Wednesday, March 31, 2021

"The reader becomes disoriented": The stupid reader in an article on Toni Morrison's "Sula"

Literary critics often refer to "the reader" quite sloppily. But the scholar whose work on Toni Morrison's "Sula" my class considered this week even constructed a stupid reader to prop up her ideas: "The reader becomes disoriented – for which character [Nel or Sula] does Morrison try to win the reader's allegiance?" But an experienced novel reader knows that no such choice between characters is necessary. Even after a reference to Dostoevsky, such an artificial choice reappears: "The reader is never sure who is 'good' and who is 'evil'." Morrison, like Dostoevsky, doesn't create such simplistic characters for naive and reductive readers who, as the article concludes, "keep searching for a message." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 31 March 2021)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Discussing Lawrence, ordering a beer, and learning languages

I had a student in Saarbrücken who complained that he went to Sheffield and knew how to discuss Lawrence but not how to order a beer. When I asked him how long it took him to learn how to order a beer, he said, "A few days." When I then asked him if he'd have been able to discuss Lawrence if he'd gone to Sheffield knowing how to order a beer, he admitted that was a good point. I remembered this while I was working on Spanish today: I can slowly read García Márquez and Borges, but I can't discuss them in Spanish yet – and I can't order a drink either! (Andrew Shields, #111words, 30 March 2021)

Monday, March 29, 2021

The inspiration of parkour in an unusual location

The sport of Mohammed Kassem and Ahmad Sawaz is parkour, running around, over, and through urban obstacles at top speed. They run to the walls of buildings and clamber up them to the roofs; if they lose their grip on the way up, they fall and roll back gracefully; between obstacles, they do somersaults, cartwheels, hand springs, and forward flips. They have a team with friends, "The Jumpers", with uniforms to wear while working out. This is like parkour anywhere else, but the Jumpers also leap through bombed-out windows and holes in walls, because they live in Iblib in Syria, and the neighborhood where they train is crowded with abandoned ruins. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 29 March 2021)


All credit to the SRF team that filmed this report on parkour in Idlib.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Primary-school teachers, fractals, Finnegans Wake, Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Jorge Luis Borges

Last week, my third-grade teacher Katherine Terhune told me about a study of literature as fractals – especially James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake". I then remembered a  book about fractals I had around 1980, along with other books from then, such as Douglas Hofstadter's "Gödel Escher Bach" and his book with Daniel Dennett, "The Mind's I", where I first read Jorge Luis Borges's "Borges and I", one of the texts I've recently been working on Spanish with. Then another retired primary-school teacher, Tom Deveson, posted that it's Daniel Dennett's birthday today. These "insignificant but touching" coincidences (Sebald) echo how linking John Ashbery and Friedrich Schiller made my life feel like a coherent whole. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 28 March 2021)


Nautilus shell. [3426x2903] : FractalPorn
Nautilus shell image KT sent me.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Mrs. Bennet in films of "Pride and Prejudice": My path from fandom to criticism

Although I was long a fan, I didn't study Jane Austen's novels until I became irritated about Mrs. Bennet in film versions of "Pride and Prejudice". Alison Steadman in Simon Langton's 1995 BBC series and Brenda Blethyn in Joe Wright's 2005 film are wonderful actresses that neither director took advantage of to make Mrs. Bennet's shrillness more subtle. So I reread the novel and focused on the characterization of Mrs. Bennet, which led me to read all the minor characters in Austen's novels against the grain. And then I started to use Austen novels in academic-writing courses, which is why I now keep coming back to Austen in my daily prose. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 27 March 2021)

Friday, March 26, 2021

Mythical masculinity in Adrienne Rich's "The Knight"

In Adrienne Rich's "The Knight" (1957) from "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" (1963), the knight reflects the light of the sun at noon and thus stands in the center of things. But the light's reflection in his armor becomes "a thousand splintered suns," while "under the radiant casque", his clothes are "rags and tatters", his nerves "worn to ribbons". This image of the harmful effect of a mythical masculinity on the wearer of such armor connects Rich's poem with works like Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956) that more explicitly challenged the era's conformity and representations of gender, as Rich later began doing with the title poem of the collection "The Knight" appears in. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 26 March 2021)


The Knight

Adrienne Rich, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law"


A knight rides into the noon,

and his helmet points to the sun,

and a thousand splintered suns

are the gaiety of his mail.

The soles of his feet glitter

and his palms flash in reply,

and under his crackling banner

he rides like a ship in sail.


A knight rides into the noon,

and his only eye is living,

a lump of bitter jelly

set in a metal mask,

betraying rags and tatters

that cling to the flesh beneath

and wear his nerves to ribbons

under the radiant casque.


Who will unhorse this rider

and free him from between

the walls of iron, the emblems

crushing his chest with their weight?

Will they defeat him gently,

or leave him hurled on the green,

his rags and wounds still hidden

under the great breastplate?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Linear time and cyclical time in the first sentence of "Cien años de soledad"

The title of Gabriel García Márquez's novel is "Cien años de soledad", but it begins not with the specificity of "one hundred" but with the indeterminacy of "many years": "Muchos años después [...]." That span of time is a linear time marked by striking events: the firing squad in Aureliano Buendía's adulthood and his childhood memory of that "tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo." Such moments make time measurable along a line in terms of "before" and "after" ("después"), but this first sentence also introduces the cyclical time of nature (that remarkable ice) and the generational repetition of parents, children, and the transmission of knowledge. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 25 March 2021)

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The paradoxical advantage of not knowing a language well: "Cien años de soledad" and me

As part of learning Spanish, I've now memorized the first six sentences of Gabriel García Márquez's "Cien años de soledad" (and I'm working on the seventh). As is my wont, I've even begun doing some literary interpretation of the novel's opening – it's part of the fun. My feel for the nuances of Spanish is limited, of course, but I can still notice patterns to ponder, such as the repetition of "conocer" (to know). In fact, my limited knowledge of the language forces me to pay even closer attention to every detail than I usually do – to the point where my lack of nuanced understanding even feels almost like a paradoxical advantage. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 24 March 2021)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

On the arbitrariness of the usage rules that arise in public discussion

The set of usage rules that arise in public discussion in the United States (such as fewer vs. less, that vs. which, and the use of "literally") serves two purposes: sociologically, they mark those who master them as members of the educated class; and psychologically, those masters see themselves as having successfully put in the effort to achieve something worthwhile. If such rules have no foundation in linguistics or the history of English, that's actually the point: they have to be arbitrary and ungrounded if they are to produce the sociological and psychological effects of mastery, for only that ungrounded arbitrariness makes the overcoming that is a sign of mastery possible. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 23 March 2021)

Monday, March 22, 2021

The story of "literally"

The claim that "literally" should only be used "literally" tells a story: once the word had one meaning, then it began to be used in another way, and only the first, original meaning is legitimate. But the actual history of "literally" is far more interesting: it has had not two but seven meanings (or at least there are seven definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, two of which are obsolete). All those meanings have been in use since the eighteenth century, including the sense used by Mark Twain in 1876 ("Tom was literally rolling in wealth") that is so often condemned and was only first challenged in the early twentieth century. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 22 March 2021)


Norman Rockwell, "Tom Sawyer (Whitewashing the Fence)", 1936

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"Literally devoured the books": Describing the prescriptivist proscription of the figurative "literally" as an intensifier

A student wrote that she "literally devoured books" as a child. Many people dislike this use of "literally" because they say that she actually only figuratively "devoured" the books, and not literally. Yet this figurative sense of "literally" as an intensifier, in which "literally" means "figuratively" and emphasizes what it modifies, is common enough to be defined in dictionaries as "virtually". So my "descriptivist" perspective says that "prescriptivists" who condemn this usage should stop doing so because language is what people do with it, not what "ought" to be done with it. Still, any attempt at a complete description of this sense of "literally" should include the prescriptivist proscription of it. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 21 March 2021)


Devouring books...... by Wallace Edwards (avec images ...
Unknown artist


Saturday, March 20, 2021

"Only in the head of a musician": The rejection of the novel in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"

"The pieces of Cholly’s life could become coherent only in the head of a musician": this sentence from Toni Morrison's novel "The Bluest Eye" is not apophasis (saying something by saying you won't say it). Nor does it use the words "there are no words" to say something. It's like an orator saying that "only poetry could capture this", in that it rejects its own genre in favor of a different genre that could do better. This passage in a novel rejects literature in favor of music, even as this chapter of the novel – and even the paragraph that begins with this sentence – does make "the pieces of Cholly's life" cohere. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 20 March 2021)

Friday, March 19, 2021

"Philoctetes / in woman's form": André Gide in Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems"

In "Twenty-One Love Poems" (1976), Adrienne Rich recalls herself in Greece with "an infected foot, Philoctetes / in woman's form", with suicidal thoughts she now rejects as "the temptation to make a career of pain." Kevin McGuirk connects Rich's Philoctetes with Andre Gide's 1898 play about him as a heroic solitary artist and argues that "the Philoctetes of Gide [...] would be anathema to the feminist Rich." But Rich earlier brings up Gide herself as a homosexual "vilified" by Paul Claudel, as Swift "loathed" and Goethe "dreaded" women. When Gide's Philoctetes resists "the demands of others" influencing his words, Rich shares his resistance to a heterosexual masculinist tradition that silences others. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 19 March 2021)


File:André Gide 1908 Théo Van Rysselberghe.jpg
André Gide, 1908

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Trump, songs, and the use of his name and image: The hypocrisy is the point

At President Trump's rallies during his campaigns and his presidency, songs were played by artists who objected to his use of their works (so many of them, in fact, that someone wrote a Wikipedia page to keep track of them). But earlier this month, Trump himself challenged the use of his name and image by the Republican National Committee and other party organizations. One could charge Trump with hypocrisy here, but to paraphrase Adam Serwer on cruelty, the hypocrisy is the point. As A. R. Moxon put it last month: "Doing things for which they vilify and punish others is how they know they dominate, which is their only true principle." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 18 March 2021)


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Dandelions at the base of the telephone pole" in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"

When Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" "walks down Garden Avenue to a small grocery store which sells penny candy", she pays attention to "the familiar and therefore loved images" that she passes – in particular, the "dandelions at the base of the telephone pole." When she then "wonders [why] people call them weeds", she may be projecting the ostracism she experiences in her community onto the flowers, but she also asserts her own epistemic agency: "She thought they were pretty." Further, as flowers "whose white heads, last fall, she had blown away" to make a wish, dandelions are also figures for wishes, such as Pecola's prayer for blue eyes. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 March 2021)


Dandelions Flower Dandelion - Free photo on Pixabay

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

What today's 75-year-old people listened to when they were young

Stephen Colbert joked last night about bars carding people to make sure they're old enough to have been vaccinated: "You don't look like your 75. Start humming your favorite Perry Como song!" But people who listened to Perry Como in their youth are not 75: Como's last Billboard number-one hit was "Round and Round" in 1957, when today's 75-year-olds were 11. In June 1967, when they were 21, Como's "Stop! And Think it Over" may have been #1 – but on the Easy Listening charts. Today's 75-year-olds would request other #1 songs from their younger days: Aretha Franklin, "Respect"; The Doors, "Light My Fire"; and The Beatles, "All You Need Is Love". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 16 March 2021)


Monday, March 15, 2021

"No one has imagined us": A lesbian couple and the representation of women in pornography in Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems" (1976) depicts two women in a lesbian relationship who feel the absence of the representation of lesbians in the culture they live in: "No one has imagined us." Yet the sequence begins with them surrounded by representations of heterosexuality: "Wherever in this city, screens flicker / with pornography, [...] / we also have to walk." At the time, as Susan Brownmiller writes, Rich was working with Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, and others to start a radical feminist anti-pornography group to oppose the representation of women in pornography as objects of male desire, while Laura Mulvey was theorizing the male gaze in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975). (Andrew Shields, #111words, 15 March 2021)


Sunday, March 14, 2021

The erasure and return of slavery in Mr. Elton's "Charade" in Jane Austen's "Emma"

The first two lines of Mr. Elton's riddle in Jane Austen's "Emma" associate "kings" with "wealth" and "luxury" but do not mention the source of the riches of the "court" (the riddle's "first"). Similarly, the next two lines bring up "monarchs of the seas" but do not say what the "ship" that is the riddle's "second" is transporting. But while the second stanza "unites" the two words as "courtship" and focuses on the moment when a man in Austen's time would propose to a woman, the figure of that man "bending a slave" to woman reveals that the source of the wealth of the United Kingdom in Austen's time was slavery. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 14 March 2021)




My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,

Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.

Another view of man, my second brings,

Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!


But ah! united, what reverse we have!

Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown;

Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,

And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.


Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,

May its approval beam in that soft eye!


Saturday, March 13, 2021

One year without in-person classes

One year ago today, I had my last in-person classes (111 Words a Day and an Emily Dickinson seminar). The University of Basel went online on for the rest of the spring semester Monday, 16 March. While some courses were taught in person when the fall semester started in September, all mine were online, and as the second wave hit much harder in Switzerland than in the spring, even those in-person courses went back online. By now, I've been able to adapt my talk-and-chalk teaching style to Zoom sessions, with me typing extensive notes during discussions, and I wonder how to adapt that to in-person classes when they finally start again. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 March 2021)


Blackboard from my last in-person class, a seminar on Emily Dickinson

Friday, March 12, 2021

"I know you are reading this poem": The grammar of intimacy in Adrienne Rich's "Dedications"

Every sentence in Adrienne Rich's "Dedications" begins with "I know you are reading this poem". The progressive "are reading" refers to an act in progress at the present moment, so as one reads "Dedications", the acts of reading the poem describes seem to coincide with one's own reading. Further, the demonstrative pronoun "this" makes "Dedications" itself the poem being read. These two effects make one feel directly addressed as "you" while reading "Dedications", while also making the "I" seem more like the poet herself than a poetic "speaker". The grammar thus generates an effect of intimacy that constructs the reader as a participant in the scenes of reading the poem describes. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 12 March 2021)

There's a video of Rich reading the poem here.

Adrienne Rich "Dedication" - YouTube | Adrienne rich ...

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Memories of Matisse's "Dance"

Long ago, I loved to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I would come around a corner and see Matisse's "Dance", as I knew I would. But every time, it was stunning to actually see it again. When I was at the renovated MOMA in July 2015, the whole layout of the museum had changed, so all the paintings were in different places, and I didn't know when I'd see it. And then there it was, as stunning as ever. And my other old favorites were there, too, including two of Monet's "Water Lilies", which are such a beautiful complement to the two paintings in Riehen. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 11 March 2021, for my student Giulia Weber, whose text on Matisse's painting triggered my memories of it)


10 Lessons Matisse Can Teach You About Art and Life

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Away goals and overtime in knockout football matchups with two legs: The case of Porto and Juventus last night

Last night, Juventus Turin and Porto played the second leg of their matchup in the Champions League round of sixteen. Porto had won the first leg at home, 2-1, and when regulation time expired in Turin, Juventus was ahead 2-1 as well. With an aggregate of 3-3 and the same number of away goals, the match went into overtime and each team scored a goal, so with the aggregate at 4-4, Porto won on away goals. But this is unfair: Porto played 120 minutes for their away goals, while Juventus had only 90. When the second leg goes into overtime, the goals scored in overtime should not count as away goals. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 March 2021)



Tuesday, March 09, 2021

One year of writings about coronavirus

After starting my daily writing of 111-word texts on 1 January 2020, I first mentioned the coronavirus one year ago today. Since then, I have written 328 daily posts in all (having missed 37 days due to appendicitis), and at least 40 of those posts mention the coronavirus, Covid-19, or the pandemic. Many of them are about the crazy things Donald Trump said at his coronavirus briefings (remember those?), while in others I interpret the pandemic rhetoric of journalists and other politicians, ponder the effects on daily life of measures to control the pandemic, or connect it to texts I've been reading, whether by Franz Kafka, Jane Austen, or Charlotte Brontë. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 March 2021)


Note: This is a search result for all texts on my blog that have the word "coronavirus" in them (a few others refer to the "pandemic" or "covid" but not the "coronavirus", and I might have missed a few that alluded to the pandemic without using any of those words).

Taiwan Saw The Coronavirus Coming
Unknown  source

Monday, March 08, 2021

"Linking the world": An ironic poster in Salvador Calvo's "Adú"

After he and his sister Alika (Zayiddiya Dissou) stow away in the wheel well on a flight they think is from Yaoundé to Paris and he has seen her fall out during landing, six-year-old Adú (Moustapha Oumarou) in Salvador Calvo's "Adú" wakes up in an airport office in Dakar under an airline poster with the painfully ironic slogan "Linking the world." The world of refugees Adú lives in is anything but "linked" as he tries to make his way from Cameroon to Europe, as is confirmed in the film's opening and closing shots of the chain-link fence that prevents refugees and immigrants from entering Europe through the Spanish exclave of Melilla. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 March 2021)


Adú (2020) / Megonecia Club

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Individual and social redemption in Adrienne Rich's classroom scenes in "An Atlas of the Difficult World"

In her 1990-1991 sequence "An Atlas of the Difficult World", Adrienne Rich echoes her 1986 "In a Classroom", first with "a young man" crying in a writing workshop and hoping his poems "have redemption stored / in their lines." Then the scene shifts to another classroom where "eight-year old faces are grey" and the teacher knows about the children's present hunger and the past radical image of "the Black Panthers spooning cereal." The unreadable face of "Jude" in the earlier poem is replaced with the young man's personal expressiveness and supplemented with the knowledge of a history that offers hope of a redemption that is not only individual but also social. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 March 2021)


In the writing workshop a young man’s tears

wet the frugal beard he’s grown to go with his poems

hoping they have redemption stored

in their lines, maybe will get him home free. In the classroom

eight-year-old faces are grey. The teacher knows which children

have not broken fast that day,

remembers the Black Panthers spooning cereal.


(Adrienne Rich, from "An Atlas of the Difficult World" I)

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Illegibility and projection in Adrienne Rich's "In a Classroom"

In Adrienne Rich's "In a Classroom", a class discusses what poems say ("consonants") and do not say ("elisions"). But even as the unsaid becomes discourse, one student remains illegible to the teacher: "I look in your face, Jude, / neither frowning nor nodding, / opaque in the slant of dust-motes over the table". While "slant" echoes Emily Dickinson ("Tell all the truth but tell it slant"; "a certain slant of light"), "motes" recall Christ's mote and beam, and the teacher's beam then projects a Dickinsonian paradox onto the mote of Jude's "presence like a stone, if a stone were thinking / What I cannot say, is me. For that I came."  (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 March 2021)


In a Classroom

Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe, 215


Talking of poetry, hauling the books

arm-full to the table where the heads

bend or gaze upward, listening, reading aloud,

talking of consonants, elision,

caught in the how, oblivious of why:

I look in your face, Jude,

neither frowning nor nodding,

opaque in the slant of dust-motes over the table:

a presence like a stone, if a stone were thinking

What I cannot say, is me. For that I came.



Friday, March 05, 2021

The pronunciation of "Babar" and the pronunciation of "Seuss"

Last night, Seth Meyers once again apologized for an alleged language mistake. Some viewers had apparently complained about him mispronouncing the name of the children's book elephant Babar as "Buh-BAR", while the "correct" pronunciation is supposedly "Bah-BAR". I checked a recent animated version of Babar and heard the latter pronunciation, but I'm sure I always heard the former pronunciation when I was a child. Meyers first referred to Babar in connection with the news about the "cancellation" of several Dr. Seuss books – and ironically, Ted Geisel himself originally pronounced "Seuss" (his mother's maiden name) to rhyme with "voice" and only later accepted the "loose" mispronunciation because it rhymed with "Mother Goose". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 March 2021)

Thursday, March 04, 2021

"As if language were too much to bear": Trying to read Adrienne Rich out loud

My seminar on Adrienne Rich this term will begin with her sequence "An Atlas of the Difficult World" from 1990-1991. But Rich's selected poems, "The Fact of a Doorframe, 1950-2001", leaves out three of the thirteen sections of that sequence, so I am reading them out loud to the transcription software in Microsoft Word. However, in section III, I had to type her lines about her late husband because I could not read them without choking up: "now it's twenty years since last I heard that intake / of living breath, as if language were too much to bear, / that voice overcast like klezmer with echoes, uneven, / edged, torn". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 March 2021)

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

"Muchos años después", I've begun learning Spanish and clumsily reading García Márquez and Borges

I've been learning Spanish since November, and recently I've had the pleasure of memorizing the first sentence of "Cien años de soledad", by Gabriel García Márquez – in Spanish, thirty-five years after I memorized it in English ("muchos años después"!). After a week of memorizing that, I've now begun working on memorizing the second sentence of the novel, and just now I looked up another one of my favorite texts ever, "Borges y yo", by Jorge Luis Borges, and read it out loud to myself, clumsily and with my memory of the English translation I first read forty years ago in high school as a guide in the back of my mind. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 March 2021)


File:Gabriel Garcia Marquez.jpgFile:Jorge Luis Borges.jpg

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The absence of a focus of sympathy in Charles Dickens's "Barnaby Rudge" (at least so far)

Reading the first 30 chapters of Charles Dickens's "Barnaby Rudge" has led me to an unexpected hypothesis: this novel differs from Dickens's first four in having no central character who is the focus of narratorial and hence readerly sympathy. Mr. Pickwick in "The Pickwick Papers", the title characters in "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby", and Nell Trent in "The Old Curiosity Shop" are all central even when the narratives turn away from them for chapters on end (especially so in the case of Nell Trent). So far in "Barnaby Rudge", the title character has barely come up, and no other character has been established as the novel's focus in his place.  (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 March 2021)

Monday, March 01, 2021

Seminar this term on Adrienne Rich's poetry

In the spring semester of 2012, I taught a memorable seminar on the poetry of my teacher Adrienne Rich with enthusiastic students and lively discussions, but also with the shock of her death in the middle of the term. I'm teaching the seminar again this semester, starting Friday, but with a different approach. Since 2012, I've been letting students choose which poems to discuss in poetry seminars, so after three weeks with poems of my choosing ("In a Classroom", "An Atlas of the Difficult World", and "Twenty-One Love Poems"), we'll spend the rest of the term looking at the students' choices from Rich's selected poems, "The Fact of a Doorframe, 1950-2001." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 March 2021)