Evolit: Week 11--Convergence? Divergence?

Anne Dalke's picture
Paul and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you're thinking about--but here are two possibilities for this week:
  • Think some more about the task I gave you (but didn't give you enough time for) in class: how can you imagine playing out the theory of cultural evolution in the design of a course of study, or in a course, or in just a module of one? How might you illustrate (or test) the ideas of cultural divergence and convergence with a particular selection of cultural-and-or biological artifacts?

  • Out of all the possibilities (evoked above!) in the cultural landscape: why Hustvedt? How might her novel in particular contribute to our story of cultural evolution? What "convergence" or "divergence" does she represent in the story we are telling together here? How, specifically, do you understand the relationship of her text to Whitman's?
kgould's picture

Cultural evolution, perhaps

Cultural evolution, perhaps according to Hustvedt, is about moving forward and not delving deeply into the past.

I agree with that, mostly, because it is only by moving forward that we are able to make any progress socially, morally... but the past is important. Knowing where we came from is humbling; it allows us to know ourselves and to find a pace to walk with. 

I often feel like Americans are eager to stand still, to keep their culture stagnant and unchanging. Yes, we've elected Obama, and yes, things are starting to change, but it's as that change is occurring that resistors and standing taller and digging their heels in.

Why are we so objected to change? In education, civil rights, and other social matters?... I suppose is comes down to what one views as "right" and "wrong." There are certainly changes that individuals have proposed that I don't agree with. Does that make me resistant to change? Is there an inevitable change we have to look forward to? Or is it like evolution, just going...?

Sophiaolender's picture

Erik talks a lot about the

Erik talks a lot about the fragmented self in this book and about putting the pieces together. This reminds me of Warren's All The King's Men, where the character contunally states how we are all pieces until we fall in love and the person who loves us picks up our pieces and puts us all together. This idea (or image) has always stuck with me and I can't help but connect this to Erik. He is so alone throughout this novel and maybe his pieces could become a whole if he were to find love.
Rachel Townsend's picture

Thinking about class discussion

I've been thinking a lot about Paul's groups' Thursday discussion of Hustvedt.  Over the course of the class I completely changed my mind about the nature of the novel and I thought that it was great that thinking and discussing in a group like that could fo this for me.  Initially I proposed that the novel might be Hustvedt's process of examining and dealing with her own father's death, that through writing the novel she could process her own life and heal from the death.  But as the class continued to discuss we came to a place of thinking more about the novel as Hustvedt's attempt to warn against such looking back in order to deal with significant and tragic happenings in our lives.  We thought that in writing the novel and using her father's diary as the raw material for a good chunk of the book was her way of showing the reader that what is productive is not looking back but taking the elements of that past and moving forward to do something new with what has happened to you. While Hustvedt did this literally with physical evidence of her memory and experience, I do think that she is more generally encouraging us to take our traumatic experiences and move forward from them and with them. 
aseidman's picture

I got nothing.

I think the biggest problem I had with the assignment "create something new" is that...well, it's hard to create something new just out of the blue. I like to think of myself as a creative person, but unfortunately I can't just create something that no one has imagined before without some basis on which to begin. Perhaps the reason that the class came up with ideas that Professor Dalke thought were mostly just rehashings of old or traditional concepts for classes was because it's next to impossible to "evolve" a new idea out of nothing like that in, a short period of time. Evolution requires slow change from one concept to another, until something that is entirely new and different from teh original is created. Change over time, right?
Marina's picture

sorrows

Reading Sorrows of an American was a nice departure from the more dense texts we have read thus far. I enjoyed reading Sorrows, but I was also annoyed at times. I often felt that the characters in the novel were being whiny and melodramatic, especially towards the end. I can definitely see a connection between Sorrows and Whitman as both are highly related to the unconscious. Whitman writes in a style that attempts to recreate unconscious experience while Hustvedt borrows a lot from psychology regarding psychoanalysis, dreams, associations, and therapy to bring some light to the unrconscious experience of different characters in the novel. For instance, Erik's dreams and Miranda's drawings bring a lot of their unconscious feelings to the forefront ... perhaps even Lane's photography and Lisa's dolls. I was also puzzled by the title when I first started reading the novel, but after finding out it was named after another novel about a man's unrequited love it makes sense and reflects a bit of Erik's storyline.
Anisha Chirmule's picture

Possibilities for Class Direction

Like Abby, the first thought I had for this class was something like Harry Potter, or a current mainstrem novel that appeals to the masses, such as Twilight.  Using Twilight as a starting point, I would try to find the influences that created the storyline and gave the author inspiration for writing the novel itself.  For example, relating it to a classic like Dracula.  Although this is a typical course descrption, there are ways to create more levels to it.  Taking from Tara's post, using the history of when these novels were written and integrating that into our understanding of why these ideas came up.  One difficulty that I would try to avoid with this course is bringing excess philosophical conversations into classes.  I know, personally, that is where I am having the most difficulty in finding connections to the conversation topic, or even relevant points to contribute to the class.

That being said, the more we discuss the contexts and character traits of the characters in Sorrows of an American, I am begining to understand more and more why Professor Dalke chose this novel.  Everytime I am seeing comparisons (convergence) and dissimilarities (divergence) between chosing Whitman and Hustvedt.  For example, the relatibility to the experiences of the characters can be compared to the generality of Whitmans descriptions of people.  I feel as though these convergences and divergences are helping me further understand not only the direction of the course, but the texts themselves.  Had I read Whitman by itself, for the purpose of this class and with the intent of analyzing the piece of work, I do not think I would have appreciated it.  Especially when it is paired with  Hustvedt, I am finding more layers and meanings in both texts that I would not have come to understand had they been read alone.  

kapelian's picture

I really like the novel The

I really like the novel The Sorrows of an American.  It's different from many things I've read before, and is definetely something I'd recommend to other people.  We talked in our small sessions about whether or not the narrator was left ambigious on purpous or not at the beginning... but thinking about it, I wonder if it was on accident.  People often write things knowing exactly what they are going to say and knowing almost everything about the characters.  So Hustvedt may have accidentally left out the knowladge that the narrator was a man, leaving the "reveal" on page 8 to be surprising to the reader.  Hustvedt may have realized this and not changed it, or because she knew that the narrator would be male all along, did not change it because she did not realize what she had done.
amoskowi's picture

On interconnected texts...

Well, I'm a Harry Potter person, so it was one of my first thoughts when you were asked about texts that you saw moving into each other. It's pretty common (but no less true) to hear about all the different past influences for the series, and to follow the allusions, explicit or none, made in the series. One of its enduring characteristics, I think, is how it carries on traditions established in pieces like Lord of the Rings which is possible because of Beowulf and the like. But I know in class you seemed frustrated with the linear track of our thinking, and I was trying to consider ways to challenge that. Can a text be created in part by things that come after or at the same time?

Harry Potter proves yes, I believe. I mean, the books are good, but a large part of the appeal has to do with the culture, with the craze, with how the movies, and fansites, and fanfiction color people's ideas, both for the devoted fans and the bystanders who keep hearing about it on the news. Not to mention the controversy. So...yeah. I think looking at Mugglenet postings, as well as, for instance, their podcast, and the like would be a very interesting way of understanding how literature evolves (or, at least, the perception of it) even after it's conception. And Harry Potter's awesome. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Experiencing Hustvedt ... and Whitman ... and evolution ....

Hustvedt

While reading Sorrows Of An American, most of us confused the narrator to be a female instead of a male ... intentional on the author's part ? ... skhemka

It is possible we all thought the character was a female at first because of the assimilation with his sister at the beginning of the book and maybe also since the writer is a woman, the main character might be “thinking like a woman” ... amirbey

What made him sound feminine? The fact that he was so observant of other's feelings. Or the way he talked about his dead father, his mother, his sister, and his worrying of his niece ... aybala50

Hustvedt and Whitman

The Sorrows of an American is an absorbing novel, however I do not understand why Hustvedt’s narrative should be taken seriously in an academic discussion. Maybe Erik will answer my question in the final scene by closing the gap between past and present ... How do we get from Whitman, one of the most influential American poets, to Hustvedt? Both are examples of realism in literature, but there is still 150 years missing from the evolution of the self ... Lisa B

This weekend I went to see the Cezanne and Beyond exhibit at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. I'd never studied Cezanne before and I was struck by the way that his paintings seemed realistic at first glance, but the longer I stood and stared at them, the more they seemed ambiguous and slightly unreal. There's always something "a little bit off" about his paintings that make them intriguing and confusing ... I feel the same way about Hustvedt's novel, especially as I neared the end ... it's realistic but there's always something "a little bit off" ... it's easy enough to relate it in some ways to Whitman's work: bits and pieces of a man's life, strung together, and not necessarily related, but describing a sort of general overall theme or feeling. However, what is definitely unclear to me is how this novel is more significant than any other recent novel ... sbechdel

I have found myself in several classes, including this one, asking myself “why this book?, isn’t there a better example out there?” ... It’s interesting to see unconscious thought, like from Leaves of Grass, weaved into a story with a distinct plot line. This immediately made me think of our discussions of evolution. I like Hustevedt’s writing and reading the character’s jumbled, stream-of-consciousness thoughts. I think its much more useful than Whitman’s purely stream-of-consciousness writing, but in this example Whitman was an ancestor of Hustvedt. The “trait” or idea of stream-of-conscious writing was refined and incorporated or “passed down” into a new type of story ... eolecki

In this way, [Sorrows] seems utterly unlike Leaves of Grass or the unconscious. The poem might not have had a traditional structure, but it was always moving. The characters in the novel, on the other hand, seem stuck in isolation ... kbrandall

I ... found the mixture of unconscious thought and consciouness to be very interesting ... there is a great deal more conscious organized thought than there was in Leaves of Grass, but there is also a randomness of order ... it jumps from a later entry into the father's diary to the narrators current time frame then back to the father's diary but to an even earlier time period within that time frame. It makes things a little more confused and jumbled, much like the initial impression of the unconscious thought ... enewbern

We had traced Erik's individual history back with him until the final conclusion that perhaps his subconscious and his conscious were all results of this convergence of three individuals (two who came before him and himself), resulting in the individual he is ... ibarkas

Evolution: cultural, biological, educational

The problem with creating a class about cultural evolution is that there is not just one track to follow-- there are a lot of branches on the tree of cultural evolution too ... Maybe the best way would be to demonstrate the way the class itself evolves when it is given a story and then split up and asked to retell it seperately and then to tell the retold story to different other groups ... lewilliams

I find it rather interesting that in the first half of this course, everyone thought Darwin was boring and that Dennett was more interesting and dynamic. Now in this second half of the course, most of the class believes that Whitman was boring and that Hustvedt is more dynamic and refreshing. It seems as though we like to see a series of ideas evolve (Dennett) or a story evolve (Hustvedt), and that we are bored by mere descriptions (Darwin) or representations (Whitman) of evolution at any scale. Maybe we don't enjoy evolution consciously, that is we find it boring to read peoples' accounts of it, whether large-scale or personal. Instead, we prefer to read things and acknowledge more passively that something is evolving, whether the story is good or not ... In some ways I think this sort of 'passive' acknowledgement of evolution opens just as much inquiry as Darwin's scientific story ... Recognizing that we are directing the evolution of this course and causing each other to evolve in thought is, itself, a great source of inquiry ... There is something very intriguing about controlling and experiencing evolution, perhaps more intriguing than simply studying it ... Jackie Marano

our readings were much richer than they would have been just coming to it with our disparate and limited individual backgrounds and perspectives ... sustainablephilosopher

And on ... to further unanticipated/unanticipatable richness

eglaser's picture

Lingual evolution

One interesting way to look at cultural evolution is at the evolution and divergence of languages. I do not think we have a class here at Bryn Mawr about the creation and interaction of languages. Not only is the evolution of any specific language incredably telling on the subject of cultural evolution, it also helps us understand the ideas of merging and divergence that is present in Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

We have the divergence of languages (English versus Swahili), the evolution of a language (American English versus Australian English) and the merging of languages (code switching and the adoption of words into a new language, as a more specific example, the use of the phrase schadenfreude to fill a hole in the English language). We can also look at the creation of languages (Shakespeare, or esperanto) as a speciation event.

An intresting book on this topic is Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" which looks at the evolution of English specifically but also at the general evolution of languages.

merlin's picture

I've noticed that in class

I've noticed that in class we've been using the term "unconscious" frequently. Should we maybe be using the word "subconscious" in the context of this course?

After looking them up in the OED, I came across these definitions:

UNCONSCIOUS

1.a. Not conscious or knowing within oneself; unaware, regardless, heedless.

2.a. Not characterized by, or endowed with, the faculty or presence of consciousness.

2b. Temporarily devoid of consciousness.

 

SUBCONSCIOUS: 

a. Partially or imperfectly conscious; belonging to a class of phenomena resembling those of consciousness but not clearly perceived or recognized.    

b. Pertaining to the subconscious; belonging to that portion of the mental field the processes of which are outside the range of attention.

B. absol. as n. Psychol. The part of the mind that is not fully conscious but is able to influence actions, etc.

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 11

An interesting thing happened to me today. It goes back to the first half of the course, but it does say that I can write about anything. I remembered our discussion of the fossil record and was curious to learn more about it. A google search came up with very little factual information and a lot of people's opinions about evolution. All of these people made me very frustrated because they were all trying to convince me "their side" is right. Why does there need to be this binary between creationism and evolution? There isn't proof for either view, why can't people just agree that they interpret the evidence differently? Why are the in-between views ignored? The creationist essays I read (very unreliable sources, so I'm not providing a link, but still interesting) claimed that evolution didn't happen because there isn't proof, so it must have been God that created the world. Is it just me, or does that logic make no sense? If someone wants to deny that evolution exists because it can't be proven, shouldn't they also deny God because it can't be proven he exists? I think realizing that people are allowed to believe what they want, and that neither view can be proven would be a useful attitude to take here.  Some informed discussion that keeps the previous point in mind would also be nice. What about schools? The truth is, a lot of what is taught in school is one side of the story, unproven or just plain lies. I don't see any lawsuits about how schools portray Columbus. I get that evolution threatens people in a way Columbus doesn't, but I still find it quite frustrating.

lewilliams's picture

 On the subject of why

 On the subject of why Siri Hustvedt:

The Sorrows of an American discusses "the merging" that Whitman describes but, as someone in my small session  pointed out, Hustvedt's merging isn't quite the same. Rather than Whitman's full-bodied loving embrace, Hustvedt's merging is a description of the lonliness in different people coming together. Of course, the search for answers and meaning as well as the attention to the unconscience are important themes in the book relative to the class as well. I feel that the book is definitley well-picked for the class for these reasons as well as others.

I think that the story being "an imigrant's story" might be important to Hustvedt in this merging and diverging way. When an imigrant enters into a new society, he/she both merges with the new society and becomes seperate from it because of the difference he/she is bringing with them.

I have to admit that I'm not quite on the same page with people who enjoy reading Hustvedt over reading Whitman, however. Where Whitman's writing seemed to be constantly in excess, Hustvedt seemed somewhat dry. I'm not the biggest fan of either, but I seem to favor the excess. 

 

On a new type of class:

  I can think of a few classes at Bryn Mawr that cross divisions: this class, Conceptual Physics, and Poetry in Landscape. Interestingly enough, they were probably all based on a CSEM.

I'm not sure what the New Class would be. I feel that with a liberal arts education all of us are getting the breadth we need. We may be taking linear tracks, but we have other requirements that help us to make our own personal connections between the courses. The connections that we make on our own are part of what makes every student different. We choose classes that fit our own needs and make them work for us. This is the was we evolve from our classes.

The problem with creating a class about cultural evolution is that there is not just one track to follow-- there are a lot of branches on the tree of cultual evolution too.  I suppose the best way would be similar to this class. Maybe the best way would be to demonstrate the way the class itself evolves when it is given a story and then split up and asked to retell it seperately and then to tell the retold story to different other groups would be a good demonstration of what happens in cultural evolution. (Much like this class already does but to a larger scale.)

 

eawhite's picture

    The most

 

 

The most refreshing part of Hustvedt’s novel is Eggy. She has not yet been tainted by the trials and tribulations of the real life. She is able to stay in her make-believe world by using a ball of string to show how she controlls her world and keeps it closely connected to her by stringing everything together and then to herself, much like her own personal cocoon. She was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise depressing book. No one was happy, everyone had serious mental health issues.

We spent a lot of time talking about the voice of the first 6 or so pages. I never attached a gender to the beginning several pages. Upon reflection, I’m not sure it really makes any difference as to whether these pages are delivered with a woman’s or a man’s voice. I do believe however that Hustvedt put a lot of herself into this book and I suspect each of the characters has a piece of who she is in them; a sort of glimpse into the psyche of the author through her characters. Whitman wrote like this too only he didn’t disguise who he was through fictional characters.

Both books are a window into the mind of the authors.

ccrichar's picture

No Connection

I find no connection to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" to Siri Hustvedt's "The Sorrows of an American".   I can relate to Hustvedt's novel but not Walt Whitman's.  Hustvedt's has a beginning and an ending.  I like beginning , middle and an ending.  Hustvedt's plot is interesting and captivating whereas Whitman's was dry and uninteresting.
Jackie Marano's picture

Class trends

      I find it rather interesting that in the first half of this course, everyone thought Darwin was boring and that Dennett was more interesting and dynamic. Now in this second half of the course, most of the class believes that Whitman was boring and that Hustvedt is more dynamic and refreshing. It seems as though we like to see a series of ideas evolve (Dennett) or a story evolve (Hustvedt), and that we are bored by mere descriptions (Darwin) or representations (Whitman) of evolution at any scale. Maybe we don't enjoy evolution consciously, that is we find it boring to read peoples' accounts of it, whether large-scale or personal. Instead, we prefer to read things and acknowledge more passively that something is evolving, whether the story is good or not.

     In some ways I think this sort of 'passive' acknowledgement of evolution opens just as much inquiry as Darwin's scientific story...do we enjoy 'passive' evolution in stories because it happens within hours, days, weeks, and lifetimes? Does the common reader have less interest in Darwin and Whitman because their ideas are too abstract, intangible, or timeless? Maybe we prefer to control or actively participate in the evolutionary process as authors, readers, and storytellers, rather than to feel that we represent the biological or psychological process itself? It seems that there's plenty of room for inquiry here...generally a good source for evolution of any type. Maybe this sort of inquiry would lead to evolution we can feel or recognize? I think this course is a source and a product of evolution, as are all humans. Recognizing that we are directing the evolution of this course and causing each other to evolve in thought is, itself, a great source of inquiry. I think that's why this course hasn't stopped evolving, and neither have we.  There is something very intriguing about controlling and experiencing evolution, perhaps more intriguing than simply studying it, it seems. 

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Uniqueness of Convergence?

In our discussion on Thursday, the convergence and overlap of the classes we take each semester was a topic that was talked about for some time. I mentioned how the similarities I found between all of my classes and the overlap between authors, ideas, theories, etc. were really exciting. The "no places" in between the strict disciplines set up by departments were the most fun and intriguing to think about.

Then, someone else mentioned how it was too bad no one else had the same four classes at the same time so we could discuss these overlaps. Having such unique schedules (and past schedules) gives everyone a different perspective.

THEN it was brought up that maybe it's a good thing we don't try and keep everyone to the same classes because thinking about the overlaps that no one else knows about is the best part of these exciting similarities.

I now find myself at an impasse--what's exciting--the similarities or the differences? It seems like you need both to create that newness that creates new thought patterns. Or maybe the new thought patterns and guides of different classes to create newness. 

I think I've backed myself into a corner along with the chicken and the egg.

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

Week 11

This weekend I went to see the Cezanne and Beyond exhibit at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. I'd never studied Cezanne before and I was struck by the way that his paintings seemed realistic at first glance, but the longer I stood and stared at them, the more they seemed ambiguous and slightly unreal. There's always something "a little bit off" about his paintings that make them intriguing and confusing.

I feel the same way about Hustvedt's novel, especially as I neared the end. Despite the fact that for the most part, I didn't find it an exceptionally memorable or fascinating story, I was left with a distinct sensation of ambiguity by the last 30 or so pages. Hustvedt's work is by no means the most avant garde that I have ever read, but that is part of its allure: it's realistic but there's always something "a little bit off."

As for how her novel contributes to our understanding of cultural evolution, it's easy enough to relate it in some ways to Whitman's work: bits and pieces of a man's life, strung together, and not necessarily related, but describing a sort of general overall theme or feeling. However, what is definitely unclear to me is how this novel is more significant than any other recent novel. 

enewbern's picture

Week 11

On the topic of the self designed course module for this course, I think it might be interesting to move bakwards in time. Not an entirely novel idea but maybe instead of focusing on something that is considered to be a work of literature if might be more interesting to see how something from a new genre of litterature might have come from. For example there has been a shocking amount of "vampire" novels and series that have come out over the last five years or so. I genre that was widely unexplored until recently. Where did this come from? Why did it come at all? What sort of links does it have with modern culture and ideas? What links does it provide to the pat progression of culture? I thint it could be interesting. Although a good deal of these novels are by no means brilliant works they all seem to have common themes and ideas and work towards a common end more or less effectively. It might me something a little more outside the box, or it might be an adventure into futility. Only implementing it could really be telling.

 I also really enjoyed Sorrows of an American, though I have to admit that much like the rest of the class I initially thought of the narrator as a female character and was very surprised to find out that she was in fact a he. I also found the mixture of unconscious thought and consciouness to be very interesting. By that I guess I mean that there is a great deal more conscious organized thought than there was in Leaves of Grass, but there is also a randomness of order. Chronological time doesn't really seem to pertain to how this book was organized because it jumps from a later entry into the father's diary to the narrators current time frame then back to the father's diary but to an even earlier time period within that time frame. It makes things a little more confused and jumbled, much like the initial impression of the unconscious thought.

Hilary McGowan's picture

Gender matters?

In our session downstairs during Thursday's class, we dissected the class into smaller groups of 3 or 4. We discussed the relative feeling that the entire class had with the somewhat feeling of ambiguity of the author's voice at the beginning of the book. I found it a little strange to think of the narrator as purely male or female at the beginning, I just didn't have those thoughts. It's strange to see the differences in how people perceive books and characters within that text. Some opened up the book to find a person who simply was speaking, without needing to have to picture them as a whole entity within their heads. Others found it necessary and a bit confusing to try to relate a body/sex with the words. Why is it so important to see a gender with an author's writing? Is the gender of a character really change or manipulate the effect of what they're saying?
eolecki's picture

Week 11

I have found myself in several classes, including this one, asking myself “why this book?, isn’t there a better example out there?”.  I was so perplexed when I began reading Whitman, I thought, there is no reason to read this in this class.  However, after our talks about unconscious and metonymic associations it began to make a lot of sense.  After talking about past book selections, including Moby Dick and Ahab’s Wife, I have more faith in the text selections for this class.  As I began to read The Sorrows of an American I noticed a lot of similarities or at least connections between the two texts.  There is a lot of unconscious thought in Sorrows of an American.  Also there are no divisions between types the story that is being told (whether itis Erik’s thoughts, his father’s diary, or an actual description of what is going on).  It’s interesting to see unconscious thought, like from Leaves of Grass, weaved into a story with a distinct plot line.  This immediately made me think of our discussions of evolution.  I like Hustevedt’s writing and reading the character’s jumbled, stream-of-consciousness thoughts.  I think its much more useful than Whitman’s purely stream-of-consciousness writing, but in this example Whitman was an ancestor of Hustvedt.  The “trait” or idea of stream-of-conscious writing was refined and incorporated or “passed down” into a new type of story.      

ibarkas's picture

Convergence in both genre and meaning

I am a little bit unclear about what we mean by the term cultural evolution when we use it to analyze Hustvedt's writing. I guess I am just confused about whether we are using the term to analyze Hustvedt's writing style and her work as a literary piece, or if we are interpreting the message or messages that Hustvedt intends for her reader in terms of cultural evolution. In terms of Hustvedt's writing style, I can see how her novel can be useful in our discussion of cultural evolution. As mentioned by Rica above, I think that we have witnessed the divergence of literary genres (from historical nonfiction all the way to mystery and sci-fi). I also really like the idea that Rica brought up about films in terms of literary evolution. I think I may see film on a different position along the evolutionary trajectory of literature, however. Perhaps film represents converegence of all literary genres we have been exposed to thus far, rather than a divergence from a continuous evolutionary trajectory of literature that has resulted in one particular type of genre which led to the eventual emergence of film. I hadn't realized this until just now, but I equate reading Hustvedt's novel to watching a film, especially more modern films that weave mutliple plots from the view of one main character and the narrator's subconscious into one story. If then, film represents a convergence of multiple literary genres, then it is also possible to see how Hustvedt's novel represents this convergence. During the beginning of Thursday's section, Professor Grobstein asked us what kind of novel we were reading. The replies ranged from biography to mystery novel to love story. I see Hustvedt's novel as a convergence of all the literary genres we have been exposed to thus far, similar to film. When we analyze literary genres, we also analyze the time period and the historical and cultural significance of this time period on the emergence of the genre from previous genres. In this sense, I can see how we can trace cultural evolution by tracing the evolution of literary genres. Is it possible to say that maybe we can equate culture to natural selection and by following the evolution of literature, we can then understand the history and culture that drove these changes in genres? - A bit far fetched perhaps, but a fun thought for biology majors! =)

In terms of using the message that Hustvedt had intended for her readers in our discussion of cultural evolution, I can't say I am able to find as clear cut an explanation. I do see however, how the novel traces the individual evolution of one man-the main character, Erik. What I find most interesting about this novel and one of the reasons I enjoyed it was because it traces his individual evolution backwards. Most novels trace the change in one character until the end and the reader's closure in the end is witnessing this change in the character. In Hustvedt's novel, however, we are tracing this backwards and we therefore, don't witness this change in the main character. Maybe that's why many people didn't enjoy the end of the novel. You do not have this closure that many other novels provide and this does leave us feeling a bit incomplete and maybe uncomfortable. For me, however, I think I felt this sense of closure on page 232 after Erik wakes up from a dream he has had in which he saw himself, his father and his grandfather. He says, " Three men of three generations together...inner cataclysms I had associated with two men who were no longer alive. My grandfather shouts in his sleep. My father shoves his fist through the ceiling. I quake." For me, this line summarized the novel. We had traced Erik's individual history back with him until the final conclusion that perhaps his subconscious and his conscious were all results of this convergence of three individuals (two who came before him and himself), resulting in the individual he is.

kbrandall's picture

My favorite part of

My favorite part of Thursday's class was our list of metaphors we generated to do with the reader, the text and the writer. The one I connected to most was not my own, but the one comparing the text to an apartment, the reader to the person inside, and the writer to the architect. This fits both with my experience as a writer of constructing something-- something almost tangible-- and my experience  as a reader of being in a new place. I've always seen books as something there for you to (literally) explore, and I can certainly get so lost in them that I don't hear someone if they call my name.

I never got that deeply into Sorrows of an American, and I'm finding it very frustrating. The only characters i care about at all are Sonia and Eggy-- the adults I lose my patience with. Even by the end of the book, it seems to me that they haven't moved from where they were in the beginiing. In this way, it seems utterly unlike Leaves of Grass or the unconscious.  The poem might not have had a traditional structure, but it was always moving. The characters in the novel, on the other hand, seem stuck in isolation.

aybala50's picture

male or female

In my smaller group with Paul this Thursday, we started out our conversation with whether the first few pages sounds like the narrator is a woman? And, whether the author did this intentionally? It seemed as though the general consensus was that yes narrator does sound more feminine, but why? I think the reason why the narrator sounded feminine is because we didn't know much about him. What made him sound feminine? The fact that he was so observant of other's feelings. Or the way he talked about his dead father, his mother, his sister, and his worrying of his niece. After reading more I realize that he doesn't necessarily sound like a woman, but he does sound like a psycho therapist, which he is. It is only because I didn't know enough about him that he sounded more feminine. 
sustainablephilosopher's picture

intellectual history

I think that academics indeed proceeds linearly, but perhaps out of necessity. One must understand where one is coming from in order to understand both where one is and where one is going. As Paul said earlier in the semester, one must have understood the significance of the the thinking of Darwin's time in order to understand the divergence that it represents, as well as the conceptual significance of that divergence. In trying to think about non-chronological ways to go about teaching a course on cultural evolution, I just can't get beyond working through the canon from ancient, to modern, then to contemporary/ postmodern. Once one has this intellectual and conceptual history, one can go generatively in whatever direction one pleases. However, until this broad understanding is reached it may be irresponsible, or at the very least academically uninteresting, to merely interpret a text through one's own personal naive lens.

For example, in another English class I am taking called Humanimality, we read through the canon of how humans have thought about animals from the Greeks to the early-moderns through the Renaissance, then during the industrial revolution through today. We read historical accounts of how animals have been treated from the same time span. Finally, after spending half the course establishing the paradigms through which animals have been apprehended and treated through the ages, we read various contemporary texts through several rich interpretive lenses that we would not have had without establishing the intellectual history. We were able to identify strands of thought within a given author and put them into a cross-cultural and transhistorical conversation. This proved to be invaluable although it was laborious; our readings were much richer than they would have been just coming to it with our disparate and limited individual backgrounds and perspectives.  
amirbey's picture

Sorrows of an American

I was happy to see that I was not the only one to have thought that the main character was a female at the beginning of The Sorrows of an American.  It is possible we all thought the character was a female at first because of the assimilation with his sister at the beginning of the book and maybe also since the writer is a woman, the main character might be “thinking like a woman”.   Siri Hustvedt said that her book was going to deal with an immigrant story; however, I did not find this idea very imposing in the story.  The representation of consciousness and unconsciousness seems to be more prominent.  I also enjoyed the fact the Erik was a psychiatrist that way I could understand who these people think and how they do not understand their own selves and need to figure out who they really are before they can help other people.

skhemka's picture

Gender Of the Unconscious

While reading Sorrows Of An American, most of us confused the narrator to be a female instead of a male. In class we talked about it and raised the question of whether it was intentional on the author's part ? Whether the author wanted to mislead us into thinking it was a female narrator? I think that even though we found many clues pointing towards why we thought the narrator was a he, I do not think it was intentional on the author's part to misguide us.

The author is trying to bring out or rather portray the unconscious here. Just like Whitman's writing is about the unconscious and not the conscious. I think the goal of Siri Hustvedt is to make us realize that the unconscious has no gender and that we only try to look at things from the perspective of gender when the conscious is active.

We thought of the narrator as male because of our perception in the conscious about gender. We did the same mistake with Whitman's writing but instead of confusing the gender we confused the sexual preference of the man. We raised question of bisexuality and homosexuality with concern to Whitman. Maybe if we knew how to engage our unconscious while reading the texts we would not have made the same errors.

Anne Dalke's picture

A Life, Interrupted

In my group on Thursday, as we were talking about the dissociative fugue states experienced by Erik's father in The Sorrows of an American, reference was made to a more recent example w/ local resonance; see A Life, Interrupted for more on the "glasslike fragility of memory and identity," highlighted when "our autobiography goes off line": "it’s a lot less stable and has less unity than we want to believe.”
Lisa B.'s picture

Week 11

The Sorrows of an American is an absorbing novel, however I do not understand why Hustvedt’s narrative should be taken seriously in an academic discussion. Maybe Erik will answer my question in the final scene by closing the gap between past and present. If this is the anti-climatic resolution of the novel, then why are Erik and Inga important examples of the construction of the self? Throughout literary history there are many novels that use voyeurism or depict everyday life. How do we get from Whitman, one of the most influential American poets, to Hustvedt?  Both are examples of realism in literature, but there is still 150 years missing from the evolution of the self. I think it would be interesting to continue our discussion on course study design. This discussion itself could probably be a semester-long course!
mcurrie's picture

Opinion on "Sorrows of an American"

After reading Siri's book I reflected upon if I really like the story.  I have to say that I did enjoy the book, but after felt really crept out.  First of all when Eric starts to go on his fantasies about his neighbor, then with the stalker boyfriends, Miranda's drawings of monsters, the revengeful reporter, and the puppets I was a little uncomfortable.  I felt like I needed to keep my light on so that nothing would jump out at me or that I would have nightmares about life like puppets coming to get me.  I was also a little disappointed that at least one character wasn't having problems.  I felt like Eric needed to get through depression but not end in depression or at least melancholy.  Still, the book kept my attention throughout. I wasn't able to put it down wanting to know how the story would end, if everything would be resolved.  Nothing was resolved really and maybe that's what bothered me because in reality not every problem can be resolved in only three hundred pages. In life it can take forever to finally resolve an issue, thought, idea, etc., and maybe a problem is never resolved but you just move on.  I guess I like when stories have happy endings because it takes away some of the reality in my life, a place where I can escape.  Maybe I should give the book a chance, because I feel like I'm being to negative.  Okay, well I did enjoy Eggy's character and the talk at dinner about dreams which was very interesting.  That's all I have to say I just wanted to tell my opinion of the book.
Anne Dalke's picture

Reading Metaphorically

Having acknowledged, in the group upstairs this afternoon, that we are trained in to think "linearly" in all our academic work, we decided to try a game of thinking "associatively" about what happens when we read. It was a fascinating exercise, one that highlighted the different ways in which we read, and experience reading: for some of us, it is like moving into a habitation built by another; for others of us, it is we who do the building.

Enjoy!...and please feel welcome to add your own associations. What is foregrounded (esp. re: the reader's agency?) and what backgrounded in each of them?

the reader the text the writer
consciousness the unconscious
the therapist
rider horse trainer
swimmer river ??
dancer music choreographer
eater (or food critic?)
food chef
musician music composer
rock polisher stone volcano
gardener plants soil
apartment dweller apartment architect
sail wind sailor
driver car manufacturer
epeck01's picture

the usefullness of metaphors

Although metaphors do emphasize and explore a specific aspect of whatever they are being compared to, I do not think that they bring us closer to a true meaning.  By comparing an original idea, in our case reading a book, to other activities or object, we are simply making parallels.  Yes, metaphors are associations, but they are not truly outside the box in my opinion.  Maybe we should have played association telephone?  With all the strange connections and overlaps in this course, I cannot help but think about how this relates to free will.  The metaphor-creating and new-course-creating excersize seemed to stay very much within the box.  When we were discussing free will, I said that I didn't believe people can generate truly new things.  Because of our inherent inability to create newness, I think it is natural that our ideas stayed inside the box.  If we are only making parallels when we find metaphors, are they useful to us?  Or do they create more distance between us and the original idea we wanted to explore?
jrlewis's picture

what is missing from the metaphor...

I think we might have left something out of our tripartite metaphors.  We didn't position our professors anywhere in the chart.  The way I see it; there are 2 ways to reconcile our metaphors.  Either, the professors have no special authority over the text and should be grouped with the students as fellow readers.  Or, the professors deserve a privileged position in the system because they have devoted their careers to finding meaning in texts.  Their purpose in this process is to help students engage with the text.  This parallels the role of a therapist in helping patient’s engage with their unconscious in a less wrong way.  The most important ambition is to increase meaningful communication between the patient and their unconscious.  Or the student and text, which could lead to deeper and richer interpretation of a text.  The text, like the unconscious, provides us with observations to generate a story about or an interpretation.  This sounds a lot like the work we have been doing in class this semester.  So I offer you a revised metaphor…

the reader the text + the writer
the teacher
 conscious  unconscious  therapist
 rider  horse  trainer

 

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

There are many examples of

There are many examples of cultural evolution and many theories can develop out of them. I agree with Tara in that cultural evolution is very complex and includes every aspect of human life. I think one good way of looking at cultural evolution is studying different genres of literature and seeing how genres emerged out of others and how they have converged with each other. It is obvious to see the divergence of literary works. One hypothesis of divergence could be historical non-fiction to hiostorical fiction to mystery to sci-fi. I think one type of divergence one could study that is most interesting is the divergence of film from written work. With new technology, it seems that english literature has developed this new genre, film. Looking through the course guide for Fall classes, I notice that there are classes in the English deparment that are devoted to interpreting and studying film and genres of film.  With the increasing popularity of movies these days, it makes me wonder whether books may slowly lose recognition. That is difficult to imagine, however, because of the emphasis our educational system puts on reading. I think what can also be included in this study is the comparison of books with film.

Convergence, on the other hand, is a a little more difficult type of evolution to see within culture and more so within literature. I think Whitman's Leaves of Grass is  a one example of the convergence between poetry and prose. It seems that you can take any book these days and find two converging genres. Unlike past texts which seemed to be more strictly categorized (ie. comedy or tragedy; fiction or non-fiction) one can see a combination within almost many texts.

rmehta's picture

I like how Rica stated,

I like how Rica stated, "One hypothesis of divergence could be historical non-fiction to historical fiction to mystery to sci-fi." In her association there seems to be a certain linear progression over time, the common progressive pattern we tend to follow in our academic training. In regards to cultural evolution, this progression is far from linear;  cultural evolution seems to follow a circular pattern with the previous always affecting the next occurrence.  Perhaps a course should be designed in where you begin at the past, circulate around to the modern, and then revisit the past.  Through this progression the necessity of discovering and analyzing the modern in relation to the past and the past in relation to the modern could happen.

Tara Raju's picture

Week Eleven

Cultural evolution cannot be defined in just one subject matter. Cultural evolution is a broader more complex topic that has to be explored through many subject matters including science, math, history and english. I feel that it is in the convergence of these topics and finding the commonalities in time, concepts, new ways to thinking that specific points along this cultural evolution emerge. In my sophmore year of high school, I was a student in Honors American Studies which was a one and half class that sought to explore the convergence between literature and history. We explored certain eras of history while reading literature that correlated with that specific time period. I feel as though the merging of these two subjects allowed for a greater understanding of what was being read. Like this class, the synergy of the two subject matters allows for a broader understanding of what cultural evolution is. The course I would design would most likely draw on a myriad of subject matters.

For example, in 1969 Maya Angelou published "I know why the cage bird sings", a time period in which literature was reflecting the opression of African Americans. But that is also a time in which math and science advanced to a point where the human race had finally reached the moon. 1969 marked a year in history of great changes and was a pivotal year in the cultural fabric of America. It is that complex relationship between all these different areas that defines cultural evolution.

But Hustvedt seems to be embracing evolution in a different way in her individal characters. Erik, for instance, explores the present by utilizing his past memories which in turn leads to change within himself- he experiences an internal evolution. Erik allows himself to remember playing with his sister, has to cope with the loss of his father, discovering secrets about the family and other griefs. It is the culmination of these situations that allows for an inner strength to be developed and changes him to into "a man [he] had not expected".  

randomness