Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ununbium, welcome!

On behalf of myself, I solemnly welcome ununbium into the official and discovered periodic table of the elements. Congratulations for existing, if only with a little persuasion and for a short period of time.

How? The team of scientists fired zinc ions through a 120 meter particle accelerator to hit a lead target. The two nuclei fused and created ununbium (known as 112 for the number of protons found in its nucleus, which is 30 for zinc and 82 for lead). This was done first in 1996, but finally IUPAC confirmed that it was, indeed, created.

For further information, go to:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Princesses- Intro to Children's Lit final paper

A few semesters ago I took an introduction to children's literature class. For our final project, we could choose to do anything, and I chose to write a paper about princesses. It's a personal essay mostly about my reaction to and struggles against the typical princess ideals and expectations that still plague our society. I'm not sure what draft this is, but I can't seem to find the final draft... it should be pretty close to the final though, with some minor changes.

Fairy Tales and Feminity

I enrolled in "Intro to Children's Literature" expecting to learn about the charms and diversity of children's literature, and indeed I have. More importantly however, our discussions have caused me to look at myself and question my perspective. I must shamefully admit that I had never consciously recognized that good children's literature was much more than a means of entertainment. I saw that stories could teach lessons and perhaps serve as a tool to expand the imagination, but it never occurred to me to look any deeper. Needless to say, through the course of this class I have made a literary about-face.
As a child I had a passion for books- princess stories and fairy tales in particular. It has now been revived, but mixed with the pure reminiscent pleasure for the 'good old days' of childhood are new questions about the meaning and implications of what I thought were pure and innocent stories of true love and perseverence. I wish to explore how my interaction with fairy tales combined with our course material allow new insights about princesses and femininity in our modern world.
A brief glimpse of me as a child: I was almost always happy and hardly ever cried, even as a baby. I was a 'typical little girl' in that I adored the color pink, dressed up in sparkly gowns, played dolls and house, and constantly watched classic Disney princess movies. I was mostly a model sibling to my four-years-younger sister Jenny with the typical sibling rivalry and fighting. My mom took a break from her nursing career to raise us, and we spent many hours reading books, playing outside, and imagining wonderful adventures. I continued to do 'girly' things as well as excel in every subject in school.
Well, there's my childhood. Of course it wasn't all wonderful- I got into my fair share of mischief, but I constantly tried to please my parents and be a 'good girl'. Although I recognized I was a girl, it never occurred to me that I couldn't be feminine and strong. As a child I had a relatively untainted view and never felt the pressure to 'act like a girl' because it never dawned on me that excelling in math and science might be perceived as an 'un-girlish' trait. I had confidence in myself and knew that I could do anything with my life.
I am reminded of Cinderella, the old Cinderella who goes out and does everything she can to get where she wants to go. Yolen points out that "Cinderella makes intelligent decisions, for she knows that wishing solves nothing without the concomitant action... To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but passive princess awaiting her rescue, cheapens our most cherished dreams and makes mockery of the magic inside us all- the ability to change our own lives, the ability to control our own destinies." Rather than get carried away in passionate rant of everything that's wrong with this picture of modern-day Cinderella, right now I'd like to point out that magic which lies within each of us.
Why is this concept- 'the ability to control our own destinies'- a dream for some, while it's a reality for others? I postulate that one of the reasons some people are successful (meaning in this case, live full and enriching lives where they recognize that they have control and use it for good) while some others fail is because of their experiences in childhood. For example, I come from three or four generations of teachers and I was always taught to get the best education available. If I put my mind to it, I could do anything. For me, the reason I'm in college now is because those values were instilled in me from a young age.
What then is to become of children who aren't taught this critical concept? I will venture to say that one of the best ways to reach them is through children's literature. Bettleheim points out that "When children are young, it is literature that carries such information best." It is then crucial that this literature isn't just entertaining, but that it opens up worlds where the reader can struggle to find their own answers. Of course I'm echoing Bettleheim again when he says "The fairy tale is therapeutic because the patient finds his own solutions, through contemplating what the story seems to imply about him and his inner conflicts at this moment in his life." Although he was only talking about a very specific genre of literature- fairy tales- this concept should hold true for any good story. If children are taught to wrestle with a story until they find a personal answer, I would imagine that it would be more likely for them to live more fulfilling lives as adults because of those skills of problem-solving taught at an early age.
But what if the literature they read doesn't allow room for interpretation? What if the characters are flat stereotypes that fail to grow or learn? What if entertainment is the only purpose of a story? Here is where I begin my exploration of 'fairy tale princesses' in the modern world.
In deciding to write about this issue, I've struggled to find a balance. For example, I see that Disney's 'Cinderella' isn't all bad. Ultimately it speaks to the underdog and teaches that your dreams can come true no matter how distant or unreachable they seem. By showing that Cinderella- a meek, mild, loving, virtuous girl- achieves happiness in the form of true love while her stepsisters- cruel, proud, and selfish- get nothing, it teaches that even when life is tough, it's best to keep on being a good person because it will pay off in the end. Now that is a beautiful message and I recognize its importance. At the same time though, I see a gaping hole.
To understand how Cinderella has changed, I need to examine how it began. "In the oldest of the Cinderella variants, the heroine is hardly catatonic." -Yolen. Cinderella was once about a strong woman who solved her own problems through hard work and intellect, but now when someone says 'Cinderella' most of us jump to Disney's prettified version. She is grotesquely warped; diminished to a passive airhead; virtuous perhaps, but stereotypical with no character or personality unique to her. She is 'polarized' (to use Bettleheim's words) and that's how a child's mind functions. One is either pretty or ugly, nice or mean, good or evil. But isn't it this duality within each of us that makes us interesting? Causes the struggle which allows us to choose who we are? "Good and evil are omnipresent in life and the propensities for both are present in every man. It is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it." - Bettleheim. What then, is the point of a fairy tale if it doesn't address these issues? He continues "The fairy tale... confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments." From this I conclude that our modern notion of the story of Cinderella is not actually a fairy tale. Yes there may be 'magic'; however, the magic of pumpkins and mice turning into carriages and horses is pathetic in comparison to the magic inside each of us to create our own lives. That magic has been ignored, stifled, smothered.
In the stories we've read in class, the main character has been someone to whom everyone can relate. Like John de Conquer, the protagonist is usually a regular person with curiosity and passion. Although Cinderella is masked as 'ordinary' in her smudged face and dirty servant's clothes, the person behind that mask is no regular Jill from the nursery rhyme. In every version we have read or seen, Cinderella possesses beauty and virtue to no end. In the Grimm's version however, although she does not personally punish her sisters, she does not protect them as the birds peck out their eyes. In "Snow White," Snow stands aside as her wicked stepmother dances in red-hot iron shoes until she is dead. These stories at least begin to acknowledge that even the most virtuous have darkness within them.
For me at least, this duality within someone is one of the most crucial traits of a character that attracts me to them. It allows me to relate to them because I also recognize the good and evil within myself.
Now. Cinderella is so polarized, so stereotypical, that there isn't a shred of darkness within her. She cannot grow or learn because she is all good. Plus, she's a size three with huge breasts and an hourglass figure. What REAL little girl can relate to her? Before now in this paper, I've tried to take an analyst's perspective- cool, calm, observant- but now I'm afraid I can't contain myself any longer without exploding. Cinderella is FAKE. What kind of a role model is she? Millions of women- smart adults- try to be that idealized woman, but only in body because the media tells us that the women are only acceptable when they're thin and pretty. They are sexual objects of lust, and should not think for themselves or question their role. Cinderella goes beyond that. It says that women are acceptable when they are thin and pretty, and when you are thin and pretty, you are good. When you are good, you are submissive. When you are all these things, you get your 'happily ever after.' No problems or struggles; everything just falls into your lap. I have a hard time even referring to Cinderella as a person. I like this quote and it proves my point, so I'm going to switch to talking about Snow White, but in a sense Snow White and Cinderella are the same person. They're the epitome of virtue and beauty, both confined to housework awaiting a daring rescue by their handsome prince charming. HERE is the problem. "(The girls) aspired to become that object of every necrophiliac's lust- the innocent, victimized Sleeping Beauty, beauteous lump of ultimate, sleeping good. Despite ourselves, sometimes unknowing, sometimes knowing, unwilling, or unable to do otherwise, we act out the roles we were taught." -Dworkin. These are the role models that little girls are taught to idolize.
I've never heard a mother scold her daughter and ask "What would Cinderella do?" It would seem absolutely ridiculous. BUT by constantly allowing this negative media to bombard her without discussing the problems, isn't it essentially the same thing?
Thusfar I have taken the liberty of making some rather harsh accusations. Lest the reader fling this paper across the room in a fit of frustration (as I have often done in writing it,) allow me first to present another option.
In my quest to find evidence of a movement for change, I ventured to the UMFA and perused their special Cinderella exhibit. The artwork was interesting, but the books are what caught me. There were published versions of Cinderella of several cultures: Polish, Zuni, Middle Eastern, Irish, Native American, Caribbean, and American South. Cinderella is a cross-coltural phenomenon. Every one of them had a different take on that famous story.
In one book "A Wolf At The Door" (retold fairytales), I noticed the short story "Cinder Elephant" by Jane Yolen (!) and read it. It was basically the same, but there was a huge focus on the skinny stepsisters with their thin smiles, and although it was very funny at times, the overall mood was vitriolic and bitter. Yolen pokes sarcastic fun at classic Cinderella by turning every aspect of the story inside out. When the Prince goes to find her, the stepsisters "put super glue on their insteps and duct tape on their ankles" so they can fit into her size 9 1/2 grass (yes, grass) slippers. On top of that, he recognizes her face when the birds steal the slipper to make a nest out of it. This story clearly reflects what Jane Yolen said herself, that "I hated the Disney Cinderella with a passion." To me though, that's too much of an extreme. Where could I find a reasonable Cinderella?
In another book "Cinder Edna," Cinderella and Cinder Edna live next door. Cinderella is basically the Disney Cinderella while Cinder Edna is pretty average. The contrast between the two is made apparent when Edna takes the bus to the ball rather than sit around crying waiting for a rescue. Edna bumps into the prince and is quickly more attracted to the prince's little brother. As the clock strikes 12, Cinderella must come home before the magic wears off. Edna must come home because in their city, public transportation stops after midnight. In a flurry, they each leave a shoe- one glass slipper, one loafer. When the princes find their loves gone, the following conversation ensues:
"Well, didn't you get her name?" asked Rupert impatiently. "The one I love is named Edna."
"Gee, I forgot to ask," said Randolph, scratching his head.
While Randolph goes around the whole kingdom trying to find the foot that fits the shoe, Rupert looks up all the Ednas in the dictionary and asks them to name 19 different recipes for tuna casserole. In the end, both princes find their love. While Cinderella "went to endless ceremonies and listened to dozens of speeches by his Highness the Grand Archduke of Lethargia," Edna "ended up in a small cottage with solar heating... (and with her husband) laughed and joked, tried new recipes together, and played duets on accordion and concertina." The book ends with a picture of Edna and Rupert roaring with laughter and the words "Guess who lived happily ever after."
While this story appeals to me as an adult, of course the pink Disney Cinderella is much more appealing to a starry-eyed six-year-old. I then read "Ella's Big Chance" about a Cinderella during the jazz age. She is the perfect medium between the two Cinderella extremes. While she is not thin and drop dead gorgeous, she is not an ugly 'elephant' that looks like a hen. She gets discouraged but keeps going! She struggles to solve her own problems, and although the Duke falls madly in love with her, in the end she chooses her best friend, the package-delivery boy.
All of these books provide concrete evidence that there are other people who see the need for change. They seem to cry to me that no, Cinderella doesn't have to be boxed into a corner of stereotypical dullness. There is hope! As in time before stories were written down, Cinderella as a person and a story can and will change. She can grow! We as readers gain insight through fairy tales like this. Bettleheim said "As with all great art, the fairy tale's deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life." I think that also coincides with the life of a fairy tale as it changes to fit the values of a certain age.
As our culture changes, the stories follow. "Fairy tales are the primary information of the culture. They delineate the roles, interactions, and values which are available to us. They are our childhood models." -Dworkin. I propose that in order to keep up with current culture, fairy tales are not limited to regurgitated versions of Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood. I can just hear the sigh of my old AP English teacher if she read what I'm about to say, but perhaps you, dear reader, may allow me to indulge myself for a moment? "Harry Potter" comes to mind as our modern-day fairy tale. Although we didn't talk about it in class, I feel that it applies well to my paper and train of thought.
Since book one, "Harry"'s popularity has skyrocketed. Children all around the world know the story. I love it, but I never understood why it became so incredibly huge. J.K. Rowling's writing style delights, but there are other authors whose stories are equally charming, yet haven't a fraction of the popularity of the Potter books.
Now I can't speak for the rest of society, but I can speak for myself. "Harry Potter" keeps me entertained with the idea of a school for learning magic being an alternate sort of reality within our real world. BUT that is not why it enchants me. "Harry Potter" captivates me in its spell because, like a fairy tale of old, Harry is a real person rather than a flat stereotype. By embarking on that grand adventure to finally face Lord Voldemort, Harry discovers who he is. He confronts the evil within himself, struggles, and triumphs in choosing his own destiny. I can relate to him much more than I can to Disney's Cinderella because unlike that pathetic excuse of a 'fairy tale,' "Harry Potter" addresses the magic within each of us to create our own paths. I touched on this point earlier in the paper, and feel it necessary to come back to it because its significance is crucial, whoever acts out that role.
I don't mean to be repetitive, but I do want to emphasize my point. Even though there are no such things as blast-ended skrewts or whomping willows, "Harry" is about real life. It's about his growth, his own coming-of-age tale. Like Maurice Sendak, J.K. Rowling acknowledges the reality of darkness, pain, and suffering. At the same time, she infects the reader with a contagious dose of hope. The theme? Even in our imperfections, our struggles make us who we are. We can choose victory because we can choose our own paths. "A struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence- but... if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious." -Bettleheim This is hope indeed.
Finally before leaving Harry, I feel it necessary to point out the roles of women in these books. Professor McGonogall is one of the most powerful professors at the school. Hermione beats Harry and Ron in every academic subject. Mrs. Weasley takes out Bellatrix Lestrange, the powerful right-hand murderess of the most evil wizard of all time. These women are portrayed as strong and confident while at the same time attractive and feminine. While the story focuses on Harry, a boy, in a way it's a lot like Cinderella in that he was born into privilege, his parents died, he's forced to live with wretched relatives, then finally he rises to glory. Unlike Cinderella though, he does his own saving.
I have so much more to say than time or room in this paper will allow. I feel as though I could write an entire book on this subject. I methodically planned my paper, pretty much knowing exactly what I wanted to talk about. As I continued writing however, I discovered some things that I hadn't noticed before. Rather than changing my opinion, this class has lead me to questions that may not have answers. The truth is that I don't know the exact interplay of fairytales and femininity in the modern world. I have undergone a shift in perspective, both concerning children's literature and myself. Although I still don't have all the answers, it's my struggle to find them that has lead to the thoughts and insights expressed in this paper. Before, I enjoyed fairy tales and left it at that. During the class and sometimes in this writing, I sought the meaning of fairy tales in relation to the rest of society. I analyzed how these stories may affect children in general. Now I'm in the process of discovering what they mean to me. Rather than searching for answers in and about the outside world, I now turn inward. A fairy tale is as much meant for me to dissect and enjoy as it is for a child being lulled to sleep by their mother's soft voice telling of fantastic adventures in lands far away. By unearthing some of the depth of children's literature that I never before saw, part of me has indeed changed, reawakened if you will. Perhaps I've inhaled pixie dust, but I think that maybe I'm on the verge of creating my own "Once Upon A Time." The best part? I get to choose.

Romeo and Juliet essay

I wrote this essay as an assignment for my English class last semester. The topic was "Sex and Violence in Romeo and Juliet." I received an A/A- for it with my professor's comment "Your essay is a hair short of spectacular, but too fresh and original for a pedestrian A-". I think that now I could revise it and receive a solid A, but I was pleased nonetheless.


Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" arguably centers around the age-old theme of love. It is the great force that transcends differences in blood, nationality, gender, and class. This interpretation, though valid, barely scratches the surface in its naivete'. Sex (and marriage) is often viewed as the ultimate expression of love, while violence (and murder) is likewise seen as the ultimate expression of hatred. As Romeo and Juliet come together in matrimony, sex and violence also melt together into a dizzying portrait whose subject can lift men to the heavens in triumph or bring them to their knees in despair: passion.
This concept of sex and violence intertwining is, not surprisingly, brought up in very first scene. The play starts out on a humorous note with bawdy jokes and clever wordplay between two Capulets. Upon seeing Montagues, Sampson's "tool" is compared to a weapon. (Act 1, scene 1: lines 33-35) This tickles the funny bone of those who catch it, and humor continues with the thumb-biting routine. Their encounter quickly turns sour as an all-out street brawl begins. The play thusfar seems to be more of a comedy than a tragedy, yet a closer analysis detects a more sinister underlying tone. Shakespeare loosely suggests the image of a a sword plunged into an enemy's heart as a comparison to sex, where a man's genitalia (his weapon) penetrate the woman. Could this be social commentary on a patriarchal society, or is it yet another way to make an audience laugh?
Sex and violence seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum of love and hate, but perhaps they differ less than imagined. Perhaps Shakespeare contrasted these two concepts to further heighten and intensify the other, much like a dramatic foil. Romeo and Juliet's love, matrimony, and physical expression of it contrast with the hate, violence, and murder associated with their quarreling families. On another level, as sex and violence link on levels not quite as opposite as they appear, so do love and hate. Romeo vengefully kills Tybalt, his true love's favorite cousin. Juliet labels Romeo as long string of oxymorons "Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical! ...Just opposite of what thou justly seemest!" (Act 2, scene 2: lines 75-78) In this one act of murder, reality finally confronts the two lovers. Their emotions of pure and holy love clash and blend with the realized reality of their feuding families and their roles as members of each household.
The love between Romeo and Juliet unites with the hate between their families to lead them into love as well as death. In a modern-day movie adaptation of the play, "West Side Story," the writers suggest (rather obviously) that only love brought Tony and Maria together while only hate in the form of racism and gang rivalries tore them apart. Is Shakespeare this simple? Would Juliet and Romeo have fallen that desperately in love with each other if they were of the same household? Indeed it would have been far less romantic. There is a mysterious power of allurement in the unattainable and forbidden. Would they have killed themselves if they hadn't been so in love that they could not fathom life without each other? Hate played a role in bringing them together, as love also took part in separating them.
Although Juliet muses on roses and their names (Act 1, scene 2: lines 43-44), humans are not plants. People possess more complexity and layers of petals than a mere rose, whatever its name. They initially ignored their heritage, but eventually come to recognize that ties of blood and family run deeper than merely a name. Though they love each other, they too are forced into conflict. As their lives darken in complexity and emotion, so does their relationship. They marry, Romeo kills Tybalt, and they have sex all in very condensed time frame. These events happening in this sequence provides a particular point of interest. Sex before murder would indeed have been seen purely as an act of love; however, sex happened after murder. By doing this, Shakespeare therefore suggests that love and hate intertwine in their act of sex. It is at the same time both a passionate expression of affection as well as a violent act of conquering and penetration.
The short time frame and lack of perspective perfectly caters to passion as a theme. Acts of passion happen in the heat of the moment, rarely logical or thought through. Shakespeare made his lovers young teenagers for a reason. To a teenage mind, everything is all or nothing. Romeo pines after Rosaline in the beginning, and at first glance switches his affections to fall desperately in love with Juliet. Once the ball starts rolling, they cannot stop it. They cannot wait; only the present moment exists. Neither of them possess any sense of future, and their already hormonally-warped tunnel vision distorts even further as their passions guide them. In the passion of love, they marry. In the passion of fury, Romeo kills Tybalt. In the passion of lust and despair, they have sex. And ultimately in the passion of grief, they each suicide. They could not imagine a future without each other, and lost, they commit their very last act of passion.
"Romeo and Juliet" studies the violent and sensual dance between love and hate. In the form of sex and violence, they unite. Humans deal with complex concoctions of emotions and drives. To this day, Shakespeare captures audiences (and English students) in his fascinating study of human relationships; a reflection of reality where bonds are created and destroyed by the dangerous force of passion.

MAUS essay

I wrote this essay for my final paper in an English class last semester. It is about the graphic novel "MAUS: A Survivor's Tale" by Art Spiegelman.


It seems almost ridiculous to represent one of the most horrific events in history through a comic book; nearly impossible to accurately portray real people as cartoon animals. In doing so, does it not trivialize the reality of human suffering during the Holocaust? I assert quite the opposite. Through a comic book we begin to approach reality. Through animal characterizations we examine human nature. I argue that these masks provide an alternate and arguably better pathway to viewing reality. It is not in spite of masks in MAUS that it is effective; rather, it is because of their use that we grow closer to truth. Spiegelman effectively employs these masks to establish a safe distance, at once both cushioning and distancing us from the devastation of the Holocaust while allowing us to transcend the taboos associated with talking about it.
I argue that this is done in part through the marriage of two unlikely partners: the Holocaust and the comic book. "Perhaps the only way to approach the unrepresentable is to present the impossibility of representing it, turning representation inside out to confront this horrific sublime" assures Michael Sorkin. As a society, we bring certain expectations to comic books. They weave tales of the fantastic and improbable involving superpower-endowed heroes fighting for peace and justice. In the end, the unstained innocent are always spared, the guilty undoubtedly reap what they sow, and good surely triumphs over evil. Spiegelman plays upon these expectations to shelter us from some of the horrors of the Holocaust by employing this medium, in effect representing the unrepresentable. In doing so, he blatantly breaks the unspoken rules, the act of which both shelters us from real horrors and shocks us into seeing a new perspective.
He breaks rules in other ways as well, particularly in representing Jews in the Holocaust. He gives the Holocaust the mask of a comic book and adorns real people with the masks of animals. It is nearly incomprehensible to blame the victims of others' crimes; however, in the example of Jews in the Holocaust, that social expectation has been exaggerated to such an extreme that to acknowledge their humanness borders on blasphemy. By using the guise of animals, Spiegelman addresses this issue and is thus able to involve deeply flawed protagonists who lie, manipulate, and murder. Vladek is no Clark Kent, and certainly not the guileless Anne Frank. Unlike the typical comic book fantasy, the 'good guys' are not angelic figures of virtue, and this story is a reality that does not end with a "happily ever after." Their experience is not something they could just forget if they tried, and in Vladek's case, continues to destroy his life. To a point, he is both unloving and unlovable, enslaving his family in his expectations such as on page 69 where he literally throws away Art's coat because it doesn't suit Vladek's tastes. This outward act- along with several other examples throughout the book- point readers to recognizing yet another facade that Vladek uses (though he is unaware of it) to hide his emotional pain. We can finally approach the reality of human flaws because of our distance. We see new realities through the mask of a comic book.
If seeking truth is the aim in MAUS, we must address the dissimilarities between men and beasts, specifically the rodential kind. How can utilizing animals to tell this story be effective? Does it not propagate the stereotypes we so desperately try to dispel and escape? Spiegelman himself commented that "One doesn't exterminate people, one exterminates rodents, insects, subhumans." Even in the form of a comic book, I argue that the Holocaust drawn with humans as characters would be difficult to stomach. It too closely reflects reality. I believe that Spiegelman chose to portray his and his father's story in this way for this reason. Even though we recognize that MAUS concerns humans- that in essence humans don the masks of cats and mice- on some level we feel safer. It is about animals, so there is not worry about defiling their memory by recognizing their problems... their flaws... their- dare I say it?- humanness. On another level, this metaphor (another kind of mask) not-so-subtly suggests that we as humans often act like animals. In dire circumstances, people resort to the basest of animal instincts: survival.
The effects of using animals in his portrayal is not limited to this. Mice are helpless vermin that we as humans- as predators- hunt to the point of extermination. They are a lesser species after all. Spiegelman prefaces his book with a Hitler quote: "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human." He takes Hitler's words quite literally, employing different animal species to represent different human groups. There is an element of bitter sarcasm in his portrayal of humans as cats and mice. He plays off of their relationship as predator and prey; the hunter and the hunted. This separation and relationship reflects the Nazi mentality and helps us understand their paradigm. It is indeed propagated, but to such an extreme point that these masks quickly disintegrate to reveal the humans underneath the whiskers, illustrating the absurdity of typecasting people based on their religion, nationality, or culture.
Although comic books beg simplicity, in MAUS I argue that this hides (or going with my theme, masks) its depth. Critic Hillel Halkin says "All that happens in the comic strip is that one ends up more bound and chained than ever. The division into small boxes limits all utterances to the shortest and pithiest statements, ruling out nearly all verbal subtlety or complexity, while the need to fill each box with a drawing has a similar effect on the illustrations." In typical cases, I agree; however, MAUS is not ordinary in any sense and thus cannot be treated as such. By using comic book form, I argue that Spiegelman frees himself, his story, and his readers from the chains of expectations. He adds depth to the story through illustration that could not be achieved through written word alone, while at the same time utilizing the written word as part of the illustration. He emphasizes words (and images, as will be later discussed) according to their relative size and placement such as on page 52. Simply by making the words "but look what you do Artie" bigger and bolder in context, Spiegelman visually shows the change of tone in Vladek's voice as he quickly snaps from telling a portion of his history to yelling at his son in present day for spilling cigarette ashes on his clean carpet. It intrigues me first that Vladek expresses more gusto and emotion in scolding his son for a harmless mistake than he does in recalling a Nazi guard withholding necessary nutrition for not completing an impossible task, and second that we are visually pointed to this. Spiegelman gives us insight into this specific example through his literal illustration of the written word.
To a similar effect, he emphasizes imagery and communicates to the reader through setting. One of the most striking images appears on page 125 where Anja and Vladek attempt to escape from their increasingly worse situation. The swastika floods the panel, dwarfing them- indeed everything- in comparison. They appear as small and insignificant as frightened little mice. All roads lead to the same end. Like the dying trees and barren landscape, the swastika poisons and eventually destroys all that it touches, leaving nothing but death and misery in its place. Without verbal explanation, we understand the symbolism of all that the picture represents and vividly feel its significance.
Spiegelman additionally communicates emotion through imagery and even the lack of unnecessary words. Though the lack of detail in script and drawing may seem to detract from the emotion of the story, I argue that this is merely a mask that covers its depth and intensity. A fascinating example is found on the very last page. Will Eisner says that "[The employment of body posture and facial expression] can carry the narrative without resorting to any unnecessary props or scenery." Significantly, Art and Vladek are together outside- for the first time- bathed in the light of sunshine. Vladek remembers (or at least finally chooses to reveal) that he destroyed Anja's diaries. Symbolically, Art finally is in the light in regards to his father. As his father contributed to his mother's physical death, he also obliterated her memory as well as any insight into her own "survivor's tale." Art sulks off, unconstrained by a square panel, uttering one isolated word: "Murderer." Spiegelman emphasizes its significance through this visual space- a single word murmured by a defeated man, shoulders bent, moments before involved in his father's life and history, now walking off of the page, bitter and alone. This image elicited a strong emotional response from me that I'm quite sure could not be replicated through written word alone. I was shocked, angry, and upset at first that Vladek destroyed his wife's memory, and then finally that Art refused to forgive him for it. Their relationship was obviously strained, but this final image of loneliness hurt. During the war, people surrounded each other. Their living areas were cramped and devoid of space, but at least they remained together. Spiegelman drew this and I subconsciously came to expect that visual closeness so that when he broke this pattern it made it all the more painful. In ways that could not be replicated in the written word, I felt his loneliness. I literally winced.
Spiegelman physically portrays his characters' humanness in his drawings. They may have mouse heads and long tails, but their physique screams human down to Vladek's spectacles and Art's opposable thumbs. They walk on two feet, their wear clothes, they eat at the table, and they participate in everything human to such a point that in our eyes they become human. Their visual animal masks mentally disappear and in case we missed the hint, Spiegelman shocks the unsuspecting in switching to a comic with humans within the comic; Art's own "Prisoner on Hell Planet." (pg 100-103) Perhaps this gives us a glimpse of what it might have been like had Spiegelman not portrayed his real characters as mice. The story of one woman's death horrified me as it was arguably supposed to. The frame around the page is black, the words clearer in their torment, the facial expressions intense, and the darkness unending. A bleak glimpse of emotional reality.
In contrast, I find a trait of cleanliness in novels. Every word falls nicely in place, ink evenly coats each letter, and paragraphs and pages obey the invisible boxes that structure them. Spiegelman on the other hand draws his own boxes and even then sometimes leaks onto margins or omits a box entirely. He writes his words by hand. I argue that, though subtle, these choices achieve a certain effect that couldn't be accomplished in any other way. "[MAUS is] at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book" says Jules Feiffer. Because it does not conform to any one set of rules, it cannot be categorized. It is neither a comic book nor a novel, an autobiography nor a biography, complete fact or fiction. We see these discontinuities in the book, but I find that a mere basis. This non-uniformity reflects the story as a whole. It is not like other Holocaust tales, and it doesn't pretend to be.
Through utilizing these masks, Spiegelman frees us from the dominant social paradigm that suggests we simplify both issues and people of the Holocaust. He forces us to look at it in a different way, and in doing so we free ourselves from placing humans in unbending boxes. Because he distances both readers and participants through facades that eventually crumble, he preserves the integrity of his father's story and examines the truth and reality of humanity.

Will Eisner, (Comics and Sequential Art, 2005, p. 111)
Michael Sorkin (Sorkin, 1993, p. 74)
Art Spiegelman (Hirt-Manheimer, 1987, p. 23)
Hillel Halkin ('Inhuman Comedy', Commentary (February 1992) p. 56)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tetris Distractions

I just finished playing Tetris! And 'finished' isn't quite the right word because I would've probably kept playing (stupid level 34...) except that I do indeed value sleep. I forgot this however, for the past three and a half hours, and continued playing this brilliant and addictive little game. Really I blame it on my sister. I was all ready to watch Naruto and see them battle with the other ninjas for the rights to hunt this crazy elusive bug that only hatches once in a few years so that they could expose it to Sasuke's scent so it would track Sasuke and they could find him and save him from Orochimaru/himself... but it was not to be. Sigh. I shall wait for another day when my sister is feeling better. Oh woe is me.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Today I went and saw the movie "Taken" with my friend Kate. It's about a retired special-ops highly trained government guy whose daughter is kidnapped. The entire show is basically him trying to find her which includes torturing and killing the bad guys for information. *SPOILER!* He finds her. Part of me was saying "Hey man, doing bad stuff to bad guys doesn't make it right, even if it's for someone you love" while another part was saying "Yeah, you get those (swear word) and do whatever it takes to protect the ones you love." Were I ever in a similar situation as the daughter (kidnapped, hooked on drugs, and sold into prostitution/slavery), I think I would kill myself. I would rather die, and I wouldn't want my loved ones to have blood on their hands in case they did go after the bad guys. I talked to my dad about this and he said that my great grandpa once said that "You know you're in the right place with God when you can imagine having complete power over your enemy and instead let him go." The better part of me is agreeing with this, but another part is crying for justice. Perhaps justice is not ours (as mere mortals) to deliver, but then do we just sit around and do nothing? I'll have to think some more about this...

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