Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Here's Why You Hate the Word "Webinar"


Awful, awful, awful.

But have you ever wondered why it's so awful? 

I think I've figured it out. Here's my pet theory as to why "webinar" sucks as a portmanteau: Because it's not a real portmanteau at all. The "web-" replaces "sem-", but "sem-" is not a prefix with a defined meaning that "web" is substituting for. The substitution is based on assonance. Which is fine if you are writing Old English epic poetry or a Tom Waits song, but not so much if you're trying to impart meaning.

Same goes for "webucator," which I have only seen one time, but which burned its way into my brain like sulphuric acid.


So: what other hideous edu-jargon do you hate and why?

(PS: my dad asked for more non-Middlemarch content. He made no specifications as to quality. Enjoy, Dad!)

Monday, March 26, 2018

Something New to Make Me Nuts

I've lived in Grit City Beach for 15 years. And I may -- MAY, mind you -- now have the financial resources to purchase a small home.

The question remains as to whether I have the emotional resources. I'll be doing this on my own, and that's both good and bad, in terms of organizing the whole process. Not to mention paying for it. But I thought that it might perhaps be amusing to view from the outside: "Book-smart person confronts the housing-industrial complex! Hilarity ensues!"

Here is my observation for the day: Why do so many condo-stagers paint the interior walls gray? Nothing says, "I want my condo to present all the warmth and charm of a high-priced chain hotel" quite like gray walls.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Submission and Rebellion (Middlemarch, Book Four)

A day late, but let’s get to it. Although this book is titled “three love problems,” I think that what really ties these chapters together is submission and rebellion.

The first of these comes from Featherstone. In life, his greatest — or maybe only — joy was making others bend to his will. Mary Garth was probably the only one who successfully resisted. Now, even after his death, Featherstone is making folks miserable, by making his relations attend his funeral. The first will is read, and most of it goes to Fred Vincy. But then the second will is read, and Fred gets nothing; it all goes to the executor, an apparent stranger, Joshua Rigg. The family goes off in a huff, and we only learn in book four’s final chapters who this Rigg is and why Featherstone has left him his entire estate. All of this apparently causes Mary Garth to feel some guilt (or does she? I have my doubts) about depriving Fred of his inheritance, though she tells Fred he’s better without it. Fred, deprived of independent means, reluctantly goes back to finish his education, possibly headed for the career in the church to which he is entirely unsuited.

We’ve also got the idea of wifely submission and rebellion, in two places. First, is the Lydgate/Rosamund marriage, which has happened all in a rush, with the Middlemarchers clucking in disapproval all the while. Lydgate seems to have thrown caution to the winds, as he spends himself into debt to set up the marital household. But he also is having some thoughts about how marriage works that are foreshadowing some possible disillusionment on the horizon: he has expectations of a docile adoring wife, with little thought as to what he needs to provide, other than someone to be adored. Is Lydgate on the verge of turning into Casaubon? That marriage isn’t working out so well, either. He becomes ever colder towards Dorothea under the growing suspicion that Dorothea disdains him as much as he secretly disdains himself. She teeters on the verge of hating him, but at the last moment collapses back into wifely solicitude.

  • Lydgate, looking forward to married life with Rosy: “Lydgate thought that after all his wild mistakes […] he had found perfect womanhood — felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed by an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labours and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, get keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair’s-breadth beyond — docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that limit.”
  • Dorothea wonders of Casaubon, “And what exactly was he? She was able enough to estimate him — she who waited on his glances with trembling, and shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him, In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.”

And speaking of Casaubon in relation to submission and rebellion, is he on the verge of turning into the late Featherstone? Along with his growing knowledge of his own failings and his wife’s knowledge of those failings is the fact that he can’t seem to make Ladislaw — who has taken employment with Mr. Brooke, who has purchased one of the local papers — leave just because he orders him to. This all combines into a suspicion that Ladislaw is setting himself up to swoop in and marry Dorothea and claim Casaubon’s lands, once Casaubon has died of his heart condition. He begins thinking of how he can change his dispositions to thwart this imagined plan, telling himself that this is for Dorothea’s own protection. On obligation and its limits:
  • The narrator speculates on Casaubon’s opposition to Ladislaw’s new employment with Mr. Brooke: “He had disliked Will while he helped him, but he had begun to dislike him still more now that Will had declined his help.”
  • Ladislaw refuses to accept Casaubon’s directive for him to leave off his employment with Mr. Brooke and to leave Middlemarch entirely: “Obligation may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning.”

And there’s a more political submission and rebellion going on at Tipton Grange: Mr. Brooke’s paper seems to be a platform to launch him into politics as a reformer. This causes the Middlemarchers to cluck with disapproval yet again. But in this case, they may be right to do so, pointing out that Brooke doesn’t put any of these reform principles to practice on his own estate — something that is brought home to him in an encounter with one of his own tenants who defies his authority and promises that the reformers will come to sort out landlords like Brooke himself. 

  • The narrator, describing two views of the tenant lands on Mr. Brooke’s estates: “An observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freeman’s End: the old house had dormer-windows in the dark-red roof, two of the chimneys were choked with ivy, the large porch was blocked up with bundles of sticks, and half the windows were close with grey worm-eaten shutters. […] the mossy thatch of the cowshed, the broken grey barn-doors, the pauper labourers in ragged breeches who had nearly finished unloading a wagon of corn in to the barn, the scanty dairy of cows being tethered for milking […] all these objects under the quiet light of a sky marbled with high clouds would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a “charming bit,” touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of that time.”[1]

And finally, a bit of good, old-fashioned Mrs. Cadwaller snark, just because: “Oh my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made up my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn’t have the end without them.” 

I think that's what I've got here. What will happen next? Will Lydgate turn into Casaubon? Will Casaubon turn into Featherstone? Will Dodo and Mary Garth form a feminist collective? And what of that paper with Bulstrode's signature that Mr. Rigg's stepfather unintentionally spirited away from their curt meeting? Tune in two weeks from now to find out when we return to discuss book five...

[1] And since this quote is also a good critique of the limits of Romanticism, let's have another, equally pointed one: Dorothea, to Ladislaw, who is on the verge of slapping a label on her ideas about what constitutes the good: “Please not to call it by any name. You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life.” You tell him, Dodo.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Rethinking Things (Middlemarch book 3, chs. 28-33)

Hello all! After a long absence, some of you may be wondering whether the title refers to me rethinking my decision to take on this book. No! I'm finally getting to appreciate much about it, despite my issues with the pacing. I'm loving the sly asides and observational wit (mostly from the narrator). I'm even loving, in a melancholy way, how we are seeing what remarked to a friend this weekend was "watching the death of idealistic aspirations in real time." It's sad. But it's also so beautifully drawn that I can't help loving it.

I will rethink one thing, though: I've been very bad about getting to posts weekly, and I don't expect that the back half of the semester will make that any easier. So I've rethought how often we'll meet to discuss what. From now on: Every other Monday, and we discuss a whole book. These are usually 10-12 chapters, so a chapter a day is still the right pace. But putting together the posts really takes some time and thought, and the books are meant to cohere as a whole, so taking the analysis book by book makes sense.

But this week, we're still talking about the back half of book three "Waiting for Death." Cheery title, no? I like it, because it refers directly to the Featherstone chapters, but indirectly to the experience of death-in-life that seems to hang over several of our characters, who are doing a lot of rethinking on their own. The quick synopsis, then the themes. Dorothea is back home with Casaubon, and seems to be reconsidering her choice of life and husband: everything at Lowick manor seems dull to her, and the portrait of Causaubon's disgraced sister (or was that his aunt?) -- the one who made the supposedly "bad" marriage -- is the only thing with life in the place. Likewise, Casaubon himself is sort of wondering why marriage isn't solving all his problems and making him automatically happy. The mutual dissatisfaction comes to a head during a minor passive-aggressive non-argument between the two over whether Ladislaw can come for a visit (C has said no before consulting D), and Casaubon has a heart attack. Lydgate is called in to treat him and prescribes restful diversions, for which Causaubon has nothing but contempt. Dortothea shows real concern about Casaubon, though in the context of what we've seen so far, I have to admit I'm not sure why. Also rethinking things is Lydgate, who, after being cautioned that Rosy is actually attached to him, decides that he is attached to her as well, and the two get engaged. (Oh! I forgot to mention that Celia and Sir James are engaged, too, and seem to be the only genuinely happy people in this whole mess at the moment). Finally, Featherstone is rethinking things on his deathbed. Turns out that he has made two wills, and as he lies dying, he orders Mary Garth to unlock the box and bring him one to burn... and she refuses. Good for you, Mary!

Okay, on to the themes:

Transcendence and its Opposite: This is a so-far-minor theme in Rosamund Vincy's goals with Lydgate: he's not just handsome; he represents something that it Not-Middlemarch. But the search for transcendence looms largest in the whole Dorothea/Casaubon pairing (and maybe with Ladislaw as well, once he comes back in). Dorothea, for all her intellect, is starved for something to take her beyond a too-average present. She thought she had that with Casaubon, but he's taking her in precisely the opposite direction. In fact, there's a passage from chapter 29 that I think is one of the saddest in the whole book: "For my part, I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy, to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self -- never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted."
Control: This is all over the place in these chapters. Casaubon asserts his control over "his" household by peremptorily refusing to invite Ladislaw; Dorothea accedes but does not submit by telling her husband that he was wrong to assume that she'd argue -- that is, to presume to know her mind. Featherstone tries to control everyone around him, even as he lies dying. His relations try to control the outcome of his testament by hovering around, making skeptical noises about the "outsiders" who might be taking everything away.

Rethinking the conventions of the romantic novel: This is probably my favorite thing about these chapters. When I started out, I wondered if this would be a slightly more intellectual Jane Austen novel: who-marries-whom with a dollop of cultural critique. But these chapters have put the final nail in that coffin, in several ways:
  • Marriage is not the climax and happy fulfillment; rather, it is something we place too many romantic hopes in: "Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty;[1]  it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape,[2] with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight." [ch. 28] 
  • Mary Garth! In a typical romantic novel, she would be the long-suffering model of virtue who sits quietly and patiently until some pleasant-but-secondary character recognizes and falls in love with all these things. Instead, she resists Fred Vincy's advances, and even is the one person to stand up to bullying Featherstone. Best of all, the narrator makes it clear that even her inner heart is her own: "She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone: he was not proud of her, and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth, and Mary was not one of them." [ch. 33]  I heart Mary sooo much.

That's what I've got, so feel free to comment on any of these, or jump in with your own ideas, quotes, complaints... And two weeks from now (that's Monday the 19th) we meet to discuss Book 4: "Three Love Problems." When I saw this title, I was sure that this would mark a return to the dreaded "who will the girls marry?" plotlines. But with these past chapters behind me, I am certain that Eliot has something else in store for us. And if nothing else, we'll get to see what's in Featherstone's will! Will Fred Vincy get a big settlement that gets him out of debt and saves Mary Garth's family from the debt he imposed upon them? Will it all go to the grasping relations? Stay tuned..

[1] Note to self: make this a theme later. I kind of love it.

[2] OMG, this, too.