Saturday, October 1, 2011


It was cold here last night and it's shaping up to be a cold, wet weekend. The weather forecast looks like we're not about to get above 10C or so with a ninety percent chance of rain. Fall weather, but the depressing kind--not the crisp, cool, bright days that can make Fall so pleasant. The lawn of the house across the street bears remnants of what look like patches of frost. After a relatively mild winter last year--in the midst of it had about a month without snow--I'm wondering if that might not suggest we're in for something a little bit more severe this time around. I wouldn't be opposed to that; the winters of my youth were kind of a draw in moving back East.

In Oregon, this kind of gloomy, wet, cold day would've counted as a fairly typical winter day. As someone who grew up with lake effect snow every winter, I found Oregon winters incredibly depressing. I never descended into the levels of SAD or anything that severe, but I could understand why some of my friends were buying sunlamps to make it through the winter, an urge I've never felt during snowy winters here in the East. As I don't have any particularly outdoorsy plans for the weekend, I'm fine with the weather cooling down a bit--and even the rain is not a total downer--but I would like the sun to make an appearance from time to time as I sit at my desk (the whole reason that I'd put it under my big window in my bedroom/living room). 

On the slate for this weekend: some lesson planning for upcoming classes, some reading for the courses I'm taking, and some working on the paper I'll be giving in front of the department not this Friday but the next. At some point I need to finish that Facebook post, too. I'll do my best to have it up by tomorrow. I'm most excited to work on the paper, though, as I had to submit a title to the organizers so they can start "publicizing" the event (sending out an email to the department), which made it seem real. The person writing the email had told me I could include a brief description of my project if I wanted and, after writing a three hundred or so word abstract, I emailed her back to ask about length. The upshot is that the abstract wouldn't work (too long) and I didn't really have time to whittle it down, so no description in the email. That's fine with me. 

Writing the abstract was really helpful in that it gave me a picture of the whole argument, as abstracts are supposed to do. I'm revising a course paper, and while I'm not shifting entirely away from what I'd said in that paper, the argument definitely has a new focus and approach now, one that I was still unsure of how it would work. Once I've actually written the thing, I'm sure it'll bear no resemblance to this abstract (one of the great joys of writing is an unexpected development in the argument, of course), but I feel like I have more of a map now than I had with just the scrawled comments in the margins (mine and my professor's). More (most?) importantly, this now feels like the first piece of writing I'll have done that captures what I want to do as a scholar, how I want to address texts, and why I have an interest in this field. It's a good feeling--the original paper itself was hinting in that direction, but I was still in the grappling with ideas phase and I don't think the paper ended up really communicating what it should have. Now I have the chance to do just that, and I'd really like to take advantage of that opportunity. 

The paper is on James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, a novel that I read for the first time in the spring. Prior to reading it, Baldwin had always been something of a minor figure in my mind--"Sonny's Blues" and "Going to Meet the Man" are fine stories, but I don't know that I'd really taken notice of him. In terms of writers working the same terrain, to a certain extent, I would've taken Ellison and Wright over Baldwin if you'd asked me. Now, I'd take Baldwin over both of them. Giovanni's Room is an extremely strange novel, but it's also in possession of a haunting, hallucinatory beauty that is at the same time deeply unsettling. I don't think it's going too far to call the novel an expression of the uncanny; the heimlich and the unheimlich reverse so often in the novel that they become hopelessly tangled and enmeshed, just as Freud noted they do in any uncanny artifact, encounter, or situation. Given that this is, to a certain extent, my preferred mood when it comes to texts, I was right on board with the novel from the opening pages. The titular room itself couldn't be a more uncanny space:
I remember that life in that roomed seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning, our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning [I think this should be surface] until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride. Giovanni's face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack. The light in the eyes became a glitter; the wide and beautiful brow began to suggest the skill beneath. The sensual lips turned inward, busy with the sorrow overflowing from his heart. It became a stranger's face--or it made me so guilty to look on him that I wished it were a stranger's face. Not all my memorizing had prepared me for the metamorphosis which my memorizing had helped to bring about.
 In keeping with the uncanny, the room itself cannot be avoided. Its repetitions will haunt the narrator forever, replacing a;; heimlich spaces with unheimlich spaces; unheimlich because of their resistance to description other than by reference to the original room, the space the narrator cannot (will not?) describe:
I scarcely know how to describe the room. It became, in a way, every room I had even been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni's room. I did not really stay there very long--we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer--but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.
Good stuff, that. The uncanny is no more than a footnote in my paper, but it would be interesting to see if it appears in any of Baldwin's other novels or stories (I'm fairly certain it's lurking not too far behind the words in "Going to Meet the Man"). Anyway, a project for another day.

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