Notions of Humanity

Me

People see a colored view of the world around them; it is palpable and vibrant and that is what makes it very hard to conceive in black and white and produce in front of those very people who have already witnessed the colorful reality. But that is what artists do; they take the labyrinth of life and the unfathomability of human emotion and try their best to compress it into a limited dimensional layer that can perhaps be better preserved than our mortal memory.

It is this plethora of creative expressions that – though can never really capture the real essence of existence – forms the basis of the notions of humanity that we see prevalent around our very atmosphere.

I remember reading The Great Gatsby almost two years back and the first thing that struck me about that book was its raw portrayal of human nature in America back in the roaring twenties. Virginia’s Woolf’s layered characterization and narrative led me to realize the nuances within human identities. Life of Pi revealed to me the bravery in cowardice and vice versa – the paradox of existence and the drive of commitment. Humans of New York showed me the multi-dimensional world of the people living across the globe through one-dimensional pages bought from a well-loved book shop.

My perception of humanity evolved (and is still evolving, as is everybody else’s) through the books that I have read, movies that I have watched, songs that I have listened to, and art that I have admired. I find it a privilege to be able to discover a part of myself in the expressions of artists around me. These are the roads that pave my notions of humanity.

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Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights is a haunting tale of a vengeful man Heathcliff, his lover Catherine and his sworn enemies Edgar and Hindley. Writing in an intimately critical style, Emily Bronte, describes the pitiful life of Heathcliff Earnshaw using Lockwood, a curious spectator, and Nelly, a former residence of Wuthering Heights, as the narrators.

The story revolves around Heathcliff’s sadistic desires to take revenge from Hindley, his step-brother, for abusing him by acquiring Wuthering Heights. He also plans on taking Thrushcross Grange from Edgar Linton for stealing Catherine away from him. Heathcliff is a remorseless and self-destructive man who goes through many means for seeking his revenge.

Stuck in the labyrinth of seeking vengeance, Heathcliff completely disregards his children and Catherine, whom he loves deeply but darkly. In the end, Heathcliff gets both the properties, but he is still mentally unsettled because of the loss of his lover, Catherine. He dies disconcerted and discontented.

The story Wuthering Heights embodies the scandalous side of the nineteenth century society. Heathcliff epitomizes a lost and wounded soul, who has been scarred deeply by wrong-doings and loss.

Even though the book is written in an unrealistically gothic fashion, it doesn’t fail to engross the readers in the complexity of its characters. It is truly a heart-wrenching, bitter-sweet book about internal conflicts, love and loss.

1984 pt 2

The abundant use of contrasting imagery in 1984 also profoundly helps in developing the meaning of the story and the bases of the plot. The conditions in society are described as desolate, empty, barren, and colorless. The infrastructure is made of steel and grey cement. There is an omnipresent odor of sweat and frustration in the air. The food is dry and bland and nothing – not even the “Victory gin” that they drink to make themselves feel temporarily good – tastes even remotely edible. All of this paints a painstakingly terrible picture of a society that has lost any and all form of happiness. The only thing that emanates beauty in this dead society are the few remnants of the past like the coral glass paperweight. The dire depiction of the world in which Winston lives serves to highlight the sorrowful condition of the society and also further accentuates the warning in the tone of Orwell’s writing against an authoritative regime.

The nuances in Winston’s character also reveal the restless nature of the society. With every form of happiness suppressed by the party, the people are forced to exert their unkempt energy in the devotion to their country. Winston is depicted as an intelligent man who constantly questions the motives of the party and yearns for a time past when things were possibly better. But he too, like the rest of the people, is frustrated with the gory and unsatisfactory nature of the society. Mere service to the Party does not fulfill his wants and he directs this frustration in thoughts of violence. This is particularly evident when he conjures up a picture of himself bashing Julia on the head with a brick, not only because he is scared that she is an agent of the Thought Police, but also because she represents something that he can never have: fulfillment of his physical desires. Winston’s character, as a whole, represents the dilapidated nature of the society that he lives in.

Through 1984, George Orwell is able to scrutinize the effects of a non-democratic, totalitarian political system on the functioning of a society and on the minds of the public. No one who dissents the political system is allowed to survive. Orwell captures this extremist nature of the system through his veritable use of literary devices.

1984 pt 1

George Orwell’s thought-provoking novel, 1984, deals with a political dystopia that results from the establishment of a ruthless and authoritarian regime. 1984 deals with the robot-like nature of a society where human rights have given way to a totalitarian society. It is though this novel that Orwell shines light on the negative aspects of communism and also warns the readers against the stifling effect of an authoritative and non-democratic government.

The story of the dystopia is told through the vigilant eyes of a thirty-nine-year-old Outer Party member, Winston Smith. Being the member of the Outer Party, he is educated, unlike the proles, and possesses certain intellectual capabilities that help him vaguely discern right from wrong amidst the lies enforced by the Party on the society. And unlike the Inner Party members, he is not completely immune to the brutalities of the Party. This makes him the most adequate narrator of the story. As Winston slowly realizes his subdued nature in the society, the readers are also able to see the society for what it truly is: mechanical and impassive. Winston, being an average member of the society, helps in not only imparting more connectivity to the reader with the text, but also helps the reader understand the political system on which the story is based – Ingsoc.

Ingsoc (or English Socialism) is the most aggressive form of socialism that any government can adopt. It is through the depiction of the terrible social conditions under Ingsoc that Orwell warns the readers about the horrible effects of establishing an authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the connotative meanings of the words that Orwell uses helps him to develop and build the warning in the tone of writing. The motif of evil and death is omnipresent in the story and is complemented by the use of connotative words like “grave” and “ghastly rubbish.” Orwell depicts the people of the society as brain-dead and emotionally empty – they are unable to invoke any feelings in themselves except that of blind patriotism that has been forcefully instilled into them by the Party. During one instance, Winston compares the rebels of the society – those who dare to think astray from the systematic beliefs of the Party and Big Brother – as “corpses waiting to be sent back to the grave.” This dark analogy implies that no one can escape from the clutches of the Party after committing a “thoughtcrime.” This motif of impending death that lurks throughout the story underscores the fatality of human nature under an oppressive government.

Another literary tool employed by Orwell to accentuate his warning against an authoritative political system is connotative diction. Words like “rebellion” and “liberty” that arise in Winston’s mind are a clear contrast to Newspeak, which is the language of Ingsoc. Newspeak was developed through English in such a way that it eliminated any possibility of thoughts about liberty and democracy and thus ensured that no citizen could ever possibly commit a thoughtcrime. The party used Newspeak as a tool to control the minds of the masses and hence, control reality. The brevity of Newspeak contrasts with the conscious and elaborate thinking of Winston, especially after he meets Julia, his lover, and becomes conspicuously rebellious. He constantly dreams of the past and even buys antiquated trivialities like an empty book and a beautiful coral paperweight from Mr. Charrington’s antique shop. Winston’s thoughts are intricate and abundant whereas Newspeak is concise and limited. This contrast illuminates the iridescent human nature in comparison to the rigidity of a totalitarian society. Just like Newspeak can only encompass Winston’s thoughts after he is ruthlessly tortured in the Ministry of Love; an authoritarian regime can only encompass its public though means of violence and inhumane control.

The Invisible Man

“The Invisible Man,” by HG Wells is a story about the internal and external conflict of Griffin, as he tries to deal with the distressfully powerful reality of being invisible. Wells employs supernatural elements in the story to reveal Griffin’s true character and to throw light on the negative effects of overreaching ambitions. Griffin’s internal conflict makes him both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story. “The Invisible Man,” is not just the story of the inevitable demise of a mad scientist, but it is also a story about the confrontation of an uncivil character with the society and with himself.

In the beginning of the story, Griffin is painted as a composed, but distressed, character. He is still trying to face the fact that his science experiment has rendered him invisible and in a state where it is almost impossible to lead a normal life. He cannot go out in public without covering himself from head to toe with burdensome bandages, he is unable to earn a living and has to thus resort to robbery, and he is unable to eat. Homeless and hungry, Griffin comes in a conflict with the society.

Perhaps it was this dawning of the realization of his helpless reality that forced him to act out against other people. He is not particularly friendly with Mrs. Hall, the amiable but nosy owner of Coaches and Horses Inn. On the day of his arrival, he talks briskly and shows no desire to have a conversation with Mrs. Hall. He avoids her questioning by tossing sovereigns over the counter and paying his way out of talking to anyone. He continues to live in his small room in the inn, aloof and detestably alone because of his physical condition.

When Griffin runs out of money, he decides to rob Mr. Bunting’s – a local vicar’s – house, and when accused of robbery, he unveils himself as the invisible man in front of the whole town. The series of his confrontation with the society that follow depict his restless and frustrated personality. He is on the brink of a spectacular scientific discovery of creating an invisibility formula, but obstacles (most of which he unintentionally creates himself) always keep coming in his way, preventing him from acquiring the success which he believes he rightfully deserves.

The continues external conflicts that Griffin faces with the society sprout from the unresolved conflict that he has accumulated within himself. Griffin is no doubt a scientific genius, but he is also socially awkward and unjustifiably authoritative. His attitude toward other people is patronizing for he believes himself to be above everyone else. He tries to hide his inner repulsion of his terrible fate by trying to establish a “reign of terror.”

In his “reign of terror” he wants to make himself the superior leader and the rest of the humanity his mere subjects. He believes that because he is invisible, no rules should apply to him. It is because of this false belief that he nurtures in his mind that his aggression toward the society intensifies. He tries to keep a lonesome and innocent homeless man, Mr. Marvel, as his unwilling partner and forces him to collaborate and help him (Griffin) complete his study on the invisibilty formula. Griffin even goes as far as to threated to kill Mr. Marvel if he doesn’t do as he says.

Griffin’s conflict with himself and the society heightens with the arrival of Dr. Kemp, his fellow colleague. The nuances in Griffin’s character are revealed through the small amount of time he spends with Dr. Kemp. While Griffin is still reticent during their encounter, he does show some vulnerability which underscores the conflicting nature of his character. Despite some initial reluctance, Griffin decides to confide with Dr. Kemp his troubles, pursuits, and his dream of establishing the “reign of terror” and creating a new world with him in charge. He even ventures to request Dr. Kemp to be his partner and to help him with his research.

The story culminates with Griffin’s final destructive rampage in an attempt to take revenge on Dr. Kemp, who despite promising confidentiality, betrays him and turns him out to the police. This betrayal acts as the final straw for Griffin and the weak threads that pulled him to humanity snap. He rampages across the whole town in anger and tries to kill Dr. Kemp, injuring innocent townspeople on his way. He becomes densely cold-blooded and reckless. In the end, he gets killed in a mob that he has started. It is his selfish and repugnant disposition that leads him to his own demise.

Life of Pi: Theme and Character

“Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel is a story about the journey of a young boy called Pi, across unfathomable seas in a desperate attempt to find land. It is during the surprising detour that Pi is forced to take when the ship carrying him and his family unexpectedly sinks, that he develops an independent perspective and a strong character. Martel uses surrealism to express how Pi overcomes the terrible circumstances that he is thrown into with premature valor, which eventually refine his character and turn him into a strong individual.

At its base, “Life of Pi,” is about the literal journey of Pi who becomes stranded in the middle of an ocean while migrating from India to Canada. Being alone in a mere wooden boat with little food and water and in the company of one of the most dangerous animals on earth: a tiger (Richard Parker), it would not have been surprising if Pi had succumbed to grief and become mad because of prolonged isolation. But his continuous faith in God and resolve in religion helped him to grapple onto the last thread of humanity for the entirety of his ordeal. In fact, it is because of the problems that he had to endure that his faith in religion and connection to God grew stronger. After losing his parents and his elder brother, God became his only form of salvation from his miserable reality.

Moreover, the essence of spirituality has many thematic implications in “Life of Pi.” Pi had always been a disciple and believer of all religions; rendering his faith equally to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. But after his journey across the Pacific, his faith grew stronger. Pi goes on to preach that all religions are equal. He explains that atheism is also a form of belief and he considers atheists as his brothers; but he discards agnosticism, saying that it is a phase of doubt and only a vehicle to get to a point where one can acquire actual faith. Through Pi’s strengthening of religious beliefs, Martel expresses that while bravery is an important aspect in overcoming a difficult situation, faith and religion are equally important facets in a character.

An important element that Martel uses to develop both theme and character is surrealism. This is evident in Pi’s encounter with the mystical algae island. At first, the island appears to be a haven to Pi, a safe place from the endless atrocities of the sea. The island provides him with abundant algae that he can eat and water that he can drink. But this island soon turns out to be more ominous than the sea during the worst of storms. The algae island was carnivorous and devoured life. Pi only came to realize this when found human teeth bundled up in what he thought was a fruit that was growing from the tree. It was at this point that he questioned his faith in the materialistic world but strengthened his faith in the spiritual world.

During one incident, when Pi becomes temporarily blind because of an unknown disease, he comes across another young boy who too, like him, is blind and stranded on the sea. What follows is also expressed through surrealism by Martel. The blind stranger, after having a rather odd conversation with Pi, leaps out from his own boat and onto Pi’s and attempts to take Pi’s life and eat him. Pi is surprisingly saved by Richard Parker who kills the stranger; but even the subtlest joy that he would have felt after being able to survive a gruesome attack is destroyed by Pi’s innocent misery which he feels after witnessing the murder. He says about this incident, “Something in me died then that has never come back to life.” This underscores Pi’s sensitive character. This incident also serves to depicts Pi’s internal conflict between retaining his humanity or submitting to the animalistic instincts that begin to push inside of him due to his desperate circumstances.

Pi’s relationship with his only companion – the tiger, Richard Parker – deepens as the journey continues, and this relationship also serves to develop Pi’s character. It is provided as a backdrop in the story that Pi had always been particularly afraid of Tigers. His father, who was a passionate zookeeper in Pondicherry, India, had made him witness a tiger devouring a young, defenseless fowl. Pi’s father had done this so that Pi and his elder brother wouldn’t foolishly attempt to enter a tiger’s cage. But this had created a fear of tigers in Pi’s mind. But during the ordeal that Pi endures, he is forced to overcome his fear of tigers and establish dominance over Richard Parker in order to ensure his own survival. He does this by regularly feeding Richard Parker fish and perpetuating in the tiger’s mind that he (Pi) was the tiger’s only source of survival.

This compelling journey that Pi takes across the Pacific transforms his character. He graduates from a sensitive vegetarian to a skilled survivalist. In the starting Pi deals with his devastation of having to kill a dorado to feed himself, but by the end of his journey he becomes strong enough to establish control over his surroundings.  The journey has a profound effect on him, as he culminates the values of religion and friendship and also develops an interest in botany and theology, which are the two subjects that he later takes up in his university. The experiences that he encounters during his journey leave him scarred but emotionally stronger than ever.

Politics and the English Language: What Orwell Meant Pt2

As stated in the essay, politics tend to bend the actual intentions of the speaker, i.e. using political speech to convey messages more often than not confuses the reader or the listener and leads to digressive remarks and actions. Euphemisms are quite popular in political speeches and debates (both written and spoken). As Orwell says, “[Thus] political language has to consist largely of euphemisms, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Even though euphemisms may seem essential to generate assent within the public and justify the actions that may otherwise seem inhumane and decadent, they wrongly inform the public of the actual intentions of the speaker.

An opponent may say that the use of such words makes an orator, like Mark Antony way from Julius Caesar; but Orwell would firmly disagree. An orator would be a person who can shape the opinions of the public by using simple diction, not someone who depends on ambiguity to gain support.

Orwell dismisses the notion that language grows naturally, and instead says that the growth of language depends largely on its use by the common people. He believes that the decadence that is created by modern English can be eliminated by a few concerned individuals who incorporate his above-mentioned rules in their daily lives.

Orwell appears to be an anarchist of political English; reproaching abstract speeches and the influence of politics in our daily lives. Politics, according to Orwell, has successfully permeated all of our social walls, including our tongues and pens. These nuances have to be changed through personal effort.

Perversion of the English language can be stopped by embracing its Saxon roots and speaking and writing with an everyday ease.

Politics and the English Language: What Orwell Meant Pt1

The English language is a rather volatile subject; constantly and incessantly changing and shifting, as adequately supplied in the essay, ‘Politics and the English Language,’ by George Orwell. In his essay, Orwell comments on the degrading nature of modern English and accuses politics for deteriorating the dialects of English used now-a-days.

The way we act and speak is generally constructed by a consensus in our society, so naturally, our language keeps changing with the change in the general consensus. To emphasize this, Orwell states that the decline of language is ultimately associated with political and economic causes.

Consensus in a society is made by people, and these people are highly swayed by the laws that they abide by, i.e. the politics they follow. Orwell exemplifies his statement on the role of politics in the decline of English language by providing five passages that believes are corrupted by the use of modern English.

In the first passage by Professor Herald Laski, Orwell tells the readers about the counterproductive effect of using, “superfluous” and, “jargon” words. Professor Laski’s passage uses, as said by Orwell, “five negatives in fifty words.” This usage fails to create a clear picture of what Professor Laski was trying to say.

Furthermore, in the second passage Orwell accuses Professor Lancelot Hogben for misusing the word, ‘egregious,’ and says that Professor Hogben simply did not put in the effort of looking that word in the dictionary.

While stating these mistakes, Orwell’s voice is not that of mockery or condescendence, but of an understanding cultivated by making similar mistakes.

George Orwell does not simply state these mistakes but also provides legitimate explanations for why these mistakes were made.  He says that this was due to the excessive use of worn-out idioms, pretentious words, passive voice and unneeded metaphors that accompany modern English.

The author of this essay condemns vagueness in written and spoken prose. He says that in order to convey the genuine image of what is in the writer’s mind, the writers must first paint a picture of the object in his mind and then deliver it to his audience by using everyday English words. Precision, according to Orwell, is an important element that should be regularly incorporated into our writing.

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye is a book of omnipresent dilapidation of human character. Reading it through its initial chapters, I couldn’t really understand why it was taught in schools and why so many people loved it so much. The first five chapters were boring, “depressing,” and they seemed to lack direction. It wasn’t until later in the book that I realized what direction the book was actually heading in.

This book has a very unconventional style of writing, especially considering the time period during which it was written. The protagonist in this book is not a highly relatable person, and this may seem a little off putting since readers love to be able to relate to the characters in the book. But even though the protagonist, Holden, isn’t especially relevant to an ordinary person, Salinger has still managed to make his entirety very tangible.

Holden reciprocates accentuated teenage angst and alienation; the want of fitting in and the torment of not being able to. Taken from a literary point of view, this accentuation in itself serves to be an extended metaphor for the very stage of adolescence.

The Catcher in the Rye does not revolve around a definite plot, but instead, it evolves around definitive human emotions. The book follows Holden through his mental labyrinth of trying to find himself and what he really wants to be; it traces concepts of emotional voids, depression, and liberation through a narrative pattern. Something from within the book that describes the book perfectly is this quote:

“The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling.”

That is pretty much the gist of the book. You can hear Holden fall, you can very well feel him falling, but you just have to keep waiting until he can hear it too.

Mosquitoland

Mosquitoland was a splendid read! I had picked it up in Borders because I wanted to deviate from the heavy words of Dante Alighieri and Sylvia Plath that I had been indulging in. And I’m really glad that I did.

This books covers many aspects of teenage life (and life in general) through an impulsive trip taken up by one of the most realistic protagonists ever written up in literature – Mary Iris Malone. The reason that Mim (Mary Iris Malone) appears extremely realistic to me is probably because I found her very relatable. She has profound physical and emotional flaws (like we all do) and her personality balances both good and bad in the rawest way possible. There is a lot I can say about how Mim is written in the book, but everything she does and everything she became came as surprise to me, and I want it to come as a surprise to you too.

The story around the book develops in two ways: through what Mim does on her little road trip to find her mother in Cleveland, and through letters that Mim writes in her stick-figure journal (I’m not going to disclose who these letters are addressed to because I’m not the kind of miserable person who spoils books – or anything – for people.)

Each and every character in the book was marvelously written, and I had to use the word marvelous because I couldn’t find any other word that described how beautifully David Arnorld painted vivid and colorful pictures of the characters. To me, characters in a book are what makes the book interesting. Characters develop the plot, characters blend into the literature, and characters are the condiments that stand out.

I also really admired Arnold’s tongue-in-cheek writing style, it was unique and made the book so much more fun to read. If you haven’t read the book yet, I would definitely recommend you put Mosquitoland on the top of your ‘to-read books’ list.

P.S. I couldn’t not mention how excited I was when I read that Bon Iver and Elliot Smith were featured in this book as amongst Mim’s favorite artists!