Monthly Archives: October 2015

Self-Betterment, Self-Destruction, or Scattered Thoughts About Heathcliff and Jay Gatsby

The staple of high school reading lists, and an enjoyable Gothic Romance, Wuthering Heights is a lovely walk through the moors, with a fascinating monster: Heathcliff. He has no last name, really. He is just Heathcliff, emerging from the clothes of a troubled nobleman like a fairy child into the house where Catherine and Hindley each respond to their resident monster. He is a monster, of course, because he is ugly, an orphan gypsy of dark complexion, and because he is a wedge that divides the family. Some members are accepting of him, and even love him. Others hate him, and would throw him out if they could.

The thing about Heathcliff that I find interesting is that in an American novel of a similar period of time, Heathcliff would be a hero, not a villain. He is the rags to riches story. He is the one who climbs up to the height of society until tragically, he loses his life and fortune in his vanity. With a different narrator, a different attitude, Heathcliff is a sympathetic figure of progress. In the society of Yorkshire, for example, no one ever tries to change their situation. The housekeeper and narrator is always a housekeeper, whether in one house or another, old or young. She never marries, never aspires. Even in old age, when she is handling the affairs of the family, she does so as a servant with no expectation of being a “gentlewoman”. The brutal farmer with a thick, near impenetrable accent, is always the worker on the grounds, regardless of who takes over the place. He is a servant, and remains a servant, and never aspires to so much as a new house to live in when the troubled owners battle alcoholism and violent despair. The world of Yorkshire is seasonal. It is cyclical. It is a brilliant summer day and brutal winter. The gentlefolk remain in their manors for generations. The serving folk and farmers remain, as well, as if breeds of wildflower instead of breeds of men, intermarrying and recreating a generation after another and another. Heathcliff, alone, attempts to rise in society from the orphaned, homeless boy left to die in the streets, into the leading landowner and gentleman of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. In his actions, he behaves in a manner quite like a nobleman should. He aggressively pursues landownership, rents from his tennants, and advantageous marriages. And, the community hates him for it all. They resent him, fear him, and cast aspersions upon him that may or may not be valid.

Certainly, during Hindley’s drunken rages, the nobility do not appear to be as noble as Heathcliff, who takes advantage of a terrible situation. In that state, Heathcliff would appear to be an improvement as a father figure for young Hareton, and eventually created a situation for Hareton’s success in marriage and life. The narrator of a different novel than the one written, with a different and more tolerant view of Heathcliff, would not have to abandon his failings to tell a success story that leads a man from the bottom of society to the top of it, re-establishing a healthy and united community in his own actions and demise. If he is a fae creature, and he might be, he is one that managed to root out and heal the community in a manner not unlike a wolf culling the lame and the weak to strengthen the flock. I prefer to think of Heathcliff as a spirit of the land, itself, a red cap or troll or fae, captured by the hand of man and left to wreak havoc in the household. In a story so rooted in ghostly apparitions, there is room for many readings of Heathcliff.

Compare him to Gatsby, if the supernatural comparison does not feel apt.  Gatsby, the self-made man who climbed to the height of society to impress a girl he loved, only to learn too late that she is lost to him. In the American story, he is a beautiful tragedy, pining always for the past, and the losses of the past. It drives him to great success (in a criminal undertaking, but success, nonetheless). The American version celebrates the audacity of a man who comes from nowhere. The established order of the wealthy are corrupt and wicked and their ability to shake away all the evil that comes as if throwing off a dirty jacket to reestablish the order of the day is a tragedy, not a happy ending at all. In the great book of American letters, all of society thrilled to be in the presence of Gatsby, a topic of gossip and admiration and desire, a blank canvas upon which the American Dream is painted of his past and future. In England, in the mid-nineteenth century, people fled Heathcliff in terror, castigated him, prayed for his comeuppance, and surrounded him with a wall of words and ideas that told him, repeatedly, that he did not belong. I picture Heathcliff at Catherine’s own, tiny birthday party, after her death, sitting alone by the fire, refusing to tell anyone what it was lest it be used against him as a weapon, eating an oat cake and toasting to her memory, while everyone around him tried to keep him down.

Heathcliff did monstrous things. But, one can read the novel and see how his nurturing pushed him to it. Gatsby also did monstrous things, and the narrator is so dazzled by the man that we only get word of them through the most veiled of innuendo and the association with monsters. Gatsby should be an anti-hero: a rum-runner, an adulterer, etc. Heathcliff should be a Gothic Romantic Lead, of darkness and ghostly apparitions in the moors. Instead, the nature of the narration alters how they are viewed by the reader.

This is the power of a narrative lens, perhaps. It creates a layer of culture upon which to view the events in the text, wherein the reader can interpret events per their own culture and ideation. It is also the unique nature of anti-heroes and tragic heroes to carry the confusions of a culture in the places where static segments of society are challenged by an individual who attempts to instigate change.

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This morning I was harvesting watermelons and juicing them, making a huge mess. I cut the flesh away and placed it in a blender, seeds and all. Then, after liquifying, I poured the juice through a simple strainer, to sift out the seed particulates. Then, I took these shattered seeds and tossed them into the compost.

If even one of these fragmented seeds germinates, the beginning of an evolutionary symbioses integrates the blender to the fruit. If I repeat this process enough years, enough times, with the seeds that survive blending, I will have cultivated a variety of watermelon that is inextricably linked to the technology of blending. In fact, at that time, if something changes in the future to my blender – a stronger blade, a sharper one – I could throw off the whole balance of evolutionary biology, and either create an even more blender-dependent seed, or a lesser one. I have an opportunity every season to develop and cultivate a symbiotic creature, dependent on the hand and tools of man to grow and set seed and grow again.

The closest known relatives to corn, in the teosinte family, include perennial grasses that grow in such a small area that conservationists are trying to preserve the genetic lines. Avocados and Sapote and other fruits similar to them seemed to develop to be eaten and digested by large, land-based mammals that have long gone extinct, and now people have stepped in to select genetic lines with qualities we favor. Breeding programs in the University of Arkansas have developed varieties of blackberry that are thornless, and still delicious to eat out of hand. Gene lines of species are crossing in laboratories, where new life forms are being created, developed for a series of technological techniques amenable to cultivation practices of today. If those cultivation practices change, if tastes change, if anything changes, so, too, will the crops change. We have changed, too. We entered a symbiotic relationship with cattle and sheep and goats when we developed the ability to digest lactose as adults, and continued to cultivate that symbiotic relationship.

Every time we walk on the grass, we destroy and create microscopic life forms we don’t even know exist. Every purchase we make influences global markets subtly in ways as obscure and hard to know as walking on the grass. We are creating a symbiotic future with every step. We are also being created into symbiosis. With our decisions, our failures, and the influence of the world around us, our lives are in a constant symbiosis with everything. A star sends light to us for a million years, catching this planet in orbit, and the very earth itself shifts into a dense fluctuating response to that star, and everything is connected in every possible way.

It isn’t something that really comes across in a story, but it is a part of every story that I write.

Choose your systems, choose your futures, create your ecosystem, and accept the way that everything will also reach in and choose you.

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Stay Frosty…

So, there’s this infamous organization out of Maryland, that for years caused a lot of pain and suffering in the world of books. I’ll refrain from mentioning them directly, because I know they’re suing people. Anyway, whether you love them or hate them, I know that lots of people are critical of the organization’s business practices, and I certainly don’t feel any love for their business models in the past. I don’t know what they’re doing these days, but the random e-mail I got left a pretty bad taste in my eyeballs.

I discovered that a very well known operation out of Maryland have actually changed their name into something new, and seem to be sending out lots of e-mails into the world offering to do free promotion at library bookseller events. Personally, free promotion sounds too good to be true. What is in it for the promoter? I suspect that this now renamed organization is trying to build a list of potential clients to milk for promotions that actually cost something. And, since it is coming from a fairly notorious organization, I can’t imagine their promotional activities will be any more effective than the soulless and clueless form letter that seems to be populating itself across the many comment sections and e-mail inboxes of the world of independent publishing. This operation does not have a reputation for effective promotion. Free promotion, done poorly, is worse than no promotion at all. It would attach one’s name and reputation to that organization.

So, let’s review: 1) Is it too good to be true? 2) Why is it free? 3) Does the address or name of anyone or anyplace involved smell fishy, for instance, like the same area that a notorious operation has their roots and lawsuits?

Maryland is an interesting place in the recent history of potentially exploitive, generally widely unliked publishing operations. I am immediately suspicious of anything out of Maryland, period.

I’m certain there are some people who are happy with this organization, and I’m happy for you if you are. But, wow, I don’t see how what I saw meets anyone’s professional needs, and you will not be able to convince me to change my mind on that.

Check everything that you aren’t 100% certain about over at the forums of, with Victoria Strauss of WriterBeware, and any number of watchdog groups. People who sue watchdog groups seem to misunderstand how to have a good reputation with watchdog groups: Be fair and just and non-exploitive in such a manner that people can find no fault in what you do.

It’s much easier to do that than lawsuits.

Consider yourself warned.

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Middle Earth and Narnia revisited

Recently, as much from curiosity and nostalgia, I did something I usually don’t do. I reread books from childhood that I actually didn’t like very much, even back then. I read both The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. About both, I have some thoughts.

For all practical purposes, the narrator might as well be the same kindly, old English professor. The voice of the narrator in both is so similar and so condescending to the reader and the characters – looking away at key emotional moments, and passing judgment on the happenings of the book from a position of omniscience – that it is very easy to lose sight of the actual events from the perspective of some of the “enemies” of both books.

The Goblins, who are presumably *EVIL*, are minding their own business when their mortal enemies show up well-armed at their doorstep. Then, their king is murdered. Then, more goblins are murdered. Then, there’s this battle of five armies where the goblins come out of the mountain to fight against the people that presumably assassinated their king quite suddenly and unexpectedly! The Goblins didn’t seem to do anything more evil than defending themselves and eating some horses, which is something that is actually done quite a lot in this world by lots of people. Even the dragon, though he is certainly not a good figure having conquered and defeated an entire kingdom to claim as his own golden horde, does seem to be doing what it is that dragons do, as these things are done. From Smaug’s perspective, all that happens is an unfortunate incident of thieves and troublemakers rising up against him and his claimed territories. I doubt he would describe himself as evil, only as draconic. At least, because he is an usurper and because he seems to be be a physical embodiment of the greed and avarice that plagues the dwarven hearts as well, I am less inclined to see Smaug as anything but the embodiment of a vice. As he is not truly a fully-realized character, to me, as much as he is an avatar of dwarven avarice, I can see Smaug, at least, in a certain metaphoric light, as an *EVIL* character. Still, the book is nominally about a nice, homely fellow embracing his true calling to be a burglar that instigates a war. As an adult, reading this text, I am not impressed by the morality and ethics, so to speak, in that the larger questions of the actions present in the text are ignored as if there is simply no question at all regarding the wickedness of the wicked, and the goodness of the good.

In fact, goodness seem to be a predestined thing. Characters are “good” at the moment of creation, and their failings of morals, like when Edmund eats the Turkish Delight or when the King of the Dwarves refuses to make peace with the elves and humans that were a huge help to him. They can be redeemed; of course they can. They are on the side of good, even if they have their momentary failures. But, no matter how noble or good the work and leadership of an orc or a wolf, there is no place for them in the future of the world, where their kind must be wiped away to make room for the good. This is empire’s ideology: A Christian tract for children that would see no redeeming qualities in the force that is deemed to be with the enemy; a epic retelling of a lost people (the dwarves were inspired by the Jewish people, who wandered the earth without a home in this time before Israel’s formation) that always presumes that some peoples are simply too monstrous to be permitted. Who inspired the orcs, I wonder? What race of man or beast inspired these goblins of the mountain? They speak, they have society, and they are no better or worse than elves, in their own fashion. Do they deserve the revulsion and destruction heaped upon them? The text presumes that enemy races are completely “Other” and will never reach the level of redemption that even Narnia offers her lost boys and trees. Evil is predestined. Once the text renders judgment upon you and your kind, whether goblin or spider or dragon, you are never permitted the possibility of redemption or power in a world that is designed for the wicked to be overthrown.

It is hard to think about that, and how these books are handed to every child in school, and there is still so much racism in our society, and our drones are dropping bombs on hospitals in a nation that is apparently full of the enemy and the enemy’s people and no one else.

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