Rebecca West's Magic Circle

In West’s Return of the Soldier, the experience of the war collapses the distinctions of temporality—that is, past, present, and future—into a single plan of experience for the characters of West’s novel. Chris’s shell-shock leaves him believing he is at least 15 years younger than he actually is, enamored with his childhood love Margaret rather than his wife Kitty. Jenny comes to recognize that this past Chris has entered is a protective “magic circle” made possible by Margaret, who had led “him into this quiet magic circle out of our life” that offered not only Chris protection from the recognition of what would have been his present unhappiness, but likewise serves as a salve for Jenny over her nightmares thinking about Chris in No Man’s Land. Jenny describes how Margaret’s protection of Chris via keeping him within this “magic circle” of the past has cured her own suffering related to the war: “My sleep, though short, was now dreamless. No more did I see his body rotting into union with the brown texture of corruption which is No Man’s Land, no more did I see him slipping softly down the parapet into the trench, no more did I hear voices talking in a void…” (71). Chris’s memory lapse becomes an escape and protection for them all from the present horrors of the war, and it also prevents the possibility of Chris from having to return to active duty as a soldier (71). But, paradoxically in doing so, it forecloses the possibility of their future by fragmenting their experiences into different, now conflicting, relations among each other.

The idea of the “magic circle” reminds me of Bakhtin’s idea of the Epic circle, a space and time closed off from experience and in a way thus protected from contemporary decay. The magic circle serves a similar closed-off function, becoming a space that Chris can exist within that protects him from his present and his future (and, as Jenny makes clear, also consequently protects herself by removing Chris from danger and into the safety of his illness). When the circle is broken at the conclusion of the story, Chris’s youth is once again lost as he returns to his present state of a soldier damaged by his war-time experience: “He walked not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heal” (90). The irony of the novel’s final line, “He’s cured!”, points out the state of a post Great War world. Chris’s illness was not the safety of the past that protected him within this “magic circle” from the horrors he face; the real illness Chris faces, as all the characters do, is the immense emotional, spiritual, and physical destruction that has permanently impacted the world with symptoms that would persist for decades.

The Return of the Soldier

Throughout this semester, we discussed how various authors and thoese that experienced the horrors on the front and the impacts felt at home were expressed. We've learned that many soldiers could not or would not communicate the horrors they experienced for a number of reasons. We saw this phenomenon in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul returns home and doesn't speak to the horrors he experienced. In his chapter "Oh What Literary War" Paul Fussell wrote, "Whatever the cause, the presumed inadequacy of language itself to convey the facts about trench warfare is one of the motifs of all who wrote about the war." (pg 185) 

While reading Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier, West expresses this exact sentiment as Jenny considers Chris' lost memory as a result of shell shock. "His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships (pg 65)." This quote succinctly sums up what so many were experiencing during World War I. 

Thinking about "The Waste Land"

As I get a better grasp on what is going on in “The Waste Land,” I find myself drawn to the lines: “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water” 

because I feel that the poem is a collage of broken images. It feels like a lot of fragmented pieces that are not exactly cohesive at first (to this reader), from the staggered references to different mythologies, language changes, and other details. I know there are other biblical references to draw from these particular lines, about the broken images, but I find myself reading it like a clue for reading the rest of the poem. I can also feel the desolation Eliot is writing into this poem. The imagery is somber and as a reader I get a sense of loneliness, or the feeling of being left behind. With the context of WWI and the existence of a lost generation, this poem fits right into my general understanding of a lot of the literature from this point in time. I begin to feel the decimation that many people in the West witnessed as a result of that war from a removed or distant perspective. I also feel that there is a sense of resentment, because the magnitude of this loss was also seen as a waste to many people who lived through it. The lines I mentioned speak directly to the title of the poem. The wasteland that is being described is a place without war, as it has already happened and is gone in a physical or tangible way, but the memory and the trauma is still very much present. The ghost of the war is still floating through these spaces and adding to this weird empty feeling I get from that set of lines. These lines are a good example of the stillness I get from the poem. The signs of life, like crickets, trees, and running water are gone from the place in the poem. The image of that is unsettling. 


From nothing to everything

When I read Ulysses, I thought I was an outsider and couldn't understand what James Joyce wanted to express in this work. But when I asked my classmates, I wasn't the only one.

Obviously, to understand the work, it is not only thanks to reading skills, I think we need to understand Joyce's methods of arranging and presenting information. Additionally, the story in Ulysses would not have made any sense if I did not have knowledge of the events of Dedalus and Bloom in The Odyssey. So it's clear that Ulysses itself is an Archive that readers don't just read one or two books to understand, but must read many works to understand what Ulysses is. Each of the 18 chapters corresponds to events occurring in the epic. Unique writing, such as allusions or references to another literary work, creates a father-son relationship between Bloom and Dedalus, similar to that of Odysseus and his son Telemachus in The Odysseus.

As a person who has studied literature for two semesters, I have figured it might take me another year or so to get a better understanding of the work. I really like this work, although it was difficult, I actually learned the characteristics and classics of modern period literature. I feel like this is one work but it contains hundreds of other works with diverse genres. Another problem is that when I tried to find an actual plot, it didn’t exist in this novel. Therefore, it must take time and effort to have better grasp of this materpiece. 

Mathematics and Confusion in Ulysses

For this post, I decided to focus on something I sometimes prefer to avoid thinking about: mathematics. While reading the first episode of Ulysses, I was drawn to the scene in which Stephen and Buck pay the milkwoman:

            —Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?

            Stephen filled the three cups.

            —Bill, sir? she said, halting. Well, it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a             shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a             shilling and one and two is two and two, sir. (Joyce 15)

As Anthony Madrid notes in the amazingly titled article, “Joyce’s Unpunctuated Rigmarole of Numerical Spangablasm,” Stephen and Buck simply owe the milkwoman two shillings and twopence; clearly, however, her language is rather confusing, presumably even for those familiar with the British monetary system of the period.

I again noticed a scene involving mathematics in the next episode. When all the other children go to play hockey, Cyril Sargent stays behind to have Stephen look over his book of “Sums.” While Stephen helps him, he “proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather” (Joyce 28). Then, Stephen imagines that “across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, . . . a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend” (28).

I find it fascinating that mathematics, usually praised by its devotees for leading to definitive answers and for its universality, leads to confusion in both of these scenes—the reader’s confusion in the former, and Sargent’s and Stephen’s confusion in the latter. Even the basic language of mathematics has been corrupted. Moreover, perhaps in an attempt to make sense of the math problems—or rather, to help Sargent make sense of them—Stephen acts as an archive by bringing up Shakespeare. Like T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, Stephen turns to the past to aid understanding in the present.

"The Waste Land" and the Foucaldian Defintion of the Archive

In “The Historical a priori and the Archive,” Foucault defines the archive as a “system” that either preserves or obscures the distinctness of statements (events or objects), but not in an “amorphous” or random order (128-29). “The Waste Land” matches such definition of the archive, as multiple objects, characters, and events, from different literary, religious, and mythological contexts, are associated in an order that appears chaotic on the surface but purposeful in its deep layers of meanings. The poem starts with nature’s regeneration and the speaker’s childhood recollection, thereby juxtaposing past culture with present consciousness both in its form and content. The speaker's melancholic reflection on her childhood underscores the inaccessible and inescapable nature of the past. Indeed, the poem, on the whole, urges the reader to trace the historical contexts of each allusion to not only have a better grasp of the poem but also perpetuate the cultural memories that resonated with both sorrow and historical significance for the modernist writer.

Foucault, Ulysses, and the Modern Archive

In the opening of Eliot's essay "Ulysses, Order, and Myth," he states, "Mr Joyce's book has been out long enough for no more general expression of praise, or expostulation with its detractors, to be necessary; and it has not been long enough for any attempt at a complete measurement of its place and significance to be possible (Eliot, pg 128)." This statement seems to connect to Foucault's statement, "It [the archive] emerges in fragments, regions, and levels, more fully no doubt, and with greater sharpness, the greater the times that separates us from it: at most, were it not for the rarity of the documents, the greater chronological distance would be necessary to analyze it (Foucault, pg 130)." Both bring up an interesting point. How do we know in the present when an item is significant enough to include in the archive? Even Eliot, as he recognizes the importance of Joyce's work, cannot clearly say that it will be important for future generations. It is undoubtedly true that Foucault's assertion that a common discourse exists which provides the boundaries for the archive. However, only time can tell if those fragments will remain important.

Today, archiving literary materials is both easier and more challenging. It is easier because institutions and archives that already have a tradition of collecting literature can use their collection development policy (the boundaries Foucault talks about) within which they collect. The difficulty is the format of the materials we are acquiring. With podcasts, blogs, and other digital material expressing profound and important fragments of our time and the possible deterioration of these materials and loss of these materials for all sorts of reasons, the challenge of digital content disappearing and changing daily presents new and exciting challenges. In addition, with the variety of discourse and points of view available in present-day literature and new modes of publishing, how do we ensure we capture "the right things" as we continue to build the archive? 



George Saintsbury includes on the use of the word “dull” that “its use, indeed, is characteristic of that odd concentration on self which distinguishes our day. Anything that does not at once provide the indispensable and sacred ‘good time’ deserves contemptuous condemnation and gets it” (2). I found this sentiment rang true, especially thinking about archives and how we view objects in that space, taking more account of items and documents because they are in the archive, and trying to draw information or any kind of response to the materials, even if they would appear dull at first to another. Perhaps that is one of the points when context is important. 


Saintsbury says regarding the Paston Letters “as pure literature the documents do not rank high; as pure history they were marginal, auxiliary, appendicial rather than of capital importance and interest” (3). I came across a website about the Paston Letters, accompanied by a lot more contextual information around the letters, such as the life as a scribe in medieval times, and the Paston families and who they were over a few centuries. The makers and researchers for this website aggregated a lot of  information that could help people see that these letters hold significant historical value, and they should be considered beyond face value. I am assuming they spent a lot of time in the archives of the Paston Letters, and over time came to understand a lot more about life in the medieval era of this region. Archives can bring new knowledge to us in this way, in a format that is understandable to many, but it requires a lot of close and finite work to see what the materials can tell us in the first place. This reading makes me think about the process of digitizing archival materials and what that can mean for those without access to the archives in a physical sense.


Connection between "The Waste Land" and " A historical a Priory"

In one of the readings I read this week, I especially pay attention to the observations and philosophy of the archive from Foucault's point of view. According to Foucault, the archive is described in fragments, regions and levels and observing; and tracking the archive will therefore require taking into account the discontinuities that separate us. from what we can no longer perceive (p.130). And I feel that this is reflected in “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, which is composed of fragmentary and seemingly unrelated parts, which reflects the reflection of modern society and the collapse of traditional information.

Another element I found relevant to “The Waste Land” this week was the use of intertextuality in the transitions of statements. It is clear that the poem is a collection of references, allusions, quotations to many different literary sources, from which I think that “The Waste Land” itself is an archive in the modern period.

Additionally, Foucault's discussion of the historical a priori suggests that the archive is a temporal boundary surrounding our presence, which I think is relevant to the exploration of history in “ The Waste Land”. There is no doubt that the poem puts the past and present together, mentioning the influence of history and tradition on present reality. Foucault said that “that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks” (p.131). It is this concept that is metioned again and again in “The Waste Land” by depicting a world of cultural, social, and spiritual fragmentation, where meanings are constantly shifting and unstable.

Should an Archive to Include More Quantity or Quality?

"It must show, for example, that the history of grammar is not the projection into the field of language and its problems of history that is generally that of reason or of a particular mentality, a history in any case that is shares with medicine, mechanical sciences, or theology; but that it involves a type of history - a form of dispersion in time, a mode of succession, of stability, and of reactivation, a speed of deployment or rotation - that belongs to it along, even if it is not entirely unrelated to other types of history." The statement from Foucault's The Historical A Priori and the Archive reminds me of how languages are learned by native, second, and third learners. Foucault has a really great and accurate opinion on grammar of languages. In modern time, the language of English is in another stage. That said, English has come along way and evolved into the model that fit with the current timeline. From the past, English had different grammars in different formats for each specific time of period. In each distinguish time of period, English fitted their language learners' style of learning and how the entire nation thought about knowledge. Of course, it creates gaps for the latter ones to learn the previous ones (e.g. modern English learners to learn the grammar in Romantic period), that also creates another gap of difficulty for current language learners to communicate with the ones after them, since the current ones always judging the latter ones' knowledge. 

That lead to a good point of view, which is an archive should be emphasize on quantity or quality? There is no guarantee an archive could be everyone wished for. It is like a society, a society itself is an archive, an archive with many categories; but if we have to narrow down the topics, the common answer will be humanity. In humanity, there are good and bad, legal and ilegal. But how do we build this archive? It was the same in WWI, there were some soldiers who did not want to go to war, and some were in contrast. 

“I can connect / Nothing with nothing.”

Oh, The Waste Land… where to start? I have read this poem a few times before, and I think that my appreciation for it grows with each subsequent reading. To start out, I wanted to discuss the malaise, the collective shellshock, so to speak, that permeates Eliot’s depiction of London in The Waste Land. While reading, I thought back to one of my favorite novels, Mrs. Dalloway—a novel that so effectively portrays this collective shellshock. While reading Eliot’s poem this week, images of Mrs. Dalloway kept surfacing in my mind—her jumping at the backfiring of an automobile, or her stopping by the church. To my amusement, the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land includes the following note from Virginia Woolf about the poem: “It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure. . . . One was left . . . with some strong emotion. The Waste Land, it is called; & Mary Hutch, who has heard it more quietly, interprets it to be Tom’s autobiography—a melancholy one” (137).

In any case, because of our archival exercises and the preparatory discussion at the end of class last week, I was eager to view The Waste Land as an archive in itself. The reason I brought up Mrs. Dalloway, besides, of course, to briefly discuss shellshock, is because I think it serves as an excellent foil to The Waste Land in terms of how each work portrays a society attempting to find meaning after the war. Mrs. Dalloway looks for meaning in her parties and her high-society lifestyle, while Eliot portrays a desperate turn to the past, to the literary and artistic works that came before the war. The Waste Land furiously archives and juxtaposes everything from Dante to Wagner, from the Bible to the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, from Baudelaire to Shakespeare, but struggles to find meaning in any of it, just as Mrs. Dalloway’s party is once again interrupted by the war through news of Septimus Smith’s suicide. Ultimately, the juxtapositions fail to illuminate meaning, leaving behind only the “strong emotion” that Woolf notes. Eliot provides “[a] heap of broken images,” but in the end, one can only “connect / Nothing with nothing” (15).

All Quiet, Combat, Things

The stereoscopic photographs drew me in during our visit to Special Collections this past Tuesday (2/20). At first the experience was a little frustrating, until I learned to prompt my eyes to synthesize the two halves into a single 3D image by focusing on something in the foreground (bottom of the frame). Once I had that down, I looked at 20 or 30 of the images and was impressed by the subject breadth of the collection. Everything from formal portraits of cleanly military quarters to combat action to the grisly results thereof. It reminded me of Remarque's descriptions of all aspects of life during the War in All Quiet on the Western Front, and also gave me a way to think about Thing Theory.

Literature of the First World War is striking for its portrayal of the Absurd: ab- (away from or outside of) -surd (the rational, or rational unit). We might understand it as prefiguring and representing a major tenet of Thing Theory: a thing, in one aspect is matter before it becomes an object or after it ceases to be one. An object, in the philosophical sense, is a construct of the mind and therefore already imbued with meaning or associations that are projected onto it. If an object may be a rational construct, then the thing to which it corresponds lies outside of that construction -- is absurd.

Confronting the inert matter of an object dehabitualizes us from its typical use and valuation (mental constructs), prompts us to perceive it differently. In one sense, Thing Theory explores the strangeness -- or the "unreality," to borrow a common term in WWI literature -- of this new relation. Bill Brown elaborates in "Thing Theory": "We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of the objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation" (4).

The Thingness of humanity is perhaps the most powerful dehabitualizing characteristic of World War I literature. Brown, though not commenting on WWI, paraphrases Michael Taussig to ask a question that would work well for our literary-historical focus: "does death have the capacity both to turn people into things and to bring inanimate objects to life?" (7). The narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front, after an intense shelling, observes as a "chest leans against the side of the trench, his face is lemon-yellow, in his beard still burns a cigarette. It glows until it dies out on his lips" (128). The human body here is not differentiated ontologically from the other things that surround it. It exists on the same plane as a smoldering cigarette or the liquid remains of two other comrades sticking to the wall nearby, which Tjaden suggests could be scraped up with a spoon and buried in a tin (128). Witnessing the Thingness of the human corpse and the implements at hand confronts us with a completely desacralized relation of subject-object.

The stereoscopic photographs in Special Collections likewise document the Thingness of human remains, and all else, in No Man's Land. Photographs are representations of things and thefore already constructed as objects, which makes it difficult to dehabituate oneself from the Objecthood of the things depicted. Yet, perhaps because stereoscopic photographs create an unavoidably artificial illusion of 3D depth through their focus on several discrete planes, they call attention to the equation of things in the pictorial frame and help to effect the dehabitualization. It isn't possible to render the 3D effect here, yet even though the photos aren't synthesized parallactically in the stereoscopic viewer, we can see that human remains and other things (a helmet, the debris of what was once a tree, a horse, an altar, a fence, a wall) share the same ontological absurdity as described by Remarque and the WWI poets that we've read. Corpses in war photographs have a way of looking as though they had never been alive -- the ultimate conversation to Thingness.

The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a prose version of ruined cities and lives after WWI. It is the ambiguity of the century and human’s perplexity and absurdity. It is composed of war debris. There is no consistent meaning in The Waste Land because Eliot portrays mental issues of the inhabitants of The Waste Land. It has strange sound resembling human’s pain and suffering. People are reserved and don’t dare to talk and are afraid of being alone,

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

"Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.

"What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

"I never know what you are thinking. Think" (111-114).

Nature is dead. There is no water. Even the wind doesn’t have sound. People doesn’t expect anything. Alive people are dying inside and it’s only their physical body that moves.  

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

-But who is that on the other side of you?” (359-365). People have become like ghosts and pursuing unknown destinations.  

Wasteland and Lear

The dialogue in the second section of Wasteland, "A Game of Chess" reminds me of the conversation between Lear and Cordelia in King Lear. In Wasteland, the dialogue starts with "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. "Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. "What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? "I never know what you are thinking. Think." From that, it reminds me how Lear was bewildered, confused, and frustrated about Cordelia's answer in the begining of the first act: "Nothing, my lord. Nothing? Nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again. Unhappy that i am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/According to my bond. no more nor less." The dialogue continues in Wasteland ""What is that noise?" The wind under the door. "What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?" Nothing again nothing." This part of the dialogue surprisingly matches with the expression of confusion from a king or a country. In King Lear, the country is divided into three part after the first act. In WWI, the land was divided by mutiple countries and turned into battlefields. The same confusion in both events, why the land should be divided? What does the land have done to us? However, once the land was divided, the leaders and people got punished. 

The idea of punishment continues in Wasteland, "You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember "Nothing?" I remember/Those are pearls that were his eyes. "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?" This part reminds me of the meeting of Lear and Cordelia in Act 4. "Sir, do you know me? You are a spirit, I know. Where did you die?" In order to escape the truth, the terrible truth of punishment, the "nothing" in Wasteland matches the denial of Lear to his beloved daughter Cordelia, despite he is already safe in her and his own kingdom. That, it all leads to the archival plot setting in Wasteland and King Lear. Both start with kingdoms and countries, though they are enriched, still the decision of dividing the lands causes more denial on the truth of punishment. 

Vibrant Matter and Imagism

Let me start out by saying that this week’s readings, especially the excerpt from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, completely and thoroughly enchanted me. For today, in an effort to organize the abundance of thoughts bouncing around in my head relating to thing theory, I would like to focus specifically on Vibrant Matter.


In my opinion, the most fascinating part of Bennett’s “political ecology of things,” as she sub-titles her book, was her focus on “thing-power.” In Chapter 1, she writes:

            On a sunny Tuesday morning on 4 June in the grate over the storm drain to the Chesapeake
            Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore, there was:

                       one large men’s black plastic work glove

                       one dense mat of oak pollen

                       one unblemished dead rat

                       one white plastic bottle cap

                       one smooth stick of wood

            Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth
            between debris and thing—between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar
            as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterer’s toss,
            the rat-poisoner’s success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its
            own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects.

She continues, referring again to the list of objects, “[T]hey were all there just as they were, and so I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (5). While reading these passages, I was struck by how similar it sounded to the way I learned to write poetry from my absolutely amazing undergraduate creative writing professor. Specifically, Bennett’s argument reminded me of imagism and the desire to accurately portray an image. As Ezra Pound suggested in “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” one should strive for “[d]irect treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective.” I think also of William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

            so much depends



            a red wheel



            glazed with rain



            beside the white


The image of this wheelbarrow, and thus, the wheelbarrow itself, seems to exert the thing-power that Bennett describes; as Bennet would say, it vibrates.


Later in the same chapter, I was intrigued by Bennett’s argument that vital materiality does not lessen humanity. She writes:

            If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and
            objects minimized, but the status of shared materiality of all things is elevated. All bodies
            become more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of resistance and protean agency are
            brought into a sharper relief. . . . The ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously,
            to bodies as such . . . [which] can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are
            kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations. And in a knotted
            world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself. (13)

Essentially, Bennett writes that looking at all matter as vibrant connects humans to each other and to the rest of the world in a way that the current “model[s] of personhood” do not typically allow (13). I will admit that I am usually disillusioned with arguments supporting materialism, but as Bennett writes, “American materialism,” in effect, “is antimateriality” (5). Materialism, especially what she calls vital materialism, instead relates to understanding the vibrancy of matter as she describes above.