Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore - revered Indian writer, poet, songwriter

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching World Literature 2 is learning about fascinating worldwide authors.  I enjoyed learning about Tolstoy and Chekhov (he's next week), and I especially enjoyed learning about Rabindranath Tagore.  Say his name to an Indian and see a face light up!  Every Indian friend/colleague I told about our class studying Tagore immediately smiled and shared their own knowledge.  I thank Christina for her insights and links to songs and information!
Tagore was born in 1861 and died in 1941, so lived a long life full of creative writing.  He attended several schools, including University College in London.  Tagore corresponded and met with such illustrious peers as Mahatma Ghandi, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein!  He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for Gitanjali.  He also wrote the national anthems for both India and Bangladesh.

Born when Britain controlled India, he embraced his Indian identity and the Bengali language, writing in Bengali, but often translating his own work into English.  Tagore wrote eight novels, and hundreds of songs and poems. Finally, he founded a school - Shantiniketan - at which students learned outdoors, as he felt they should be exposed to nature and the change of seasons.

For this special day in class, I wore a lime green Punjabi (thanks Ruby) and played Tagore's music as the class worked on the quiz.  After teaching them a bit about Tagore, we dove into the short story he wrote, Broken Ties.  I regret to write, this was not their favorite reading of the semester.  I think they found it hard to understand.  To fully understand this work, a deep understanding of the history of India, and of Hinduism, is necessary, and we didn't have time for that in one class period.  Broken Ties highlights the stark contrast between "Westernized" atheists and devout Hindus.  The two main characters, Satish and Srivlas, begin as confirmed atheists, but when Satish's atheist uncle dies, he becomes a devout Hindu, following a swami and eventually becoming a mystic in his own right.  These two men embody the extremes in Indian culture. The story has a lot of layers, and symbolism -- their house is literally divided in half, with the atheist brother living in one half, and the Hindu brother in the other half -- symbolizing the divided nature of many Indians under British rule.  The women in the story play an important, though secondary, role, and both die. Broken Ties has been described as a "complex exploration of the contradictions and ambiguities within Indian culture."

Although the class did not fully embrace the story, they did enjoy the music!  Here are some links to songs by Tagore.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

King Leopold's Soliloquy 

Look at these maps.  The one on the left is a map of Africa before the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.  The one on the right is a map of Africa after representatives of 13 European countries and the U.S. met in Berlin, with a map of Africa on the table before them, and not a single African person present, and decided among themselves which countries would be "given" what territories.  "The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy, acquisitiveness during a period when Europe's search for minerals and markets had become insatiable" (Blij and Muller).
When I teach literature, I feel it necessary to share the historical context of the text, greatly increasing students' understanding. So before we discussed "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a pamphlet written by Mark Twain in 1902, wherein he puts words in King Leopold's mouth, I taught the class about the "scramble for Africa" and explained how one person, King Leopold, came to own over 905,000 square miles of prime land in Central Africa - the large red-shaded land in the middle of the map on the right.

"King Leopold's Soliloquy" is similar, in some ways, to "A Modest Proposal," in that Twain wrote the satirical pamphlet to alert the world to the atrocities being committed by King Leopold in Congo.  He had promised to bring education, health care and Christianity to the Congo, but what he did bring was enslavement, oppression and death.  Over a period of about 20 years, over 10 million Congolese died.  The majority of my students had never heard of King Leopold or what happened in the Congo.

The actual pamphlet is very well written, in typical irreverent, unapologetic Twain style.  The reader learns all about what King Leopold has done, supposedly from King Leopold's own mouth (through Twain).  He even incorporates primary sources, reports from missionaries who are trying to help the Congolese, and eyewitness accounts from others.  After we discussed the text, a Kenyan student shared his personal insights into the effects of colonialism in Kenya.  That personal, first-person account was enlightening.

We also read a short letter by George Washington Williams, an African-American author, soldier and legislator who traveled to the Congo to see firsthand if King Leopold was truly helping the Africans.  Williams met first with King Leopold in Belgium, and the king tried to dissuade Williams from traveling to the Congo.  Pretty suspicious, wouldn't you say??  When Williams' highly critical first-person account was printed, King Leopold staged an aggressive attack against Williams, vilifying him in the press.  I read an incredible article in the New York Times in 1891. The illustrious New York Times believed the character attacks, and thus Williams' true account of what happened in the Congo was not believed, and millions more Congolese died over the next ten years.  Williams died shortly after returning from the Congo, at the young age of only 42.  He is a pretty fascinating guy -- and may end up in one of my books in the future.

So my students learned  a bit of history, literature, and politics.  It was a great class.  Next week is the poet laureate of India -- Rabindranath Tagore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Emancipation of Women

Last week we studied four female authors, from different countries, all of whom lived in the 19th century.  All the characters in the stories/poems suffered oppression of some kind, usually at the hands of the men in their lives.

Born in Galicia, Spain, Emilia Pardo Bazan (1852–1921) was the only child in a well–to–do family. žAt age sixteen, Pardo Bazan entered into an arranged marriage with José Quiroga, a law student.  They were separated in 1885, reportedly because of the controversy surrounding Pardo Bazan's writings.

We read Bazan's story entitled "The Revolver."  In the short story, a pretty young woman marries an older man, and they have a happy first year together, until the husband becomes irrationally jealous.  He tells his wife he will not bother her about where she goes and what she does, but if she makes any move he mistrusts, he will take his revolver and shoot her in the head.  As you can imagine, she lives on eggshells and her health suffers.  Her husband dies four years later and she discovers there were never any bullets in the gun -- no solace to her broken heart.
Our second reading was by Higuchi Ichiyo, žBorn in Japan (1872-1896) she died young, at age 24, from tuberculosis.  žHer ‘realism’ has a distinctly Japanese tone.   žHer father was a peasant farmer, but bought a place in the Samurai class.  Her story, "The Thirteenth Night," is about a night when the Japanese watch the moon, and a young wife, Oseki, leaves her oppressive husband and son and comes home to her parents. As she describes the emotional, verbal abuse heaped on her by her upper-class husband, her mother sympathizes with her -- but her father convinces her to return to her husband.  He is wealthy, and has secured a job for Oseki's brother, and respect for her parents.  She must do her duty, even if it means suffering, for the sake of her family.

       The third author we read and studied was Rassundari Devi, born in the Bengal region of India in 1810 (date of death unknown).  She wrote the first autobiography by a Bengali woman, titled Amar Jiban.  The title character is married in a Hindu ceremony when she is just 12 years old, and is torn from her family to go to her new husband's family home.  She is terrified and unhappy at this abrupt change in her life.  Interestingly, the husband is largely absent in the story.
       Finally, we read about Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. Emily Dickinson lived in a self-imposed exile for the latter years of her life, and wrote almost 2,000 poems.   Here is the poem we attempted to understand:
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Forgive my absence.  We had spring break last week, and an online class started this week - so I've either been resting or really busy!

Before the break our class tackled The Death of Ivan Ilych.  One of my students asked me pointedly, "are all our readings going to be depressing?"  That's an appropriate question, especially considering next week we are reading about King Leopold and the atrocities he committed in the Congo.  I am actually restructuring the latter part of the semester and adding a few lighter texts, to take the edge off the heaviness of the readings.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, in a nutshell, is about a Russian Bureaucrat who does all the right things.  He works as a legal official, and moves up the career ladder.  He marries a woman he is attracted to initially, but does not love, and they have several children, three of whom die.  The death of these children is treated in a matter-of-fact way, and his slight attraction to his wife ended with her first pregnancy.  Ivan began to spend more and more time at the office and playing bridge with friends, and less and less time at home.  He observed his duties, but there was no love expressed to his family, or even to his friends.
Then he is awarded a promotion.  They prepare to move into a new home, and Ivan spends much of his time, energy and money decorating the new home.  He falls from a ladder while hanging drapes, and injures his side.  Initially it seems like nothing, but the pain in his side steadily worsens, and within several months is it the cause of his death.

Tolstoy's family
Ivan's illness is treated with unconcern by his wife and daughter, and friends.  Only his servant Gerasim cares for him and acknowledges the severity of his illness.  Ivan comes to the terrible realization and it occurs to him that "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done . . but how could that be, when I did everything properly?"  (Tolstoy, Ivan Ilych).  Despite living a life of duty and propriety, he realized at the end of his life, that he should have lived in a very different way.  In the end he reconciled himself to his fate, and died joyfully, knowing he was releasing those around him and freeing himself from suffering.

We had a great discussion in class about what's important in life, the choices we all have to make, the relationships that are vital to us, and the people who will be there when we die.  We talked about the themes of isolation, happiness, modernization and lies and deceit.  I had the class write their own epitaphs, and though I wish we had more time, they did a good job.  The exercise reminded me of one of Stephen Covey's Principles of Highly Effective People -- keep the end in mind.

Count Leo Tolstoy
Before we discussed the book, I did a brief overview of Leo Tolstoy and his life.  He was a fascinating man--as are all the authors we are reading.  Tolstoy wrote the classics War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy did his share of carousing in his youth, but experienced a religious conversion of sorts when he was older.  He rejected traditional orthodoxy, and created his own version of Christianity, based largely on the Sermon on the Mount.  Tolstoy influenced many world leaders, including Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Many came to visit him and learn from him.  At the end of his life, Tolstoy left his wife, got a train, and took it to the last stop.  He died shortly thereafter at the station master's house.  There is a movie about his life entitled "The Last Station." 

Tolstoy's ideas about how to live are worth emulating:

  •       Live simply
  •       Abstain from tobacco, alcohol
  •       Practice chastity and vegetarianism 
  •       Live by the principles of love, truth, and peace.
  •       Reject violence and government
  •       Live by 5 rules    –Love enemies    –Do not be angry    –Do not fight evil with evil    –Do not lust    –Do not take oaths