ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Monthly Archives: December 2015

Excerpt from Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

The Dead, James Joyce’s famous story, takes place between New Year’s Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). It was probably written in 1904. Included as part of Dubliners, it is one of my favorite short stories. I often read it around the holidays.

2015 has been a particularly hard year. I offer the following impromptu reading from the opening page this New Year’s Eve as a way perhaps of seeking comfort and reassurance (or penance) for my own uncertainty.

In 1916 the Irish experienced a national uncertainty, with roots dating to Cromwell’s occupation. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter UprisingThe Dead, with its ghosts and melancholy, foreshadows this bloody event and the controversy over Irish independence. In Joyce’s story Molly Ivors calls Gabriel a ‘West Briton’ and asks why he doesn’t go cycling in Galway (where his wife, Greta, is from) instead of traveling to Europe:

“And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?”

“Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.”

“And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” asked Miss Ivors.

John Huston directed a film adaptation written by Tony Huston and co-staring Anjelica in 1987.



New Feature: Blog Audio Excerpts & Podcasts

I once attended a business meeting in which we were invited for our opinions on email. You know the type:  the ones in which everyone looks down at the table and waits for someone else to talk. I spoke up  to say there were too many of them and I thought they usually didn’t communicate anything much new. Afterward someone who heard me commented that I liked to hear myself talk. My manager at the time promptly passed the comment on to me. (Thanks, Buddy.)

The feedback got under my skin. Did I talk too much (that is, obliviously)? We’d been asked for our opinions. Years later, guess what? We still send and receive too many e-mails, and most of them are redundant. We send e-mails, tweets and texts when we should be talking. As far as hearing myself talk:  I embrace it. I’m an advocate of sharing what we have to say through stories and live conversation. Studs Terkel did it for forty-five years starting in the 1930s. This year’s Nobel prize for literature just went to Svetlana Alexievich for her work recording everyday stories of the Soviet and post-Soviet peoples. I added a link to my Linkedin profile update to an article in the Financial Times. Very cool stuff.

Advanced Labor and Cultural Studies will offer selected blog entries as audio recordings and podcasts. If you or anyone you know is blind or vision-impaired, or just wants to listen to what’s posted here, please point ’em this way. Here’s the first one from December 24th on Doctor Who. Let me know how it works for you — CDL

The Gospel According to Doctor Who

I’ve spent the days leading up to Christmas this year watching the The Doctor Who Takeover on BBC America. The Whos down in Whoville may like Christmas a lot, but when it comes to saving people in a world filled with merriment and mayhem, the Doctor they are not. The most recent incarnation features the grizzled Peter Capaldi (I’m Scottish! That means I get to complain!) saving people from themselves in between doing some serious ass-kicking involving villains and monsters.

The Doctor arrives as an alien in a strange land, into a world broken and under assault. Our rational, comfortable truths and assumptions no longer hold in a world mystifying sometimes even to those of us who live there. In the Whoniverse humans’ attempts to prevail are revealed as at the same time comically insufficient and profoundly heroic. Into this world, among all other worlds (which he visits occasionally), the Doctor emerges. He steps out of the Tardis after each regeneration born anew, marveling at his own existence.1

Legs! I’ve still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I’ve had worse. Chin. Blimey. Hair. I’m a girl. No no. I’m not a girl. And still not ginger.

The Doctor’s persona has evolved along with the show’s original black and white production from the original somewhat bewildered William Hartnell of the antediluvian 1960s through the googly-eyed Tom Baker, who played the character from 1974 – 1981. Before cable, before the dish, before the DVD, local advertisers sponsored a variety of regionally-produced television. The period witnessed a lot of idiosyncratic and just plain weird shows. I made the Doctor’s acquaintance around 1970 when the British-produced episodes aired on our local educational television station. The production values were low, the sets cardboard, the action stagey and stories elementary2. A doddering, white-haired, sharp-eyed and -tongued figure (and later a dark-haired curly-haired smiling figure with a scarf) encountered a variety of robots, time-space vortexes and alien beings, including Daleks and Cybermen.

Since 2005 and the reboot, the series featured younger charismatic versions of the Doctor, including ones played by former soccer star Matt Smith and David Tenant, along with a shadowy version played by thespian John Hurt (of The Elephant Man and V for Vendetta).3

The Doctor comes bearing a sword along with a fez, bow tie, sonic screwdriver and, most recently, an electric guitar, like a Gallifreyan member of the Rolling Stones. The clever bon mots, idiosyncratic fashion, antic disposition and timey-wimey whimsy belie the harsh world he and the characters inhabit. Friendships are betrayed. Lovers are separated. People die. The show depicts the Doctor as an advocate for threatened or downtrodden species throughout the universe. But humankind holds a special place in his two hearts.

The Doctor’s ambivalent nature underlies many episodes. ‘Am I a good man or a bad man?’ Capaldi’s Doctor asks in his debut with his companion Clara. Can good alone prevail over weeping angels, Davros and the Daleks and Cybermen – not to mention the Doctor’s nemesis The Master, and more recent incarnation The Mistress? The companions and other people around the doctor, like Christ’s Disciples, are usually ordinary people, unaware of their own power and significance. With the Doctor they achieve ordinary greatness4. .

The Doctor, like the Dude, abides5. Recent writing for the show has mainly been in the incomparable hands of Steven Moffat, OBE along with stints by others such as Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and the Sandman graphic novel series). The characters and plots have evolved far beyond the black and white original. Millions of fans worldwide frequent Doctor Who web sites and visit The Doctor Who ExperienceTM. . in Cardiff, Wales, where the show is filmed. Something must be working. That something, I think, is the ability of producer Russel T. Davies, along with Moffat and the whole ensemble to mine the myths that still underlie human experience and our search for meaning in the 21st Century. The Doctor is a trickster, a warrior and a sinner – and apparently a coy lover who snogged the Reverend Mother at the Church of the Papal Mainframe and got hitched to Marilyn Monroe – while chasing his paramour River Song through time and space in a cosmic version of An Affair to Remember.

‘I’m the Doctor, and I save people’ he declares, recalling his own purpose at crucial moments. He holds human beings accountable, but also cares about us deeply as individuals and as a species. This year, of all years, the winter darkness gathers, growing stronger each passing day, threatening hope. We wait for reassurance. Will the light prove stronger? As Doctor Who himself asks, ‘Who are you going to call?’6 It’s a story that has all the elements of birth, death and resurrection – and a savior who seems more human, more flawed and more accessible than we are used to. And that is one that we all need.– CDL

1As with Merlin in the Crystal Cave and Gandalf the Gray’s transformation into Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings.

2Compared to the glories of American color with laugh tracks and slick commercials.

3Who started off the franchise by slaughtering the members of his home planet Gallifrey to save the universe.

4The latter in the Cohen brother’s The Big Lebowski

5Donna and Wilfred, for example.

6Referring to Santa Claus, actually.  But you get the idea.

It’s a Wonderful Lonely Life

The search for community and love with our fellow human beings (at least the ones who are not trying to kill us) is a hallmark1 of the season. This accounts for the popularity of films such as It’s A Wonderful Life. Nevertheless, the effort to pathologize normal human emotion and behavior marches on. On December 1st the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a 3-million dollar CMU study funded by the NIH on ways to help older adults feel less lonely. In the same issue it reported a federal suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for improper incarceration of mentally-ill prisoners; including the use of solitary confinement. There is some connection here — or perhaps disconnection.

It is part of life to lose friends and loved ones through death, time and alienation. But apparently the way to address the problem in this age of connected isolation2 is no longer to have people who know and accept us to talk to us, pat us on the back, share a cup of coffee, kiss us on the cheek, or more (if we are romantically inclined). It’s to learn to meditate the loneliness away. Quoting David Creswell, the expert overseeing the CMU study, the Post Gazette states:

… the number of lonely older adults may be increasing, putting their overall health at greater risk, but the way to help them isn’t necessarily to connect them to more people.

The Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of psychology, funded with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health announced Monday, hopes that training people in better relaxation and coping techniques will reduce their perception of being lonely.

Each of us is wired with a different need and capacity for being alone. The solitude of Thoreau and Muir and eastern religious mystics is not for everyone. Indeed, in this hyperconnected age of crowdsourcing, solitude itself has become suspect. Therefore, it’s enlightening to know that a problem that philosophers like Buddha and artists from Nietzsche and Kafka to Van Gogh have struggled with for thousands of years is simply one of perception. 

You’d think the widespread adoption of social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter over the Internet would help. But, as Olivia Laing writes in The Future of Loneliness in the Guardian:

 … the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready

It can be difficult enough to endure or learn to accept loneliness if we are mentally whole and emotionally intact (a relative proposition). How much worse if we are imprisoned and isolated with schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Yet in the absence of community resources and adequate policy, the mentally ill are generally shunned by society3. Mentally prisoners who have completed their sentence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania often remain in jail. Some have been placed in solitary confinement.  

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania announced the suit Monday on behalf of Stephen Kline, 25, a onetime Allegheny County resident who now is an inmate at Mifflin County Jail; Gabriel Gamble, 30, a patient at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County; and Matthew Christy, 26, a patient at Warren State Hospital in Warren County… 

The suit claims the state does not have enough beds in community-care programs for all of those needing autism and mental health services — more than 1,000 are waiting — and that people in jails and state hospitals face special obstacles to community care.

In 2013, the Disability Rights Network sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that the state misused solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. The state took corrective action..

Literature and popular culture abound with references to the plight of loneliness: 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Alone Again, Naturally, Gilbert o’ Sullivan
Only the Lonely, Roy Orbison

Have we forgotten Robin Williams and his death only last year? As his character The World’s Greatest Dad states:

“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

We conveniently overlook the fact that gathering to celebrate the season of light and fellowship around the winter solstice originated in the need to to prepare for the long dark night together. Our hopes and fears is not just a phrase from a Christmas song. Can you identify the following excerpt from another holiday favorite?

When you’re alone, alone in the world…when you’re alone in the world.
Blown away leaves get blown in the world…swirled away leaves get swirled.
Listening to your heels as you walk, making a lonely clack.
You don’t know how it feels when you talk and nobody’s voice talks back

I challenge you to read or listen to this without feeling a tear coming on.

All Is Forgiven

In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey’s penury, loneliness and imminent arrest bring him to the brink of suicide. At the end of the film when hope is restored (along with the missing eight thousand dollars), George’s brother, Harry, toasts him as ‘the richest man in town’. Harry does not toast George’s mastery of meditation and relaxation techniques to cope with loneliness. He toasts the fact that George’s friends and neighbors gathered around him in his time of need. They didn’t update their Facebook page, send tweets and begin Kickstarter campaigns. They showed up. — DA

1With a small h.

3Often due to policies designed to protect their rights. Listen to the enlightening WESA 12/10 interview with PA Congressman Tim Murphy , himself trained as a mental health professional.

4Click the link to read and hear this song with lyrics by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill (who went on to write music for Funny Girl).

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