’s just say that after reading this poem, I felt more secure in my earlier reading of “The Dance of Death.”

Reading Baudelaire for the first time reminded me of how culturally (in the U.S. at least) we expect poetry to be about lofty ideals—since my first reaction to those grotesque images was to think that surely I was misreading the poems. Certainly, there may be cultural reference that I’m not getting, and there are deeper symbolic ways to read these poems. But their symbolic meaning doesn’t make these two poems any less about men (hopefully fictional) whose tastes lean towards the funerary and violent. In the race to find the “deeper” meaning of a poem, it is easy to ignore the story or the image that is presented on the surface. The surface of a lake may obscure what is underneath, but we lose something if we ignore what we see on the surface. Even if it’s only a reflection. Ultimately, I did not enjoy most of Baudelaire’s poems, but I appreciate how he used images to shock the reader. Yes, these images can be read as symbolic, emotional, abstract, but the reason they work so well is that they are grounded in the concrete. Sometimes it is necessary to let a cigar be a cigar, a red wheel barrow be a red wheel barrow, and a man with romantic inclination toward the dead be—well, you get idea.

“Hey Macarena!”

The Optimistic Zombie

If you watch enough horror movies (or read enough critical essays on them), you will discover the certain fears are connected to certain monsters. The werewolf represent the fear of the monster within, the vampire represents the fear of sexuality (often mixed with xenophobia), the witch represents the fear of women, and the giant mutated monster represents the fear of nuclear war. What zombies represent at first seems obvious, but on closer examination always proves more complicated. Often critics focus on the undead horde and find that zombies represent rampant materialism, opposing political parties, any type of outsiders, and the idiocy of the mob. Yet when you take a closer look, what usually led to the death of the majority of the characters was their own actions—the small group that they were a part of disintegrates due to egotism and mistrust. We see this from the original Night of the Living Dead to the remake of the Dawn of the Dead. The dead can be kept at bay, but what will kill you is the petty squabbles among the group.

Recently, I watched Cockneys vs Zombies, and found that it had a strangely positive outlook. In the film the zombies represent the gentrification of London’s East Side, and our survivor group consists of a grandfather, his three adult grandchildren, senior citizens from his retirement community, and a hostage (the grandchildren were robbing a bank to save the grandfather’s retirement home when the zombie plague hit). Altogether, it is a fun film with a lot of clever dialogue and some silly moments. It’s also a surprisingly optimistic film that asserts the importance of family. All the characters who are out for themselves get their comeuppance, but those who remember the importance of family survive. The film is not perfect: there is a Stockholm Syndrome love story and an unintentional undertone of xenophobia. Yet for a movie where corpses eat the flesh of the living, it has rather happy ending.

The thing that struck me as odd was that I’ve been seeing a lot of these optimistic zombie fictions. Zombieland is the most obvious—where the survivors, although strangers at the beginning of the film, become a close-knit family group. By the end of the film, Zombieland assures us that even if we don’t have a traditional family to rely on, we can create one through friends. Another example is the book World War Z, which I’ve discussed before, that suggests the human race can pull together and overcome something as impossible as cannibalistic corpses. Perhaps one the most moving examples is the short film Cargo, which, while quite sad, still celebrates the nobility of the human spirit. (If you haven’t seen Cargo you should watch it here. Right now!).  I suspect that this trend all started with Shaun of the Dead, which still has a lot of the traditional aspects of a zombie film: only two of the main characters survive. Despite all these deaths, Shaun learns how to take responsibility, and he and his girlfriend are going to be all right, even well-adjusted, after facing the hungry dead.

Considering my own proclivity for pessimism, I’m amazed that the most nihilistic of monster films have become optimistic. We once needed these monsters to tell us that society, no matter how small, was doomed to collapse, but now we need to be reminded that we can overcome impossible odds. At first, I want to say that this is the way with all monsters: The Wolf Man to 1985’s Teen Wolf or Dracula to (shudder) Twilight. The more we get to know a monster the less scary they seem. Still I wonder if maybe the shift in Zombie fiction reveals a deeper problem—that we need to be reminded that even in the most terrible situations there is still hope.

Stories about Stories

Before I get into my car, I check to see that no one is in my backseat. Other than revealing the sad state of the world where that is not a uncommon habit for a woman, it also reveals the hold that stories have over me. I check the backseat not because of the countless bits of advice that I’ve been given when I’m reminded that it’s my responsibility to not be targeted by a sociopath, but because I heard an urban legend at a slumber party.

You’ve probably heard this story too. A girl drives home late at night and notices that she is being followed by a car that turns its high beams on at odd intervals. Regardless of which turns she suddenly takes or if she runs a red light that strange car follows. Finally, she can’t stand it any more and drives home, where she makes a run for her front door. The other driver gets out and starts screaming that there was someone in her car with her. She goes back and sees an ax laying across the backseat. Whenever the ax-murder raised the weapon, the driver behind her would turn on his high beams to keep the murder from killing her.  Late at night when I get into my car, I inevitably think of this story and look into my back seat.

Often we think of stories as something that we grow out of. One person may say that he or she is too old to believe in fairy tales but still expect their romantic life to follow the lines set by the Disney films. How many us who don’t believe in ghosts will still stay away from those famed haunted houses? Even though many will still turn up their nose at superstition, they’ll still hold their breath when driving past a graveyard, knock on wood when they talk of possible tragic outcome, or remain silent on their wishes after blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. I know a few skeptics who were able to rid themselves of these habits entirely, and I envy them at times. But even though I know that nothing will change the chance of the universe, I still throw split salt over my shoulder. Just because I know, without a doubt, ghosts don’t exist, doesn’t mean I’m not turning all the lights on after hearing a particularly good story.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy magical realism so much. It is just realism where spilling salt is serious business, where breathing in the graveyard air is dangerous, and where folklore isn’t hidden away but a living, breathing presence. Perhaps this is why I write so many stories and poems that deal with fairy tales and myth, because I can’t explore my poor body image without thinking of Cinderella’s two ugly step sisters, I can’t think of aging without thinking about the queen in Snow White, and, when a strange man asks me for the time and stands a little bit too close, I can’t help but think of Little Red Riding Hood. Gods, monsters, princesses, and witches make up a large part of the fabric through which I emotionally view this world.

One book, which I recently read, that does a wonderful job illustrating how stories color our view of the world is The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The book follows Natalia, a young doctor whose Balkan country has been divided by a civil war. She is crossing the new border to give vaccinations to people who view her, in general, as an ancestral enemy. On top of this she discover that her grandfather has died after also crossing the border for unknown reasons. There is a constant tension as Natalia, a lone woman, wanders this angry territory. Obreht does a wonderful job of showing how the threat of violence, while not necessarily overt, is always there. Natalia is reminded that she shouldn’t go to certain places alone—though she doesn’t always take the advice.

When describing The Tiger’s Wife to friends I’ve called it magical realism, but that category doesn’t do the book justice. As Natalia describes her current actions and remembers the times spent with her grandfather, she doesn’t witness anything that couldn’t happen in our mundane world. There are moments that seem magical, like the time she saw an Elephant walk through the city under curfew in the dead of night. It is a beautiful moment, but it’s not literally magical. Even the story that she reconstructs of her grandfather’s boyhood involving the tiger and the tiger’s wife can be logically explained—though there are many moments that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. In fact throughout most of the story everything exists in our logical mundane world, it’s tension coming from us wondering if she will come across some of that magic she has only heard of in stories. Whether she does or not, I won’t spoil for you. For most of the book, it is only in the stories that Natalia remembers her grandfather telling about his encounters with the deathless man where we see something literally magical happen. Of course, we are hearing Natalia recalling stories her grandfather told her. There is a good deal of distance between us and what may have actually happened—like all good folk tales and urban legends.

Yet for all of this world’s reality and logic, it is still defined by these old folk stories and beliefs. Natalia’s grandmother doesn’t want to move her grandfather’s things for forty days after his death lest his spirit becomes lost.  People leave coins for the dead. We see a group refuse to get their children medical care, as they dig up a vineyard looking for a corpse of a relative, who they believe has cursed them for not giving him a proper burial. Many of these people know those old stories are just “fairy tales,” yet their actions are still dictated by them

In the United States, we tend to pretend that we have moved beyond these stories. Yet, they still color how we approach death, birth, love, and myriad of other actions. To ignore these stories in the name of logic is dangerous, because these stories are still coloring our actions. If we put the folk tales, the fairy tales, and the urban legends, where we reasonable adults can’t see them, we can’t analyze how they are affecting our views.

I suspect that you can go anywhere in the world, point to a bit of geography and ask the locals “What’s that place’s story?”, and they will have one to tell you. Landscapes that are the bodies of giants, the result of a hero’s triumph, the scars of a god’s wrath, or echo with the body-less voices of miner’s buried alive. Even as children, my friends and I tried to create stories for our neighborhood. A small swell in the earth in an empty field became the haunted grave where a murdered baby was buried. The grove of cottonwoods where we rode our bikes was filled with century old ghosts that you might catch a glimpse of if you were alone, and a house that was falling apart belonged to a witch. When someone asks me what I’ll do when I’m done with my fairy tale poems, I stare confounded. I’ll never be done with them.

The Satisfaction of an Ending

A week or two ago, some friends started to tell me and my husband about the recent developments in Supernatural, a show that my husband and I had introduced them to. I immediately responded with, “Stop talking! I don’t want to know!” This reaction was not because I was trying to avoid spoilers, but because the show had what I considered a perfect ending in the last episode of season five, what would have been the last season if it hadn’t suddenly grown popular. Now it wasn’t a happy ending by any means, but it was satisfying and cathartic. I tried to watch the sixth season, but eventually I had to stop. I wanted that perfect ending more than to continue spending time with the characters I loved.

I’ve run into this problem before. I use to devour the  Star Wars expanded universe novels, but I eventually got tired of how they just kept going and going. This is the same reason that I never really got into superhero comics. I love the stand alone stories, but if I always know there is going to be another week, I just can’t do. I love endings.

Maybe it’s an age thing. When I was teenager, I loved returning to adventures with familiar characters. I thought anything was possible for these characters, because I thought anything was possible for me. In high school, I would sit with my best friend, and we would talk about the many and varied adventures that we’d have after graduation. We’d travel, get rich and famous, move into houses that were right next to each other. When I looked to the future, I saw me and my friend, and the only really change was in the setting. I viewed my relationships with fictional characters in a similar light. I was always going to explore a strange galaxy with Han, Leia and Chewbacca, and none us of were ever going to change.

Yes, these books taught me about the dehumanizing horrors of war.

After graduation, my friendship dramatically imploded with a finality I could not have foreseen. I needed endings to help me understand the endings that were happening in my own life. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway taught me that people die and life is still worth living. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot taught how there is not necessarily a great meaning to all this suffering. Austen’s Persuasion taught me that sometimes there are second chances. Sartre’s The Flies showed me how sometimes you have to leave behind your own faith or be destroyed by it. Hell, even a series of young adult books, Animorphs, which had started when I was in Elementary school and ended a year before I graduated, gave me a cathartic conclusion that I wept over. In that series, where kids fight aliens by shape shifting, I saw characters lose their innocence, die, and suffer from both survivors guilt and post traumatic stress disorder. A series of adventure books for kids became something more, at least to me, because it had an ending.

I think endings often are the most satisfying part of the book, but that satisfaction is hard to describe.  I can’t describe the rage that I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front when the army report for the day that Paul died says nothing more than those titular words, “All quiet on the Western Front.” I can’t describe the sense of satisfaction when, in Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Lakey leaves her dead friend’s abusive husband on the side of the road to hitchhike as the rest of the funeral party drives past. Hell, in describing that ending to you, you probably think that it’s a very different book then it is.  I cannot convey my feelings of hope being crushed in The Plague when Camus writes:

as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew as those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane  and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

When I closed the covers of these books, I couldn’t simply move on to the next distraction. I had to sit and think about them for days. I now want that catharsis from all the stories I read and watch.

Perhaps, it may seem unfair to demand such endings of my genre TV, comics, and books, but I don’t think so. The truth is the sun sets, people change, and people die, and I need some acknowledgement of that in my fiction. The idea of the world continuing without change is almost to terrible to bear.