Tag Archives: English

Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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My 1000th Blog Post! – “King Lear” by William Shakespeare: An Exploration on Aging

Before I delve into my thoughts on Lear, I want to say thank you to all of you who have followed me, shared your comments, and encouraged me to continue with the blog. My goal is to keep writing for as long as there is interest.

Now, on to King Lear.

So I have read this play numerous times, and for me, it is right up there with Hamlet. There is so much depth in this text, and so much that could be explored. But considering that I am past middle age, the issues on aging were what struck me deepest during this reading.

In this play, both Lear and Gloucester suffer because they are old. There are two main forms of age-related suffering: suffering caused by bad decisions resulting from mental decline associated with old age, and suffering as a result of abuse from younger people who view the elderly as hindrances to their personal advancement.

Very early in the play, Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril recognize that their father is exhibiting signs of senility.

Goneril:

You see how full of changes his age is; the
observation we have made of it hath not been
little: he always loved our sister most; and
with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off
appears too grossly.

Regan:

‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.

Goneril:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

(Act I. scene i)

There is the archetype of the wise old man, but as Lear’s fool rightly points out, not all people who are advanced in years possess wisdom. Wisdom is gained during your younger years; but if you fail to seek wisdom in your youth, then you become a foolish old man.

Fool:

If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time.

King Lear:

How’s that?

Fool:

Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
been wise.

(Act I, scene v)

Regan starts to show her resentment against having to care for her father. As is often the case, when a parent ages and begins to require assistance, all the baggage, resentment, and anger from the past begin to surface (note that Regan is an anagram for anger).

O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong’d her, sir.

(Act II, scene iv)

One of the most powerful and symbolic scenes in the play is when Lear is cast out must face the storm.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

(Act III, scene ii)

The storm symbolizes Lear’s own inner turmoil, as well as the constant pounding of life’s challenges that eventually wear a person down. As he relives his mistakes, regret breeds a storm of chaos in his mind, which can no longer make sense of what is happening around him. He feels his last frail hold on sanity beginning to slip.

The tendency of the young to usurp power from the elderly is most clearly expressed through the character of Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son.

This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses; no less than all:
The younger rises when the old doth fall.

(Act III, scene iii)

This is still a part of our society. We all like to think we hold reverence for the elderly, but the fact is that neglect and abuse of the old is rampant. In addition, there is the subtle and insidious elder abuse which manifests as ageism in the workplace. Older workers are routinely passed over in favor of younger candidates, which only adds to the feelings of uselessness and despair that sadly accompany aging all too often.

When Lear is finally reunited with his Cordelia, his estranged daughter who he cast out, he realizes that he is nothing more than a foolish old man, and he humbles himself to ask forgiveness, because there is nothing worse than spending your last days bearing the weight of regret.

You must bear with me:
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.

(Act IV, scene vii)

Finally, after his wits are restored, Lear gains the true wisdom that comes with age. He begins to understand what is truly important in life: family, relationships, and simple pleasures.

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

(Act V, scene iii)

The play concludes with some advice which all of us should heed.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(Act V, scene iii)

We should never postpone speaking that which is in our hearts, especially to those who are dear to us. Because one day soon, before we expect it, we will be old, and the time to express our love for others will have passed. Do not allow fear or appearances to prevent you from telling someone how you feel. Missed opportunities are rarely retrieved.

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“Sonnet 35: No more be griev’d at that which thou hast done” by William Shakespeare

No more be griev’d at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

This is another of the Fair Youth sonnets. In this poem, the speaker is addressing a wrong which the young man committed against him. The sense that I get is that the speaker believes that the youth was not faithful, specifically from line 9 where he mentions “thy sensual fault.”

The most moving part of this poem, though, occurs in lines 11 and 12:

And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,

Here the speaker is expressing his inner conflict, which is such a human response to the pain of infidelity. On one hand, he is wracked with pain and anger, but on the other hand, his love and attachment is already prompting him to forgive. And it is this contrast, this inner struggle, which is the most powerful aspect of this poem.

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“Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare – #MeToo

I had not read this play since college, and it bothered me back then. But reading it now, in light of the whole #MeToo movement, it was even more infuriating.

This play is a “comedy,” not because it is funny, but because it ends with marriage (as opposed to a tragedy, which ends in death). It is definitely considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Merchant of Venice. It is a play that explores questions of justice, law, punishment, and mercy. But what is most problematic for me is the depiction of how women are sexually exploited by men in positions of power and authority.

Basically, what happens in the play is that the Duke of Vienna places all authority to enforce laws upon his Deputy, Angelo. Angelo is strict and supposedly steadfast, and the Duke claims he wants to test Angelo’s resolve. Angelo begins enforcing a long-ignored law sentencing people to death for having sex out of wedlock. His first example is Claudio, who has a virgin sister named Isabella. Isabella goes before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, and Angelo basically tells her he will only spare her brother if she agrees to have sex with him.

And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

(Act II, scene iv)

I won’t spoil the details of how everything plays itself out, but suffice to say that Isabella manages to save her brother and her virginity, with the aid of the disguised Duke. But that sets us up for what, in my opinion, is the most offensive part of this play—the very end.

Long story short, the Duke pardons people, measures out justice that seems to be tempered with mercy, and thereby reinstates order out of the chaos. But it is the Duke’s “pardoning” of Claudio that is the major issue.

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
He is my brother too: but fitter time for that.

(Act V, scene i)

Basically, the Duke is doing the same thing Angelo was doing, pardoning Claudio on the condition that Isabella giver herself to him. And while, yes, the implication here is that the Duke intends to marry her, it’s still not OK. He is still using his authority to get what he wants, taking advantage of a young woman, and even worse, not applying the scales of justice evenly to himself as to others (namely Angelo).

I don’t claim to know Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this play. Maybe he was making a critique against the patriarchal hierarchy, or maybe he was claiming it is OK to take advantage of a woman as long as you are “responsible” and marry her. But the fact is, in the 21st century, this attitude towards women is offensive, to say the least.

In spite of the gender issues in this play, it is still worth reading for the exploration of law, justice, punishment, and mercy. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the play. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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“It is a beauteous evening, calm and free” by William Wordsworth: Worshipping the Divine in Nature

Caspar David Friedrich

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

In this sonnet, Wordsworth expresses what amounts to a religious adoration of nature. He is on the beach at sunset, observing the sun as it sets into the sea. And while Wordsworth’s spiritual connection with nature is obvious by the words of worship that appear throughout the poem, there two lines which really emphasize how much he views nature as a manifestation of the divine.

In line 5 he writes: “The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea.” What is telling about this line is that the word “heaven” is not capitalized, therefore asserting that heaven is not the abode of the divine. But “Sea” is capitalized. This emphasis on the earthly contrasted with the de-emphasis on heaven suggests that Wordsworth believes God resides within nature, and not in some unreachable heavenly abode. And in the next line, he takes the metaphor even further, referring to the Sea as “the mighty Being,” implying not only that nature is the residence of God, but that nature is, in fact, God incarnate.

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“Sonnet 34: Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day” by William Shakespeare

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
’Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.
Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

While this poem is one of the “fair youth” sonnets, and is about some sin committed against the speaker by a person that he loves, for me, it has a more universal meaning.

I interpret this poem as a reflection on expectations. As humans, we cannot help but project about our future, and have expectations based upon those projections, whether we expect good or bad things to happen. It is rare, though, that our expectations are met. We are either painfully disappointed, or pleasantly surprised. In this poem, the speaker has strong expectations, symbolized by the promise of “a beauteous day,” but then the clouds of reality and disillusion set in, blotting out his fantasy. It is a feeling I suspect we can all relate to. I know I certainly can. Expectations usually lead to disappointment. I try to avoid them as best I can.

Thanks for sharing in my musings, and have a blessed day.

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