Monday, August 19, 2019

Morrison

I guess it's a sign of how many laps I've done around the sun that so many creators whose work and lives I've admired are dying. Leonard Cohen. Maya Angelou. Terry Pratchett. Ursula K. LeGuin. And now Toni Morrison.

When someone dies, their untold stories die with them. I wrote about that in this essay, published in Skirt! magazine in May, 2017. When a creative person dies we lose their untold stories, but their life's work remains, both a comfort and a legacy, as if they haven't left us entirely.

In 2004 Toni Morrison gave the commencement address at Wellesley College. You can read a transcription of the address in it's entirety here (there's also a link to the video). Here are some of her remarks that resonated with me.
Regarding the future, I would have to rest my case on some bromide, like the future is yours for the taking. Or, that it’s whatever you make of it. But the fact is it is not yours for the taking. And it is not whatever you make of it. The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it. - Toni Morrison, 2004, Wellesley College Commencement Address
And besides, contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets. - Toni Morrison, 2004, Wellesley College Commencement Address
... there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory... - Toni Morrison, 2004, Wellesley College Commencement Address
The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art. - Toni Morrison, 2004, Wellesley College Commencement Address

 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Austen

I can't remember a time when I didn't know that there was a famous British author named Jane Austen, but I never encountered her work as a younger reader. As an adult, my first encounters with her work were through film adaptations, which prompted me to purchase three of her best-known novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, with the intention of reading them. But life and a couple of international moves didn't support those reading goals for several years.

When I was finally able to sit down with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice a few years ago, I immediately understood why her work endures. As an astute judge of character and observer of human behaviour and motivations, her exploration of human society and social interactions still resonates today, despite shifting mores and societal norms. Here's a perfect example, spoken by Mr. Bennet to his daughter Lizzy, near the end of Pride and Prejudice:
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Sadly, what was true in Regency England is still true today. Only the means and the medium for the sport and laughter have changed (and have a broader reach).

A couple of years ago, my path intersected with Jane Austen's unexpectedly when I was at a conference in Winchester, England. The day after the conference ended, my friend and I had a free morning to spend in the town before catching our bus to the airport. To escape the gray, rainy weather we visited the Winchester cathedral, where we were surprised by a small exhibit devoted to the life and works of Jane Austen, who is buried there.

Jane Austen died young, at age 41, but her work and its public appeal has endured. There are accounts that tweet quotes from her work, fan fiction, and even mashups (though I confess I prefer my Pride and Prejudice without zombies).

Likely some people are drawn to her work by the period costumes and stately homes, idealizing the society that Austen was looking at with a critical lens, and failing to realize* that at its heart, Austen's work is not a celebration of the society of her day, but rather an exploration of human nature within the framework of societal structures. They are, like Lydia Bennet, so focused on the superficial that they cannot perceive what lies underneath.

*despite the fact that Austen spells it right out in two of the titles: Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility

Over the generations, how our societies are structured may change, along with the conventions of conduct, but at our core the human experience is still about love, loss, aspiration, regret - about trying to understand oneself within the broader social context, to survive and thrive, and to establish and nurture relationships with people we care about. I think Austen's work will always find appreciation among readers who, like Elizabeth Bennet, reflect thoughtfully on themselves and the societies they live in.

Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, England
photo copyright Elisabeth Norton, 2017, all rights reserved



Monday, August 5, 2019

Twain

I first encountered the work of Mark Twain, like many American students, in high school, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in English class. And while as an adult, I'm grateful for the many classics that I was exposed to during my education, I confess that, unlike Dickens or Poe, I was not inspired enough by what I read in school to read more of Twain's work on my own.

It wasn't until a few years ago, while on vacation near Luzern, Switzerland, that my path unexpectedly intersected that of Mr. Twain's once again. We were hiking on Mt. Rigi-Kulm when, to my surprise, a plaque informed us that we were following in the footsteps of Mark Twain. What I didn't realize at that time was how extensively Twain traveled in Switzerland, or that his chronicles of his European travels, including time spent in Switzerland, were published in A Tramp Abroad. 
"A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is." - Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, Appendix D, "The Awful German Language."
My most recent unexpected encounter with Mark Twain took place while cooking pancakes on a Sunday morning. I had recently discovered an audio book entitled "The Awful German Language," by Mark Twain, which is, it turns out, an appendix to A Tramp Abroad. What non-native speaker of German, living in a German (or Swiss-German) speaking place, can resist a title like that?

However, I quickly abandoned the audio book, which was read by a non-native English speaker, in favor of the ebook, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. As soon as breakfast was over, the Husband (natively bilingual in German/Swiss German and English) and I settled on the sofa to read the appendix aloud (a DIY audiobook, if you will).

I was as delighted with this humorous essay as I was unenthused by Huckleberry Finn as a teen! Twain captures perfectly the stumbling blocks native English speakers encounter in their attempts to learn German. From separable verb forms, to declining adjectives, to gendered words - he skewers everything with such perfect accuracy, and dry wit, that there were times when I couldn't keep reading for laughing, and the Husband was literally F.S.O.S.L (Falling Sideways on the Sofa Laughing, which is much more comfortable than R.O.F.L.).

In discussing the cases (Dative, Accusative, Nominative, Genitive), Twain says:
"Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing 'cases' where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me."
Ah yes. This is familiar territory for me. I actually have a chart on my desk with the various forms of the word "the," because it's not enough to learn the gender of a noun when you learn the word. No, you also have to learn what happens to that article when it's declined. The masculine article "der" becomes "den" in the accusative, "dem" in the dative, and "des" in the genitive. Oh, but that's just singular! In the plural it can be "die" (nominative and accusative), "den" (dative) or "der" (genitive).

The essay concludes with the hilarious "A Fourth of July Oration in the German Tongue, Delivered At a Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students by the Author of this Book." Written in a mixture of German and English, anyone who has ever attempted to communicate in their learned language, only to flounder for a word and throw in some English here and there, will relate.

Find a friend. Read it out loud. I'm betting you'll F.S.O.S.L. or maybe even R.O.F.L.

Having been thoroughly delighted with Appendix D, I'm now looking forward to reading the rest of A Tramp Abroad, with particular interest in Twain's Swiss travels, since I can see from the index that he also spent a great deal of time in one of my other favorite places, Zermatt.

Walking in the footsteps of Mark Twain along the top of Mt. Rigi, near Luzern.
photo copyright Elisabeth Norton, 2014 / all rights reserved