Changing Narratives

May 13, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Do we need to know the origin of a story once it has been changed? Is part of the power of a subverted narrative in the actual subversiveness? Maybe it does not matter at all that we know the origin of the story, but only the results of the newest conversation. I wonder what it takes to erase, or at least drastically alter, our understanding of a stereotype of the character of someone like Cinderella, for example.

Fairy tales involving a helpless princess have received a lot of criticism of late. Rising concern about this fairy tale (among others) establishes an argument for understanding the point behind the stories that we teach to our children. Instead of allowing the princess to grow and develop, Cinderella depends entirely upon Prince Charming for salvation. We fear that young girls will receive the impression that instead of working to pursue their dreams, they simply have to wait.

As a result, in recent years, a number of versions of a non-helpless Cinderella have been published. Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood is an example of this new type of Cinderella fairy tale. It begins: “Once upon a planetoid,/ amid her tools and sprockets,/ a girl named Cinderella dreamed/ of fixing fancy rockets.” This Cinderella loves her tools more than fancy dresses or waiting. She is curious, crafty and knowledgeable. Therefore, when Prince Charming's ship needs repair, she is the only one able to help. When he asks for her hand in marriage, she laughs and offers to be his chief mechanic instead.

This sort of transformation brings to mind Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) of the Star Wars series. In the most recent movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she assumes the role of General. Her new role reflects changing rhetoric of the decades between the first movie and today's character. She reflects the growing awareness of stereotypes. It is also necessary for General Leia to transcend her previous role before the audience can receive a character like Rey (Daisy Ridley) also in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rey is a strong, independent female character who demonstrates excellence with both tools and weapons. If we disregard all previous female characters, does this strong protagonist subvert or eliminate previous characters? If young children are watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens without knowing the history, will they wonder how Rey became so independent and strong?

Michel Foucault offers some insight into the author's function when envisioning a character, which may also enlighten the idea of the cultural reading of a character. In the essay, “What is an Author?” he writes, “One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.

“In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticisim, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure.” In other words, the fiction that we receive does pass through a solitary point, that of the author. The author collects ideas, facts, data, emotions in order to inform a work of art. However, fairy tales might be the closest we can get to what Foucault calls 'pure romanticisim'. Fairy tales were originally written but have spun into oral stories, into culturally appropriated pieces, into narratives far beyond their original form.

This is how we arrive at the idea that a fairy tale may contain a dialogue outside of the single author's perspective. But not completely. Something like Cinderella was originally written from a single perspective, a single 'constraining figure' who chose details that were important to a particular time and place. The story then generated itself and the characters became universal. In other words, it has grown universality from a solitary authorial point.

Now, however, erase all that you know about Cinderella, and begin again with Interstellar Cinderella. Is the character strong and independent? Would she be stronger and more independent (in your mind) if you were aware of her true past? And finally, what if you then stumble upon the original Cinderella. Would the helpless princess subvert the über-independent mechanic?

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Los Desaparecidos

April 15, 2016

while in the midst of horror/ we fed on beauty – and that,/ is what sustained us. - Rita Dove, “Transit”


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Something to listen to while reading today's blog: Maná, Desapariciones (a Ruben Blades cover)

A few months back, we discussed “Women in War” on our blog. Today we couple the idea of women's tactics and resources during war times with the idea of loss. The artwork included in today's blog is meant to build upon last week's discussion of war narratives. (Many thanks to Dr. Deborah Deacon for providing today's image.)

War leaves such holes within us. While we are incapable of completely filling these holes, they still demand attention. Since everyone reacts differently, the work is personal and arduous. Funerals serve an important ritual in the passage of a loved one. They offer a transition, a sense of closure. Funerals are universally recognized as important. As the body fills a space in the ground, so too does ritual fill an emotional space.

People prepare elaborate ceremonies, words, deeds, and actions, all of these performed in a rhythm. For example, the sound of Taps draws upon each of us in a unique way. We know and understand something, not everything, but these experiences draw on the deepest of our emotions. Sometimes we may not even be aware of the cultural implications underlying the funeral ritual. Yet without the ceremony, there is an additional absence, an additional unaccounted-for space. An example of the elaborateness of funeral rites comes from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, he details the burial of Alaric, the first king of the Visigoths. Gibbon writes, “The ferocious character of the barbarians [Goths] was displayed in the funeral of a hero whose valour and fortune they celebrated with mournful applause. By the labour of a captive multitude they forcibly diverted the course of the Busentinus, a small river that washes the walls of Consentia. The royal sepulchre, adorned with the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome, were then restored to their natural channel; and the secret spot where the remains of Alaric had been deposited was for ever concealed by the inhuman massacre of the prisoners who had been employed to execute the work”. They diverted a river. And yet, they revered the body of the leader so much that they include more death. There is so much death involved in death. Juxtaposed to this idea of an elaborate funeral is that of the unexplained missing persons.

An extremely complex version of loss arrives in the form of missing persons. No body, no word, no sign, no knowledge. Human brains ache for a narrative, for an end, for something more. Often the brain allows for hope even in the face of the most hopeless situation. The weight of this is often unbearable and excruciating. The lack of funeral is an important note. A lot of time and energy is spent on saying goodbye. If this ceremonial rite is denied, the emotional toll on remaining family and friends is great, to say the least.

This short paragraph from George Orwell's 1984 illustrates the idea of a person who, in Orwell's sci-fi world, suddenly ceased to exist. Orwell explains the disappearance thus: “Syme had vanished. A morning came, and he was missing from work; a few thoughtless people commented on his absence. On the next day nobody mentioned him. On the third day Winston went into the vestibule of the Records Department to look at the notice board. One of the notices carried a printed list of the members of the Chess Committee, of whom Syme had been one. It looked almost exactly as it had looked before – nothing had been crossed out – but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist; he had never existed.” Winston laments the missing name of his friend. This chess list barely records anything, just a trace of existence. Yet, Winston speaks of Syme, identified by proper name, by recollections of personal exchange. How is it possible to have a proper name without prior knowledge of an actual being? His disappearance horrifies Winston, who is even more upset that no one else responds with outrage. Obviously, a disappearance is not uncommon in this world, but still Winston holds a few key figures in his mind. Real people worthy of more than a mere removal. He wonders if they live somewhere, exiled. Or perhaps they have been captured and detained somewhere. Questions pile on top of each other without any relief or answer. Perhaps it is for this reason that Winston begins to keep a journal.

The idea of journalling is neither unique nor revolutionary (except in 1984, where it is both). The facts of a person who 'disappears' are really never to be understood. But what happens to the family left reeling in the aftermath of such an incomprehensible scenario? The amazing truth is that the mind has the ability (almost builds the ability) to maintain contact with someone (or something) which is not present. However, in building this reality, emotions bear a heavy toll. In a paper titled, “Stitches of War: Women's Commentaries on Conflict in Latin America”, Dr. Deborah Deacon (HMU) discusses an unlikely, but effective way of dealing with some of the pain. She writes about General Pinochet in Chile: “Most of the 'disappeareds' were men and students who actively opposed the right-wing dictator, leaving wives and mothers to cope with the uncertainty of their fate. The women also had to cope with the economic and emotional uncertainty that resulted from their losses”. These women began to use embroidery on burlap sacks (called arpillera) as a way of understanding and narrating their loss. This is a sharp transition from the previous use of the arpillera, which mainly depicted landscapes and animals, but rarely people.

Personally, I love these two examples of narrative, 1984 and arpilleras. To me, they clearly demonstrate certain processes of the brain required to deal with something like loss. The women of Latin America made beautiful, colorful pieces of artwork about their own personal fear, persecution and loss. It is more than art, however. It is a narrative. An experience in journalling meant to fill space, much like a body in the ground.


This arpillera is from a workshop in Guatemala started by Ramelle Gonzalez. She had to teach the Mayan women to embroider since they previously used weaving. Polyester yarn on cotton background. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Deacon.

This arpillera is from a workshop in Guatemala started by Ramelle Gonzalez. She had to teach the Mayan women to embroider since they previously used weaving. Polyester yarn on cotton background. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Deacon.

This arpillera from Guatemala depicts the destruction of a Mayan village. Its vibrant colors normally hint at life and joy. Viewed from afar, the mass of green generally pleases the eye, until we begin to discriminate green plants from green soldiers. People fall amid fire, hands raised in fear and chaos. The presence of children devastates. The lower left quadrant shows a woman, child on her back, trying to stop blood from another's head wound. To write of such brutality in vibrant colors makes me think that these women wanted to allow for life among the ruins. Yet certainly, the authors of this narrative grieve deeply.

Arpilleras are a testament to life, to hope, to beauty. They survive among ruins and, I would say, they thrive. Humans pursue narrative as a form of understanding. These texts certainly represent life, in all of its diversity and strangeness. Personally, I am amazed that the authors and/or artists were capable of such emotions post-apocalypse. And I have to believe that this is evidence of the insurmountable power of the human mind, and hopefully, of love.


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