Dorothy Parker’s Comedic Take on Love and Hate

As you read the short story for Tuesday and the poetry for Friday, I want you to consider the following: Why are love and hatred such proximate emotions? What I mean is that normally we consider love and hatred to be complete opposites. Usually, when two ideas are drastic opposites, they are far apart from one another. Yet, how often do we find ourselves loving someone one day and hating them the next? I am willing to bet that for everyone you truly love, there has been at least one day when you felt like you hated them and truly despised them for what they have done or said to you. Is there something about how love affects us (our hearts, our minds, etc.) that overwhelms us and can so easily be turned into feelings of hate? Consider how love and hate may not be so different from one another after all if they come from the same place; intense emotional feelings for another person.

Background on Dorothy Parker

(Parker)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was an American poet, short story writer, screenwriter, satirist, critic, and humorist. For decades, her work appeared in all of the famous magazines of her era, featuring her trademark biting sarcasm and witty one liners. Dorothy Parker was well-known as a founder of The Algonquin Roundtable. The roundtable consisted of a rotating group of writers and critics who almost daily had lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Parker and her friends would meet and discuss art and politics in a sarcastic and humorous vein and they soon became notorious for their witty banter. Famous people gathered to hear their conversations and their quotes were often published in magazines. One day, the group played a word game in which each member had to craft a witty quote out of a mundane word. When given the word horticulture, Dorothy Parker responded “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” (a take on the famous saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”)

Although her short stories and poems are anthologized in the American canon and she wrote the scripts to famous films including A Star is Born (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), she is best remembered for her humorous quips. When writers are looking for quotes to pithily make their points, they often turn to Parker’s work. Her rich collection of observations on gender, politics, social issues, and of course, drinking, have appeared in countless essays, speeches, tv shows, motivational posters (which she would have made fun of). Continue reading

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Alienation and the Alien Other

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

kafka

(Kafka’s bug)

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was born to a Jewish, German (possibly Yiddish as well) speaking family in the city of Prague in the present day Czech Republic. In that time, Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the majority of people spoke Czech, which Kafka could speak, but he was nonetheless marked as an outside by his Jewish German heritage.

Thus, we can see from his biography some of the themes that come up in his writing. His sense of ethnic and cultural otherness lad him to understand how modern life in the urban world could be alienating the individuals who felt like outsiders. For Kafka, urban life was impersonal, new government bureaucracies treated individuals like numbers instead of people, and companies treated workers like commodities instead of human laborers.

The impersonal character of life in the modern world comes up in the majority of Kafka’s works. For example, in his novel The Trial, a man is put on trial but he is not allowed to know what his crime was. Kafka’s popularity has grown over time because many feel that his depiction of business, government, and urban life was prophetic, that modern life has become more and more “Kafkaesque”. The word “Kafkaesque” is often used in literary criticism to describe situations that are eerie and disturbing when an individual is stripped of power and rights by a shadowy, unaccountable and unapproachable source of power like a government or bureaucracy. Even dictionary.com has an entry for it, “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.” (dictionary.com) Think about the recent controversy over the NSA, Edward Snowden, and the ability of companies like Google and Apple to track our activity online. In this article from The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen uses Kafka’s The Trial to illustrate the unsettling aspects of the ability of the NSA to collect data on citizens without notification. (The Atlantic)

For a more light hearted take on Kafka’s idea of alienation, check out The Onion’s video below about “Franz Kafka International Airport”

The satire here is that the experience of flying, including going through security, being inspected by suspicious employees, winding through the long labyrinthine corridors of an airport, and being crammed in like cattle into a seat feels like you are in a Kafka novel. Continue reading

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Pencil Pushers, Bureaucrats, and Office Drudgery

(Bartleby)

I want to devote this week to a comparison of themes in two similar classic short stories from the 19th century–Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Cloak”. Both texts comment upon the world of bureaucracy, business, office jobs, materialism, and menial work by focusing on the odd, seemingly one-dimensional people employed at a dead-end office job. As creative writers, both Gogol and Melville were fascinated by the idea of men employed to simply copy the words of others all day long like a machine, and each crafted a story in which some turn of events occurs that highlights the absurdity of office work.

As you read both texts, I want you to consider how Melville and Gogol take essentially the same subject matter; a professional copier in a dead end office job, and use it to comment upon their culture and society. What similar visions of bureaucracy and business do they share?

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Background on Nikolai Gogol

(Young Gogol)

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was born in the Ukraine and became one of the best known writers of fiction in Russian. He was deeply interested in traditional slavic folklore and his stories often merged folktale-like elements of fantasy with realistic depictions of life in Russia, much like Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground. He criticized bureaucracy and political corruption in his fiction, while incorporating absurd and surreal plotlines for satirical effect. For example, his short story “The Nose” is about a government official whose nose decides to run off one day and have adventures while the official tries to chase it down. The nose turns out to be better at the official’s job than he is.

You’re probably thinking that a man who would write a story about an escaped nose running amok in Russia might be a little crazy, and you would be correct. Gogol was a brilliant writer, but also notably eccentric. My favorite story of his bizarre behavior is from when he faked his way into getting a job as a history professor at the University of St. Petersburg. He was hired to teach medieval history, but he knew very little on the subject. On the first day of class, he simply made up a bunch of stuff about medieval history and then in later classes pretended he had a toothache so that he didn’t have to talk to his students. (The Culture Trip)

Background on Herman Melville

(Young Melville)

Herman Melville (1819-1891) is one of the most widely read American novelists around the world. You probably know him best as the author of Moby Dick, the story of a whaling captain’s singled-minded obsession with hunting down a white whale. For Moby Dick and other novels such as Typee and Omoo, Melville drew upon his own experience as a sailor and a whaler in his twenties. While his more simple stories of adventure on the open seas and travels to exotic lands were best sellers, Moby Dick was actually a colossal failure. In his first few books, Melville wrote in a more popular accessible style, whereas in Moby Dick, he began to transition toward his now famous style of long, deeply descriptive and contemplative writing. It was not until after his death that Moby Dick gained appreciation and eventually became known as one of the great works of American literature. The term “white whale” has entered the American lexicon to refer to anything that a person obsesses over in a self-destructive way.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” sticks out among Melville’s most famous work because it is not about adventures on the open seas. Rather, the work of a scrivener in an office on Wall Street is about as big of a contrast to the life of a sailor as one could imagine. Yes, this is the same Wall Street as the one we hear of today when we mention trading in stocks and securities. Melville’s story depicts the business center of Wall Street in its infancy, yet can you see some similarities between the corporate life of Wall Street in the 1850s and today? Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” protests from a year ago? Bartleby was doing practically the same thing 160 years ago by refusing to work, sleeping on Wall Street, and getting in the way of the powerful businessmen trying to work around him.

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Common Themes to Compare in Gogol and Melville

Labor and Drudgery

The most obvious comparison between the two stories is that Akakiy and Bartleby have similar jobs. They are both professional copyists, meaning that they are employed all day to copy entire legal and company documents by hand. They aren’t writing creatively, or even making edits, instead, they literally copy what has already been written by someone else day in and day out. Think about what kind of a job that would be. What impact on the mind and the personality would that have? What kind of a person would voluntarily take and enjoy that job? Remember that Bartleby is originally a model employee and that Akakiy actually turns down an opportunity to do a job that required more than copying. What does this say about them as individuals? Or, do they even have individuality if all they do is copy others for a living?

The “Other”

For both Melville and Gogol, these copyists were a symbol of the average office worker in modern society. Bartleby and Akakiy are the everyman, yet, in being exactly what the workplace demands of the modern man, they become nobody. They both occupy a space in their narratives that literary critics would call “the other.” This refers to those against whom “normal” individuals define themselves. Think about how we all know some odd or “different” people in our lives, and how we wonder about their mysterious yet bizarre lives. We are both attracted to and appalled by their eccentricity. We want to understand it, but we also don’t want to get too close to the unknown. We also know that if we act as the opposite of them, we reinforce our own normality and allegiance to the group that defines itself in opposition to the other.

Bartleby and Akakiy are this “other”. In both stories, their fellow workers are both strangely drawn to their quiet, mysterious inner-lives, but not enough to treat them humanely. Akakiy’s co-workers make fun of him and taunt him as he tries diligently to work. Bartleby’s boss is absolutely fascinated by his initial work drive, and then even more obsessive over the enigma of Bartleby when he decides to do no work at all. Think about some eccentric people you have known. What makes them so interesting? In Akakiy and Bartleby’s cases, they are eccentric because they lack very basic human elements. They don’t socialize, they don’t express the full range of human emotions, they don’t (at least at times), even seem to desire much.

Materialism, Desire,  and Productivity

We all know what materialism and why it is bad to be considered “materialistic.” Yet, we all cannot avoid having desires for material objects, both those that serve a purpose, and those that are just for show. However, at first, it appears that both Bartleby and Akakiy have no material desires. Think about it, what exactly does each character want? Part of why they stick out in their offices is because their co-workers can’t figure out what they want. They don’t seem to care for money, or social status, or any material comforts. Our desires are normally what fuel our labor. We work because we want to satisfy our needs and have a little left over for fun stuff. Yet, what do Bartleby and Akakiy desire? Do they even have the capacity to desire?

Akakiy eventually does develop desire out of necessity. He needs an overcoat or else he will freeze. Consider how this need for a coat turns into desire and gives Akakiy his first feelings of materialism. At first he just wants the old one patched, but when that cannot be done, he agrees to have a new one made. The tailor then integrates some luxurious elements to the coat, and suddenly Akakiy feels fancy (with apologies to Iggy Azalea). How does this coat change the way he sees himself? Then, consider how the coat changes the way his co-workers see him. Finally, think about how the theft of the coat changes (and ends) his life. What might Gogol be saying about materialism and desire through these changes in Akakiy’s life?

Bartleby, on the other hand, never desires at all. His favorite line is “I would prefer not to.” His only desire is to not do anything, to negate, to be nothing. Sigmund Freud called this the death drive, the tendency in all people to want to indulge in self-destructive behavior because life is so stressful and the burden of self-preservation is so taxing. Ultimately, the death drive is our desire to just let go of ourselves. Freud believed that we repress the death drive through repetition compulsion, meaning that we immerse ourselves in work and productive behavior to drown out these thoughts and never question that self-preservation should be the goal of human existence.

Bartleby’s scrivener job can be seen as repetition compulsion. He literally repeats other peoples words all day long as a job. Suddenly, for no reason at all, the repetition compulsion stops. He is no longer the perfect worker, but in fact, he becomes the worst possible employee. As the story goes further, his refusal to be productive at work becomes a refusal to live. He refuses to leave, then when he is arrested, he refuses to eat, and eventually he dies. His refusal to work thus begins his drive towards death.

Think about what Melville might be saying about the relationship between work, life, and death. Is he questioning the purpose of work? Think about Melville’s own life and work. He was a young sailor, then a novelist, and ironically enough, spent his last years working office-type jobs after his popularity as a writer faded.

Business

The 19th century and it’s industrial revolution created a boom in the size and scope of business in the western world. Multi-national corporations worth millions began to form, financial companies and banks expanded their powers, and the manufacturing of new products and technologies flourished. This changed the nature of work, creating the need for an expanded class of management, and thus office work. While pencil pushing and administrative work had always existed, it expanded dramatically in the 19th century as the scale of business operations grew. Thus a new middle class of office workers like Akakiy and Bartleby grew as well.

Today, most Americans work for sizable businesses and office work has become the norm. But imagine living at a time when this kind of work went from a small fraction of the population to a sizable portion of the population. Think about how working in an office (with its stresses, its culture, and its social structure) impacts the nature of work and influences how we live our lives and think of ourselves. In Bartleby and Akakiy, Melville and Gogol were contemplating how the nature of office work and business is changing the average man and turning him into a different kind of person. What kind of person is this? What kinds of thinking could Bartleby and Akakiy symbolize as the new face of the office worker?

 

Bureaucracy

 

Along with the rise in business and corporations came a rise in the level of state bureaucracy. Administrative functions of government expanded to serve a rising population and support business ventures. Now, when anyone mentions bureaucracy, it is almost always in a negative tone. We all complain about bureaucracy, with its confusing hierarchy of offices and departments and piles of paper work that we have to navigate in order to get something as simple as a licence plate, a voter ID card, or filing your taxes.

 

If you have every had to file any special forms with government offices in order to get something you desperately needed, you probably understand how frustrating it is to deal with bureaucracy. Think about the delays, the needlessly confusing forms, and how the workers seems to be indifferent to your very important needs. We hate bureaucracy because it is dehumanizing. It takes our basic human needs and assigns us numbers and forms instead of addressing our worries and problems.

Both Bartleby and Akakiy have been dehumanized by bureaucracy. Think about when Akakiy’s coat is stolen. How is he treated by the police? Consider when he tries to appeal to the “prominent personage” for help. How is he treated? Analyze how Gogol describes the prominent personage and how he inflates his sense of self-importance. How is Gogol criticizing bureaucracy? It is revealed that Bartleby was once a bureaucrat at the end of his story. He worked in the dead letters office. Dead letters are letters that cannot be sent to the desired addressee and cannot be sent back to the sender. Melville seems to think this is a depressing place to work. What do you think the symbolism of this job is, its impact on Bartleby, and why Melville thinks this explains Bartleby’s behavior?

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Science Fiction and Ethics II: Robots and Artificial Intelligence

(A collection of famous robots by Daniel Nayari)

This unit’s readings by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury engages the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on our culture. Although these stories were written in the 40s and 50s, are you read, I want you to think about how some of their visions of the future of robotics and artificial intelligence have come true in our present day society.

As evidenced by the illustration of several famous robots from TV and film, robots has been depicted in several popular Science Fiction stories and have played a variety of roles, ranging from the villains like the Terminator and HAL9000 to the heroic like Astro Boy and C3PO. Like the aliens from the previous unit of stories, the robot is a versatile figure and can be created to realize the “what if” scenarios that Science Fiction likes to engage. A robot can be conceived and designed in any form and to serve any purpose, from life like androids to simple machinery.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence come with their own ethical concerns as well. Often, the figure of the robot is used to question basic assumptions made about humanity. For example, the idea of Artificial Intelligence questions the very basic understanding of what it means to think, be conscious, and be a person. Scientists and philosophers have debated whether or not machines can truly “think” and whether or not Artificial Intelligence is equivalent to human intelligence. After all, according to Descartes, “I think, therefore I am”, so if thinking is what give man his humanity, then what happens to our definition of humanity if we develop machines that can also think? In addressing this question, we are also forced to think deeply about humanity and to put into words what exactly it is about human thought, consciousness, and emotions that is unique to us and would separate us from machines who can also rapidly process information.

British mathematician and father of modern Computer Science Alan Turing famously devised the “Turing Test” for determining machine intelligence. He proposed that if a human and computer were both given questions by a third party and that third party could not consistently tell whose answers were the computer’s and whose were the person’s, then one may conclude that the computer could be described as intelligence.

To further explore the question of ethics and robotics and Artificial Intelligence, I want you to read the short article “Morals and the Machine.” I will cover this in the quiz and use it to analyze the stories you will read.

In particular, I want you to think about how our definition of humanity and ethical systems are perhaps altered or impacted by the rise of Artificial Intelligence and robotics. If we deem a robot intelligent and program it to have emotions, are those emotions genuine? Should robots have rights and personal interests if we agree that they are intelligent?

Furthermore, there is the question of the ethical use of robots. What happens when robots become so advanced that they could do all human labor? Would it be right to allow them to put all of the world’s workers out of jobs? When we program robots as workers, how do we make sure that they make ethical choices? This forces a serious reconsideration of ethics because we would have to distill these complicated ideas into a set of laws and procedures for the robot to follow. Afterall, when you make an ethical decision, do you always go through the complicated philosophical reasoning or do you usually just do what “feels” right? If a robot cannot “feel” what’s right, then how might its ethical system be different from ours? Is it possible to learn to become more ethical from a robot who is not clouded by emotions, or will that only cause more issues?

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Isaac Asimov’s Robotic World

(Isaac Asimov)

Ethical Questions

1. How do intelligent robots complicate our understanding of what it means to be human?

2. Is it possible to program robots to understand and operate within a human ethical system?

3. How are robotics and Artificial Intelligence changing human civilization, including culture, industry, and personal relationships?

4. Are human relationships with robots possible and can they be as genuine as relationships with other humans?

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Isaac Asimov’s Biography (Biography.com)

Isaac Asimov was born Isaak Yudovick Ozimov on January 2, 1920, in Petrovichi, Russia, to Anna Rachel Berman and Judah Ozimov. The family immigrated to the United States when Asimov was a toddler, settling into the East New York section of Brooklyn. (Around this time, the family name was changed to Asimov.)Judah owned a series of candy shops and called upon his son to work in the stores as a youngster. Isaac Asimov was fond of learning at a young age, having taught himself to read by the age of 5; he learned Yiddish soon after, and graduated from high school at 15 to enter Columbia University. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1939 and went on to get his M.A. and Ph.D. from the same institution. In 1942, he wed Gertrude Blugerman.In 1949, Asimov began a stint at Boston University School of Medicine, where he was hired as an associate professor of biochemistry in 1955. He eventually became a professor at the university by the late 1970s, though by that time he’d given up full-time teaching to do occasional lectures.

Yet even with his impeccable academic credentials, writing for general readers was to be the professor’s passion. Asimov’s first short story to be sold, “Marooned Off Vesta,” was published in Amazing Stories in 1938. Years later, he published his first book in 1950, the sci-fi novel Pebble in the Sky—the first in a line of titles that would mark a highly prolific writing career.An influential vision came with another 1950 release, the story collection I, Robot, which looked at human/construct relationships and featured the Three Laws of Robotics. (The narrative would be adapted for a blockbuster starring Will Smith decades later.) Asimov would later be credited with coming up with the term “robotics.”

Asimov was also known for writing books on a wide variety of subjects outside of science fiction, taking on topics like astronomy, biology, math, religion and literary biography. A small sample of notable titles include The Human Body(1963), Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (1969), the mystery Murder at the AB A(1976) and his 1979 autobiography, In Memory Yet Green. He spent most of his time in solitude, working on manuscripts and having to be persuaded by family to take breaks and vacations. By December 1984, he had written 300 books, ultimately writing nearly 500.Asimov died in New York City on April 6, 1992, at the age of 72, from heart and kidney failure. He had dealt privately with a diagnosis of AIDS, which he’d contracted from a blood transfusion during bypass surgery. He was survived by two children and his second wife, Janet Jeppson.

Over the course of his career, Asimov won several Hugo and Nebula Awards, as well as received accolades from science institutions. He stated during a televised interview that he hoped his ideas would live on past his death; his wish has come to fruition, with the world continuing to contemplate his literary and scientific legacies.

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Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

Asimov’s collection of robot stories from the 40s and 50s included some of the first ever discussions about robots and ethics. Asimov was a visionary who saw that the primitive robots and artificial intelligence of his era would soon advance into the amazing technologies we have today. For example, think about programs like Apple’s Siri which uses a vast library of information to instantly cater to our needs and questions as if she were our human personal assistant. When Apple programmed Siri, they had to consider ethical issues. For example, what if we asked Siri how to make a bomb? Would it be ethical to allow the program to give us that info? What about all the personal information that Siri has about us when we give ask questions? Should Siri store that information and allow others to access it? Should she keep it secret like our friends (hopefully) do? How would she know what to keep secret?

Asimov anticipated these concerns about robotics and Artificial Intelligence in the 40s and thus created his now famous Three Laws of Robotics, which are spelled out in the story “Evidence”.

The Three Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws are the ethical system that is supposed to guide how the robots are programmed to interact with humans. Yet, as you will see in his stories, these laws cannot always be applied smoothly. Often ethical decisions have no perfect solutions. Sometimes we have to violate one ethical belief for the sake of another. The question is, then, how do we program a robot to make these decisions? Can ethics be distilled down to a simple formula, or does ethics rely on the uniquely human instinct toward ethical conduct?

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“Robbie”

(“Robbie” illustrated on the cover of a French translation)

Technophobia

“Robbie” was originally published in the September, 1940 edition of Super Science Stories. It was Asimov’s first of many robot stories that would eventually be compiled in the book I,Robot. “Robbie” is especially notable for its unique take on the human/robot relationship. All previous stories about robots presented them as villains. Typically, those stories centered on the dangers of giving super human abilities to machines who cannot reason or possess ethics. Eventually, the robot revolts against the creator and the moral message that science has its ethical limits is established.

Asimov’s stories about robots sought to complicate this simplistic view of the robot. Sure, the robot could be programmed poorly and revolt, but he also believed that the robot could be capable of good. The robot, like all technology, is not inherently good or bad. There are only good or bad uses of that technology. One should be concerned about the ethics of applying new technology and consider the impact before unleashing it, but one shouldn’t dismiss it altogether out of fear.

In “Robbie,” Mrs. Weston represents this technophobia while little Gloria represents what we might term “technophilia” in that her love of Robbie is the opposite of her mother’s fear. As you read this story, think about why Mrs. Weston is so concerned about her daughter’s attachment to Robbie. Is this attachment healthy for Gloria? Will it hurt her maturation as a young girl or is she capable of building the kinds of social and thinking skills a person needs via a relationship with a robot?

It is clear that robots in a factory can replace laborers, but can a robot replace domestic duties like raising a child and providing for a family? “Robbie” raises the question if robots could some day be seen as members of the family. If robots can be programmed to simulate everything a child needs from its family, then what does this say about the nature of human relationships?

Think about the role empathy plays in this story. Do you feel bad for Robbie when he is sent away? Did you have an emotional reaction at the end of the story? Remember that Robbie is programmed according to Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which means that he is programmed to serve humans. Normally we have empathy for those that can feel, and when someone capable of helping us is harmed, we feel empathy for them. But, does Robbie “feel”? And, if he is programmed to sacrifice his well being for humans, does he really merit our sympathy when he doesn’t really “choose” his action? Does a good deed depend on choice or does it matter what motivates the deed as long as it is “good”?

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“August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains”

By Ray Bradbury

(A Comic Adaptation of Bradbury’s Story)

Ethical Questions:

1. What are the dangers to humanity in the Atomic Age?

2. Is there value to the continued existence of the Earth after mankind has vanished?

3. Will robots be able to continue their existence after mankind has vanished?

The Robotic Home

Unlike previous stories in which humans are in conflict with technology, Bradbury’s story does not contain any human characters at all. Throughout the short story, we see the daily chores of a fully automatic, robotic home and its eventual demise when a tree branch falls and causes a fire. Yet, just because there are no humans acting in the story, that does not mean that the commentary on the dangers of technology dependence are not present. As you read the story, I want you to compare it to the other Bradbury story, “The Pedestrian”. How do both stories depict the possible future of a dependency on technology?

Historical Context

You might be asking, where is this technological dependence? The house does not seem sinister at all, and you would be right. Instead, the dangers of technology are only hinted at. You may also be asking, where is the family? This too is answered in the same passage:

“The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.”

Just what is going on in this description? These silhouettes are a reference to nuclear war, and in particular, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the image above, you can see the shadow of a man burned onto a wall. When the bombs went off in Hiroshima and Nagaski, the blast burned the shadows of objects into walls and the ground. Thus, the reference to these “permanent shadows” clues us in to the implication that the family that owned the house was killed in a nuclear war. It is possible that the entirety of humanity was killed by nuclear war.

Bradbury wrote this story in 1950 only 5 years after the bombing. While humanity has been fortunate to avoid another nuclear war, in the 1950s with the arms race against the Soviets, many people predicted that nuclear war would become the new norm. Thus, we could read this story as a warning about becoming reliant on nuclear technology to solve global conflicts.

Think about the poem that the house recites to the now long dead family. It’s called “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Sara Teasdale.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground, 
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

As you read the poem, consider its message about war and its aftermath. What is Bradbury trying to express by including this poem? What does it mean if neither bird nor tree would care if man perished utterly? What does this imply for the existence and future of human civilization? Will the world simply go on without us?

Finally, did you feel sympathy for the house? If so, why? What could be the roots of seeing the demise of a house, which in of itself, has no feelings of its own?

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“All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”

By Richard Brautigan 

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

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As you read this poem over, I want you to compare its vision of a future meeting of man and machine to those of Bradbury and Asimov. Consider how Brautigan’s combination of images from nature and technological language depicts the future. Is this a utopian or dystopian view of the future? How can you tell?

Brautigan was a popular counter culture writer from the 60s. He lived in the epicenter of the hippie movement in San Francisco and many of the flower power generation read his work. Just like many from his generation, he was an environmentalist and he was critical or man’s alienation from nature in the civilized world. Yet, in this poem, he does not seem to be against technology, but perhaps he sees how it can serve his goals for nature.

One final idea to consider when analyzing this poem is the cyber futurist theory of “the singularity.” The singularity will occur when technology and artificial intelligence has become so powerful that it will become bonded with and eventually take over natural intelligence. There will not longer be a divide between the two at all, and individual intelligences will be all interconnected with each other. Written at a time in the 60s before the personal computer, Brautigan’s poem may have seemed light and romantic, but with how technology has advanced since his time, his “cybernetic ecology” may be approaching whether we like it or not.

 

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Science Fiction and Ethical Questions Part One: Utopias and Dystopias

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “ethics”? What do ethics mean to you personally? As a way to review the idea of ethics in a nut shell, I’d like you to read the following brief article, “What is Ethics?” from Santa Clara University:

Some years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, “What does ethics mean to you?” Among their replies were the following:

“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.”
“Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs.”
“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”
“Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts.”
“I don’t know what the word means.”

These replies might be typical of our own. The meaning of “ethics” is hard to pin down, and the views many people have about ethics are shaky.

Like Baumhart’s first respondent, many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one’s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.

Nor should one identify ethics with religion. Most religions, of course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behavior of the atheist as to that of the devout religious person. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.

Being ethical is also not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the old apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are grotesquely obvious examples of laws that deviate from what is ethical.

Finally, being ethical is not the same as doing “whatever society accepts.” In any society, most people accept standards that are, in fact, ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society.

Moreover, if being ethical were doing “whatever society accepts,” then to find out what is ethical, one would have to find out what society accepts. To decide what I should think about abortion, for example, I would have to take a survey of American society and then conform my beliefs to whatever society accepts. But no one ever tries to decide an ethical issue by doing a survey. Further, the lack of social consensus on many issues makes it impossible to equate ethics with whatever society accepts. Some people accept abortion but many others do not. If being ethical were doing whatever society accepts, one would have to find an agreement on issues which does not, in fact, exist.

What, then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.

Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.

This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics IIE V1 N1 (Fall 1987) (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

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Scientific Tales of Obsession and Perfection

Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Hawthorne in the 1860s)

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850), one of America’s towering works of fiction, did not consider himself a novelist. He wrote “romances,” he insisted–imaginative representations of moral problems, rather than novelistic depictions of social realities. A descendant of one of the Salem witch-trial judges, the Salem-born Hawthorne grew up in a somber and solitary atmosphere. His father, a sea captain, perished on a voyage when his son was just 4 years old, and Hawthorne’s mother spent the remainder of her life in mourning. After attending Bowdoin College, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce were among his classmates, he began to write. It would not be until 1837, however, when he published Twice-Told Tales, that the 33-year-old Hawthorne first gained public recognition. He lived briefly at Brook Farm and participated in the transcendentalist circle, but did not share their idealistic faith in humanity’s innate goodness.

Hawthorne was a secretive, painfully shy man. But no pre–Civil War author wrote more perceptively about guilt–sexual, moral, and psychological. “In the depths of every human heart,” he wrote in an early tale, “there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, the revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide.” In his fiction, Hawthorne, more than any other early 19th century American writer, challenged the larger society’s faith in science, technology, progress, and humanity’s essential goodness. Many of his greatest works project 19th century concerns–about women’s roles, sexuality, and religion–onto 17th century Puritan settings. Some of his stories examine the hubris of scientists and social reformers who dare tamper with the natural environment and human nature. (Digital History)

Hawthorne was born in Salem, MA, home of the famous 17th century Witch Trials in which Puritans convicted and executed several villagers of witchcraft based on no hard evidence. One of his ancestors, John Hathorne was a judge in these trials who never repented of his decision. In order to hide his relation, Hawthorne added the “w” to his name. It is this connection to the puritanical past of America and its legacy in the 19th century that influenced the themes and subjects of many of Hawthorne’s novels and short stories such as The Scarlet Letter, which was about the persecution of adulterers. Hawthorne was deeply critical about conservative puritanism, often accusing it of hypocrisy and taking away the individual’s right to think for himself and act as he pleases.

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The American Renaissance

Hawthorne was one of the leading authors of a movement in American literature called “The American Renaissance,” which lasted from the 1830s until the Civil War period. Alongside other famous writers like Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick), Walt Whitman, and the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne was interested in crafting a uniquely American literature interested in issues like Democracy, freedom, individualism, self-reliance, industry, and modernization. Hawthorne and other American Renaissance writers were interesting in creating an American mythology based on its history of folktales and romances while writing literature that looked forward and argued for Enlightenment ideals like reason, logic, ethics, and rights. These writers wrote at a time of great change in America in which industry began to accelerate, the economy started to grow, the country progressed westward, and America began to establish its own identity as a nation.

As you read these two stories, I want you to consider how some of these aspects of The American Renaissance show up in the texts. For example, how do both of the stories sound like folk lore? How does Hawthorne use both stories in the way we normally tell folk tales, which is to teach moral messages and communicate cultural ideas? If we are to read them as warnings, then what values and ideas might Hawthorne be arguing for?

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“The Birthmark”

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(Georgiana, Illustrated)

Ethical questions to consider as you read:

1. Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? How do we define beauty and how is it socially constructed?

2. To what degree should we try to alter the body for cosmetic purposes?

3. What are the dangers of perfectionism? Continue reading

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Relationships, Gender, and Medical Ethics

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

 

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Gilman’s Life and Ideas

 

(From Women and Economics)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is best known as an early American feminist activist, journalist, and writer. As a feminist, Gilman was an early campaigner for women’s rights. Remember that she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” before women had many of the rights they have today, such as the ability to inherit complete control over property or, most famously, to vote. Her advocacy for women’s rights centered on the question of economics and the role of women in the domestic household.  In her book Women and Economics, Gilman wrote, “The ideal woman was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good-humored.” Gilman believed that the roles women had to play in the typical household, cleaning, cooking, and caring for children were stifling and repressive. She argued that domestic work prevented women from becoming independent, developing their minds, and earning equal status as members of society.

Thus, her critique was against patriarchy, the traditional system of rule in the public and private spheres by men. Gilman believed that patriarchy taught women to be subservient to men and to see themselves as less intelligent and ration so that they would accept their lower position. Referring to patriarchy in The Home, Its Work, and Influence, she wrote, “It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it.” (277) Thus, her feminism was not just about liberating women, but it also extended to men who found themselves limited by the demands of patriarchy.

Gilman argued for the theory of “Reform Darwinism”, which sought to build upon and modify the ideas Darwin wrote about the evolution and survival of man to make sense in the modern era. She believed that the idea that men were naturally aggressive and that women were naturally weaker and submissive were social constructions, ideas that were learned instead of naturally innate. Gilman argued that while it may have made sense to have gender roles in prehistoric times to survive, civilization and modernity created a circumstance in which men and women could live as equals. She famously stated in Women and Economics, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.”

Furthermore, Gilman understood how economics played a role in shaping modern culture and creating the new economic classes. She argued that the only way for women to gain equality was to have economic independence. Thus, she advocated education for women, vocational training, and for the ability of women to own and control property.

Now that you have an idea of Gilman’s feminist beliefs, consider how she uses “The Yellow Wallpaper” to illustrate them. How does the protagonist’s experience reflect the kinds of oppression and unhappiness that Gilman argued women were forced to endure during her time? Are some of these issues still at stake in our present day society? What issues from this story have improved for today and which ones do you believe we still need to make progress on?

Masterpiece Theater did a movie version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” if you are interested.(the movie is longer than it takes to read the story, so no, there won’t be any questions on the quiz about the movie)

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Historical Context:

Women’s Health and Psychology in the 19th Century

When “The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published, it was extremely controversial. Rarely before had a woman’s mental illness so vividly and hauntingly been presented to the general readership. The 1800s was also the time of great advances in the field of psychiatry and gynecology, which were not always accurate or actually helpful for their patients. Hysteria was a common diagnosis in the late 19th century, which has now been discredited as an actual disease. Dr. Gwen Sharp describes the history of hysteria as a psychological disorder:

“In the U.S., our gender ideology includes the belief that female bodies are weaker than male ones, more fragile. Particularly in the Victorian Era, this belief led doctors to discourage physical activity by women. Among a range of other concerns, doctors argued that physical exertion in women might cause their organs (particularly the reproductive organs) to become dislodged and wander around the body, causing all types of problems. 

Medical practitioners weren’t just worried about physical exertion. They believed mental activity could be harmful to women as well; perhaps all that thinking meant the brain would take blood away from the reproductive organs and lead to infertility. A common diagnosis for women was “hysteria,” a general term that could be applied to almost any woman. A common “cure” for hysteria was bed rest, preventing both physical and mental activity. The diagnosis of hysteria served as a justification for severely limiting women’s activities, drawing on the ideology of the fragile female body. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” after her own experience of being forced to stay in bed with no mental stimulation, not even books.

Perkins argued that stereotypes about women being fragile and mentally weaker led to this inaccurate diagnosis whose supposed cure actually made women who truly suffered from depression feel even worse. Gilman’s story is so vivid because it details her own experience of forced bed rest when she was diagnosed. Gilman actually names her real life doctor in this story, and he was so moved by how ardently she protested this treatment that he stopped prescribing forced rest to his female patients.

As you read the short story, think about how the narrator’s diagnosis of hysteria impacts her. Since we know that hysteria does not actually exist, what might have been the real problem that she was facing? How does her forced bed rest make her feel even worse than before?

Consider the content of her delusions and hallucinations. Yes, these are the visions of a woman on the brink of insanity, yet the images she sees and her behaviors give us a clue as to what drove her to this insanity. Analyze her hallucinations. Why is she obsessed with the wallpaper and what does she see in it? How might this symbolize what put her in this state of insanity to begin with?

Many modern critics have suggested that Perkins’ protagonist suffered from what we now know to be Postpartum Depression, a state of severe depression brought on after a woman has given birth. Here’s a page on how the Mayo Clinic defines Postpartum Depression. Click on this link and consider how this diagnosis might compare. Given how Perkins presents the way women were thought of in the 19th century, how might the symptoms of post-partum depression shock and disturb people of the era?

Feminism

Finally, I want you to consider how this story relates to the idea of feminism. Many modern literary scholars have argued that this story was one of the earliest and most important American feminist stories. As you know, Gilman was an active feminist philosopher and worked along side the suffragettes as women like Susan B Anthony campaigned for the right to vote. Therefore, I ask, what is feminist about this story? Often, stories with a political message have a clear cut bad guy and good guy, and the good guy wins in the end in order to show that what he stands for is right. But, such a black and white statement is not present in this story. Can we consider the narrator to be a feminist? What might the feminist message of the story be?

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Poem: Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”

(Marge Piercy and a Cat on the Verge of a Freak Out)

Marge Piercy (1939-present) was associated with the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. This is often called the “Second Wave” of Feminism. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was part of the first wave in the early 1900s. Before you read “Barbie Doll,” think about your own experience with Barbies. Every child born since the 60s grew up with them. Sisters played with them, brothers ripped off their reads or microwaved them (I’m sooooo sorry sis, I was just 8!) What about you? Did you play with Barbies? Did your sisters? If so, how did you play with them? What did they mean to you?

Think about what the Barbie doll means to our American culture. Describe what she looks like, what she is usually depicted as doing, and how girls are encouraged to play with her. How does she embody what we consider to be attractive and ideal femininity? Is this ideal achievable? What impact might this have on young girls playing with Barbie?

The Simpsons famously parodied Barbie with “Malibu Stacy”. If you’re a fan of the show, think about how Marge Piercy’s opinion of Barbie might compare with that of Lisa Simpson’s

As you read the poem, consider why Piercy chooses the title “Barbie Doll”. She never specifically mentions the doll in the poem, yet it is implied that the girl who she is describing is the Barbie Doll. Under what circumstance does she become like Barbie? Does Barbie’s model of femininity impact the way she or others view her?

Consider the other toys that Piercy mentions, the miniature stoves and ovens, tiny lipsticks, and dolls that pee-pee. What kinds of toys are these? What does this say about the way we treat little girls if these are the toys we give them? Do you think there is a problem or not?

My sister had Barbies, an Easy Bake Oven, and tiny lipsticks and she ended up as a businesswoman who makes a lot more than her professor brother. Thus, these toys do impact people differently. Did you have any of these toys? If so, do you think they influenced your childhood and how you grew up?

Consider the stanzas about the way the girl views her body and her sexuality. What is her perception of herself? How do other opinions affect her? What might Piercy be trying to say about body image and gender?

Finally, consider how Piercy’s commentary on gender compares to Gilman’s in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” You might also want to think about Ibsen as well from the previous unit. How do Ibsen and Piercy both use the metaphor of a doll to talk about gender roles and expectations? Ibsen never lived to see a Barbie, so consider how the Barbie embodies changes in our culture from when Ibsen used the metaphor of the doll in the 1890s.

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Ernest Hemingway’s

“Hills Like White Elephants”

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(Hills Like White Elephants illustrated by Toy Box Melody)

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Ernest Hemingway’s Biography

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(Hemingway the outdoorsman)

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Cicero (now in Oak Park), Illinois. Clarence and Grace Hemingway raised their son in this conservative suburb of Chicago, but the family also spent a great deal of time in northern Michigan, where they had a cabin. It was there that the future sportsman learned to hunt, fish and appreciate the outdoors.

In high school, Hemingway worked on his school newspaper, Trapeze and Tabula, writing primarily about sports. Immediately after graduation, the budding journalist went to work for the Kansas City Star, gaining experience that would later influence his distinctively stripped-down prose style.He once said, “On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

In 1918, Hemingway went overseas to serve in World War I as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army. For his service, he was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery, but soon sustained injuries that landed him in a hospital in Milan. In Paris, Hemingway soon became a key part of what Gertrude Stein would famously call “The Lost Generation.” With Stein as his mentor, Hemingway made the acquaintance of many of the great writers and artists of his generation, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. In 1923, Hemingway and Hadley had a son, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway. By this time the writer had also begun frequenting the famous Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.In 1925, the couple, joining a group of British and American expatriates, took a trip to the festival that would later provided the basis of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. The novel is widely considered Hemingway’s greatest work, artfully examining the postwar disillusionment of his generation.

Soon after the publication of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway and Hadley divorced, due in part to his affair with a woman named Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become Hemingway’s second wife shortly after his divorce from Hadley was finalized. The author continued to work on his book of short stories, Men Without Women.Soon, Pauline became pregnant and the couple decided to move back to America. After the birth of their son Patrick Hemingway in 1928, they settled in Key West, Florida, but summered in Wyoming. During this time, Hemingway finished his celebrated World War I novel A Farewell to Arms, securing his lasting place in the literary canon.

When he wasn’t writing, Hemingway spent much of the 1930s chasing adventure: big-game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, deep-sea fishing in Florida. While reporting on the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Hemingway met a fellow war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn (soon to become wife number three) and gathered material for his next novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which would eventually be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Almost predictably, his marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer deteriorated and the couple divorced. Gellhorn and Hemingway married soon after and purchased a farm near Havana, Cuba, which would serve as their winter residence.When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Hemingway served as a correspondent and was present at several of the war’s key moments, including the D-Day landing. Toward the end of the war, Hemingway met another war correspondent, Mary Welsh, whom he would later marry after divorcing Martha Gellhorn.

In 1951, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, which would become perhaps his most famous book, finally winning him the Pulitzer Prize he had long been denied.The author continued his forays into Africa and sustained several injuries during his adventures, even surviving multiple plane crashes.In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Even at this peak of his literary career, though, the burly Hemingway’s body and mind were beginning to betray him. Recovering from various old injuries in Cuba, Hemingway suffered from depression and was treated for numerous conditions such as high blood pressure and liver disease.Early on the morning of July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in his Ketchum home. (Biography)

Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

One of the key features you will notice right away is Hemingway’ short and right to the point style of writing. He purposefully used a little description as possible and stripped his sentences of large and excessive words. Hemingway referred to this as his iceberg theory:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. (Hemingway)

Just like how you only see the tip of the iceberg because the majority is submerged in the water, so too do you only see the “tip” or the main features of Hemingway’s stories. The meaning and message is there, but he does not spell it out for you. Hemingway allows us to fill in the blanks. We create what the setting looks like, how the characters feel like, and what meanings we can derive based on our own imaginations instead of Hemingway telling us what to think and how to feel.

Furthermore, consider the way her writes the dialogue. Compare this to how the dialogue is written in some of the 19th century texts we read. Notice how the language is plain, simple, and matter of fact. This sounds more like how people actually talk and express themselves. Hemingway wanted his stories to be as realistic as possible.

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Communication and the Elephant in the Room

Oddly enough, by giving us just the facts of what was taking place in his prose and writing plain speech as his dialogue, this makes it almost harder to follow what’s going on. Upon first reading, you may not have realized that the couple was talking about an abortion. Afterall, the story never explicitly mentions what the operation is. Hemingway understands that this is a difficult subject, and just like anytime we have a conversation about a delicate issue, we tend to speak vaguely and in circles. We worry about saying the wrong thing. We worry about offending others. We worry that we don’t quite have the words to express what we feel. We may not even know what we feel.

Consider the symbolism of the “white elephants” in this story. It’s just a casual observation that Jig makes about the hills near the train station, yet it opens up an entire can of worms. The white elephants represents the “elephant in the room”, which is a term that describes a topic or issue that everyone in a situation is thinking about, but nobody wants to address or deal with. Thus, everyone speaks as if there is an elephant standing in the room that nobody wants to address. It is obviously there and everyone is worried about, but nobody has the courage to bring it up so they act in a false an ridiculous manner to pretend it isn’t there.

In this story, we can think of abortion as the elephant in the room. They never specific address the abortion in their dialogue, but both know what the other is talking about. Is it ever truly clear what the man or the woman truly wants? The man seems to want to travel and thus abort the fetus, but does the woman want this? What does she want? Why is she afraid to vocalize this outloud?

It may look odd, but this cartoon I found with dinosaurs re-enacting the story does a pretty amazing job of re-imagining the story as if all the subtext was spoken out loud instead of buried. This is what “Hills Like White Elephants” would be like if Hemingway did not use the Iceberg Theory but instead just showed us exactly what everyone thinks and what we should think (and if the characters were dinosaurs)

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(Ryan North)

 

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