Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Litopia's 1st Anthology

The end began with a whimper, where the Sun had always been at its most fervent: Rome, and in all the cities, regions, and countries clinging to the equatorial line. By the time Alfredo Giancarlo was born, the end was unalterably established and advancing without much fanfare.

It's a good time of year when you are told that a piece of your writing has been accepted into an anthology of work - finally. Phew!

Back in January, Litopia announced it's first anthology, in association (and all hard work carried out by) Nemesis Publishing.

"And?" I hear you say. "And?"

Well, I'm in it. Naturally! My 5,000 word response to visiting Rome for the first (and only) time - so far - which I'd drafted up back in 2008, has been accepted to join the work of other Litopians. The piece is called Dreaming of Flora and emerged from my experience of the heat of Rome and the stone and flora and how, like Christianity across antiquity, one can consume the other.

The first ever anthology of short fiction by Litopians will be published later this year – and all full members have the chance to be involved.

It will be a collection of the finest short fiction that Litopia has to offer, published in print and as an e-book, with the release scheduled for mid-November...

For full details visit Litopia.

I'm really pleased, as I'm sure you'd appreciate that I would be. It is a good day. The anthology is set, at present, to be published by the end of November.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Role of Tiresias in Salley Vickers’s ‘Where Three Roads Meet’

So it was that the second analysis essay needed to be written if ever I was to worm my way onto the English degree. I needed to find something to analyse that would engage me (so that I could get on with reading and absorbing it), but not too contemporary that I looked totally out of touch.

Inspiration hit me when I was wandering through the library (as I do) and there it was... reviewing my old interviews with authors would show my interview with Salley Vickers, in which we discussed for a while her entry for the Canongate updated mythology series.
It was divine inspiration that led me to 'Where Three Roads Meets' a novella that deals with Freud's death and, as Vickers has decided to frame it, his ruminations over the Oedipus Complex. Vickers's story is both contemporary but allowed me to reach back into Sophocles's play so as to straddle the divide between antiquity and now. What better way to stretch my researching skills than to read both Vickers and Sophocles and extract the greater meaning that Vickers has laced her work with?

© Salley Vickers 2009

Critical Analysis of a Literary Text

Discuss the role of Tiresias in Salley Vickers’s ‘Where Three Roads Meet’

“Know thyself” (Vickers, p.99) Tiresias tells Sigmund Freud at the height of their discussions on Oedipus and, in this particular case, Oedipus’ understanding of the riddle of the Sphinx. It is this self awareness, or self analysis, that lies at the heart of ‘Where Three Roads Meet’, and is the fundamental basis for Tiresias’ role in deconstructing Freud’s Oedipus complex.

The professed abilities of Antiquity’s prophets can be seen, in all their metaphorical ambiguities, as shaping the science of the mind. Freud was one of many to call upon ancient stories and metaphors to help develop his theories, though Vickers, a psychoanalyst herself (Vickers’s Website), prescribes to Jung’s theory that where the myth of Oedipus was concerned, “Freud’s not read it correctly” (Feay).

Know thyself is a philosophy Oedipus’ pride and drive prevented him from fully understanding and contributes in part to the tragedy of his downfall. Freud touches on this when he says “[Oedipus] was more comforted by truth than fortified by comfort” (Vickers, p.169). However, it is best illustrated in the schism between Oedipus and the Chorus, when he claims he was responsible for solving the riddle of the Sphinx (Sophocles, 536) while the Chorus suggest “There was a god in it, a god in you” (Sophocles, 58). It also shows in the divide between Freud, who diagnosed Oedipus’ problems as being the making of his own psyche, and Freud’s one-time protégé, Carl Jung, who considered that “the problem of antiquity… [is that] there is a lot of infantile sexuality in it” (Hayman, 1999, p.119).

Author Salley Vickers has observed that “at the end of his life [Freud] was revising his theories… So the subject of Oedipus would have been at the forefront of his mind” (Vickers’s Website). She uses this ongoing development (comprising 6 stages over a period of 41 years), coupled with Freud’s age and failing health, to entertain the notion that Freud might, even subconsciously, consider counterarguments. In doing so Vickers is standing on the shoulders of Jung, who tried and failed to get Freud to, “… get rid of all your complexes and stop playing the father to your sons and take a good look at your weak spots instead of aiming continually at theirs” (Hayman, p.163).

The role of the blind prophet Tiresias in several tragedies and stories surrounding the ancient Greek city of Thebes, amounts to warnings and prophecies. As the seer from the ‘Oedipus’ he is central to the events of the play, having pronounced the prophecy whose outcome Freud took as the basis for “the linchpin of his theory of infantile sexuality”: the ‘Oedipus’ Complex (Vickers’s Website). In ‘Where Three Roads Meet’ Vickers takes Tiresias’ seer role at its basest function: to act as analyst. While not a representation of psychoanalysis, since Tiresias would analyse waking dreams and signs in nature in order to relate the prophecies of the gods, he does reflect the thoughts and feelings of Freud as a psychologist or counsellor might.

Tiresias, it seems apparent, was chosen as a foil for Freud because he is one of the earliest representations of a man whose mind and wits are used for the benefit of others. Before the philosophies of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato began to shape the hearts and minds of Ancient Greece, men and kings alike would turn to the seers and oracles for guidance on how to shape their lives or how their lives were shaped. Oedipus acknowledges the power and skill of Tiresias’ role in the ‘Oedipus’ by welcoming Tiresias to Thebes and proclaiming, “We are in your hands Teirsias. No work is more nobly human than helping others” (Sophocles, 426), as do the Chorus when they exclaim “the truth is rooted in his soul” (Sophocles, 411). Tiresias’ role carries great weight and significance in both the ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Where Three Roads Meet’.

In the ‘Oedipus’ Tiresias proves: his insight, with his prophecies, “… see who he really is: their brother and their father; his wife’s son, his mother’s husband” (Sophocles, 629); his empathy, when he doesn’t want to share this hurtful reality with Oedipus, “I will do nothing to hurt myself, or you” (Sophocles, 450); and his guile at reflecting Oedipus’ feelings, “That gift is your destiny. It made you everything you are, and it has ruined you” (Sophocles, 610). These are the three core skills of an analyst and a counsellor that Tiresias employs in respect to Freud in ‘Where Three Roads Meet’.

Tiresias’ empathy extends to showing his acceptance of Freud’s weaknesses and normalising them, by making light of his own, “No matter, I stumble too” (Vickers, p.23). He also does not disagree with Freud’s godless belief that he shall never get to see his dead mother again (Vickers, p.42). He reflects with Freud that Freud reasons there is a universality man shares with man in myth (Vickers, p.28). More importantly, his insight is shown in his ability to explain the meaning of the story of Oedipus and the manner in which he is able to avoid debates on digressed topics. When Freud belittles the “primitive need” of deity worship or suggests Tiresias may have had an Oedipus complex, Tiresias only says, “Whatever you say, Doctor” (Vickers, p.30, p.36). Later, Tiresias comes to pre-empt Freud’s tendency to jump to conclusions, by asking Freud to listen to what he has to say first (Vickers, p.104).

It is Vickers’s intent to blur the lines between the roles Freud and Tiresias play. One allusion to the similarities between psychoanalyst and oracle are in their choice of seating. Tiresias mentions that, “the Pythia sat on a three-legged stool to utter the divine pronouncements” (Vickers, p.83). Freud had a three-legged analysing chair – his “tripod” – “We had it specially made.” (Vickers, p.24). Coupled with these similarities, the Socratic dialogue that Freud and Tiresias engage in evokes a very real sense that the pair’s opposing viewpoints are designed to stimulate the critical thinking Freud’s subconscious needs to reach its conclusion. However, Tiresias’ refusal to enter into debates on certain subjects suggests that he is leading the conversation.

Following the introduction that frames Vickers’s novella, the main body of the text is presented as a dialogue, or script, rather than a narrative piece. Descriptions and actions, aside from any that Freud and Tiresias may share or direct at each other, are redundant here. The effect is to create the appearance of a transcript that lends the reading of the piece a sense of urgency and helps to depict the dialogues shared by Freud and Tiresias as analytical sessions.

It is Freud who imagines, by their fourth meeting, that he is in an analytical session. He acts, initially in the dominant role of host and analyst, by offering Tiresias a seat, but, “No, no, not, please, my analysing chair.” (Vickers, p.24). Tiresias even sets up this misconception by telling Freud, “It is your gift for listening I need” (Vickers, p.26). However, what Freud does not realise and which becomes increasingly apparent to the reader is that Freud comes to adopt the role of patient, while Tiresias becomes the analyst.

On his fifth visit, Tiresias does not wish to “dislodge” Freud from his couch and when he offers to sit by the desk Freud accepts that Tiresias should “take the armchair by me” (Vickers, p.42). On the sixth, when offered the couch and Tiresias answers, “I prefer not”, Freud admits that he would rather remain lying upon it (Vickers, p.59). By the seventh visit, Vickers has done away with talk of where to sit and though Freud might be oblivious to this reversal, particularly since he has previously asked, “Tell me, what has been in your mind since we met?” (Vickers, p.59), it is clear to the reader that Vickers’s intent is to have Tiresias’ tale relate a universal truth in order to help Freud.

It is fitting then that Vickers has chosen to invite Tiresias to hold discourse with Freud. Throughout Carl Jung’s life, Jung discussed philosophical matters with a fantasy figure: Philemon. Jung said “[Philemon] was to me what the Indians call a guru… a man with great intellect and ability who could have decoded for me the involuntary creations of my fantasy” (Hayman, p.179). Just as Tiresias was born of myths and stories, so too was Philemon. “[He] had appeared in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ and in Goethe’s ‘Faust’” (Philemon Foundation Website). There is synchronicity between the roles of Philemon and Tiresias. Both are seers and both reflect the subconscious of the men in whose minds they have been created.

This is Vickers’s design: an irony that mirrors Jung’s schizophrenia in Freud’s drugged and post-trauma mind. Tiresias, like Philemon, is an “archetypal image of the spirit” (Hyde & McGuinness, p.55). He is present to help Freud reconcile his consciousness with his theories. Freud makes his standpoint on gods and God clear, “[a] ‘deity’ is a primitive need to rationalise natural injustice” (Vickers, p.30), and, “My dear fellow, I have no god.” (Vickers, p.31). Stricken as he is with cancer and overshadowing death, Freud has no God to turn to or repent before, as a man of faith would. He only has himself to face. A subconscious desire, as Vickers has decided to portray it, to reconcile his disagreement with Jung, particularly since Freud “did not regard his own experiences as automatically valid for all humanity” (Fay, p.90) and would wonder “whether his claim that everyone passes through [the Oedipus complex] can be substantiated” (Jacobs, p.15).

Freud took issue with the questioning his ideas received, and was particularly affronted by Jung’s interpretations of sexuality and the Oedipus complex as being “abstract, impersonal and non-historical” (Freud, p.236). This disagreement led to increasingly fractious dialogue between the pair that in turn ended their friendship and made Freud increasingly protective of his theories. It can be argued that Freud would not respond as well to any other character, real or fantasy, as he does to Tiresias.

Tiresias embodies the philosophy of Socratic questioning, and Socrates’s view that, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Tiresias is even heard to advise Freud that “I can only speak from my own experience” (Vickers, p.46) and “You’re the expert, Dr Freud. I’m just a humble witness” (Vickers, p.149). Tiresias and Freud are often in disagreement, which leads Tiresias to reveal ever more concrete truths, such as his blinding by Athena at the Castalian spring (Vickers, p.77). Tiresias intends to prove that not everything can be rationalised from Freud’s external perspective and theories.

“The audience [of the ‘Oedipus’] have a godlike vantage on the action of the play” (Clay, p.12), but Freud doesn’t appreciate the divide. For example, when Tiresias mentions Apollo’s plague, Freud denies the inherent divine nature of the ‘Oedipus’, stating “it was a mortally contagious virus passed on through inadequate hygiene” (Vickers, p.115). Tiresias does not correct Freud but continues, through his story, to prove what the Athenians knew “when they returned to the life of their city and the [very real] plague that was ravaging Athens” (Clay, p.15): Freud has taken a divine fiction and attempted to remove the gods.

Tiresias phrases his response, towards the end of their dialogue, by telling Freud he’d missed the point of Sophocles’s play, stating “here in all the world was the one person you could safely say didn’t have an Oedipus complex you dreamed up for him. He was Oedipus, plain Oedipus” (Vickers, p.169).

Tiresias is the right choice to correct Freud’s thinking due to his polite, challenging manner and for his perspective from being at the centre of the events of the ‘Oedipus’. He does so without riling Freud. Just as Tiresias succeeds in voicing his opinion where Jung failed, he is best suited out of all the characters of the ‘Oedipus’ to state it. Jocasta would be reliant upon Freud since the crime of the ‘Oedipus’ is perpetrated against her. Her realisation, as Tiresias reports to Freud, is filled with grief and denial: “For the gods’ sake, Oedipus, drop it, let the man go!” (Vickers, p.153). Oedipus could argue, as he does in the ‘Oedipus’, against the Oedipus complex because he is able to separate out the responsibilities of the gods from himself: “It was Apollo, always Apollo, who brought each of my agonies to birth, but I, nobody else, I… I stabbed out these eyes” (Sophocles, 1732), but Oedipus is overcome with the hindsight that has revealed his fall.

As author of the ‘Oedipus’, Sophocles would have made a worthy counterpoint to Freud, for even though he has Jocasta say, “Many men have slept with their mothers in their dreams” (Sophocles, 1238), he is rightly placed to discuss the purpose and reasoning behind the metaphors. Freud could still argue against Sophocles, citing the author’s subconscious yearnings: “It was castration,” Freud declares of Oedipus’ blinding and it is Tiresias who can honestly explain, “Had Oedipus seen fit to castrate himself, believe me he would have done so” (Vickers, p.176).

Tiresias has the benefit of standing in both realities: Freud’s and the ‘Oedipus’. He can relate the mind of Sophocles and, when he states to Oedipus “You don’t see how much alike we are” (Sophocles, 458), he shows that he shares a “fixity of disposition” with Oedipus (Clay, p.104). This disposition exists both when Oedipus and Tiresias first meet and afterwards when Oedipus has fulfilled the Sphinx’s riddle and becomes as physically blind as Tiresias. Finally, Tiresias can reveal the ironies: as Oedipus says, “It is frightening – can the blind prophet see, can he really see?” (Sophocles, 979).

“To put it otherwise, there is always another way at the crossroads” (Vickers, p.126) says Tiresias, alluding to the metaphor of the junction on the road to Phokis where Oedipus kills his father, King Laios, and the title of Vickers’s novella ‘Where Three Roads Meet’. In resolving the fallout between Freud and Jung, Vickers is proposing through Tiresias the theory that the act of knowing a possible future limits our choices. From within Freud’s subconscious, Tiresias is able to circumvent Freud’s unwillingness to accept that he has afforded too much significance to the Oedipus complex. Since Freud has adopted the role of patient, lying upon his own analyst’s couch, Tiresias is free to reflect the reality of the Oedipus myth and to direct Freud to the conclusion that others, from Jung to Vickers, have reached, whilst not forcing him to accept it. True to the role of analyst that Tiresias adopts, he does not judge but resolves to lead Freud to the truth.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

On the Death of Dr. Levet

In order to prove myself worthy of returning to university in order to complete a full time degree I needed to analyse two pieces of literature. These had to consist of one critical essay on a literary text and one analysis of poetry or prose. The pre-requisite was that at least one of the texts needed to be pre-1820.

I've never been one for poetry. I couldn't ever get my head around it and didn't really find anything in it to pique my interest. However, following two days of observations in the schools of a couple of friends it suddenly clicked while I was sitting with a sixthform class discussing Blake's Songs of Experience. Tada - epiphany moment.

Therefore, for the first analysis, I chose Samuel Johnson's poem: On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet.
Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.
The Poetry Foundation are kind enough to provide a copy for your viewing pleasure.

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Analysis of ‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’
In eulogising his friend and dependant, Robert Levet, Dr Samuel Johnson immediately sets out his respect and empathy for Levet and Levet’s work. Johnson titled the poem: Dr Robert Levet, conferring a status upon him that wasn’t legally merited. Levet was a lay physician, oft labelled a quack; he never benefited from formal medical training and even Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, referred to him as “... his humble friend Mr. Robert Levet” (Boswell, p.102).

It can be argued that his age and the loss of his closest friends to death made Johnson nostalgic; he longs for Levet and weights the poem in his honour. From the moment Levet descends to the grave he is, “Officious, innocent, sincere, Of ev’ry friendless name the friend.” demonstrating, “His vig’rous remedy display’d.” There is a definite sense that Johnson feels Levet was underestimated in life and his portrayal of Levet’s “power of art without the show” cries out that here is a man who did what he did and refused to draw attention to it.

Johnson is not simply beatifying Levet. He is at once stating Levet’s shortcomings, though these are touched upon only briefly and tempered by the adjectives that conflict with the descriptions in line 10, “Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;” Levet is portrayed as something of an anti-hero in these manners – traits we wouldn’t otherwise attribute to a saint. Johnson however, goes further by speaking out against what he felt was the needless snobbery of Levet’s naysayers, “Nor, letter'd arrogance, deny , Thy praise to merit unrefin'd.”

Whatever Levet’s shortcomings, Johnson resolutely denies that there are any in Levet’s empathy and diligence to his patients. Levet, Johnson summarises in the sixth stanza, attended to every need as soon as it was requested, “No summons mock'd by chill delay,” He wasn’t motivated by greed, “No petty gain disdain'd by pride,” and had “modest wants” supplied by “the toil of ev’ry day”, in the form of food and drink. As Hibbert describes: “The poor people whose unlicensed doctor he was could rarely afford his modest fees and he would accept their offer of a drink instead.” (Hibbert, p.83). This added to Johnson’s affection for Levet and ironically Levet’s dependency on him. It has been observed that “medicine was something of a lottery in the mid-eighteenth century” (Martin, p.184), especially for the unlicensed, as Levet was.

This exalting of Levet renders a second layer to the poem, which contains references to life as a purgatory, “Condemn’d to hope's delusive mine, As on we toil from day to day,” and an underworld, “In misery's darkest caverns known”. “Misery’s darkest caverns” refers to where London’s underbelly of poor dwelled. Levet cared for them and Johnson highlights the lowly despair of “hopeless anguish” and “lonely want” where Levet’s “useful care was ever nigh”. It is between the allusions to purgatory and the underworld where much of the poem affects a despairing tone with its “fainting nature” and “hov’ring death”, where Levet had spent much of his 80 years battling death and nature. It is a mirror on Johnson’s personal feelings about whether his own life amounted to anything near Levet’s righteousness. “[Johnson] reproaches the author himself, who has squandered multiple talents” (Lipking, p.293).

Talk of Levet’s physical death, “See Levet to the grave descend;” echoes the sentiment of descending to the underworld, but by the seventh stanza and through the process of expounding Levet’s virtues Johnson touches upon a favourite biblical parable of his (the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25: 14-30) and the tone shifts, “And sure th' Eternal Master found, The single talent well-employ'd.”

Johnson admits that Levet was obscure in his mannerisms, coarse in conversation, and unrefined in his person, but he believes that actions speak louder than words, and when he details that Levet’s “virtues walk’d their narrow round” he is setting a broader tone: one of judgement.

Johnson considers Levet to be that single talent well-employed that he doubts exists in himself. In that belief Johnson raises Levet up, as if pronouncing a benediction upon him for Levet’s good works; his actions and not his words. Johnson alludes to hellfire and flesh rotting away, “Then with no throbbing fiery pain, No cold gradations of decay,” These are fates reserved for those of us who do not meet the standards of Levet’s commitment to others. Levet’s soul however, Johnson tells us, is freed and he is resurrected.

This conviction in Johnson is further expressed in a journal entry for 20th January 1782 in which he recorded Levet’s funeral and commented: “May God have had mercy on him. May he have mercy on me.” Johnson bestows power on Levet over himself, perhaps believing that men of charity would be the judge of other men. This strong position held by Johnson shines all the brighter for having immortalised Levet as he has. Even Thackeray in his discourse on the “Four Georges” wrote, “Do you remember the verses the sacred verses which Johnson wrote on the death of his humble friend Levett? ... Whose name looks the brightest now, that of Queens-
berry the wealthy duke, or Selwyn the wit, or Levett the poor physician?” (Thackeray, 1864). Thackeray echoes Johnson’s strongly held belief that one Levet is worth a great many gentlemen of higher social standing.

Finally, rhythm and warmth pervades the poem. The cadence of the adjective-noun couplings: “sudden blasts... slow decline... obscurely wise... coarsely kind... fainting nature... hov’ring death... vig’rous remedy” and so on, carry the poem’s beat. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, lending the stanzas a warm and thoughtful rhythm that is both traditional and familiar, much like a heartbeat. It marks the passages as both laden with regret and resolute in their conviction.

Johnson’s eulogy of Dr Levet is a resounding cry of loss and regret as well as a challenge to the bigotry which pervades amongst the gentry. Allusions to the underworld in which we find ourselves and the nature of good deeds which raises us up are illustrated in a man who embodies, in spirit if not decorum, everything godly. That Johnson has chosen to immortalise a commoner and otherwise unremarkable man in this way may speak more of Johnson’s personal grief than real saintliness. However, he is sermonising. He is trying to evoke self awareness in the reader. We ask ourselves if we have done all we can to be spoken of so highly when it is our turn.

Literary Schizophrenia

I know, I know. The answer? Well, I've abandoned my mind... frankly.

Life gets in the way and I am too easily distracted, but rest assured, in order to bring my mind back to order I am re-engaging with the literary world and my soul.

Wondering-Mind is therefore changing to represent my next set of learning as I embark upon a full time degree with Reading University to do a BA in English Literature, with an eye on becoming a Secondary English teacher.

With the publishing industry in free fall thanks to the eBook revolution and the unwelcome rise of eBook cyber theft maybe the time to get published is... never.

So, here you should now find my learning and my essays.