Category Archives: Literary Analysis & Critique

The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.

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In Defense of Mary Sue

There are two distinct ways in which the term Mary Sue gets used in literary works (as well as any other fictional medium, really).  The most common usage today is in the context of the perfect protagonist.  This could mean a character that has a seemingly limitless aptitude for displaying/learning skills that go well beyond the realm of reason even within the reality of the fanciful narrative in which s/he exists.

Think of characters that are described as flawless physically, and around whom all the other characters gravitate towards, whether the plot necessitates it or not.  Obvious examples are characters brought to life within the pages of fan-fiction, but I would say that such writings are somewhat of a given on account that they are meant to be tributes to existing characters, thus overemphasizing said characters attributes might be unavoidable in this genre.  More worthwhile examples of Mary Sues are characters that are actually successful, and one could say well-respected, within literature.

Characters like James Bond and Nancy Drew in their original literary inceptions could very easily be argued to fit this description.  James Bond speaks every language of every country he steps foot in, can fight (and always win) in every fighting style confronted with, and can (and will) seduce any woman he desires because every woman he meets just naturally lusts after him without hesitation.  Likewise, Nancy Drew effortlessly picks up any activity she tries, is seemingly liked by everyone and often complimented on just how great she is by the other characters, and of course understands investigative deduction and forensic science well beyond what ought to be plausible for a person her age.

A word needs to be said about not going overboard and pinning the Mary Sue label on any character that just happens to be either capable, or powerful.  For example, although Superman is essentially a god-like character in many regards, he’s not really a Mary Sue as the term is commonly used.  Notwithstanding the fact that he has a fatal weakness in kryptonite, a lot of the narrative around Superman centers on the way his immense power keeps him on some scale separate–even isolated–from the very people he is dedicated to protect.  No matter how humane he is, he is never going to be human, and will always be an outsider in that regard in the only world he knows as home (especially since his birth planet no longer exists).  In this sense, there is a genuinely ongoing tragedy underlying the Superman saga, whether it is explicitly stated or not, in a way Mary Sues don’t really have to deal with.

There is a secondary definition to a Mary Sue, and it involves authors who essentially write themselves into the plot of their stories as a means of wish-fulfillment.  To put it simply, when the main character in a story is written as a idealized version of the author her/himself, and is written in a way to fulfill the perfect protagonist archetypes described above, then we have a Mary Sue on our hands.

I can see why people dislike either incarnation of the Mary Sue trope sneaking into the pages of a story.  Perfect character can get stale very quickly, because they are largely unrelatable to the vast majority of readers.  Moreover, the overreaching plot of a story will become very boring if we can tell from the start that the main character will always save the day, get the love, or that every obstacle encountered is just a superficial plot piece that offers no real danger in the long run.  However, despite all this reasonable criticism on why not to write characters in this way, the fact is that Mary Sues can actually resonate with readers if they find the story engaging enough–compelling writing just have a way of trumping all tropes.  The two examples of James Bond and Nancy Drew can attest to this just by how prolific both characters have been through the decades.  (It should be noted that I am aware how Bond has been greatly “de-Sued” in his cinematic portrayal over the years, in particular in the most recent Daniel Craig films, which show him as a far more vulnerable and broken person than he ever was in print.)

What this tells me is that people don’t mind Mary Sues so much as they like to use Mary Sues as a convenient way to write off a work of fiction they probably disliked to begin with.  And I get that, too.  Sometimes, characters in a book can just rub you the wrong way.  I for one absolutely loathed Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and am still not too found of the little shit to this day.  (I’ve mellowed out about him because I’ve come to terms with the possibility that he’s a character I’m not meant to like.)  If I discovered that Holden was written to serve as an idealized stand-in for J.D. Salinger my opinion would not be swayed one way or the other.  This brings me to the final point I want to make on this topic, and it deals with the issue people have of authors writing themselves into the characters.  As anyone who has ever written fiction can confirm, it is unavoidable that some part of you will come through, in some way, in every character you will ever create.  I’ll even go as far as to say that I have never written a character that didn’t reflect some aspect of my personality, morbid curiosities, lived experiences, faced dilemmas, overcome setbacks, learned failures, and hard fought successes.  And I know that people will object that I’m shamefully stirring away from the genuine opposition leveled against Mary Sues (i.e. an author’s perfect protagonist wish-fulfillment), but I would argue that the fear of not wanting to create a Mary Sue-type character may be holding some writers back from exploring the full depth they can push themselves to because they are too paranoid about falling into this trope.  What I would urge instead is for a different approach.

You shouldn’t just see yourself as the author of the story, but remember that you are also its first reader.  You are the first one who will look through the characters’ eyes and see the world as it is written for them to see.  Regardless of whether you are a novice or been doing this for years, it is no easy feat to create an entire world from whole cloth, and then give to it a pair of eyes (several pairs, if we are being honest) for others to share in the experience.  It can be a rather frustrating task to even know where to start.  My take on the matter is simply to realize that, as you’re struggling to give sight to your story’s narrators, it is perfectly fine to first start with the pair of eyes ready made in your head, and expand from there without fear of breaking some unwritten rules of storytelling.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”

Few writers manage to personify the pangs of life as well as Edgar Allan Poe.  While many of the Romantics-themed writers of his day focused on encapsulating what they perceived as the quasi-transcendence of life and nature, and the beauty beheld by it, Poe set his sights past the glitter, and sought to present the (at the time) oft-neglected darker themes surrounding human existence.  More than mere pessimism though, his writing betrays a delicate understanding in the balance that exists between beauty and the grotesque, joy and pain, light and dark, life and death.

By artistic extension, the theme of helpless inevitability regarding the dynamic between life and death defines a great deal of the macabre tone Edgar Allan Poe creates in his prose.  Death has a special place in Poe’s work, and often takes center stage as the primary character underlying the plot of the narrative; always in the role of an unspoken, absolutist sovereign whose authority has no equal.  “The Conqueror Worm” is not the first (nor the last) poem in which Poe explores the persona of Death as the sole sovereign before which all life and imagined existence must ultimately bow, but it is a key work illustrating the poet’s deeper understanding of the phenomenons relation to life, and the human experience of it.

Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

The described scene is one in which even angels, servants of God and guardians of man, must humble themselves to the role of mere spectators before the play of life; the outcome of who’s plot they have no say over, and can do little but cry at the sight of the tragedy for the actors on stage.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

The characters of the play are mimes, in the form of God–symbolizing man, said to have been made in the image of God–trapped in a continuous roundelay, chasing intangible matters they have no hope of catching, but cannot help but go after like puppets being pulled by their strings.

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

This path man is set to repeat, brings him nothing but despair and hopelessness, as he is doomed to always return to the same scene in his plot.  A fate so dire that even if he recognized the vicious circle he’s in, he’d still be bound to carry on acting through the futility of his existence.  However, although neither man nor divine intervention can free him from his plight, a bittersweet recourse does emerge to finally cut the puppet strings forcing him through his acts.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

In the end, while man obediently gives chase to the phantoms keeping him trapped as an actor in the play of life, Death emerges from out of the scene to devour the actor, and finish the play for good.

Death’s intrusion in man’s scene is fatalistic, in that it signals the drawing of the curtains, and the end of his life:

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,

But it also signals the end to his grief, by being able to finally conquer the root that is keeping man chained to his relentless despair.  In that view, Death is not the villain in the play called life: he is the hero, in the tragedy called Man.

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the worlds they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books, because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is they one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your purported interests lie in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignities and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.