ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Category Archives: Literature

Not So Creative Commons

Many of us rely on the efforts of musicians, actors, painters and filmmakers these days to entertain us and fill the hours inside. Yet posts and articles abound lately about the challenges artists face finding forums for their work and getting paid. In a putative free-market economy, many of us take it for granted that musicians, artists, actors, writers and others of the creative class will continue to produce original work for the rest of us to be entertained and edified by, all the while struggling to pay their bills.

theatre-masks-drama-comedy-illustration-260nw-1266071665

Beyond this, there is the question of censorship. It is one thing if authorities in Hong Kong, or Moscow or even Washington D.C. take action to limit free speech. It is another if artists censor themselves, Creative expression depends on a willingness to confront uncomfortable, even politically-incorrect truths. The United States especially, like other liberal democracies, prides itself on a tradition of free speech without fear or reluctance to address difficult issues. Writers and artists produced work even under the emperors in ancient Rome. In the present polarized environment, this has become problematic.

Please see the following message from the director of a theater group canceling a sketch comedy performance on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Critical points are in bold. For the record, the performance parodied both candidates, as well as other political figures (including someone whose name starts with ‘P’ in Russia). The writer made the requested revisions. The reason given for canceling was not the quality of the script, but that the performers were not comfortable with the subject in the current political climate. We are all living with the results of the election. We’ll never know the consequence or worthiness of the performance.  — DA

11/9/16: 11-19 Opening Sketch Post-Election

Thank you for sending the updated script of the sketch and everything – I’ve read over it and like it a lot with the adjustments.

Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a mess here. My actors are protesting performing the sketch. They are not comfortable doing anything Trump related currently, and are saying that they will not perform in the show if we perform said sketch.

As a producer, this is a really hard call for me. I love working with new and local artists and also the time that we have devoted to doing the sketch already, I would want to put it up on its feet to showcase your writing/work with all of the hard work and thought you put into it.

Due to the circumstance that I am in, combined with the issues with my actors/performers, we may have to put this sketch on hold and not perform it in November.

I apologize sincerely with this news – it feels as though it is the safest one to make currently. We would love to possibly have another sketch for another month in the future, though, that we could possibly do. I will be the one, if needed, to post on social media or any other source stating that we won’t have the sketch, but I doubt that it will be necessary.

Please let me know possibly if you have a sketch or anything you’d like to put up for December or January – that would be the best bet and I am sure after a month, things will have cooled down a bit since at least some time has passed.

My sincerest apologies and best,

On Wed, Nov 9, 2016 at 5:05 PM ___ wrote:

Please see attached first take allowing for the Donald’s election. Starts page 14. I’ll work up another ‘just a dream’ version. I’ll send tomorrow and we can decide.

You familiar with the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?   The BBC radio version from the late 70s/80s is is online and is outstanding .

Remember: Don’t panic, and always carry a towel.

What Goes Around —

— Seems to comes around again eventually. Before Nickle & Dimed, there was George Orwell’s Down & Out in Paris & London on the plight of the poor in the 1920s. While ‘sheltering’, coping with lockdown puritanism, and hoping you can pay your bills, you can listen to Down & Out, plus Orwell’s other work, courtesy of BBC Radio. – DA

The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.’

‘What a good idea! I should never have thought of it.’

‘Well, you got to take an interest in something. It don’t follow that because a man’s on the road he can’t think of anything but tea-and-two-slices.’

‘But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things—things like stars—living this life?’

‘Screeving, you mean? Not necessarily. It don’t need turn you into a bloody rabbit—that is, not if you set your mind to it.’

‘It seems to have that effect on most people.’

… ‘But you don’t need to get like that. If you’ve got any education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life.’

‘Well, I’ve found just the contrary,’ I said. ‘It seems to me that when you take a man’s money away he’s fit for nothing from that moment.’

‘No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here”‘—he tapped his forehead—’and you’re all right…’

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933

Life in a TB Sanitorium: Two New Episodes

We’ve posted two new readings from an ongoing work-in-progress we’re sponsoring about a young woman diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1950s.

Episode 5: The White Rabbit and a New Friend.

Latest Episode: Francine.

Please click to hear previous episodes on the project page.

The Machine Stops

Readings from E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909). Created for the ALCStudies project on Technology in Literature & Popular Culture.

The Plot Thickens

Always something, in fiction as in life.

Please see new installments posted for Tuberculosis in the 50s (Sponsored Fiction):

3. Leaving Behind the Present
4. The San

Looking for a title. Anyone interested in doing this as a graphic novel? Netflix series?

Let’s be careful out there. – DA

Open to the Good

An update from one of our associates in Latin America. – DA

The C-virus put the hammer down like Thor in the Vikings series for the time-being on plans to go RV-camping in the U.S.. So we are are focusing on plans closer to home. Very close. Not only are flights out restricted, I’m told we are restricted from even going outside our apartment, pending a three-hundred dollar fine and arrest. So we do exercises and yoga, drink wine, fix good food, read and watch Netflix. Sex gets a pretty good thumbs-up, too.

IMG_20200318_134311377

Chana Masala, in Case You Were Wondering (And we have to replace those place-mats.)

IMG_20200318_201428752

Sincere experts and virtue-signaling harpies on the web give us advice to focus on the positive – exhorting us to breathe, eat and improve ourselves to make a gift of our enforced isolation. At the same time social media has given rise to a cottage industry emphasizing the current mayhem of the world and pushing our fear buttons. This is nothing new, as evidenced by Old Testament fixations on blood and revenge, prognostications revealed to the Greeks in the intestines of animals, murder and alarm in the penny press of Dickens’ day and the Hearst papers’ yellow journalism. Human beings love a good disaster, real or presumed. It makes us feel virtuous if we survive.

I refuse to be guilted or shamed for acknowledging what is in front of my face based on fifty-plus years of experience. And honestly, the hype and continuous doom-saying vying with those preaching unthinking optimism in these latter days grows a trifle boring. A therapist I visited a few years back when I was in the midst of darkness gave me advice I cherish every day: try to remain open to the good. So here goes.

After a few false starts I found a gig teaching conversational English for non-native speakers. Teaching draws on my background in education, theater and writing. More than that, I enjoy it. It allows me to get paid for bullshitting part of the time.1 One of my students is a young man about my son’s age. I’ll call him Juan. Juan runs his own IT consulting business and is good at what he does. His customers include banks, businesses and government agencies. Juan often texts me saying he’s running a few minutes behind, which is pretty de rigueur  for business owners. We’ve developed a good rapport that includes being flexible on time.

I bring in exercises Juan and I work on covering diction, pronunciation and fluency. English is a weird amalgam of Latin and German with a few other languages thrown in. Juan, who has a Ph.D. from a business school in Italy, often has specific questions on expressions and idioms. We have fun tracking down word origins and meanings. His questions often prompt me to draw on outside resources on the web and elsewhere. Apparently there was a reason for my reading Partridges Etymological Dictionary twenty years ago. I also get to practice diagramming sentences, something I actually enjoyed in school.

English may be lingua franca for business (for now), but English is not simply English. Juan conducts conference calls with customers in the U.S., Canada, the UK and India, as well as Brazil and Argentina. His English reading and writing skills for emails and business documents are excellent. But sorting out what is being said and expressing ideas verbally over the phone, with different accents and often without the benefit of facial expressions and body language, can be a challenge. So we focus on his enunciation as well as listening skills.

Juan surprised me early on by telling me he was interested in children’s stories rather than simply business English and technical jargon. He wants to help his two young daughters as well as help his business. So we’ve added Dr. Suess and Beatrix Potter into the mix. My mother read books by these authors and others to my brothers and sister and me when I was a kid. I, in turn, read them to my two children. Reading aloud confers a special bond. Wordplay and rhyme allow the gift of quality time and interaction between parents and kids.2 I’ve talked to my mother about this and thanked her. I’m honored to pass the gift on.

###

1Thanks to Andrew Hearle at Stagemilk for encouragement and ideas.

2See Walter Ong’s, Orality & Literacy, as well as Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.

2nd Installment: Tuberculosis in the 50s

Please see (hear) the second installment from a new fiction work-in-progress we are sponsoring. Thanks. – DA

Audio File: Tuberculosis in the 50s (New Fiction)

Coronavirus today; AIDS in the 80s. Through the 1950s people were afraid of the white death, AKA tuberculosis. Please listen to the initial installment from a novel in progress submitted to us about a young woman diagnosed with the disease.

This is read by one of our staff. We are considering it for possible audio serialization. For more information on TB, please see Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor.

Thanks for visiting. — DA

 

On Volunteering at Quillette

Please see a new essay published by our Director of Outreach, Chuck Lanigan, at Quillette, titled Something for Nothing — the Importance of Mindful Volunteering . — DA

Tolkien’s Legacy

Please enjoy the following long-form piece by a member of the ALCStudies team. Happy holidays. — DA

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Legacy to the Modern World

Courtesy Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net)

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien released this past year1 reinforces the relevance of his life and work in our modern (or post-modern world). Tolkien conceived the creation of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, which he initially wrote for his children and published in1937. The final book of The Lord of the Rings followed in 1954. The film focuses less on Tolkien’s writing than his life, but gives insight into the evolution of his ideas.

Tolkien was caught up in the forces of industrialization and global conflict during his childhood and adolescence. In the second decade of the 20th century these culminated in a war devastating and profound. Rather than being a war to end all wars, the First World War, the 100th anniversary of whose end we observed recently, unleashed a conflagration of economic, technological and cultural forces that few understood then and which we fail to understand today at our peril. It raised the curtain on the carnage and brutality of the last century and the one in which we live now.

Tolkien and his boyhood comrades served in the trenches where artillery, high explosives, aerial warfare, gas and machine guns shredded bodies, maimed souls and devastated minds. The trauma the war and its aftermath inflicted on the soldiers and the populations on both sides led Sigmund Freud to question the value and prospects for western civilization.2 It is not too much to say that Tolkien and his companions, along with the populations of most of Europe, never knew what hit them. Their lives were divided forever by their experiences.

The comfort-loving hobbits encounter similar threats to their existence. The Lord of the Rings is set in the fictitious land of Middle Earth inspired by Tolkien’s study of Old English, Norse and Anglo Saxon myth and language. The Catholic-raised Tolkien claimed his story of the one ring was not an allegory, as opposed to his Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s Christian-influenced Narnia series. But given The Lord of the Rings’ mix of good, evil, ambition, sacrifice and loss, it’s hard not to see at least allegorical elements.

My two friends and I read the series starting when we were twelve, when it was popular on college campuses and in communes across the country. On the threshold of adolescence and just beginning to confront the complications and realities of the adult world, we were enthralled by the story populated by elves, wizards, dwarves, men, goblins, orcs and hobbits confronting dark forces beyond their understanding and control looming beyond the the Shire. While our other friends were playing cops and robbers and army (somehow still innocently in the Vietnam war era), we created our own fellowship, undertaking quests among the mountains of central Pennsylvania as our stand-in for Middle Earth while quoting passages and dialogue from the books,.3

Tolkien’s legacy resonates today in contemporary games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Peter Jackson’s film interpretation and in television shows such as Game of Thrones.4 Tolkien did not originate the archetypes and mythology these contain of course. From creation stories told around campfires to the Greek’s Odysseus to the Wizard of Oz, books and stories have always allowed us to escape or at least re-frame our experience to make it bearable through narrative. But long before film, television and web technology commodified the process, Tolkien tapped into a visceral desire among his readers to undertake heroic quests and inhabit a secondary world of their imagination.5 In our ostensibly civilized, rational, enlightened and data-driven age, the popularity of television shows such as Game of Thrones, online gaming sites, sword and sorcery graphic novels, films such as the Matrix and Bladerunner and fan fiction sites reflects a persistent yearning to connect to some human part of ourselves and transcend the world that often disappoints. Many of the people involved in developing and promoting the Internet came from the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s and were influenced by The Lord of the Rings.6 As our lives today seem ruled by obscure forces and impersonal algorithms, our souls threatened with being reduced to a series of data points solely for the profit of others, often hidden from us, it is perhaps useful to revisit the tale of the one ring again.

Steeped as he was in Edwardian education ranging from Greek and Roman classics to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it’s easy to think of an orphaned young Tolkien creating scenarios that allowed him to prevail against dark forces and vanquish his grief. The trauma of the trenches, the loss of his friends and a bucolic way of life, preceded by the loss of his parents confronted Tolkien with an almost unbearable reality. After 1914 the trauma was compounded tenfold. The world he had known was gone, along with childhood friends killed. His relationships with his friends and remaining family were immeasurably altered. It is a cliché by now to say that soldiers enduring combat have difficulty relating to others who don’t share their experience. But you don’t need to have an official diagnosis of PTSD (Shell Shock) to be affected by the constant stress of battle and witnessing your companions blown to bits.

Perhaps Tolkien and his surviving comrades felt in the aftermath, as Bilbo tells Frodo, their spirits ‘stretched ‘ like butter scraped over too much bread’. The Lord of the Rings (and before it the Hobbit, along with The Silmarillion) where forged in the smithy of Tolkien’s soul as an anodyne to his pain and confusion as a survivor of the 20th century’s opening apocalypse.

My two friends and I had no clue of this when we read the books in the early 1970s. While the generation ahead of us occupied themselves with the Vietnam War, accelerating changes in technology, the environment, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and opportunities provided by protests, drugs and sex, we found a more youthful and innocent escape from the anxieties of adolescence. We inhabited a world filled with swashbuckling heroes carrying swords such as as Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, and of course Gandalf, along with elvish queens and princesses such as Galadriel and Arwen. We could have found worse inspiration to counter the excesses and incipient narcissism around us. Many since have found solace in the books’ mix of Christian moralism, ancient mythology, and presentations of chivalry. Maybe that accounts for The Lord of the Rings’ persistent popularity as a best-seller.

In creating the tale of the Hobbit’s journey there and back again in the mythic Middle Earth, Tolkien undertook a personal journey to expunge the horrors of the war. This allowed him to live his life in England with a wife and family with a measure of peace and acceptance. Like the hobbits,Tolkien and his comrades were small, seemingly powerless beings caught up in events beyond their understanding that challenged their capacity to endure, let alone survive.

The story resonated with college students, professors and others in the 60s and 70s beset by rumors and realities of war, clashes between East and West, and threats of Armageddon. Tolkien’s tale of life in the Shire is filled with gardens, second breakfasts and parties. Their existence is interrupted by distant events that threaten the occupants’ bucolic way of life: a ring, a wizard, rumors of disquiet and revelation, forces and visions, machines and technology and the passing of an age.

Today in a reality increasingly of our own construction, our individual and collective fantasies provide an alternative to a world that daily challenges our capacity to understand or endure it. We seek refuge in our own private secondary worlds, spending time in social networks and in possession of smartphones and other technology that reflect a narrow slice of reality to suit our desires. These representations are not always benign. Many appeal to our herd instinct and need for reassurance in return for our uncritical allegiance to an organization, group or ideology.

We are caught between those who would unleash dark forces to control the world in their own image and the quest to preserve our humanity7. Perhaps we are more like Saruman, the foolish wizard, than Sauron, the manifestation of evil who seeks to bring all of Middle Earth under his thrall. Saruman possesses the craft and desire to rival his nemesis. But he falls prey to o’erweening ambition similar to the Greek’s hamartia.8 He becomes himself possessed by the will to power, drawn into Sauron’s circle and seduced.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In The Lord of the Rings good ultimately prevails. The ring is cast into the ancient fire of its origin. The old world passes away and a new world emerges through the combined efforts of former enemies — the peoples of Middle Earth. But as with Tolkien’s wartime experience, no one escapes unscathed. The one ring corrupts those who wear it9, testing the will of the most noble and brave. It causes the breaking of the Fellowship and the death of one of its members. Frodo, the protagonist, receives a permanent wound: The portion of a Morgul10 blade pierces his flesh and makes its way toward his heart. The wound would prove fatal to his soul except for the ministrations of Aragorn and the elf-queen Galadriel. The pain flares yearly on the anniversary of its receipt.

Far from being a book for children,The Lord of the Rings presents an adult tale of suffering, hope and redemption. People die and don’t return. Frodo, Bilbo Sam and the others don’t simply move on with the right therapy, medication and a positive attitude. They are permanently altered, even damaged, by their experiences. At the end of The Return of the King, the final book of the series, Frodo and Bilbo leave Middle Earth forever with Gandalf and the elves at the Gray Havens.

Whatever Tolkien’s original intent, The Lord of the Rings contains elements of allegory still relevant to our own age. The ring itself is being re-forged by those who would obey only the power of technology. Saruman has incorporated as a consultant, headquartered at his tower of Orthanc – offering his dark satanic mills and workforce of orcs, half-men and goblins for offshore manufacturing. The dark riders are abroad, sowing fear and distrust on social media. Each of us carries our own personal palantir which draws our gaze and through which we are gazed at by the unblinking eye of consumerism.11 Anyone who attempts to assert their agency and think critically about the world we are creating risks being labeled of subversive or malcontent.

The Lord of the Rings reminds us there are consequences to dedicating our efforts solely toward the unchecked machine of progress. We surrender our peril those small gardens of humanity where love and laughter flourish and are shared, where we are free to enjoy elevenses and birthday parties. It was a world Tolkien grew up in and enjoyed before war destroyed it. But of course that was just a fable. — CDL

# # #

1Tolkien, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019

2Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930

3Including naming specific geographic features of the terrain after those in the LOR, such as the Carrock.

4Often unacknowledged

5Tolkien wrote about the appeal of such secondary worlds and standards for their success or failure in his essay On Fairy Stories.

6Tim Berners-Lee, a co-developer of the ArpaNet and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and current promoter of trans-humanism, to name two.

7See David Noble’s, The Religion of Technology; The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, 1997

8Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartán, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

9Even, significantly, those who would use its power for good.

10Signifying the black arts, sorcery or necromancy. (Tolkien Gateway).

11See Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism ( “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (March 2015)

%d bloggers like this: