February 27, 2005

Dorian Gray Conclusion

Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, it took me much longer to read this book than it does most. Perhaps it is because as I was reading it I was trying to come up with ideas for my essay. I don't have anything solid yet, but there are a few ideas I'm throwing around.

First of all, I was very interested in the yellow book Lord Henry gave to Dorian. I was reminded of an epigram from the Preface: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." Dorian believed that it was the book that was immoral, and that it had corrupted him: "You poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm." Harry counters with an argument that mirrors that of the preface: "Art has no influence on action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame." I actually agreed with Lord Henry on this one. While the book may have given Dorian the excuse he needed for his actions, his actions were all his own. His soul had begun corroding long before he had been given the book. The book didn't make him do evil - he did that on his own. Besides, Lord Henry had read the book, and although he wasn't the greatest of characters, he did not commit the evils that Dorian had. Dorian merely used the book as an excuse for his own actions.

Another element of the story that intrigued me was the different ways in which Dorian's conscience was manifested. Although the portrait represented the corruption of his soul, its continuing deterioration also served as a conscience to Dorian. As he became obsessed with the depiction of his corroded soul he began to wonder at the rightness of his actions. He tried to begin a new, good life, but found that he only did so out of "Vanity", "Curiosity", and "Hypocrisy."

The character of James Vane also served as a physical representation of Dorian's conscience. From the moment Dorian discovered Vane's lust for revenge he began to feel stalked by his sins: "how terrible it was to think that conscience could raise such fearful phantoms, and give them visible form, and make them move before one!" Only when he learns of Vane's death is he released by those burdens.

The element of the story that I found most interesting was the relationship between beauty and goodness. Everyone seemed to equate one's good nature with their appearance, and that is in fact how Dorian seemed to escape society's judgment. Basil believes that Dorian is good because "sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face. It cannot be concealed." Dorian is able to remain beautiful because his sins are written across the face of his portrait; without his bond with the portrait Dorian would be unable to hide his sins from the world. I found this idea to be similar to The Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorne's novel, the depravation of Chillingworth's soul is shown through the deformity of his body, and similarly, Dimmesdale's guilt is shown through his physical deterioration. I think of all of my essay ideas, I would be most interested in looking into this one - how beauty and goodness are represented in the novel.

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February 24, 2005

Dorian Gray

After reading the first two pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray I knew why it had been assigned. The emphasis placed on beauty and art seemd to propel the story along.

Each of the three main characters has a relationship with or a theory on beauty. Basil Hallward is the artist, obsessed with the untainted beauty of Dorian Gray. He believes that Dorian has "suggested to me [Basil] an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style...I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before." Although Basil cares for Dorian's well-being, he seems to do so mainly out of his own need to preserve Dorian's beauty.

Lord Henry is a friend of Basil's, is a very charming man who believes that one should not live according to society's statutes of morality and immorality. After seeing Basil's obsession with Dorian Gray, Lord Henry seems to make it his personal mission to convert Dorian to his philosophy of life. Unlike Basil, Lord Henry does not seem to genuinely care for Dorian - he is merely playing a game.

Dorian Gray is the most intriguing character in the novel. He is the epitome of male beauty and perfection. At the beginning of the novel he is innocent and carefree, but through his association with Lord Henry he begins to obsess over his waning youth. In an attempt to maintain his beauty and youth he begins to act out Lord Henry's theory that "to get back one's youth, one has merely to repeat one's follies." In these first four chapters, Dorian seems like a lost boy; he begins by following Basil and his need to paint him, then shifts his loyalty to Lord Henry and his desire to corrupt him.

Aside from the three main characters and their infatuations with beauty, I was struck by the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of women in the novel. I was disgusted by Lord Henry's claim that:

"No woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals."

The only two female characters we have met yet are Lord Henry's Aunt Agatha and his unnamed wife, both of whom seem flighty, superficial, and concerned only with society and appearances. Dorian's new love, Sibyl Vane, has yet to make an appearance and I sincerely hope her character can round out Wilde's seemingly prejudiced view.

[While reading the text, everytime I came across the name Basil Hallward I thought of Watership Down. Even though I know that the main rabbit's name is Hazel, and not Basil, it feels like at least one of the rabbits should have been named Basil.]

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February 23, 2005

Useful and Useless - It's All the Same to Wilde

In both the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray and his essay entitled "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde examines the nature of art and what it is that makes art beautiful. In the preface, Wilde offers a series of epigrams on the nature of art and beauty, some of which are:

"Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault."

"Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty."

I strongly disagree with these two statements. The Greek Sirens, for example, were known for their beautiful songs. The meaning behind those songs, however, was not only ugly, but lethal. Would Wilde consider Odysseus "corrupt" because he found the ugly meaning behind the Sirens' beautiful songs? I doubt it. While some people's cynicism may keep them from seeing the beauty around them, other people's naiveté keep them from seeing the ugliness beneath the beauty.

"We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely."

"All art is useless."

While I understand that Wilde is reacting against the notion that art should exist beyond moral, religious, or practical purposes, I do not think that he should go so far as to claim that art should not exist unless it's only purpose is to be admired. I also do not agree that "useful things" should not be admired. For example, clocks are considered useful items; however, clockmakers and collectors would consider them works of art. Despite their usefulness, they can be works of beauty.

While reading "The Decay of Lying," I felt that Wilde argued against his own claim that "all art is useless." In this short essay he agrees with the Greek's dislike of Realism because of the effect it has on humanity. He claims that art can affect life by making it more beautiful or more hideous. He asserts that by producing beautiful art, the artist produces beautiful life and people.

Hold on a minute. If an artist is trying to create beauty in life through his art, doesn't that mean that art isn't useless? If art has the power to "reproduce the dignity of Pheidias as well as the grace of Praxiteles," shouldn't the artist want his art to be used for that very purpose?

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February 22, 2005

"Tradition.....Tradition!"

While reading Eliot's article "Tradition and the Individual Talent," I was reminded of last Thursday's Professor-less class when Amanda, Anne, and I discussed Anne's Blog. We talked about Aristotle's view that all poetry is imitation, and how even Shakespeare would be considered an imitator since most of his stories are drawn from history or past tales. What makes him unique is his ability to add something new to the origional material so that it becomes an entirely new work. Eliot states that:

"One error, in fact, or eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express...The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all."

Shakespeare does just this in Othello when he uses the very common and well-known emotion jealousy to make his play so much more than the tale it was originally derived from.

Another quote from Eliot's text that I related with was: "It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting." Just like Amanda, I enjoy poetry more when it isn't angsty. As original as a poet may feel his particular emotions are, I guarantee someone somewhere as felt the exact same emotions. It is the spin the poet puts on those emotions that makes them original.

While I agreed with most of Eliot's ideas, I felt myself often disagreeing with those of Alexander Pope. While I enjoyed reading the poetry of his "Essay on Criticism," I felt that it was too biased against critics to be considered a very objective essay. The fact that it was written in poetry rather than prose immediately shows that Pope sides more with the poets than he does the critics. While I agree that critics should "survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find," if a critic entirely ignored the small technical mistakes in a poem, then the poet would have no need to adhere to the rules of writing poetry. Pope claims that oftentimes these rules can dry out poetry and leave it meaningless, but I don't think this is true. Without rules and guidelines a poet would have no structure with which to display his meaning. If a poet chooses to break the established rules in order to propagate his meaning, that is a different story entirely, but the rules shouldn't be broken for the mere sake of breaking them.

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February 17, 2005

Plato vs. Aristotle - Who Would Win?

After spending some time studying Plato and his aversion to art and poetry, I was looking forward to reading some of Aristotle's Poetics. Knowing how diametrically opposed Aristotle and Plato's beliefs were, I expected to see Aristotle use this text to disagree with Plato's claim that poetry is worthless because it is mere imitation. Instead, he agrees that poetry is mimetic, or imitative, but then explains why its imitation of life should be valued rather than discounted. He states in Part IV that:

"The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lesson."

Since imitation is a vital part of human nature, Aristotle believes that poetry is extremely worthwhile. He addresses the common criticism that the events depicted in poetry are impossible by stating that poets aim for this element of impossibility in order to give the audience/reader a more astonishing tale. He says that some poets find the need to describe people and events as they ought to be rather than the strict reality of how they are. While I believe that Plato could easily argue against this point, I agree with Aristotle in that by showing people how they should behave, by their nature they will behave as such. Therefore, by portraying something other than reality, and using Poetry's infatuation with imitation, the art of poetry can be both beneficial and pleasing to the State (which is the center of Plato's universe)

In addition to these few arguments for the worth of poetry, Aristotle uses the Poetics to explain how to write poetry and why tragedy is the highest form of poetry. His outline for the perfect tragedy was very familiar to me since it is still regarded as one of the best assessments of tragic poetry and drama. You can see his influence not only in Classical Tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, but in Shakespearean Tragedies and Contemporary Tragedies.

Although I was disappointed that Aristotle didn't take out Plato "Celebrity Deathmatch" style, as a student of literature and drama I felt that this was an extremely important text to read and am slightly ashamed that it took me four years of college to finally read it.

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February 15, 2005

Imitation or Interpretation?

In our study of aesthetics, we must ask ourselves what the true purpose of art is. Does it exist merely as a form of entertainment and enjoyment, or should its only purpose be to instruct and educate? Does art serve both purposes and can it stand with one purpose alone?

The ancient poet Horace described the art of literature as being "dolce et utile" or "sweet and useful." In his article, "Understanding Literature," Fidel Fajardo-Acosta builds upon this idea by exploring how literature has been used throughout history. Although constructed as a form of beauty and enjoyment, literature has been used to convey certain truths, beliefs, and meanings. Although often veiled in symbols and other literary devices, these hidden meanings are present in all literature, creating a joint purpose of pleasure and utility. A common argument of many absurdist authors is that literature should not have to have any meaning or purpose. Fajardo-Acosta argues that "just as a dreamer is often unaware of the meaning of his/her own dreams, writers too cannot always explain what it is that their writings mean." While I agree with the absurdist argument that literature should sometimes be simply enjoyed rather than deconstructed, I feel that they contradict themselves in their works. Absurdist authors write with the intent to show the absense of meaning in the world. That in itself is a "utile," or a message that is conveyed.

While the "utile" of literature can easily be found in the meanings it conveys, it is much more difficult to find it in the art of the painter. In his Republic, Plato argues that there is no usefulness in a painter's art because he does not create anything more than an interpretation. He believes that there is a perfect form for every object, whether it be man, or chair, or tree. Individual trees, for instance, may not be an exact representation of the form of treeness, but because that form exists inside the tree it can be recognized as such. Therefore, a painting of a tree holds no value since it is all "dolce" and no "utile." It is a representation of a particular tree, which is itself a representation of the form of treeness. The painter imitates the image before him, and offers no new knowledge or substance to the viewer.

While Plato offers a compelling argument, I find myself disagreeing. Paintings may imitate a moment in time or a likeness of a person, but the painter goes beyond that imitation and offers his interpretation. In these two paintings of the eiffel tower, Mary Felton and Robert Delauney offer two very different interpretations of the same structure. Like meanings hidden behind literary devices, paintings can have the distinct ability to show meaning and purpose within each artist's interpretation. Although the painter's art is superficially an art of mere aesthetic pleasure, when one studies comprehensively enough one can find the artist's meaning behind each and every painting.

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February 10, 2005

Influence of Technology

In Churchill's article "What Socrates Said to Phaedrus: Reflections on Technology and Education" he discusses the influences technology has had on our culture and our ability to access information. While I've always known that technological changes influence the way we see and access the world, I never really thought about the sociological impacts it has. Churchill mentions that the invention of the fireplace allowed for more private sleeping quarters which paved the way for the concepts of romantic intimacy and love. In our present world, we look on romantic love as a part of human nature, not as a consequence of technology.

Churchill also outlines the importance of integrating new technology in the classroom - exposing students to vast amount of information available on the internet, as well as certain features such as chat rooms, can increase their capacity for learning as well as the quality of learning. He does caution against totally substituting teacher/student relationships and interaction with technology, however. As beneficial as our technological advances may be, they can in no way replace the subtle gestures and flexibility that a teacher utilizes to best instruct each individual student.

While I find myself enjoying the changes that technology brings to my life, I know plenty of people who don't. Until recently, my mother refused to use a computer in her office, and to this day doesn't have an answering machine. She finally bought a cell phone, but doesn't use her voicemail. She says that the dependence we all have on our machines is a liability should any of them fail. While I understand her point, I have become so accustomed to having them in my life that I wouldn't enjoy adjusting to life without them, just as much as she doesn't enjoy adjusting to life with them.

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Do We "Know the Truth of What We Speak?"

Have you ever known somebody who needs to be the authority on every possible subject? I know I have. I have this friend who, no matter what the conversations is about, needs to know more about it than anybody else. Even if she has no experience in that particular area of expertise. After reading Plato's "Ion" and an excerpt from "Phaedrus," I felt like my annoyance with this particular friend was finally justified. I no longer have to feel like she is trying to show me up, because I can now pretend to play Socrates to her constant Ion.

Aside from giving me a certain level of personal satisfaction, these dialogues explore a much more significant and important concept of Truth and Reality. Socrates claims in "Ion" that artists (painters, musicians, writers, and rhapsodes) do not have any real knowledge of their art; they are merely inspired by the muses to create that which they are implelled to create. I both agree and disagree with Socrates' statement. Although it may be impossible for a rhapsode to speak with knowledge about every subject, I believe that certain artists can produce Truth and Reality through their work, and that they indeed know what it is they are producing. For example, a painting of a woman is a representation of that woman. However, that representation can clearly portray the reality of that woman's beauty or ugliness, her happiness or sorrow, or her inner needs. By capturing a moment of that woman's life on canvas, the painter can show a Truth about that woman that may have been otherwise overlooked.

Philosophy can sometimes make my head spin around in circles, but I do know that Socrates' conclusion that: "He who would be a master of the art must understand the real nature of everything; or he will never know either how to make the gradual departure from truth into the opposite of truth which is effected by the help of resemblances, or how to avoid it."

Just because one doesn't "understand the real nature of everything" doesn't mean that he can't know the Truth about some things. While I think that my friend should stop claiming to know it all, I also think that I should start listening to some of the things she does know. Maybe then I could learn a little more.

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February 8, 2005

Wow, Those Core Requirements Sure Come in Handy!

Being an English major, I knew that learning about history's philosophers and actually reading their writings would be an asset - I just didn't think it would be an asset so quickly. It's only the third week of the spring semester, a mere two months since I finished my History of Philosophy course, and I'm already putting what I've learned to good use.

Seeing that we were assigned to read The Allegory of the Cave for today's class, I got very excited because I remembered reading Plato's entire Republic in Dr. Atherton's class. I especially remembered The Allegory of the Cave because Dr. Atherton drew an award-winning blackboard sketch of the cave in question. Knowing what I know now about Plato and his writings, I was able to read this section of The Republic with greater ease and understanding.

In The Allegory, the character Socrates describes a cave where prisoners are held, their limbs and necks chained so that their movements are completely restricted. Behind and above them is a fire, and its light creates shadows on the cave wall in front of them. These shadows are all the prisoners know of reality, and they firmly believe that the shadow of a man is in all reality the man himself.

One day, a prisoner is set free and he begins to climb out of the cave. As he reaches the sunlit opening, his adjusting eyes begin to feel immense pain. He quickly turns away from the light, not wanting to experience the pain, and returns to the shadows he is more comfortable with. As his eyes slowly begin to adjust to the light, he finds his new knowledge of reality wonderful and does not ever want to return to the cave and its shadows.

Having studied Plato's vision of reality, I know that he believes that, like the man in the cave, it is painful to realize that what you think you know is wrong, but that it is important that we aren't reluctant to believe the Truth. In order to do this, he says that we must let go of our senses, however difficult it may be. Knowledge can neither be perceived nor merely believed - it is beyond words. It can only be found through the ascension of our soul. For Plato, Truth is synonymous with Good; while our soul ascends toward Goodness, it is also ascending toward Truth and Knowledge.

The first time I read this text I viewed it as one more philosopher's rantings and did not try to apply it to my own life. Now I find myself asking questions regarding what it is we think we perceive. Have we reached the light, or are we still watching shadows in the cave?

I don't think that I'll ever be presumptuous enough to say that I've reached and accepted the light, but I think that at this point in my life it's safe to say that I've at least turned around.

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February 2, 2005

A Question of Sight

Having been born with extremely poor sight, I cannot remember a day of my life where I haven't had to view the world through my very thick glasses. As hard as it may have been for me to be the only two-year-old wearing glasses, I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Mike May to lose his sight as a child only to be given it back later as an adult. His journals showed me not only how often I take my sight for granted, but how often I take the visual experiences around me for granted.

It was amazing to read Mike May describe his experience seeing some very ordinary things, like dust and a person's eyes, for the first time. When he described what it was like horseback riding for the first time with his sight I was shocked. I have ridden horses every year of my life since I was eight-years-old (thick glasses and all) and cannot even begin to imagine show jumping without having the ability to see. The fact that he was able to do so made me realize how in tune the blind must be with all their other senses, and how out of tune I must be.

Just as Mike May used his other senses to compensate for his blindness, the blind man in "The Cathedral" made the narrator use his other senses in order to understand blindness. In the beginning of the story, the narrator was a very bitter man with a rather absurd and ignorant prejudice against the blind. After meeting Robert and experiencing his "blind" portrait of the cathedral, he began to realize something new in the world and in himself. Although blind,, Robert was able to see the bitterness and emptiness inside the narrator. By opening the narrator's eyes to the world of the blind, Robert was able to start filling that emptiness. He was suddenly exposed to a world of beauty that he simply could not see before.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading both these texts, especially since I was left wondering what beauty in the world I was missing. What pleasures have I been unable to see simply because I can see?

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February 1, 2005

Trackback Test

Jerz: Media Aesthetics: Intro to Blogging

Testing Trackback Links...

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Blogging 101

I was first introduced to my blog last spring during my Intro. to Literary Study course, and am somewhat ashamed to say that I haven't used it since. I remember Julie Young's presentation on blogging, and remember how helpful it was to someone completely foreign to the concept (me). I have still not become completely comfortable blogging, but am sure that my continued exposure to the practice can only help.

I found that reading Amanda Cochran's presentation was a nice refresher course for someone who has chosen not to blog in a long time (me again). When I was finished with both of these presentations, I was left with the desire for a very user-friendly and comprehensive guide to using MoveableType so that those people who are technologically disinclined (me one more time) can easily learn how to use all of the features available on MoveableType. While this may not be appropriate for a presentation on academic blogging, it should be available somewhere - perhaps in the CD form that Amanda suggested.

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