Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God (J. B. Lippincott, 1937) loses focus when Tea Cake and Janie move to the “muck,” the Everglades, even though the writing in that section of the novel is at its best.  They move to a marginal world where African Americans and Indians and people from the Caribbean and other parts of the world live together in a state of undeclared détente and cooperation.  The hurricane that sweeps the swamp clean, causing damage and death, is the novel’s most dramatic narrative moment. It is as if the earth is wiped clean, and all the struggles Janie has confronted in the course of her life are washed away.  This seems even more so when she is forced to shoot her husband Tea Cake to death as his rabies-induced madness threatens her life.
The novel does not end in any conclusive fashion.  Janie finishes telling the story of her life.  What the future might hold for her is unclear.  A fellow reader suggested to me that because Tea Cake at one point in his illness bit her she is doomed to die of rabies.  The novel doesn’t support this speculation, but it sheds little light on her future.  It is as if with the end of her third marriage Janie’s life has come to an end, as if nothing else that would matter can possibly happen to her.  Perhaps the point is that since Janie did find love with Tea Cake, she doesn’t need anything more—her life is complete, and therefore the novel which is the story of her life can satisfactorily end.  This possibility is bothersome.  There is irresolution, indeterminacy, in how the novel ends.
The flowering tree under which Janie sits and dreams early in the novel is a symbol and expression of her awakening womanhood, of her girlhood passing away.  It’s a symbol of transition and transformation, of unfulfilled potential, of opportunity and promise denied.  Another important symbol in the novel is the mule.  Nanny tells Janie: "Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."
Janie’s welfare within her society depends on her value as a marriage object.  She is an attractive light-skinned young black woman, and these qualities make her a person of value, a thing, a commodity.  From Nanny’s conventional viewpoint, Janie’s survival depends on her ability to find a suitable husband who can provide for her welfare.  When Nanny sees Janie kissing the boy Johnnie Taylor, she quickly takes steps to marry her off to the farmer Logan Killicks, a man much older than she is. Protecting her value doesn’t mean protecting her virginity—if she marries, then her virginity will be lost, but within the confines of a condoned social institution, marriage, she will have a protected place. Janie expected to find love with her first husband, but she feels nothing with Logan, and he apparently either is not interested or is unable to give her the kind of love she wants.  Instead, after a time, he begins to pressure her to do physical labor on his farm, to plow the fields.  Killicks basically views Janie (as he would any wife) as a housekeeper and another hand to work around the farm—as a mule.  Her ability to work is what makes her valuable to him.  When the marriage falters, Janie runs off with the fast-talking Joe Starks, who treats her as a prized possession.  She must play a particular social role in the project of his ambitions to become an important man in the life of the town of Eatonville.  Starks doesn’t ask Janie to plow or carry heavy loads.  Instead, he asks her to do nothing—she is Joe’s mule in a different sense--an appurtenance to his plans, an attractive wife, an agent of his schemes to become a wealthy and powerful man. She is supposed to embody respectability, and as a woman, she is not supposed to do much else. 
Although he comes to her late in life, Janie’s third husband Tea Cake is the husband who gives her what she wants—love, respect, companionship.
The white man rarely plays a role in the events of the novel.  Rather, those events occur in the world the white man has made, to which the black man and woman must accommodate themselves, in which they must make their way.  Janie herself is the product of the world the white man has made.  Her mother was the result of Nanny’s rape by her white owner on his way to fight in the Civil War.  The world of African Americans in this novel is confined and limited.  Poverty, few opportunities, hard labor, and difficult conditions are typical.  Joe Starks’ ambitions, grand as they are, do not extend beyond the borders of Eatonville.  Never does he consider intruding into the white man’s world.  In general, the characters of this novel do not chafe against the boundaries imposed on their world by the white establishment.  Instead they try to do their best to live and survive in the world that’s been provided to them.  This failure by Hurston’s characters to rebel against their oppressed state helps account for some of the criticism the novel received when it was published.
Yet much of the value of this novel stems from its descriptions of how African American live in the rural small towns and farmlands of the early 20th-century South.   Hurston brings her experience as a folklorist to bear in detailed and vivid descriptions of African American life.
One of the distinguishing traits of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the powerfully descriptive writing.  The narrator describes Janie’s world through her own thoughts and evokes the people she meets through their rich and evocative language.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015; dir. Alex Garland) takes place within the stylish antiseptic confines of a research compound owned by the richest man in the world.  He is so rich, we are told, that it takes two hours to fly over the land he owns.  The man, Nathan, is an amalgam of Bill Gates and Bill Jobs and Elon Musk—we are supposed to think he is a brilliant visionary renegade who likes to do things on his own terms and who doesn’t like interference.
Presumably Nathan (Oscar Isaac) works with a team of scientists (scientists work in teams, almost never on their own).  We never see them, however.  Are we to think he works alone? (He does have a personal assistant, a svelte Japanese woman named Kyoko.  It is difficult to think how a man in our own world could be as rich and powerful as Nathan is in Ex Machina. 
Under the pretense of having won a lottery, the prize being a week with Nathan at his remote hideaway, a young programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson)  is assigned to conduct a Turing test on Nathan’s new invention, a highly intelligent, perhaps self-aware robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  The Turing test will determine whether the robot has achieved self-awareness.
Ex Machina presents a plot and set of situations that have been treated before—in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and the film adaptation Blade Runner), Richard Power’s Galatea 2.2, and so on. The questions center on whether a created being, becoming self-aware, possesses a soul, is human, is entitled to self-determination. The questions have been asked often, but they continue to fascinate, and that fascination is fundamental to the success of this stylish and satisfying film.
The outcome of the test is not inconsequential to Ava.  She understands that she may well be disconnected—reprogrammed.  She therefore opts out of waiting for her creator to make up his mind—is she self-aware, does she possess agency, is she human?—and reaches her own answer.  This is a surprising twist to an old story.  But it does come with certain practical problems.
The biological humans in this film have their issues—they are compromised, flawed, manipulative individuals.  Nathan is  an alcoholic.  Just as he programs robots, he programs human situations.  His deception of Caleb—pretending to give him a prize in a contest when in fact he has been deliberately chosen—is an example.  There is much he does not immediately tell Caleb, and Caleb has to find things out on his own.  Ava tells him that Nathan is an untrustworthy liar.  Caleb discovers that Kyoko is not human but a robot, and that Nathan apparently uses her for his own sexual satisfaction.  Nathan tells Caleb that Ava herself has been designed with sensitive genitals, and that she in fact could have sex and would seem to enjoy it.  This fact alone interests Caleb, who is an insecure nerdy sort of guy who has not had great success finding sexual partners.  Her attractiveness as a potential sexual partner is a motivating factor behind his growing infatuation with Ava and his plan to help her escape—to run away with her.  In a sense, Caleb plans to do with Ava what Nathan has already done with Kyoko. He sees her, in the end, as a thing, an object of desire, not as a human being.
The film ends in a series of scenes that demonstrate Ava’s own capacity for sustained deception. This is perhaps the final demonstration of her capacity for humanness.
The film assumes that we as viewers will not be too knowledgeable about robotics, artificial intelligence, and related issues.  There is a lot of interesting and far-reaching intellectual talk in the film—about technology and artificial intelligence—but it is a lot of hoo-hah.  This talk sounds convincing, and in a fictional film, a science fiction, I suppose that is all we can ask for.
Ava tells Caleb at some point in the film that her batteries are recharged through magnetic induction coils at night.  When she escapes to the city, if we’re thinking logically, we have to assume that her battery supply at some point is going to run out, unless Ava devises some way to replenish her batteries—she is perhaps capable of such thought and planning—but it also seems that the film doesn’t want us to worry too much about this issue.
Ex Machina is an excellent film.  Vikander in the role of Ava is entirely convincing.  The visual effects used to depict her are astonishingly good.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty’s first three short story collections, A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), and The Golden Apples (1949) are among the finest short stories in American literature.  Although there is unity in theme and style in the first two volumes, The Golden Apples describes the life of a small Mississippi town called Morgana around the beginning of the 20th century.  A number of characters recur through the seven stories of the volume, foremost among them King McLain, a man renowned for his seductive powers.  He is a primary character in only one of the stories.  Mostly he is talked about, because he is rarely at home, rarely in town.  He’s elusive and evasive.  His sons Ran and Eugene also often appear, along with his wife Snowdie. 
The Yeats poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” provides the title of the volume along with the figure of a wandering and unrequited lover who is obviously associated with King MacLain.  More closely linked to him is Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,” his reimaging of the Greek myth in which Zeus in the form of a swan visits and forcibly impregnates a young woman.  In Welty’s stories Snowdie MacLain, an albino woman with white hair, is swanlike.  Greek myths faintly inform these stories.  The name of the town Morgana itself suggests something elusive and infused with legend.
Welty writes in a fluid, flowing prose reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse.  In some stories, particularly “June Recital,” told from the perspective of a fevered young boy with malaria, and “Moon Lake,” told from the viewpoint of young girls in a summer camp, the style verges on poetry.  In a way, the general narrative structure of the collection is fluid.  Characters prominent in one story may be barely mentioned in another story.  Loch Morrison is the character whose point of view Welty uses to tell the story of Virgie Rainey and her former piano teacher Miss Eckhart in “June Recital,” but in other stories he disappears almost entirely, appearing again as the lifeguard in “Moonlake.” 
Set in the early decades of 20th-century Mississippi, these stories focus on middle-class white residents of Morgana.  They are not concerned with race or racism in any direct way, but they clearly reflect the racist attitudes of the day. Black residents occasionally appear, as servants or passersby, but never in primary roles. Occasionally they’re referred to as “niggers.”  When the narrator and characters in these stories use the word, they’re not doing so with deliberate racist intent, they’re not conscious of its racist significance.  It is just another word they use to refer to black people.  Its presence in these stories, and the presence of other words like it, marks the difference between our world and the world of Morgana.
Class differences separate a number of the characters in these stories.  Cassie and Loch Morrison are clearly middle-class, while Virgie Rainey is from the lower middle-class, if not lower class.  She strains in these stories to find her place.  She’s one of the central characters of “June Recital” and the volume’s concluding story, “The Wanderers.”
Welty is particular interested in young people, especially women, being introduced to the social, sexual, and marital conventions of Morgana.  She describes women who are trapped by circumstance without knowing it.  Snowdie MacLain is a prime example.  So is the young woman in “Sir Rabbit” who is seduced (some would say raped) by the Zeus-like King McLain.  So is, foremost, Virgie Rainey.  While the future is clearly and securely laid out for her friends like Cass Morrison, hers is not.  She’s unsettled and ungrounded from the beginning.  “June Recital” is about how she chafes against the constraints of the town, her own talents as a pianist, and the expectations of others.  In this story she rebels through sexual affairs, through playing the piano at the local cinema (she chooses songs that have little connection to the film that is playing).  At the end of the collection, in the final story about her mother’s death and funeral, she is consoled by all the friends and so-called friends who have chosen to remain in Morgana.  Virgie lived outside Morgana for a time, but she returned to be with her mother.  At the end of this story and the volume as a whole she is selling the family home and giving away possessions and planning to move away.  She is the wanderer of the story’s title, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, still seeking to chart her course in life.