Tag Archives: Marxism

Two Things About Harry Potter

For the most part, I stopped reading the Harry Potter series at the sixth book. I should’ve stopped at the fifth. The middle and the last part of the “Half-Blood Prince” was utter garbage (except the chapter where he takes the good luck potion) and the ending was just an excuse to kill off a main character (and a lame death too, amirite?). I started reading “Deathly Hallows” but sadly never finished it. Thankfully, I stopped watching the films at the fourth one, since I knew it could only go downhill. “Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire” tops both lists. I saw the movie version of the “Prisoner of Azkaban” and it was atrociously bad indeed. They even cut out the famous scene where Sirius Black gives a speech to Peter Pettigrew, telling him he should’ve died for a cause rather than betray his friends. That scene is the main reason that “Prisoner” is one of the most consistently high-rated books of the series.

They also managed to make the revelation that Ron’s pet rat was a man in disguise all along dreadfully ho-hum, and I don’t think I was the only person in the theater who was disappointed they both castrated the grit out of Harry’s “Snape’s abnormally large nose” line and made the final revelation a noisy, incoherent scene of chaos rather than the medium-paced, deliberately plot-heavy conversation it originally was.

After that experience, I almost couldn’t bear to go back to see the other movies, but I dragged myself to “Goblet of Fire” because it was also my favorite book. Again, they completely ruined the slow drama of the final scenes in exchange for loud noises and flashes that made it almost incomprehensible, but overall it got my stamp of approval, and upon giving it, I decided barring insanely convenient circumstances where it would be easy to do so (which rarely come, I’ve noticed) I wouldn’t see the other films. I am certainly not going to tolerate Dumbledore not being Richard Harris.

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Freud & the Tyrants of Therapy

For more than a century and a half since the founding of the psychoanalytic criticism by Sigmund Freud, the school has found a tremendous audience in the field of literature and politics in general. Psychoanalytic or “Freudian” critical practice is essentially the criticism of something, in two ready-made examples, a person or a literary text, through the lens of contemporary psychology in order to explain the sexuality and behavior of that same person or abstract character.

Sadly, despite Marxism’s best efforts, the return of the concept of the political unconscious to go along with Freud’s now-hugely-famous “unconscious mind” concept has not taken hold to the mainstream. It is much easier to find the political unconscious of any given text then might be imagined, but for some reason critics have gone running into one German scholar’s arms and not the other. Indeed, readings of a work that speaks of the hermeneutics of suspicion and do not end up referring to homoerotic desire or an Oedipus complex these days are few and far in between.

While it is justified to talk of Moby Dick, the Picture of Dorian Gray and Kidnapped in terms of the sexual tension between male characters, almost no attempt is made to analyze the political modes, class interests and production that might influence such characterizations. After all, do these characters emerge from nothing but the individual psychology of the author? For example, in the above-mentioned novels, are the characters’ repressed homosexual desires a mere endorsement of hedonistic values as a celebration of beauty, or an overt expression of sexuality as an outgrowth of decadence which challenges bourgeois society and thus is seen as desirable? Is it Romantic-era lushness taken to an extreme in order to compensate for the perceived royalist “drabness” of industrial life, or a manifestation of the appeal to sensation against the moralist society at large? A Freudian would doubtlessly say the latter in both cases, simply because it lures him away from politics except that of the postmodern. However there is an important distinction between those two types of homosexuality: one is progressive in the neo-liberal sense and one is essentially royalist.

The famous Marxist critic Fredric Jameson essentially criticized the psychoanalytic form as being too focused on the individual experience, and thus unable to reach a level of cultural and social analysis. For a Marxist, the immediate leap is made to connect this with neo-liberal policies, which seek to liquidate class struggle and eliminate the survival of anything contrary to the postmodern existential and individual experience.

Jameson is right in saying that the master dogma of Freudian criticism depends on an isolated, autonomized sexuality that emerges only within the contexts of capitalism. Consequently, because Freud’s own branch of thought can only reach bloom within capitalism, it is hardly in a place to critique it-it lives inside the house, and cannot go outside and have a look at it the way Marxism can. Nevertheless, psychoanalysis does retain a credible force of criticism which is merely expanded by Marxism, which says that human consciousness is not master within its own house.

Mental illness diagnoses in general are often a response to behavior that either conflicts with, or concentrates, ideas and practices prevailing under the imperialist system. A “murderer” or a “serial killer” is one who kills people and does not happen to possess a badge or gun, or a plane with bombs in it. What psychologists call depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder is particularly interesting from this approach. The manifestations of mental illnesses are social products even if there is a chemical basis for them.

The radical individualism and violence in America may lead people diagnosed as mentally ill to shoot up a school or worry about CIA surveillance, while in a socialist society their behavior would manifest itself differently. The obsessive-compulsive man, for example, is frequently distressed with what he perceives to be uncleanliness or imperfection, defined usually in bourgeois terms of class thinking. See the movie “American Psycho” for an example. Another interesting phenomenon is the popular idea of the “mad genius,” or the concept that mental illness can coincide with or produce genius. Always it is shown as also bringing its downfall, though little is done to analyze whether or not this is true. Instead, one is invited to gaze in awe of the genius and to strive to be one of these “greats” who “burn out, rather than fade away,” which does little but reinforce individualism and the rights of capital.

Unfortunately, Freudian criticism does not ponder how every single citizen in an imperialist country, male or female, white or black, worker or celebrity happens to be prone to “mental illness and depression.” To do so would undermine the whole individualist approach to Freudian psychology and expose (do not faint!) real social problems.

A Way to Compare World Outlooks, Ideologies

The way in which various ideologies can influence one’s world outlook and evaluation of objective evidence is best shown through the following question. This shows how Marxism is far more than just a socio-political theory, as are other ideologies such as liberalism.

Q: Why do nations go to war?

A: Human nature – classical realism

Misunderstanding between peoples – idealism/liberalism

The natural state of man is anarchy and competition – Neorealism

Bad ideas and capitalist systems – Marxism/constructivism

War doesn’t exist – postmodernism

The Quest for “Authenticity” in Art

“Authenticity” as preached by today’s critics is an idealist concept. The concept of “art” is an era of mechanical, industrial production frequently comes under fire by critics, who insist that the “passion” and “talent” of the art of old is all but lost on today’s youth culture, that Shakespeare is somehow more worthy of praise than modern writers, that the Rolling Stones had more “depth” and “character” than modern bands. While this notion may in some ways be right, it is wrong about quite a few of its major accounts.

The critics’ reactions to changes in the production of art-such as the fact that Van Gogh’s starry night piece now adorns many bedrooms throughout the US-are quite typical of intellectuals seeking the “real” in all things art-related. It makes me wonder how these same intellectuals feel about their books and essays being continuously reproduced, cited and read the world over due to the means of production-the publishing company-upon which they are dependant. Does that fact undermine their work’s “realness?” Does the mechanically reproduced plethora of copies diminish the “aura” of an original work of art, or do they increase it? Familiarity with copies of a painting will enhance response to the original when it is finally encountered. The work’s uniqueness is emphasized by reproduction. The only way this does not happen is if some of the original work’s revolutionary fervor is watered down by the other, copying works, in which case it is not the original work at all.

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Modernism

The word “modernism” is intentionally ambiguous, and perhaps without realizing it is a fitting term for such a literary movement. In the most common usage it refers to the twentieth-century movement that began with the concept of the “modern” (obviously, since without this word how could one have modern-ism?) and ended up being a collection of authors and works characterized by efforts by the individual character and author to remold and reshape reality while reflecting its social ills. This is quite a simplistic analysis of an entire movement, but I will go into greater detail below.

Modernism took elements from realist literature in that it sought to realistically portray the growing social isolation and alienation of individuals caused by industrial capitalism. Characters are almost always withdrawn, and the entirety of the work contains a bitter cynicism bordering on absolute nihilistic despair. The main geographic sites for this movement were England and America post-Industrial Revolution, blooming during the periods between World War I and World War II, the main places where this system had taken hold. These first few decades of the new century begin with writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound D.H. Lawrence, who all stepped forward onto the literary scene by creating texts that were called highly experimental on content rather than merely form. This is the movement we now call “modernism,” though I don’t mean to use it in a reductive sense to imply that outside of these few head writers there exist no modernist movement.

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Crisis & Capital In Wuthering Heights

The majority of Victorian literature is the product of the petty-bourgeois class, and Wuthering Heights is no different. The tumultuous ideological storms contained within demonstrate a crisis in the ideology of the 19th century Victorian petty-bourgeois class to which Emily Bronte was born. Frequently, novelists and intellectuals have a reflective role to play at a point of history where a crisis has impacted the prevailing base and has thereby begun the upward quake to the very spires of the ideological superstructure. The crises in the areas of estate, racial tensions and the family unit are all explored, but more than anything else, Wuthering Heights marks the crisis of individuality versus custom, since the contradiction between the social expectations of class privilege and the selfhood advocated by the rising neo-liberal capitalist system is the very essence of Victorian bourgeois consciousness.

From the start, Bronte seems more interested in showing the reader a world that is beset by the same conflicts as her own rather than an escapist daydream. Terry Eagleton says that “Wuthering Heights is […] an apparently timeless, highly integrated, mysteriously autonomous symbolic universe” (1), which utterly defies the prevailing methodology of fiction literature to remove the reader from the discord of his existence. Most fiction novels come close to portraying what we would call “myths,” that is, the illusory resolutions of real contradictions within society for the purpose of the story in such a way as to validate ideology and the societal status quo. Although it is inherent to fairy tales and children’s stories that the hermetically-sealed bubble of this world never be burst, oftentimes with adult novels this purpose is stricken by strains in achieving its “proper” ideological closure. Indeed, the novel itself loyally reproduces the various disasters assaulting Europe, manifested in individual characters.

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Content is Chief, Form is Chaff?

The form of a poem or story (as opposed to its content) is not merely ornamental or window-dressing, nor is it merely “fleshing out” the content. It has its own life within the text, and forms as simple as the note arrangements of classical music or the rhyming pattern (or lack thereof) of a piece of poetry can better expose the need that the production of the work fills. Take-for a ready example-the lines of the Devil in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. When Satan speaks, the parameters of the rhyming schemes seem to melt away, replaced by whatever the character seems to want to say instead of what the syllable count allows. The flow of the poem is thus disrupted greatly by his presence. He ends every line with a violent or intense word, appropriately as he speaks of “dripping poison” into other’s lives to make up for his own bitterness at his inability to experience “sweet interchange.” In this way, the formlessness of those verses showcase the character’s desire for chaos and destruction, in this case of the poem structure, and his intense hatred for all things orderly and peaceful with the enjambment of each line.

Scott’s Denied Bourgeois Mentality

Sir Walter Scott may have denied traditionalism and the ruling class culture of his time personally, but his novels provide no alternative to those bourgeois doctrines and rather in the values of that system find their own comfortable justifications for existence. To illuminate the question of class ideology and how it is reflected in Sir Walter Scott’s works, one only needs to examine aspects of the author’s life and how the prevailing culture influenced him. Following the path of cultural analysis, one can then investigate Scott’s works and see that his main characters follow the dominant bourgeois ideology. Whether or not this was intentional and the secondary, more passionate characters are meant to be the “true heroes” of the novels, the existence of the heroes themselves demonstrate Scott’s capitulation to established bourgeois perceptions of idealism and heroism.

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William Blake’s “Nurse’s Songs”

In order to grasp their meanings, the two versions of the “Nurse’s Song” in both William Blake’s the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience are to be read not through what they show literally, nor even what they appear to mean (the obvious “red herring” interpretation), but rather what they hide. At their joined ideological base, both works reveal a stunning critique of the bourgeois and feudal culture. Ultimately Blake resists the dominant ideology, first by opposing it, albeit unintentionally, then by strongly affirming it in a satirical manner. All of this is accomplished through the actions and the shifts in perspective of the unnamed nurse character, which in the end reveal the true purpose of the two works.

Much like the two volumes in which they are contained, the two “Nurse’s Songs” seem at first to be examinations of human development and mental stages of life. The poem features children at play in the hills while their elder nurse watches over them. Eventually she bids them to come back inside when the daylight begins to die. The youths, of course, then plead for the right to stay out for as long as the smallest amount of light exists. Immediately, a few subtleties jump out at the reader.

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John Webster’s “A Dirge”

John Webster’s’ “A Dirge” is a delightfully gloomy poem contrasting the power and the all-encompassing inevitability of death with the beauty and balance of life. It seems to ponder on this deep subject, using images of nature to communicate its message. Webster makes his purpose immediately clear by the title-a “dirge” itself is a dismal funeral song. The verses clearly speak of death and the eternal nothingness that may reside afterwards-never in the poem does Webster mention anything about the eternal soul or afterlife. Clearly he is not concerned with life or metaphysics, but with death and the natural world.

Indeed, animals and nature are a reoccurring theme throughout the concise poem. “Call for the robin-redbreast,” it begins, “since o’er shady groves they hover, and with leaves and flowers do cover, the friendless bodies of unburied men.” His description of trees, birds and animals is undeniably beautiful even as his account of the bodies of forgotten men being covered in leaves is emotionally draining to the reader. Webster addresses wrens and robins, two kinds of small birds which fed on insects-perhaps those same insects currently feeding on the corpse’s flesh? At once, he speaks to loneliness and beauty, death and life in one package.

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