Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Life Through Hell-Colored Glasses

"Deh moon looks like hell, don't it?"

In his novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane displays a relentlessly brutal, violent and oppressive existence trapped in the bottom class strata of the New York Bowery of 1890’s. The story focuses on sister and brother, Maggie and Jimmie Johnson, and their violent, alcoholic Irish immigrant household. The family and the surrounding characters are non-empathetic, hard as flint and defensive, except for Maggie, whose sensitive nature and hopeful naivete get her killed. Although the other characters manage various sorts of physical survival, their souls, along with Maggie’s, are warped and ruined under the boot heel of class oppression.

The story opens chronicling a cyclical brutality that begins in infancy as Jimmie and Pete are introduced as small boys engaged in a bloody Rum Alley street fight. Pete exhorts Jimmie in “tones of delight” to ““Smash ‘im Jimmie, kick deh damn guts out of ‘im,” (Crane 5) . The father breaks up his small son’s fight by indiscriminately kicking at heads, yelling at Jimmie to quit fighting or “I belt yer life out” (Crane 6) . Jimmie’s response is to curse his father, whose response is to kick his child again. The father drags Jimmie home, where “a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and gutter” (Crane 6) and the tenement women “with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels” (Crane 6) . The Johnson hovel is a frightening nightmare commandeered by a drunk, abusive monster of a mother and screaming children, living up to the father’s description of home as “a reg’lar livin’hell!” (Crane 12). The prose is relentless in its description of thick, choking layers of ugliness. The inhabitants of the Bowery forsake and strike out at each other like a dog biting its own tail.

David Fitelson in his article, “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and Darwinism” quotes Crane as saying that in his writing of Maggie, his “Purpose was to show that environment is a tremendous thing in this world and often shapes lives regardlessly” (182) . This dovetails with the Marxist theory that “we are all situated historically and socially, and our social and historical contexts “determine” or shape our lives” (Rivkin 644) . Jimmie is extruded from this environment into adulthood much like everyone else in the Bowery, tough, self-serving, clinging fiercely to shreds of pride. “He maintained a belligerent attitude toward all well-dressed men. To him fine raiment was allied to weakness. He and his order were kings…over the men of untarnished clothes, because these latter dreaded, perhaps, to be either killed or laughed at” (Crane 15) . He tries the neighborhood church and “Momentarily, Jimmie was sullen with thoughts of a hopeless altitude where grew fruit” (Crane15) but the reaction was temporary. “He was afraid of neither the devil nor the leader of society” (Crane 16) .

Maggie, however, is atypical. She “grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl” and “none of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins” (Crane 18) . She is abhorred by her mother’s drunken abusiveness, and she tries valiantly to keep returning her house to order and care for her brothers. She does not sneer and gossip, nor continually spout “Teh hell wit yeh” like everyone around her.

As soon as Maggie and Jimmie are old enough they enter the workforce and start “producing means of subsistence” (Marx 653) . They are limited by their lack of education, and “What they are, therefore coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce… The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (Marx 653). Jimmie gets a job driving trucks, and Maggie makes collars and cuffs with “twenty girls of various shades of yellow discontent” (Crane 19). Jimmie seems unwilling to grasp for anything beyond his “down-trodden position that had a private but distant element of grandeur in its isolation” (Crane 16). He and so many others in the lower working class fall into a complacency devoid of vision. According to Marx, the ruling class are “the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood) while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts” (Marx 657) .

Maggie harbors dreams of a better life. She questions her job, stuck on her stool under the command of a tyrannical boss, a “detestable creature” whose “pocketbook deprived them of a power of retort” (Crane 30). “Her dim thoughts were often searching for far away lands where, as God says, the little hills sing together in the morning. Under the trees of her dream-gardens there has always walked a lover” (Crane 21) .

Into this dreamy discontent saunters bartender Pete, with his snappy clothes and bravado attitude. To isolated Maggie, he seems a “beau ideal of a man” (Crane 27). Maggie is influenced by the Bowery code that mistakes fear as weakness, and consequently, arrogance as strength. Pete takes Maggie out and expands her world to include theaters, museums, beer halls and freak shows. Maggie is dazzled and attaches herself to Pete with dog-like loyalty and trust. Insecure that she is socially beneath Pete, she “calculates the altitude of the pinnacle from which he must have looked down upon her” and she envies the better clothing and “elegance and soft palm” (Crane 21) of the new women she sees. She longs to be like these women who she imagines have “serenity as though forever cherished and watched over by those they loved” (Crane 29) . She tragically miscalculates that Pete will be her ticket to upward mobility and happiness and to this end she bargains with her one commodity, which is her only product--her looks and sex.

Women, even married ones, are particularly hit hard in the lower classes. Crane stated that “marriage was a base trick on women, who were hunted animals anyhow” (Phillips xi) and Jayne Philips comments in her introduction to Maggie, “women like Nell seem the only pray with a chance of survival. Deceit and irresponsibility of men toward women is one of the constants in Maggie” (xi). Nell capitalizes on her product, her”brilliance and audacity” (Crane 51) to control men and get their money. She manages to navigate the Bowery by her own rules, stylish, without jewelry or gaudy make-up, looking “clear-eyed through the stares of men” (Crane 52), but she is ultimately hard-hearted and self-serving.

Maggie is rejected by Pete and her family and pushed out into the streets. In a very significant encounter with a representative of middle class and religion in the form of a well heeled minister, Maggie sends up a vertical cry for help from her depths. She appeals to this figure because “she had heard of the Grace of God”(Crane 61) . It’s a pivotal moment in the narrative, for the upper classes have a chance to recognize the desperation and reach out to the lower class. But, the minister “gave a convulsive movement and saved his respectability by a vigorous sidestep. He did not risk it to save a soul. For how was he to know that there was a soul before him that needed saving?” (Crane 61) .

The novella is an examination on why the upper classes do not seem to acknowledge or take any active involvement in eradicating the miseries of the Bowery, but the narrative also magnifies the high levels of lateral violence and cruelty within the tenement life. Along with the physical fighting, the gossiping, and the drinking, both Jimmie and Pete refuse to acknowledge the plight of, or offer any restitution to the women they have destroyed. The question occurs, is this a true depiction of Bowery life, and if so, just how much of these people’s actions can be blamed on their environment?

Crane’s literary structure of Maggie is in a Reflectionist, or Pragmatic style. He aims to teach some truth. Indeed the author wrote Maggie while holed up in a New York slum. After Maggie was first written in 1893, Crane had an impossible time trying to get it published. An editor at Century magazine commented “these creatures of an environment have no tenderness and no restraint of action to excuse their callousness” (Phillips xiii) . Crane wrote it so as “to be unmistakable” (Phillips xii) in contrast to the other work around him which he considered “pink valentines” (Phillips xiii). “Characteristic early response was one of discomfort verging on shock” (Fitelson 183). The violence and moral issues bubbling like tar under the blinded upper classes was reaching a point near the end of the 19th century where it had to be addressed. The sociological issues of the Bowery intensified with the rise of immigration and urban crowding in connection with the industrial revolution. Politicians and philosophers began to focus on the causes and cures of the problems, and dialogue emerged veering into potentially dangerous concepts of Social Darwinism. “The Darwinian notion of Natural Selection rendered all questions of life immediately susceptible of amoral interpretation—and it is the amorality of the life struggle that is most visibly characteristic of Maggie”(Fitelson 185) . The upper classes had a tendency to look down long noses at the Bowery and hypothesize that these people could possibly be less moral. Morality, in the Bowery world, was weakness, and bred out of the environment by natural selection. In Crane’s novella, the only character with any ounce of compassion, atypical Maggie, cannot and does not survive. The tough survivors inherit their brutal tactics from their brutal parents and pass them on to their children. Author Howard Horwitz quotes turn of the century sociologist Jacob Riis, “conditions are the prolific parents of corresponding habits and morals. Tenements are nurseries of pauperism and crime. They breed moral contagion”(607). But Riis contended that the problems of the Bowery existed because of the inequities thrust upon them by the upper classes, and therefore the problem was a “just punishment on the community, and the evil actually belonged to the middle and upper classes, and was more in fact, displaced. The other half’s bondage to environment symbolized, although it was supposed to obscure, the middle class’ own bondage” (Horwitz 609).

Still,this does not address the Bowery’s core reactions of violence and non-empathy, and Fitelson suggests a more far-reaching philosophy, that regardless of class, “Violence is the predominant form of human communication” (186). However, Hannah Arendt in her book, On Violence, holds to the more Marxist view that violence “is neither a secret death wish of the human species, nor an irrepressible instinct of aggression” but is rather a substitute for gaining power when no other means is available (5) . The puffed up toughness is a veneer, a self-defense mechanism heavily masking deep frustrations. The violence that explodes laterally is from pent up rage that has no vertical outlet defined by vision. The vision is still manufactured and imposed by and for the needs of the bourgeoisie.

The down-trodden life in Maggie, seems at times, on the surface, like brutal animalism, but vestiges of sentimental hope, and a sublimated form of vision, are reflected by the popular Bowery theatrical plays. The melodramatic plots depict, “triumph for the hero, poor and of the masses, the representative of the audience, over the villain and the rich man, his pockets stuffed with bonds, his heart packed with tyrannical purposes, imperturbable amid suffering” (Crane 32) . Even the “shady” people in the audience,”hissed vice and applauded virtue. Unmistakably bad men evinced an apparently sincere admiration for virtue” (Crane 31) .

The ubiquitous drinking is also an attempt to escape from harsh reality, and self-examination. When sober Pete disowns Maggie, he slams a door in her face and tells her to “go the hell” (Crane 61), but later, Pete is drunk and carousing, doling out money to Nell and her friends, and pathetically begging for validation that he is a “goo’ f’ler” (Crane 66).

The story tragically concludes with Maggie, who now has a hunger for finer things and a better life, trying to claw her way up by the only route available to her now, selling her body as product. As the narrative chronicles her last night on the streets, Maggie ignores the upper class as potential clients, focusing instead on the “rural or untaught.” An upper class man, with a “sublime air, a chrysanthemum, and a look of ennui,” is momentarily interested in Maggie, until he realizes she is “neither new, Parisian, nor theatrical.” Maggie’s street walk symbolically descends from the glittering upper class establishments into lower and lower realms until she reaches the oppressive black depths of the river hemmed in by factories, where, from “Afar off the lights of the avenues glittered as if from an impossible distance.” Here Maggie meets her death as “the varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence” (Crane 65) .

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, 1970. 5. Google Books. Web. 10 May, 2010.

Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. New York: Bantam, 1984. Print.

Fitelson, David. “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and Darwinism.” American Quarterly Vol. 16, No.2, Part 1 (Summer 1964): 182-186. JSTOR. Web. 9 May, 2010.

Horowitz, Howard. “Maggie and the Socialist Paradigm.” American Literary History Vol. 10, No.4 (Winter 1998): 609. JSTOR. Web. 10 May, 2010.

Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. 653, 657. Print.

Phillips, Jayne Anne.
"Introduction." Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. By Stephen Crane. New York: Bantam, 1984. xi-xiii. Print.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Introduction: Starting with Zero.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. 644. Print.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Postmodern Analysis, A Serious Man

(please refer to the following, unfortunately embedding disabled, scene:)

The Coen brothers (as a unit) are one of the few postmodern American filmmakers. Critic A.O. Scott states, “Their insistence on the fundamental absence of a controlling order in the universe is matched among American filmmakers only by Woody Allen.” Their 2009 film, A Serious Man, continues in this postmodern tradition.

The story’s setting is a mid-western city in 1967, where Jewish main character Larry Gobnik encounters a series of misfortunes. Larry is also a passive man who allows himself to be victimized by several of the film’s other more dominating characters. Confused and hurting, Larry, desperate find some sort of rhyme or reason to his predicament, attempts to get answers from his religion in the form of counsel with three rabbis. The first meeting, with a very young rabbi, conludes with the inexperienced rabbi giving Larry stale advice about keeping a fresh perspective and appreciating things more—like the parking lot outside the window. The middle-aged second rabbi tells a bewildering story about an orthodontist finding mystical symbols from God carved in the back of his goy patient’s teeth. When Larry asks what this means, the rabbi says we don’t know. Larry then counters with, ”Why does God make us feel the questions if he is not going to give us any answers?’ The rabbi replies, “He hasn’t told me.” Larry’s attempt to get answers from celebrated elder Rabbi Marshak, is thwarted when he refuses to see him.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, who defines “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (356), would classify religion as a blanket ”metanarrative” incapable of adequately providing answers in a system that is basically a chaotic “heterogeneity of elements.” (356) .

Larry is also rendered passive, his actions influenced by his wife, his church, his kids, his doctor, his wife’s lover, the tenure board at his college, his white gun-toting neighbor, and a dissatisfied student. These represent the intimidating, unseen social lateral forces of western culture that Michel Foucault calls a “subtle, calculated technology of subjection” (564) .

The film provides no answers, only questions, with unexpected tragedies thrown in and potential doom on the horizon.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Scott, A.O. “Calls to God: Always a Busy Signal” New York Times on the Web, 2 Oct. 2009. Web. 9, May 2010.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why is Madonna always trying to be sexy?

Sex sells, but women are almost always the ones doing the selling, and they are almost always selling to men. When men are pimping and reaping the rewards, the cultural take is that women are being taken advantage of. But when women are in control, our culture accepts it as empowerment. When Madonnna exploded onto the scene in the '80's and became a hugely successful, very sexy pop star, she kept control of her image and profits, and this was unusual. Comparisons were made with Marilyn Monroe-- how Marilyn was a victim of men's objectification and it killed her. But not Madonna. She's in control of her image.
In the "Like a Prayer" video, big themes are attempted to be dealt with-- victimization, racism, religious oppression, freedom, and through it all, Madonna is sexy. Everyone else is fully clothed, robed from head to foot even, but Madonna wears a low-cut slip with straps falling off her shoulders. She dances provocatively in front of burning crosses and singing choirs. She seduces the Christ/Saint figure on a church pew.
Women throughout the ages have always tried to look beautiful/sexy to attract men. Women contort, distort, slice things into and out of their bodies, and cover their faces with paint. Because this practice has carried on through the ages, the question arises: is this trait "essentialist" in that it "reflects a natural difference between men and women that is as much psychological, even linguistic, as it is biological?" (Rivkin 766). Will women always dress to attract men because biology demands mating and consummation? Or is women's image choice, which is consistently different from men's, constructivist, "merely the product of conditioning under patriarchy" (Rivkin 768).

Works Cited
Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. "Introduction: Feminist Paradigms" Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed.Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Post-modern prisons

In the labyrinth of high school peer politics and social regulations, the prison guard in the Panopticon is not the principal, it is the Cool Standard. This unseen guard imposes strict codes on dress and behavior, eliciting fear and angst at the spectre of making a horrid uncool mistake.

I know he has passed away, but when reading of Jean-Francois Lyotard's "incredulity towards meta-narratives," and his claim that any code of universal ethics is impossible, I am tempted to inflict something sudden, irrational, and mean--like a kick in the shin--and try to make him admit: Okay that's just not right!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Who's the Boss?

According to Foucault, modern society is veined with suppressing invisible threads of power and politics. These strictures render us docile and obedient,doing what is boring, disagreeable or even humiliating because we are told to by a boss, teacher, police officer, any designated member of society that has some sort of power over us. Keeping the status quo, acting socially acceptable, not making a scene, keeping one's nose to the grindstone, not making waves, doing what we're told. But even when the boss is not around, we self-discipline. Imagine you are driving a road in the middle of nowhere, not another car for miles, and you come to a stop sign. Do you stop?

Analysis 3, Psychoanalysis

Psycho Planet

In this episode of Star Trek “Return of the Archons,” the crew of the Enterprise discovers a society that is forcefully manipulated into a psychologically compartmentalized existence that fits into Sigmund Freud’s three delineated manifestations of the theory of the mind. By day the citizens appear to be completely under the influence of the ego, which Freud describes in The Ego and the Id as that “which seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id” (Freud 19) The citizens are complacent, happy, controlled by “what may be called reason and common sense” (Freud 19) . At 6:00 pm however, the festival red hour begins, and for twelve hours these same citizens turn violent and libidinous, completely descending into the id as Freud describes it in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, “we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts… striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle” (Freud 498, 499) . In control of this pendulum swing is the god-like Landru, the lawgiver.
It turns out Landru is a computer who claims that before it took over, the planet was plagued with war, hate, unhappiness, uncertainty, and crime. In other words, like our normal human existence. Landru’s daytime controlled society is happy and peaceful, with none of the “ancient evils.” But, Landru realized the necessity for instituting a specific regulated escape valve for the id. Real life human existence is a continual struggle of balancing the id. The “ego in its relation to the id is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Freud 19).
As the “lawgiver” in control of these psychological states, god-like Landru has set himself up as a figure who must be obeyed. In this way he fits into Freud’s role of “the super-ego [who] retains the character of the father” (Freud 30) .

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. New York: W.W. Norton, 1960. 19-30. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. The Essentials of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Anna Freud. New York: Penguin, 1986. 498-499. Print.

Friday, March 12, 2010

If a Mirror Cracks in the Forest...

Introduced last Wednesday to Slavoj Žižek, the self-proclaimed Lacanian and Slovenian "rock star" of philosophy. I was struck by his off-hand comment that in his earlier books he naively supported democracy. This opinion appears to be linked to his view of his core as somehow untrustworthy and negative. He is clearly a rebel thinker, and brave enough to throw political correctness on its ear. A cursory look at his Puppet and the Dwarf, The Perverse Core of Christianity, reveals an unexpected stance; instead of the typical, liberal slam against a belief in absolutes, Žižek criticizes western intellectual's postmodern ethical relativism and recommends some sort of Christianity.

Regarding Lacan's crucial mirror stage, where the baby fragments into realization of another self--the separate idealized version of self. Alienation arises because the mirror image appears more whole than the baby's own uncoordinated self, and voila, ego is born to attain mastery over the image.
But what if there are no mirrors? What if the baby only sees others for months, even a few years, before he/she sees an image of him/herself. Sounds like a premise.