April 27, 2011

Guest Speaker

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of attending a reading/talk with Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison. 

By now, you very likely have heard about the Rutgers Snooki scandal (just to sum things up: Rutgers paid Morrison 30K to appear.  Rutgers paid Snooki 32K to speak.  Anyone else sick to their stomach?).  I’m not going to rant about this.  I’m also not going to talk about the ethics of a public university which serves a largely under-funded student body spending so many zeroes on things like guest speakers.  Notably, I do not believe that the reading which I attended was part of Morrison’s 30K commencement speech deal.  I’m not entirely certain how/why Morrison wound up in Newark, but I’m frightfully glad that she did.

As an added bonus, we were graced with the presence of Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker who has been making a real splash on the political scene with the things that he’s done for this city.  He’s an articulate, smart, passionate individual and it was a true joy to heard him give Morrison’s introduction.

When Morrison took the stage, I noticed a few things instantly.  First: Toni Morrison is old!  She’s an eighty-year-old woman!  They wheeled her on and off the stage in a wheelchair, though she managed to walk herself to the center-stage table where they had a seat prepared for her.  I suppose I’ve never really thought about her age; like all literary figures she’s ageless to me.  In addition, with the frequent highly sexual and sexualized nature of her works, I don’t really want to think of her as a grandma.

She still has her trademark dreads (though they’re a lovely silver color) and she wore them back in a pink bandana.  Her voice is rich and soothing with an occasional Southern-esque drawl to it which comes out more the more she speaks.  She started out faltering with frequent pauses, but as she became comfortable lit up the stage with energy, light, and life.

She read us a section of a work in progress (which was a treat in and of its own right).  Sitting in the room with hundreds of other people, somehow as she was reading I was brought right up next to her.  As my imagination collided with hers (an image which she herself used in describing fiction), I was no longer seated in an audience but rather in her living room.  She was speaking directly to me, telling me the story, making sure I was listening, seeing what I thought about her work… I would have listened to her go on all day.

Of course she’s a transcendent writer, but more than that she’s an engaging person.  She answers questions with grace and personality, never lacking in an entertaining anecdote which clearly displays her fearlessness.

Toni Morrison writes the sublime (and I mean that in a very aesthetic sense).  Her writing isn’t pretty or neat, it’s not tidy or simple.  Instead, it’s raw and deeply deeply uncomfortable.  I have trouble picking up her books because I know that the entire time I am reading them my stomach will be in knots.  Her books are terrible, powerful, and beautiful.  They are not something I willingly subject myself to more than once every few years.

So to see this little old woman speaking… this little old woman whose mind does and has encompassed and encompasses such genius… is like being in the presence of a true divine conductor.  It’s like some greater literary power flows down through her; like she channels the soul of an age and transmits it to paper and there it is, for all to see.

Maybe it’s time for me to pick up Song of Solomon… it’s been at least six months since I’ve considered slitting my wrists as a direct result of a piece of literature.

April 21, 2011

The Twilight Zone

As you may have noticed by now, I am slightly pre-occupied with vampire fiction. As such, the Twilight phenomenon has utterly fascinated me. I’ve thought long and hard about it. I’ve read the books. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve blogged. Repeatedly. And I’m still not certain that I entirely grasp it.

My midterm for Jack’s Gothic class was a piece connecting Twilight with the vampire genre as a whole and attempting to fasten it to the greater issues at stake within vampire fiction. My attempt was only slightly successful, mostly due to the fact that I was juggling the impending MA exam at the time, but also because there seems to be a dearth of serious scholarship on the matter. I would say “you can’t really blame them”, except for the fact that I’ve unearthed a plethora of Buffy scholarship. Why should Twilight be so different? Same genre, similar demographic, granted Buffy has been around a bit longer so it’s had longer to be kicked around by the requisite minds… but eight years isn’t all that long. Something about the situation didn’t sit right with me, and it took me some time to realize why.

I never really thought about the major difference that a good, solid piece of literature makes to a paper as opposed to shallow drivel. Because really, let’s face it folks, Twilight ain’t Finnegan’s Wake. It wasn’t until I was deep within my paper’s crafting that I realized how difficult it was for me to write anything truly meaningful, insightful or original about it… even though it wasn’t a scholarly village horse like Frankenstein or the Shakespeare stuff that I’m used to working with upon which everyone’s had a go and thereby much less likely to be shocked, awed, or otherwise affected by your own turn with it.

What I’m really getting down to is a simple fact: Joss Whedon can write. Stephenie Meyer can’t. Whedon makes something deep and engaging, Meyer makes brain bubblegum that will do nothing but rot your proverbial mental teeth. It may taste good, but trust me, it has no caloric or nutritive value whatsoever.

Anyway, I cranked my midterm out, thoughts of publication only vaguely floating through my mind. Yes, there was a place for the scholarship but A) did I really want to be that Twilight girl and B) the paper itself wasn’t really up to my usual par. I blame the literature. Wait, no, not literature… book. It’s just a book.

Suffice to say that Stephenie Meyer and I haven’t really been on speaking terms since that midterm paper. Imagine, then, my surprise when I walked into Jack’s office before Gothic this week and saw, sitting proudly upon his desk, a paperback copy of Twilight. I arched my eyebrow at him, trying to formulate a suitably smart-ass remark.

Flash back to earlier in the semester when Jack had been poking around for suggestions for the last week of class; a time he wished to devote to the “modern Gothic”. I believe the first thing out of my mouth when he suggested that perhaps Twilght would be a great option was “Please don’t willingly subject people to this.”

Wavy lines and funny music bring us back to Jack’s office, present-day. He looked at me slightly sheepishly, “Yea, I decided that it’s the most popular example of Gothic out there these days so… I’m assigning a chapter.”

I sighed, “I want it on record that this was against my advisement.”

“Duly noted.” He said, and we began talking about much more consequent things.

Flash forward again to the last ten minutes of class. Jack reaches over to the ubiquitous stack of copying that has been lurking on the table in front of him for the entire class period as he launches into an explanation of the class for next week. “So, there are some songs on blackboard and we will be watching some film clips, and Danielle told me that you should all be reading a chapter from her favorite book so… here you go!”

He passed the dreaded pages down and my colleagues groaned as they saw the title. “Jack!” I said, “What are you doing!? I’m going to get beat up in the alley after class!” … I didn’t remind him (or them) that this was the second time the syllabus suffered at my hand. The first, of course, was a fight to the end for the inclusion of The Mysteries of Udolpho which (by the by) is the foundational text of modern Gothic… it’s also a six-hundred-page-slow-moving-book-from-hell. I think my colleagues have finally forgotten about my role in their being forced to read this thing so far be it from me to freshen their memories.

That didn’t stop them from being upset about the Twilight thing. “Hey, Danielle, I hear there’s a dumpster out behind Robeson…”

It’s a good thing that I do a lot of cardio.

In any case, I’m sitting here now attempting to read this chapter and, for the first time, I’m actually having trouble getting through it. I am pleasantly surprised by this fact, and would be more happy about it if I didn’t have to get through said chapter for class next week.

This is the first time that I’ve returned to any of the Twilight books since the midterm debacle. I would like to say that demystifying their allure has helped to break their uncanny spell upon me, but I’m pretty sure that it’s mostly due to end-of-semester mental gridlock.

April 19, 2011

MacBeth hath Murdered Sleep

It was a dark and stormy night. 

We walked the gray streets of Chelsea under a steady drizzle of rain as we gazed upon the generic building fronts hoping to arrive at our destined address sooner rather than later.  It was just cold enough for the rain to be unwelcomely chilly, like little specks of recently-melted ice oozing upon us.

We arrived at a warehouse attended by two men clad all in black.  “Are you looking for the McKittrick hotel?”

Upstairs, a gay lounge decorated with an eye towards thirties glamour is hopping.  A four-piece jazz band plays while a singer lovingly croons period music, a bartender dressed in spats serves up cocktails, and a woman in a blue sequined gown slinks around from table to table asking if you are ready to join the party yet.

By now, anyone even remotely connected to the theatre has likely at least heard about the Punchdrunk theatre company’s immersive theatre experience “Sleep No More”.  The New York revival (currently playing at the McKittrick Hotel on W. 27th street) is a re-make of the phenomenon which hit Boston in October of 2009 (ran Oct. 8, 2009 – Feb. 7, 2010 at The Old Lincoln School in Brookline).  To support the sheer amount of space required for the endeavor, Punchdrunk has taken over three conjoined Chelsea warehouses.  According to the New York Times, 200 unpaid volunteers spent approximately four months meticulously putting the over-100 rooms in the hotel together.  And believe you me it shows.

As you enter the hotel, you are given a white Venetian mask which you are asked to keep on during the duration of the production (my comrades with glasses reported that this made things a little difficult for them).  You are asked not to speak, and (as usual) to silence your cell phones.

You are then ushered into a large freight elevator where a porter randomly assigns chunks of the party to begin their journey at different floors.  We held hands to keep from getting separated (by the by, if you do go, go with a very small group or decide that you will get separated and agree to meet at the bar afterwards – it’s difficult to keep track of people in the dark when everyone’s wearing the same white mask and nobody is allowed to speak). 

You enter a veritable labyrinth of rooms (environments really) where you are permitted to touch, move, examine and explore.  We found everything from a foggy London street, to a taxidermist’s shop, an apothecary with dried herbs hanging from every available surface, a hedge maze, a ballroom, a Victorian hospital, a Victorian asylum, Macduff’s children’s rooms, to a large room with a bathtub filled with bloody water (I take this to be the Macbeths’ room).  In every room there is something to discover (some of my favorite discoveries were hand-written letters strewn about the place including the famous letter which MacB writes his Lady Wife – “They met me on the eve of ascension…”). 

As though the living museum aspect of this weren’t enough to sate the rampant voyeur, there is a human aspect as well.  Actors dash about around you (easy to spot – they’re the ones without the masks) and you can choose to follow them and watch them meet up with other actors to portray wordless scenes in various environments of the hotel.  Amongst some of the scenes we saw were the famous Macbeth banquet, a couple dancing in the ballroom, the Witches’ first encounter with Macbeth (complete with shot roulette), and the murder of Duncan.

I really can’t describe to you how wonderfully creepy the entire experience was.  Imagine floating about darkened rooms, not knowing where you will end up when you turn a corner, constantly meeting with white-masked individuals who are somehow comforting rather than terrifying, and occasionally being grabbed by actors who seem to appear from nowhere.  Perhaps the highlight of our time in the hotel came when we were attempting to find our way out.  We had reached the stairway and were trying to follow an actor one way (at the back of the white-masked cloud) when a woman’s scream echoed through the hall.  We all looked at each other, about-faced, and (like good heroes) ran towards it to find Macbeth standing over the body of a very pregnant Lady Macduff.  Somehow, the knowledge that we had just missed the murder (even if there was nothing we could have done about it) sank sickly into my gut.  Had there even been anyone there to observe her last moments?  Had she expected to see him coming round the hall?  Had she greeted him or did he surprise her?  And did she try to fight him off or gracefully accept her fate?

Now this is theatre.

The experience jostled me.  As we explored the different rooms, there was no doubt that I was moved; to tears, terror, laughter, excitement, suspense, pity and everything in between.  Being able to touch and be touched by what was going on brought the story home to me in a way that I’ve never experienced before.  Of course, there isn’t really a cohesive story.  There is no set path for a visitor to explore, there is no pre-determined way to experience the hotel.  Proprietors estimate that each guest only sees 1/16th of the total experience.  And I won’t say that at times I wasn’t left wondering “so what does this have to do with Macbeth?”  But even in those times, I was too enraptured with what was going on around me to mind too horribly much.

Some reviewers find that Shakespeare haunts the attraction rather than is the attraction.  I don’t entirely disagree with them, but I find it difficult to lend their argument full credence.  Certainly liberties were taken with “Sleep No More”, and there are things which still don’t make sense to me.  That, however, is what I think holds the greatest appeal.  The entire thing is a puzzle which can be solved one of ten billion ways and it is up to each individual to determine her own experience and what that experience means.

When I left the hotel I was exhausted.  I felt like my mind was going to leak out my ear.  I had a difficult time forming coherent sentences, and we drove home through the now-torrential thunderstorm in almost complete silence.  As I collapsed into my bed that evening, all I could think was “Macbeth hath murdered sleep.”

…for that… I slept like a baby.  Despite having bizarre blood-soaked dreams with figures in white Venetian masks and random time-traveling with an eye towards steam-punk style globetrotting antics. 

Go.  Seriously.  Find some way to get there.  This is a veritable revolution in the way audiences experience Shakespeare and I can only hope that this cutting edge cuts deeply into the fabric of American Theatre.  I don't think that saying "I will cheat on the bard" works here because technically I didn't really.... it's more like having a tryst with his similar-yet-different twin brother.

April 14, 2011

Time for a Quick Re-cap

You know what hit me today?
A few more weeks and I’m done. Done with the MA. Done with English lit. Done with Rutgers. Done with Newark. Not quite done with Jersey, that will remain for another few months, but almost there!

I have previously lingered upon how bittersweet this is. This program has been a wonderful and fruitful growth experience for me personally and professionally. I have met some amazing people; colleagues, mentors, students, and everything in between. The program also came at a time in my life when I was in a very dark place and, almost single-handedly, is responsible for my rehabilitation into the functional and successful (albeit often harried and eccentric) intellectual that I am today.

It’s been an awe-inspiring and sublime two years.

As I dive into writing the final few papers of my MA, I wanted to take a moment to dwell upon all of the work that got me here. Here’s a little review of the courses that built this degree for me, the papers I wrote for them, and what I did with those papers subsequent to the lecture ending.


Semester one: Fall 2009

Intro to Graduate Literary Study

Final Paper: “One of These Things is Not Like the Others”

Analysis of Frankenstein using Race theory

Later Became: recycling. I didn’t have many ambitions at this juncture…

Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing

Midterm Paper: “Great Expertations; an Examination of the Novice-as-Expert Predicament in College Freshmen Papers”

Analysis of a batch of undergrad papers in which I explicate what I call the “novice-as-expert” phenomenon. How does a college Freshman deal with being put in a situation where he must form an opinion on a field he knows nothing about? What rhetorical strategies does he use to accomplish this, and how can teachers use those strategies to better teach paper-writing to young college students?

Later Became: Conference paper

Final Paper: “If Lost, Please Return To… Imitation and Abandonment in the College Freshman Paper”

A second analysis of a batch of undergrad papers in which I uncover what I call “rhetorical abandonment”; students giving up on their arguments for one of several reasons. I discuss how students do this, why they may do this, and how we can use this discovery to (again) better teach paper-writing as a whole.

Later Became: Conference paper; Presented at the NJCEA annual conference 2010


Final Paper: “Act One Scene One: The Tabard Inn; Performativity and Theatricality in the Canterbury Tales”

A theatrical examination of the “Canterbury Tales” postulating that the Tales were, in fact, the first modern example of playwrighting.

Later Became: Conference Paper; Presented at the Virginia Tech Graduate Student Conference Jan. 2010; also became the basis for the paper which I presented at the University of Montreal’s Graduate Student Conference in Feb. 2010

Semester Two; Spring 2010

Studies in Satire

Midterm Paper: “Everything you Wanted to know About Dildo but Were Afraid to Ask”

An analysis of the Earl of Rochester’s Signior Dildo arguing that it is more pornography than lampoon.

Later Became: submission for 1st ever Rutgers Newark MA Publication

Final Paper: “Dirty Words: The Utilization of Graphic Imagery Within Satire”

An examination of the use and purpose of graphic imagery which runs rampant through (especially eighteenth century) Satire. Expectedly, I focused mainly upon Swift, Rochester and Voltaire.

Later Became: not much of anything due to the fact that I can’t present it to a professional colleague or especially mentor without blushing (I still have trouble looking Jack in the face because of this one).

Rhetoric of the American Revolution

Final Paper: “Obnoxious and Disliked”

An examination of the character of John Adams within the musical 1776 and his relation as a projected political personae within the play to his projected personae via letters, biographies and historical documentation.

Later Became: a bragging point that I actually got to write a legit academic paper about a musical.

Intro to Renaissance Literary Studies

Midterm Paper: “More Will than Will Serve”

A look at how Shakespeare uses the word “Will” in Sonnet 6, as informed by Erica Zilleruelo’s similar examination of Sonnet 135.

Later Became: A conversation starter. Will really loved his Willy.

Final Paper: “Walk Like a Man”

An examination of the roles of cross-dressing within The Merchant of Venice and As you Like It

Later Became: Not much of anything because there was almost nothing original about this paper. I really think I was running out of steam that semester…

Semester Three: Fall 2010

Science Fiction

Final Paper: “Let’s do the Time Warp Again”

Well, if you listened to my podcast earlier this week, you’d know exactly what this paper was about. So go listen! Go on!

Later Became: Conference Paper, presented at the first ever Rutgers Newark MA Consortium


Final Paper: “Beyond the Sea”

A discussion of the role of the ocean in “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”.

Later Became: the reason why I’m friends with my arch-nemesis. She’s my doppelganger and will likely be forced to kill me someday because we two cannot live in the same world. If you think I’m joking, ask Ben. He will (once again) corroborate the facts of the case.

Jane Austen

Midterm Paper: “Parlor Theatrics; Jane Austen and the Reader/Audience”

An examination of the role of theatricality within Northanger Abbey and the implicit suggestion that the book is more of a play script than novel. Also a defense of Catherine Morland as a theatrical character for an actor to play rather than a novelistic heroine.

Later Became: My PhD writing sample. Also hoping to publish this…

Final Paper: “Jane Needs More Brains”

A look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a piece of literature as well as the role of the Zombie within it. 

Later Became: Again, hoping to publish this.

Semester Four: Spring 2011

Research Sources and Data Technologies

Final project: research proposal based upon Kenneth Brannaugh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. That’s about all I can say about it right now. What? I’ve still got time!

Henry James

Midterm Paper: “Daisy Miller: Leading Lady”

A look at Daisy Miller as a character, a piecing-together of her role within the book as well as James’ play by the same name. Daisy has (notably) never before been assembled this way as a conglomeration of all the parts which James wrote for her.

Later Became: Proof that I could write a paper and study for an end-of-the-world exam from hell.

Final Paper: something about Gothic, "The Turn of the Screw", and "The Uncanny".  Again... I have time!!


Final Paper: An analysis of Macbeth as a Gothic piece. A lot of work has been done with this and Hamlet, but almost nothing about this and the cursed Scottish Play.

April 11, 2011

Podcast: Let's do the Time Warp Again!

You may or may not remember some mention of the first-ever Rutgers Newark MA Consortium a few months ago at which I gave a paper.

With the help of some fantabulous friends (THANK YOU MISTER WILKEY!), I have a recording of that talk that, in lieu of a post today, I would like to share with you.  For the record, that's my good buddy Ben giving the introductions and you can hear a guest appearance from the Best Professor Ever towards the end in the Q&A section (Jack Lynch, everyone).

Please enjoy!

(Linked to the title of this bog, click that and it should take you right to where you need to be.  Follow the yellow brick road, Dorothy.)

April 6, 2011

Dawn of the Dead

Right now, my life consists entirely of cocktail parties with dead white men.

Before you make the inevitable “I see dead people” joke, have a looksy at these sage words of wisdom from Mister Stephen Greenblatt:

"I began with the desire to speak with the dead.

“This desire is a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies, a motive organized, professionalized, buried beneath thick layers of bureaucratic decorum: literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans.”

Well.  I’m gettin’ my hooba-joob on.

In this last stretch of my MA, I have holed myself up in my tower and barricaded the door with library books.  I have been using my machete of focus to forge through the dense textual jungle of Henry James and Gothic and Shakespeare to put together the research that will quickly turn into the last three papers of my Master’s.  I have been questing for the grail.  I am tired and battle-sore, my arms are stiff from fighting (and typing!), and the burden of the scholarship weighs heavily on my over-tense traps.  I can see the finish, it’s right there, and it shines ever-promisingly in my near future as I reach towards it.  There’s a meadow with the sun of success shining down on comfortable beds of sweet grass where I can dip my feet in the cool pool of well-deserved summer laziness while the laurels of my degree make a nice comfy pillow.

I wish I could say that the process to getting there is glorious, but these dead guys are contentious!  Henry James and I are barely on speaking terms, Kenneth Branaugh keeps rearing his not-so-ugly head and challenging me to arm-wrestling matches, and my man Will looks benevolently and mysteriously over the wholes scene as if to say “you’re almost there, but not quite”.  Will’s Mona Lisa smile pretty much drives my existence as a scholar, and I love him for it, but for once I just wish he’d be clear and direct with what he’s telling me.

As a paladin of The Bard, I never expect him to give me real answers (at least not right away).  Searching for them strengthens my ties to my deity.  If the Red-Cross Knight had everything he needed from the start, he never would have gone questing.  In fighting with Will and the other scholars who interpret him, I’m coming to my own understanding of him.  It’s like finding Nirvana; even though it’s inevitably unachievable you have to keep working if you ever want to even vaguely understand it.

In addition, it’s the good fight that makes the hero in the end.  Dorothy had to walk the yellow brick road.  Alice had to fall down the rabbit hole.  It’s about growing, becoming stronger as a person, becoming more certain of your connection to whatever it is that drives you, learning yourself, you know, all that jazz.

But my god is wonderland tough and Oz isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  To make matters worse, I’m stuck in a general Bartleby-esque malaise and continually left wondering “how much work do I really have to do to get through this?”  I have a place in a program, I have funding, what would it really take for me to lose that?  With the coming of bright, sunshining weather and the promise of the impending move, I have so many things that I would much rather be doing than stuck in the ivory tower day after day.

Do you think a ouija board would help me write these papers?  Maybe I can convince the dead to speak for themselves… I wonder where one gets goats prepped for ritualistic sacrifice in New Jersey these days…..

April 3, 2011

What a Crazy Random Happenstance...

I’m not a highly religious person, but I am quasi-spiritual and I only believe in chance to a certain extent.

In his infamous essay upon the true nature of horror (“Dan Unheimliche” 1919; frequently translated as “The Uncanny”), Freud speaks about what it is in a certain situation which gives that situation a measure of eeriness, creepiness, or “uncanniness”.  He uses the example of a number (62, actually, though pity… he totally should have used 42… or Adams should have used 62… I digress) having no innate unusualness attached to it.  If one were to check one’s coat and receive the coat-check number “62”, it would hold no factor of eeriness whatsoever.  However, if one were to come across that number several times in one day, or repeatedly within one’s life, one would begin to feel a certain degree of strangeness attached to “62”.  If the number follows you, it’s a little uncanny.  And not just because of the idea that the number may be a creepy mouth-breathing stalker.  

So here’s my little uncanny anecdote, or rather series of uncanny anecdotes. 

To begin, we have to go way back to the dawn of Danielle.  Back when the Danielle you know and love today was a wee little Danielle (this, by the way, is a favorite story of my mother’s which she whips out at every possible opportunity so… if you’re coming to graduation dinner, expect to hear it.  HI MOM!).  This Danielle had no concept of space and the realities of it.  This Danielle loved animals.  This Danielle thought it would be a great idea to have an elephant for a pet.  This Danielle told her mother in as many words.  When told that the elephant would be too large and unable to fit in the house, this Danielle rationalized “but just a baby one!”.

Embarrassing story over, flash forward to the education of The Danielle.  The Danielle attended two separate high schools – the first a very large and well-funded college prep school where she felt utterly alienated from anything offered at the school itself, and the second a small under-funded inner-city public school where she felt that everyone understood her and she fit right in.  The first school’s colors were purple and white.  The second school’s colors were red and black.

Move forward again to the higher education of The Danielle.  The first institute of higher education which The Danielle attended (her undergrad) was a large, well-funded school where she felt utterly alienated from anything offered at the school itself.  The second institute of higher education which The Danielle currently attends (her Masters’) is a small, under-funded, inner-city public school where she feels that everyone understands her and she fits right in.  The first school’s colors were purple and white.  The second school’s colors are red and black.

The Danielle is now getting prepared to journey off unto what will hopefully be her final port-of-call in terms of her own formal education (though as a Professor she will never stop learning).  That institution’s colors don’t fit into the schema (brown and light blue… who the heck chose those anyway?) however, the mascot most certainly does.  Ladies and Gentlemen; The Tufts mascot:

 Yep.  I think Freud would agree with me when I say that things, in the end, always work out the way they’re meant to.