(sub)Text: Dead Wall Reveries in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is subtitled a “Story of Wall St.,” yet there is almost nothing in it of the bustle of city life, and entirely nothing in it of the hustle of the trading floor. The story’s walls block out the streets, serving on the one hand as a container for a colorful assortment of human Xerox machines, on the other as a blank projection screen for the reveries of a man who seems to quietly rebel against the very concept of imitation. Can we continue to live and work, if we strongly prefer to do nothing that is derivative? What happens to our aspirations, if we come to fully appreciate the gravity of fate? Could we continue to tell our own stories, if we were liberated from all idiosyncrasies of character? Wes & Erin analyze.

(sub)Text: Cursed Kids or Psych-Au Pair? “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

The story begins and ends with two variations on the meaning of the title. On the one hand, to give another turn of the screw is to ratchet up the horror of a good ghost story, in this case by involving children in it. On the other, it’s to treat the cause of that horror as if it were just another of life’s many obstacles, to be overcome both by screwing one’s courage to the sticking place, and by suppressing awareness of what is revoltingly unnatural in it. Whose screw turns out to be looser—the audience that enjoys such stories (and sometimes believes them), or the teller who manufactures them? Wes & Erin analyze Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.”

(sub)Text: Gentility and Injustice in “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

Gone with the Wind— adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film in American history— has undergone several critical reappraisals in the 82 years since its production and release. Certainly the film romanticizes the Antebellum South and the Confederacy while glossing over the evils of slavery and stereotyping many of its black characters. Yet it may also provide a sharp critique or even satirization of its white characters— the ambivalent, arrogant, and deluded plantation owners who fail to acknowledge that their so-called “fairy-tale kingdoms” are built on the backs of slaves. What can we make of Rhett Butler’s characterization of the Confederate “Cause” as the “Cause of Living in the Past”? And why does even the modern, adaptable Scarlett O’Hara remain in thrall to a childhood dream that, like the “gallantry” of the Old South, was nothing more than a fantasy? Wes & Erin anazlye.

(sub)Text: Realism as Cruelty in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams

In the transition from stage to screen, “A Streetcar Named Desire” retained its long-running Broadway cast with a single exception: the role of Blanche Dubois, which passed from Jessica Tandy to Vivien Leigh. Like Blanche, Leigh was the odd woman out. A symbol of the glories of the studio system, married to the symbol of English stage acting, her classical training ran contrary to that of her Method-trained co-stars. Thus to the clash of wills between Blanche and Stanley Kowalski was added a clash of acting styles— and the struggle between the death of Old Hollywood and the birth of Brando and the New. Which principle— Blanche’s fantasy or Stanley’s realism— makes for superior art? Can the conflict between magic and truth ever be resolved? And is all realism a form of cruelty? Wes & Erin discuss Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

(sub)Text: Prestidigitocracy in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

The Wizard of Oz is supposed by the land’s inhabitants to be its most powerful magician. But far from having any actual power, he is not even native to the place in which real magic is in plentiful supply. Oddly, this supernatural world seems to be secretly governed by mundane sleight of hand, and growing up, for Dorothy, involves uncovering the flimsy basis of adult authority. Which magic is more potent: the childish imagination, or the symbolic power of grown-ups to educate it? Wes & Erin analyze the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Formulated Phrases in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot: Part 2

Wes & Erin continue their analysis of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In Part 1, they covered roughly the first third of the poem. In Part 2, they begin with a discussion of Prufrock’s coffee spoons, and then continue on to: his allusions to John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet; the disjointed portrait of his probable love interest; and the twinning of aging and fantasy in the final stanzas.

(sub)Text: Disturbing the Universe in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot: Part 1

t was T. S. Eliot’s first published poem. Written when he was only in his early 20s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” rode the crest of the wave of literary Modernism, predated World War I, and presaged an age of indecision and anxiety. The poem is the dramatic interior monologue of the title character, a middle-aged man whose passivity and ambivalence are threaded with artistic allusions, epigrammatic observations, and meditations on the nature of time, the fraudulence of relationships, and the risks of eating a peach. Should Prufrock dare disturb the universe? Should we?

(sub)Text: At Home with War in “Apocalypse Now” (1979) by Francis Ford Coppola

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore doesn’t flinch for enemy fire, loves the smell of napalm in the morning, and would literally kill for good surfing and a beachside barbecue. His attempts to recreate home within the theater of war render him the perfect foil to a certain upriver madman, who seems intent on making high culture serve the purposes of primitive horror. And yet Kurtz is ready to argue that it is his methods that are more sound, just because they embrace their ruthlessness more honestly, in contrast to the impotent half-measures of an imperial power that can rationalize its atrocities as collateral damage in the service of a larger humanitarian goal. Which approach should evoke more horror? Wes & Erin analyze Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”

(sub)Text: Unsound Methods in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

On his journey to the heart of the Congo, Marlow learns of a famed ivory trader named Kurtz— a remarkable man; a “universal genius;” a painter, poet, and musician; a man whose success in his trade has been unparalleled, but whose “unsound methods” have put him at odds with local bureaucrats. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, he hears firsthand the trader’s essential characteristic: a deep and commanding voice which, combined with his methods, has earned him disciples and inspired local tribes to worship him as a god. But what message does Kurtz speak into the terrible silence of the African wilderness? And what deficiency, as Marlow calls it, might be hiding beneath his eloquence? Wes & Erin analyze Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness.

(sub)Text: On the Lam with “Thelma & Louise” (1991)

Two women—one a straight-laced waitress, the other a naive housewife—leave town for a quiet weekend getaway. But after a deadly encounter with a rapist, the two become unlikely…and then increasingly confident…outlaws. Though a kindly police officer tries to convince the women to turn themselves in, their refusal to surrender to a future scripted by forces more powerful than themselves drives them to a shocking and iconic ending. Is their fate triumphant or tragic? Wes & Erin analyze Ridley Scott’s 1991 film, Thelma & Louise.

(sub)Text: Spiritual Matters in Chekhov’s “The Student” and “A Medical Case”

In Chekhov’s stories, beautiful natural surroundings are often a setting for unnatural lives and ugly social conditions. This sets the stage for a reflection on the relationship between physical and spiritual needs. His story “The Student” suggests that material deprivation–whether it is the exhaustion of the apostle Peter or the poverty of the Russian peasant–can undermine the capacity for fidelity and cultivation. In “A Medical Case,” a young heiress is made physically ill by her guilty awareness of oppressive conditions in her family’s factories. Can art, science, and faith truly redeem the individual human spirit without first transforming its social environment?

Art and Action in Chekhov’s “The House with the Mezzanine”

In this story, there are two sisters: one introverted, frail, and bookish; the other dominant, opinionated, and politically active. In meeting them, an accomplished artist seems to be confronted with a dilemma. Should art subordinate itself to the project of creating a just society? Or should it focus on serving more spiritual needs? These questions make Chekhov’s “The House with the Mezzanine” an interesting meditation on the relationship between politics and the arts, and whether the windows of our proverbial dwellings are best used to illuminate a new path forward, or to articulate the beauty of the world as it is.

(sub)Text: Nipped by Love in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”

Dmitri Gurov does not take love seriously. His wife annoys him, long-term relationships scare him, and his love life consists of brief affairs with women he meets at vacation resorts. In Anna, he finds someone who appears to be the usual victim—traveling alone, tired of her husband, and unlikely to make any effective demands for intimacy, something that seems to be revealed in the diminutive portability of her traveling companion. This time, however, he has met a match too powerful for his predatory ambitions. When is love’s bite bigger than its bark? Wes & Erin discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Little Dog.”

(sub)Text: Against Specialization in Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”

Hedda Gabler is not a fan of specialization: not in the professor she has married, and his esoteric scholarly interests; not in domesticity, and the specialized affections required by marriage and motherhood; not in any lover’s infatuated specialization in her; and perhaps not in the form of specialization arguably required by life itself, with its finite and confining possibilities. Is there any way, short of suicide, to transcend such limits? Wes & Erin discuss Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.