On Christmas morning my parents and I packed the car and headed to Ohio to visit family. While many travelers are likely to bring a book with them on such a trip, I tend to be reading many books at once, and I always have trouble discerning what texts future Kalie will be in the mood to peruse, so I brought a bag of books, just to read in my hotel room post-Christmas day festivities. We got back to the hotel a little before midnight, and while my plan had been to sit down and read, it occurred to me that maybe I’d like to ramble on just a little bit about what I’m reading right now, instead of picking up a book ASAP. As such, I emptied the contents of my bag of indecision on the spare bed in the hotel room, and I snapped a picture of the books I’m going to discuss. Since my focal areas are horror, monstrosity, and madness, the books predominantly fall under those subject areas, with considerable variation under that broader umbrella.
I wrote about the beginning of Robert Bloch’s Psycho a few days ago, and since I finished that book the next day, I plan to write about the rest of it. However, I don’t have it with me, so right now I’ll write about the texts I do have with me. So, with the Chili Peppers emanating throughout the hotel room and some one A.M. coffee brewing, I sit down to write about what I’m currently reading:
Great Expectations (Charles Dickens): This book is on the broad list for my comprehensive exam because of its attention to female madness — a focus I’m guessing will manifest through the character Miss Havisham, although I don’t know for sure, because I haven’t read the book since I was a sophomore in high school. The word “sham” is inherent, however, in Havisham’s name (thank you, 10th grade English teacher), which suggests that her entire character is surrounded by, and perhaps committed to, that which is, illusory. And what is much madness if not a genuine belief in that which is completely illusory? As for myself, I’ve only gotten through the first fifteen pages (I really hardly remember the book from 10th grade), but I really enjoy Pip’s camaraderie with his brother-in-law, Mr. Joe Gargery. I know eventually he’ll end up with Estella and Miss Havisham, and I’m excited to see how the story unfolds. I don’t get a chance to read much Dickens in my area of academic focus, so this will be a fun treat.
House of Psychotic Women (Kier-La Janisse): This book is on my narrow exam list because of its focus on (female) madness in horror films. I admit, I started reading it quite some time ago, and I’ve been inching through it relatively slowly, because I keep getting distracted by other things (like writing blog posts about what I’m reading, instead of actually reading). Janisse, in this text, dissects an expansive variety of horror movies, often employing basic psychoanalysis or snippets of other theory, along with inserting her own theorizing and relating the movies to her past in a very memoir-esque way.
I like reading this book because it’s academic without being stereotypically academic. Janisse describes each movie she discusses in considerable depth, often completing her plot overview and academic analysis with pictures from the film. She doesn’t feel like she has to follow any specific formula or obey any rules, and unlike a lot of theory I read, this book is incredibly accessible, so I’m not banging my head against a wall as I read it. She also focuses on describing a lot of lesser-known movies, so it’s a chance for me to learn about horror that I might not be wholly familiar with. Though my childhood was not much like Janisse’s, I enjoy hearing snippets about her (often very difficult) life, and on some level I feel I relate to her despite our differences. In general, I think it would be really challenging to combine literary theory and analysis with memoir, and Janisse does this seamlessly.
The Interpretation of Dreams (Sigmund Freud): Because my overarching theoretical lens is otherness, I’m reading some psychoanalysis to study how we often conceive of the self, the other, and the world through a psychoanalytic standpoint. The exploration has taken me from Shoshona Felman’s Writing and Madness to Slavoj Zizek’s works to Judith Butler’s reading of Hegel, and for this particular section of my exam, one book seems more challenging and abstract than the next. Freud’s text, based on the first few pages I’ve read, seems comparatively accessible, and since this is a canonical Freud work, I’m quite excited to read it. So far, Freud is just giving an overview about how past dream scholars have interpreted theory so that he can contrast his own theoretical approach with those of his predecessors.
Madness and Modernism (Louis A. Sass): Okay, I completely love this really thick book that’s going to take me forever to finish. In it, Louis Sass lays out some key components of one of psychiatry’s least comprehensible diseases – Schizophrenia – and makes the argument that Schizophrenia bears a strong relationship to modernist art, and thus might be more comprehensible than we think. In asserting this parallel, Sass subverts a lot of tired, inaccurate assumptions about schizophrenia, and indeed, as a psychologist, he exhibits an impressive amount of knowledge about the disorder. To Sass, history has always dubbed madness as deficiency – a deficiency of reason. By examining how modern art reflects madness and by thus breaking down the characteristics of art and madness, I imagine Sass will encourage his reader to look at schizophrenia – and madness in general – as something more than an inherent lack of something.
The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (Noel Carroll): AHHHH! I am so excited to read this book! Santa Claus (my parents) was/were kind enough to get me a lot of books on my comp exam list that I haven’t read yet for Christmas, and this is one of them. I was all set to sit down in the little corner chair in my hotel room and start reading it tonight, but alas, I’ve decided to write instead. Still, I’m super excited to read this. After flipping through the text, it looks like the author takes a very philosophically analytic approach to horror. Carroll starts by speculating a definition of horror and goes on to analyze some of its elements and paradoxes. Because Carroll is an Associate Professor of philosophy and theater at Cornell University, he seems particularly situated to write an interesting text about horror movies.
The Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus): I read this text once for a class on quixotism in the Enlightenment, but I feel I need to read it again, or at least skim its main points, to refresh my memory, since it’s on my broad list about madness. I’d like to know it really well for comp exams. In the text, the character “Folly” is, perhaps unsurprisingly for the 16th century, a woman, and she defends herself by asserting that many benefits come from the type of madness that we would construe as “Folly.” The message seems to be that illusion is better for people than facing life’s harsh realities, that in order to be happy, we have to be wrong about quite a lot. Folly contends that delusional thinking is an inherent part of being human, and that most everyone lives among many delusions.
While The Praise of Folly definitely isn’t post-modern, it seems to me that Folly’s observation that we’re missing the truth of life, that we can’t see what’s real and what’s not, compares interestingly to post-modern philosophy that questions the presence of ultimate truths. Western metaphysical thinking places a high premium on truth – especially on illusory goals like reaching some ultimate, transcendental truth – so Erasmus, I think, was doing something rather controversial when defending Folly so ardently in his text.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson): I regret to say I don’t have much to say about this book…yet. I brought this book with me today because it’s on the narrow list for my comprehensive examination, and I thought I could read it and check it off the list quickly. Alas, it appears I’ve underlined and annotated all over this book, meaning I probably read it for the candidacy exam. The “strange case” about The Strang Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that I honestly don’t remember reading it, and even as I look at passages I underlined and annotated, nothing’s ringing a bell (the fact that I passed the candidacy exam is a small miracle, in that light).
As I pay attention to what I underlined, however, I find it noteworthy that the seduction of evil is evident in Jekyll’s explanation of his heightened state of awareness as Hyde. Jekyll states: “I have more than once observed that in my second character, my faculties seemed sharpened to a point and my spirits more tensely elastic” (51). If our culture finds quote-unquote evil seductive in characters like Milton’s Satan, Hyde’s heightened abilities fall in line with this motif. This text is also a quintessential example of Western metaphysical thinking: I can say that much without remembering the details. In a very binary way, it assumes a human being can be inherently “good” and have an inherently “evil” double, which is interesting because Western metaphysical thought manifests in a reliance on binaries – a reliance that always places one half of the binary above the other. In a culture without such a binary-based way of thinking, such a text would probably never have been created. In any case, I intend to re-read this text shortly and refresh my memory.
Suddenly, Last Summer (Tennessee Williams): This play seems, to me, like a less conventional critique of mid-20th century treatments for madness and institutionalization practices. I liked the movie (and blogged about it) without knowing wholly what to make of all aspects of it, and the same might be the case for the play. Catharine Holly faces institutionalization because after her cousin, Sebastian died with only her present, the story she tells about his death seems so outlandish (and Sebastian’s mother, Catharine’s aunt, is so unwilling to believe it) that Catharine is essentially locked up. Most of the play consists of Catharine re-telling the story of “that summer,” and the re-telling culminates in a bizarre, almost surreal scenario that would theoretically be difficult to believe, if the text didn’t entreat us so much to trust and believe Catharine as opposed to her vicious aunt.
What strikes me most about this text is the pathos it provokes. Catharine does get rambly at points in the play, but on the whole, she seems fairly “level-headed,” and yet she’s treated as a child, stripped of her agency, both criticized and condescended to by different characters in the play. Despite the anger the play provokes, this is a short, quick read that’s definitely worth the time investment. (For some reason, it got included in the Ohio trip bag despite the fact that I just finished it yesterday).
Well – there’s my list: the nine books I brought with me on my one-night trip to Bowling Green Ohio. The title of this piece was meant to indicate that despite the reading I’ve done, I still have a long way to go before my comp exams in March. And while this realization is undoubtedly true, it’s nevertheless fun to write about what I’m reading and reflect on what I have accomplished, as opposed to perseverating over what hasn’t gotten done yet and/or what I’m afraid won’t get done. So Frost was right, I do have “miles to go before I sleep” in the very metaphoric sense of the phrase (as in, I have a lot of reading to do by March to prepare for my test), but from a literal standpoint, it’s past two in the morning, and going to bed seems like a good idea. So, I didn’t actually get to read a lot of the books I brought with me tonight, but at least I got to write about them!