I love the legend of John Henry, which is still timely in an increasingly technological age.
John Henry is representative of a dying breed of proud, hard-working, “salt of the earth” types who earn their wage through physical labor. Since John Henry’s time, many jobs have been phased out by money-saving technological advances. In the story, he refuses to be displaced by a machine and manages to beat it through sheer will-power. (OK so he dies in the end) What a marvelous statement of human worth.
I find myself cheering for humanity, (though I suspect Prof. Jerz, technophile that he is, might be cheering for the steam drill?:)) Technology is a necessary evil, but something has been lost. I hate listening to those stupid voice menus every 1-800 helpline and company seems to have. It takes me twice as long to get through Giant Eagle’s self-scan checkout than when a real person checks me out. (“re- MOVE your BA- NANAS from the BELT”…please RESCAN this I-tem”) I miss having a nice man pump my gas, wipe my windshield and offer to check my oil. Now all I get is a terse, disembodied voice issuing instructions while I fumble around looking for the right card to scan and buttons to push.
In a more recent “Man vs. Machine" contest last year, chess champion Garry Kasparov took on Deep Junior which is “the Reigning Absolute World Computer Chess Champion”. In 6 matches, he beat it once, the computer won once and the rest of the matches were a draw. So, they’re even for now and at least it didn’t kill him. Go humans!
As with the last time I read Huck Finn, years ago, I found the last “adventure” in the book maddening. Up until this point, Huck learned some hard lessons about how things can go wrong, and has forged a (mostly) mutually supportive and respectful relationship with Jim. He is beginning to gain a stronger sense of what his values are and is acting upon them. This is consistent with adolescent cognitive development. Angela Huebner of Virginia Tech explains in her article Adolescent Growth and Development: “Teens tend to exhibit a "justice" orientation. They are quick to point out inconsistencies between adults' words and their actions. They have difficulty seeing shades of gray. They see little room for error.” So far, so good. Unfortunately, he meets up with his risk-taking, thrill-seeking pal Tom Sawyer who, as a peer, has much sway over Huck.
Huck, in some ways, responds to Tom the way Jim responds to Huck. Though Jim clearly has more common sense and wisdom, he defers to Huck. As a slave to whites, he functions under a sense of learned helplessness, acquired as a result of having little control over the circumstances of his life. After Huck and Tom lay out their plans for his grandiose escape, Huck comments: “Jim he couldn’t see no sense in the most of it but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him…” (36:188). Under the extroverted, intelligent and domineering Tom’s influence, Huck’s moral compass, quivers but can’t seem to point definitively in the right direction. He actually has more wisdom and common sense (albeit less imagination) than Tom, but makes only a weak attempt to exert it, falling under the spell of Tom’s vision despite his conviction that Tom’s plan is “…one of the most jackass ideas I ever struck…” (31:187). And Jim suffers terribly because of it.
According to an online article in Psychology Today titled “Risk” by: Paul Roberts, “High-risk takers are easily bored.” Though Jim could be easily sprung, Tom won’t hear of it, even though it could potentially put Jim in jeopardy and causes great angst for the Phelps family. Quoting psychologist Salvadore Maddi, Roberts writes: “…high-risk takers may "have a hard time deriving meaning and purpose from everyday life."
As his scheme draws out Jim’s captivity to over 3 weeks, Tom gets completely carried away with the ludicrous details, forcing Jim, among other things, to write on a shirt with his own blood and live with snakes, rats and spiders that bite him. When Tom leaves notes with clues, he practically begs to get caught. Commenting on the nature of thrill-seeking behavior Roberts writes: …the inclination to take high risks may be hard-wired into the brain, intimately linked to arousal and pleasure mechanisms, and may offer such a thrill that it functions like an addiction.
Tom derives so much pleasure from acting out his plan, he fantasizes about prolonging it: “…if only we could keep it up all the rest of our lives and leave Jim to our children to get out…” (37:188). And Huck just sort of goes along. I find this so irritating because I want him to just let Jim out of there. Be a MAN dammit! Oh well, it’s just a book.
In our readings of Native American Oral literature, I was interested in the depictions and explanations of the white men.
In “The Creation of the Whites” it’s the white skinned people who do what they’re supposed to and don’t eat the apple. The yellow-skinned replicate Adam and Eve’s sin, wake up naked, are punished and told by the creator” “…you shall call upon the people of white skins to give you assistance”. Does this somehow imply that everything that followed after the white men came was a punishment for eating the apple?
In “How the White Race Came to America….” A man from the east, in “queen’s country” meets with a lord who turns out to be the devil. The lord gives him five gifts to share with the “…people across the water of the salt lake…” that create “havoc and misery” so great that even the devil feels bad about it. Interesting, that in this story it is not the white man himself that is blamed but the evil one who the white man believed and listened to. Seems rather charitable.
I researched Crazy Horse and found similar accounts of essentially the same story we read. He was an admired leader and great warrior. The biography of Crazy Horse mentions that he was caught trying to steal another man’s wife and was forced to give up his leadership role (what is it with charismatic leaders and illicit affairs?). In spite of this fall from grace, people still considered him a leader and this sparked jealousy among his rivals who eventually contributed to his death by U.S. soldiers. I found a bit more information regarding his capture. According to New Perspectives of the West, an online PBS article about Crazy Horse, he left the reservation without permission to bring his sick wife to his parents and General Crook had him arrested. He was then led to a guardhouse and subsequently bayoneted.
This piece of literature is clever and funny in places, but I would much prefer to peruse it at my leisure instead of having to cram it between portfolios and papers in a week’s time. Originally it was published in segments in a newspaper, and I think this would have been an amusing Sunday read.
I flagged a few words that caught my interest and delved a little deeper. For instance, the word “body snatcher” and “grave” jumped out because they both made reference to medical students and young physicians. Here are the exact definitions:
BODY- SNATCHER: A robber of grave-worms, One who supplies the young physicians with that with which old physicians have supplied the undertaker. The hyena.
GRAVE: A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.
Since Bierce is making social commentary in keeping with the times, I wanted to find out what the deal was with body-snatching and people in the medical field.
In the article, Grave Offense by Emily Bazelon, for online publication Legal Affairs, in the 1800’s, there was a great need in the scientific community for cadavers to study, but there was such a stigma behind dissection they were difficult to come by. Cadavers of executed criminals were donated but the demand was great and even resulted in underground trafficking of dead bodies. This did not help the image of physicians. Bazelon writes:
The study of anatomy laid bare an uncomfortable tension in 19th-century medicine. In the eyes of local communities, grave robbing turned doctors into vultures. Burial and respect for the dead mattered deeply to most Americans—and still do, as we were reminded by the grief about the strewn corpses found at a Georgia crematory in February. Medical schools courted danger when they threatened the sanctity of burial and death. At the same time, they had an urgent, indisputable need for cadavers. Patients wanted to be treated by doctors who understood the body's inner workings, which could be learned only by studying a human corpse.
Interesting little piece of history I didn’t know!
1. “The Experience of Dying in ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’” examines Farquar’s dream sequence comparing the stages of dying acceptance to an out of body experience.
3. In “Choice of Dialogue with Raven” I look at the nature of the discussion with the bird and the narrator’s choices.
4. Hester as model of Emerson’s principles in “Hester’s Self Reliance.” (DEPTH)
5. Slam 2 covers some of the highlights in the second poetry slam.
6. “The Asinine Expression and Selective Non-Conformity." My take on Emerson and some good discussion with Nabila.
1. On Zach Harvey’s blog, we had a discussion about whether or not Hester should have told Pearl the story of the Scarlet Letter.
2. On Kelly’s blog, I share my feelings about the masks we all wear in response to a comment on the Scarlet Letter.
3. On Katie's blog, she and I explore the use of colors in Scarlet Letter.
1. Practical applications of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in “Civil Disobedience at Work in the Home.”
My husband is a big Thoreau fan. A forestry major, he is particularly fond of Walden and our fireplace has a stone mortared into it that reads: "Simplify, simplify,simplify. He is also a child of the sixties (he's 8 years older than I am) and still loves to play protest songs (and sing loudly) with the old LP's. He has been known to jump on moving bulldozers to stop them from mowing down his trees. (We live out in the boonies in a log house.)
Once, he issued a particularly heavy-handed and unfair punishment to my son and nothing his half-sister or I could do would soften his decision. We decided to appeal to his values and practice our own "civil disobedience." We made protest signs, sang songs and my stepdaughter wrote an impassioned speech in my son's behalf. After being picketed for awhile he finally relented...and the kids learned a powerful lesson that they still talk about. I just wish I'd taken pictures!
Hester is the hero in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and embodies Emmerson’s“self-reliance.” Though shamed in front of her people for and adulterous act, Hester stands proud and unrepentant with the child whose arrival trumpeted her sin. She resolutely refuses to divulge the father’s name even under pressure. She carries on as a single parent with grace and fortitude, demonstrating an intellect and courage that one could argue is at least equal to the two men in her life, Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale. She is the only winner in the triangle they form; by her actions she wins back her place in society…though she rejects the notion of living among them having gained an inner strength in her solitude.
“But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period…outlawed from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance… in a moral wilderness…where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticising all…”
This illustrates Emmerson’s thinking as described in his essay Self-Reliance: “It is only as a man puts off from himself all external support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail. Is not a man better than a town?”
In this case it is a woman who is better than a town.
I am still trying to sort out just how much I accept and understand of Emerson’s philosophies. One line that really jumped out at me in “Self-Reliance” was:”We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.” You see this asinine expression everywhere, behind fast food counters, in church, at candle parties and especially school functions and malls. My husband and I have always aspired to non-conformity, (he was once arrested for not paying a .50 cent parking ticket that had escalated to $65.00 on principle. The sheriff actually came to our house with handcuffs. He was so proud. I tend to think of that as just asinine.)
When you are young, it is much easier to embrace this way of living. It gets more challenging once you’ve been out in the world for awhile and life has kicked you in the ass a few times. Emerson asks: “Is it so bad to be misunderstood?” Well, yeah, it can be. People have been fired for being misunderstood. My dad stopped speaking to me for a year. When I spoke out about something at a parents meeting, my son was blacklisted from birthday parties for an entire year. I didn’t feel great I felt awful. As Emerson wrote: “For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” I guess I have learned to be a selective non-conformist and choose my battles wisely.
Most of us are or will be working drones out of necessity. There will always be some folks that shake things up and question the status quo. Ralph Nader and Michael Moore are examples. Not everyone is suited by nature for that role and I think that’s OK. Society needs the mediocre and the followers too. You have the freedom to choose how to respond to society, either passively or pro-actively, as part of a group or independently
Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a story about dying. There is a blurry distinction between Peyton Farquar’s last moments and his actual death experience which can lead to different interpretations of the text.
As Farquar prepares to be executed, time and experience are distorted. He hears “…a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. …like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.”
He is about to die and as he processes this reality during the little time he has left, he seems to pass through some of the five stages of dying as identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross while moving through his pre-death vision.
DENIAL: "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance." At this point, Farquar entertains of the possibility of escape even though it is highly unlikely.
ANGER: “To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous.” As the almost dream-like sequence begins, with Farquar falling into the water, he experiences anger that his life is still in jeopardy from being shot after surviving the attempted execution and fall. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought, "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."
DEPRESSION: “By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen.” He is exhausted and disoriented. Even the stars look different and “He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance.”
ACCEPTANCE: This darker experience quickly gives way to a brighter, more serene vision. He feels as if he had “…recovered from a delirium…” and he sees his home,”…all bright and beautiful” His wife is standing to greet him and he thinks:” Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms.”
Taking a different view of Farquar’s experiences, it could be argued that Farquar had an “out of body” or “near death” experience beginning the moment the “…sergeant stepped aside.”
In an article posted on ABCnews.com, ABCNEWS' Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson discusses findings in the British medical journal Lancet based on a study of patients that had experienced clinical death and survived to talk about it. Lead researcher Pim van Lommel told the Washington Post: “… people can be conscious of events around them even when they are physically unconscious.” He goes on to describe some common experiences: “Many people describe seeing their own bodies from a distance, as though watching a movie. Others say they felt their bodies rushing toward a brilliant light.” Consider the experience of Farquar: “He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck.”
Another common theme in near death experiences is a tunnel and light. Two patients mentioned in the article recount their experiences: “Another woman described how she felt she was being pulled toward a giant tunnel, a common theme in the near-death experiences. "I couldn't stop it. I didn't know why I was moving. I was just pulled right through this enormous, infinite tunnel," said Diane Morrissey. After Farquar falls, “He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten…”
Susan Blackmore, a psychology professor at the University of the West of England offers a more clinical explanation of the near death experience: Johnson writes, “She believes the experiences are like a movie that our brains run at times of extreme traumatic stress. The brain creates endorphins which can reduce pain, and under extreme stress, these large amounts of endorphins produce a dreamlike state of euphoria.” This could explain why Farquar’s senses were “…preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.”
Was Ambrose Bierce writing from imagination, first hand or anecdotal experience? In any case it makes for a compelling read!