"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sad September

Badminton House & Landscape Garden
Gloucestershire, England


Dryham Park

two of the houses used as filming locations for the movie
The Remains of the Day

" 'I was so fond of that view from the second-floor bedrooms overlooking the lawn with the downs visible in the distance. Is it still like that? On summer evenings there was a sort of magical quality to that view and I will confess to you now I used to waste many precious minutes standing at one of those windows just enchanted by it' "

Miss Kenton writing to Mr. Stevens
in The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954)

If you're searching for a house where all is "accustomed, ceremonious," there is surely no place more so than fictional Darlington Hall as portrayed in this bittersweet novel -- as well as the beautiful film version produced by Merchant Ivory (I recommend both).

Stevens, the butler, and his father, the elder Mr. Stevens, are "indeed the embodiment of 'dignity' " (34), while the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, exemplifies order and decorum in all that she does. It may not be an entirely happy household, but it is unquestionably a well - ordered one. From their youth, Stevens and Miss Kenton have devoted the better part of their lives to the flawless execution of their duties, to the exclusion of all other interests and connections. Now middle - aged, they allow themselves the brief luxury of examining whether or not the years of rigid service have been spent wisely; of awkwardly questioning what the future -- the remains of the day -- might hold besides "emptiness":

"But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumable drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of 'turning points' one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never - ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable" (179).

And speaking of the sinking realization "that a dream can die," here are a couple of sad September poems by two of my favorite poets, Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay, both of whom I often quote (see last September). In these poems, each narrator has built a house for love but reaped only disappointment for her effort. Millay responds with bitterness, Teasdale with resignation.

That was August . . . this is September . . .

Sonnet #9
Here is a wound that never will heal, I know,
Being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
But of a love turned ashes and the breath
Gone out of beauty; never again will grow
The grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
Young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
Its friendly weathers down, far underneath
Shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
That August should be levelled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1901)
from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, 1923

That was noonday . . . this is midnight . . .

At Midnight
Now at last I have
come to see what life is,

Nothing is ever ended,
everything only begun,

And the brave victories
that seem so splendid

Are never really won.

Even love that I built
my spirit's house for,

Comes like a brooding
and a baffled guest,

And music and men's praise
and even laughter

Are not so good as rest.

by Sara Teasdale (1884 - 1933)
from Flame and Shadow, 1920

And in closing, a couple of sad September songs:

1. Crescent Noon, also mentioned on my daily blog a few months ago


2. September Morn, thanks to a timely reminder from a facebook friend.

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, October 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dolls in Literature

I like the American Express ad, where Tina Fey says that her "Most interesting souvenir" is "an Amish baby doll with no face." I wonder where she purchased hers? I found this pair at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, and my neighbor John Woodin photographed them for my book jacket:

"Why shouldn't we, so generally addicted to the gigantic,
at last have some small works of art,
some short poems, short pieces of music
[. . .] some intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things
in our mostly huge and roaring, glaring world?"

~ Elizabeth Bishop ~

A few months ago, I had the good fortune to reconnect on facebook with one of my former professors, Dr. Herman P. Wilson. Back in the 70s, I was enrolled in several of Herman's classes, such as History of the English Language and Structural English Grammar, as well as some graduate reading seminars in Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence.

Upon learning what I had been doing since my days as his student, Herman did me the great honor of going out of his way to purchase my book and read it from cover to cover, a feat -- let me tell you! -- undertaken by very few. He was then kind enough to send me his response, as follows:

Hello, Kitti--

Throughout all my teaching career, as I've watched some of my students working on graduate degrees, I've always wanted those students to "go beyond me." I wanted them to pursue studies of writers / materials about which I have little or no knowledge.

You have fulfilled my desires. For that reason I am grateful for the opportunity to read your work. The "doll" as a literary topic had never occurred to me. I like to explore such new topics as I see references to them. So you have given me both personal and professional pleasure.

You have produced a scholarly study, for which you have done extensive research to support the theories and ideas which you develop. I'll take a guess: is the work your PhD dissertation? Had I been on your PhD faculty, had you invited me to be one of your readers and explained your research plans, I would have responded, "Yes, I'll be happy to be one of your readers, but you will need to educate me as we work together on your research. I have limited knowledge of your topic." You have provided me some education on the "doll" in literature. I now have beginner's knowledge of your subject matter.

I've worked with many of your sources--Swift, Hawthorne, Lawrence, Hoffman, Mansfield, Yeats, Atwood, French, Hardy, and Atwood. I'm aware of and have limited knowledge of the "psychiatric, psychological, theoretical linguistic" writers--Rank, Freud, Eco, and Lacan. You have enhanced my knowledge of both familiar and non-familiar writers.

Your prose is well written, with ideas carefully supported, and has a pleasant mixture of serious academic topics and delightful human interest stories of the "doll" in our world and in literature. A beautiful bit of irony: yesterday I went to the grocery store. While waiting for my driver, I noticed a woman, holding one hand of a little girl, whose other hand clutched a little doll to her childish breast. Simple? Yes, but that scene made me think of you and the work I was reading.

Thank you for a new, pleasant, delightful experience. I remember you as a careful writer; my reading of your work has strengthened that memory.

Peace, joy, and happiness ~


Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of Herman's praise and the time he invested both in reading my entire book and in writing to share his thoughts. I will let his letter to me and my reply serve as today's blog post:

Dear Herman,

Thank you so much for reading my book! You have given me by far the kindest words, the highest praise, the most encouragement that I have ever received on that project, along with the support of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Leonard Orr. I was lucky to have him on my side; and you are so right -- if you and I had still been at the same institution, you too surely would have been on my committee and seen me through the long process!

At the first "guidelines for dissertations" meeting I attended at Notre Dame (Fall 1984), a rather uncheerful professor discouraged everyone in the room from attempting a "theme" study, such as "ships in literature" -- yes, that was the example he gave -- I have never forgotten! So I kept quiet about my "dolls in literature" idea, even though I had been longing to write a book on that topic, and slowly but surely amassing good examples, ever since reading The Women's Room back in 1978: Marilyn French's revealing image of the little Barbie serving as mother to the giant Baby doll had never left my mind.

I felt sure that doll imagery was powerful and important, but I began to doubt myself and fear that it was perhaps not a weighty enough topic for a dissertation, so I put the idea on hold and began casting about for a "single author" focus -- maybe Virginia Woolf? But nothing felt right and the time for submitting my proposal was drawing near (by now it was 1988).

Then, in a totally unrelated conversation, Leonard was describing his ideas for an article on animation, and I mentioned that one day -- in the distant future, after my dissertation -- I was going to write a book on dolls. He was astonished that I had never told him this before, for he had already been my advisor for several years. He asked me why I was struggling with research that didn't speak to my heart when all along I knew exactly what I wanted to do? I said, well, I thought maybe it wasn't important enough or academic enough, so I was hiding it under a bushel. He said, Nonsense! and loaned me Susan Stewart's amazing theoretical study, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection and Jane Gallop's fascinating collection of autobiographical criticism, Thinking Through the Body .

Although I wanted to focus primarily on "the miniature," Stewart's inclusion of "the gigantic" reminded me of a long essay that I had written several years before on Victor Frankenstein's urge to create in his own image. At the time, it had been well received by a couple of my professors; so I pulled this old paper out of my "saved" file and it became a chapter in my dissertation.

I had also written a shorter paper called "Gulliver in the Dollhouse" for an 18th Century class that I took at Notre Dame. I received only a "B" on that paper because the professor felt that the idea needed a "larger theoretical context." Well, perfect! I now had that "larger context" -- so the Gulliver paper became another chapter. I had studied Yeats' poem ("The Dolls") in Irish Literature, and the D. H. Lawrence story ("The Captain's Doll") undoubtedly came from one of your classes, Herman. So I had a solid rough draft almost instantly, thanks to all those earlier inspiring courses and paper topics.

I finished the dissertation in 1990 and then in 1998 did the editing (not too much really) to repackage it as a book. Thanks for listening to this saga, Herman. And most of all, thanks for reading my study of the doll with so much patience, for responding to it so thoroughly, and for always encouraging me in the seriousness of my work.




The Mystery of the Matryoshka: Within Within Within

Fun Fall Food!

The Miniature & the Gigantic

Memoirs to Read in the Summertime

And my list ~ Dolls in Literature
on amazon's Listmania!

And lastly, the voice of a skeptic in this recent article
concerning the value (or not) of dissertations.

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading