Self-Image

February 6, 2011

For the last three years I had been growing my hair out. By a week ago it was maybe a foot long, kept tied back in a ponytail. Then last Saturday I got a haircut.

Almost immediately, my head felt lighter, and I felt naked. But that went away soon. It took longer to adjust to seeing myself. For several days it was jarring to see myself in the mirror–who is that person with short hair? Ah, right, it’s me. Even when I got used to mirrors, though, my shadow confused me, I think because it was just as different as my reflection but having less detail and so with a less obvious explanation.

This has all gotten me thinking about how one visualizes oneself in one’s memory. One doesn’t see oneself from a third-person perspective in real life, but many memories, I have found, are in fact from a third-person perspective (just another indication that memory is extraordinarily unreliable), and the person appearing in the place of the main character, so to speak, doesn’t always look as one did when one was the age one was in the memory. Often one sees oneself in one’s current appearance, even if one’s physical appearance has changed radically.

For example, I know that, when I had long hair, my memories from back when I had short hair would show me having long hair, despite that being impossible. Or, when viewing a memory from recent years but in which I considered myself to have done something immature or childish, I would often (unconsciously) fill in the me with short hair, rather than the me that actually was at that point in time.

At this point I wonder two things. 1) How long will it take me to adjust my “default” self-image to be short-haired me, rather than long-haired? The instinct is to say “a long time,” but I suspect that somehow it won’t be that long–it takes the human brain a surprisingly short time to form new habits. 2) Once I have done so, will I now have three self-images, younger-short-hair, long-hair, and older-short-hair, and choose one for each memory based on some more complex criteria than simply “immature” and “mature”? Will it perhaps be “childish,” “adolescent,” and “adult”?

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Power-Disking

August 12, 2010

This is a word I’ve come across recently. “Power-disking” refers to the practice of quickly watching every episode of a show over a short period of time, usually by powering through the DVDs, watching, say, an entire disk in one sitting.

I’ve done this somewhat often over the last few years. I’ve compiled a list of all the shows of which I’ve seen every episode; here it is, in roughly chronological order:

There are a few interesting things about this list.

  • The majority of these shows I watched on the collected series DVD set after the series was canceled.
  • Two (The Wire, 24) I watched on a per-series basis, watching all episodes of a season after it ended, but not waiting between seasons.
  • Only one (Jericho) did I ever watch “in real time,” so to speak, by which I mean “as it were originally shown on TV.” And ever there, I saw the first several episodes online before deciding to watch the show as it progressed, and watched the second season entirely online.

This is clearly significantly different from my television habits, say, six years ago. Mostly this is because what I now do was not technologically feasible back then. Yet the change reflects also a change in ways of thinking about television. I never watch TV regularly any more. Instead, the default is to watch no television, and occasionally to watch entire series over the course of a few weeks, just as one would a read a book over the course of a few weeks.

There is a significant difference between television and novels, however. The quantity of quality television is severely limited, compared to the quantity of quality novels. This has to do both with the economics of it — it costs more to make a TV show than to write a book — and with the fact that television is a fairly recent medium. When I discover a new author I like, say, Cormac McCarthy, I can read and have read) every book he’s written over the last twenty-five years. And then do that again for every author I find I like. The same is not true of television. I suspect I will run out of shows to watch fairly soon —  and then what? Watch nothing, or, rather, continue in the current habit of watching nothing except watching a lot at random intervals and have the size of the intervals increase? I have little interest in going back to watching shows as they air. I don’t think the medium works as well with the narrative broken up like that. It’s like reading a novel but only one chapter per week.

The number of good shows available isn’t zero, of course. Given the shows I’ve listed above, it’s clear my interest is in shows with strong narrative arcs running across seasons, and for the most part in shows with strong sci-fi or fantasy elements, such that the mythopoeic elements of the show loom large. This leaves me with a few interesting options to explore. This is what’s on my mind right now:

  • Stargate: Atlantis — I already have the DVDs, and am halfway through the first season. So this I will definitely watch.
  • Babylon 5 – I began watching this a year ago or so, but never really go into it. So I don’t know if I’ll ever end up watching it.
  • The Prisoner – This is considered one of the greatest series of all time, and I’m interested in seeing it. Of course it’s really old and I might never get around to it.

Any suggestions for other shows worth watching?


Book Review: The Border Trilogy

July 14, 2010

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.


Robert Frost’s North of Boston

May 18, 2010

The first book we read for my 20th century poetry “by the book” class was Robert Frost’s “North of Boston.” I found it surprisingly excellent; Frost is quite a good writer. I do think some clarification is needed, though; in most of the poems in this volume, Frost isn’t writing lyric poetry; he’s more writing short narratives in verse form. This doesn’t mean it’s not poetry, but it’s very different from the lyrics of Shakespeare or Keats or Hopkins or Eliot, to name a few of my favorite lyricists. He’s working more with characters than images. (Note that this applies to varying degrees to the rest of his poetry; A Boy’s Will, for example, contains a great deal of lyric, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a very imagistic poem. Not that they’re distinct categories anyway, more different qualities that can be possessed to greater or lesser degrees.)

Indeed, the subtitle to North of Boston, “this book of people,” demands we approach it as a dialogue between Frost’s characters not participated in by Frost himself. We must find Frost’s meaning in the complex interplay between different speakers’ perspectives. This dialogic approach (c.f. Bakhtin for a more detailed explanation) is more characteristic of the novel or short story than of lyric poetry. For example, the second poem, “Mending Wall,” repeats twice two aphorisms through the mouths of two distinct characters: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” The naïve reader reject one of these sayings or the other or both, but Frost rejects such an easy solution; he finds each view valuable but inadequate alone, and his own view must be sought in the sum of all of them.

This dialogic informs even the arrangement of poems within the book. The last responds to the first, the second-to-last to the second, and so on, in a manner reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we leave out “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” in which Frost himself gives the keys to the book as a whole, we find seven pairs of poems and the lone, central, enigmatic “A Servant to Servants.” That poem discusses one who “was crossed in love, / Or so the story goes.” This bizarre juxtaposition of insanity and love forms the theme of the book; from there, it moves out concentrically, taking as its subject at every level the absurd yet lovely nature of our shared human condition. It focuses on original sin (“Blueberries,” “After Apple-picking”); human dignity (“The Black Cottage,” “The Code”); family life (“Home Burial,” “The Generations of Men”); societal perceptions (“A Hundred Collars,” “The Housekeeper”); poetic inspiration (“The Mountain,” “The Fear”); mortality (“The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Self-Seeker”); and humanity in nature (“Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile”).

Consider the use of dialogic in the last of these poems. Its counterpart “Mending Wall” suggests that building walls, though an act of violence against nature, is necessary to establish a community, for men define themselves by division. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker recognizes nature, by itself, as generalized and anonymous; it offers only “tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.” These trees remind us of the pine and apple in “Mending Wall,” but are different because homogenous; they represent man by himself in nature, where he is nowhere in particular, “just far from home.” The wood-pile, however, an artifact akin to the mended wall, offers to connect man to nature by distinguishing him from it, through community. On seeing a pile of wood the speaker sees that though the wood-pile was made by man out of nature, it does not sit outside of nature; “what held it though on one side was a tree / Still growing.” The later poem thus recasts imagery of the earlier one to suggest a different position – though not exactly a contradictory one. It is more that they are two halves of an answer.


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