Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for September, 2012

HerLand – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 12, 2012

Appreciation of any form of literature involves a degree of suspension of disbelief on part of the reader. And one of the unique problems of literature dealing with utopian themes is the challenge it poses to this ability of the reader to suspend disbelief. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s HerLand, despite its numerous merits, is no exception to this. The profusion of picture perfectness in the themes, settings, characters, outlooks and ideas that populate HerLand partially dents the credibility of this otherwise well written and deeply thought provoking book. Notwithstanding that, the most noteworthy aspect of Herland resides in its ability to offer an alternative worldview which is in parts inspirational and aspirational. Therefore, one ought to approach HerLand with a full awareness of its pitfalls and a maturity to choose what is practically aspirational.

With our growing understanding of the earth’s ecology, one can say with reasonable confidence that Herland would have been an ecological disaster for its agricultural practices. Similar is the case with population control where Gilman glosses over the issue of power equations in societies and the inherent scope for mischief and abuse in practicing negative eugenics. While greater common good is worth striving for, past experiences have consistently demonstrated how this led societies down the path of totalitarianism and regimentation. However, on aspects of motherhood, fertility and the freedom to handle them in a way that is most convenient to a woman, education for citizenship, collectivism in addressing societal issues, Gilman’s views are admirable. Even here Gilman discusses parenthood in narrow terms of motherhood and fatherhood leaving traces of a feminist bias.

Unwittingly, Gilman leaves readers with three possible reactions to the themes in HerLand through her protagonists: Terry- opinionated, cynical and unappreciative, Jeff – a complete proselyte with little intellectual resistance and Van – a cautious rationalist whose approach is worth emulating.

For its human universals, HerLand could have pretty well been a ‘HimLand’ or better still an ‘UsLand

(This brief essay is part of my assignment submission for an online course on Science Fiction, I am currently pursuing at http://www.coursera.org)

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Fantastic Fables in Fantasy

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 7, 2012

It is a well-known fact that the science of 17th and 18th centuries emerged from the dark shadows of alchemy, witchcraft and superstitions of the Middle Ages. Men endowed with a sense of ambition, curiosity, courage and dedication were responsible for this. The inherent power of the new knowledge and the limited means of disseminating it endowed these men of science with an aura of mystery, fear, awe and respect. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonists in the stories “Rappacini’s Daughter”, “The Artist of the Beautiful”, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” and “Birthmark” belong to this category of men. The common thread that unites them is a strong desire to rectify what they see as “imperfections in nature” and in doing so, wittingly or unwittingly, attempt to transcend the very nature which they are trying to rectify.

However, these journeys of transcendence have serious implications and lead them to outcomes that are at once irrevocable, diverse, personally affecting, telling in the ways of their world and wrought with deep moral significance. The potential consequences of their journeys are not lost on the protagonists in the stories. But the inherent belief in the power of science and their own sense of mastery and control appear to give them confidence to proceed with their intended actions and face the associated consequences. Hawthorne uses these stories to elaborate on some deep themes like desire for immortality, the quest for perfection, the ideal reward for highest quality work and the consequences of an intense and almost spiritual association with science.

Besides some great storytelling, well imagined plots and narrative brilliance, the depth of these stories also rests largely in the moral issues that form the nucleus around which they are built. The stories also make place for some arresting philosophical insights that are memorable.

I am a little surprised and mightily disappointed for having ignored reading the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. By the turn of this year, I plan to complete two of his most well-known novels “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of Seven Gables” and probably all of his short stories

(I read these stories as part of an online course on science fiction I am currently pursuing at http://www.coursera.org and this brief essay is part of my assignment submission)

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Displacement and its discontents – two gems of H.G.Wells

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 6, 2012

As animate beings we take many of our physical and mental characteristics for granted. So much so, that we are not even remotely conscious of the singular advantages that have been conferred on us by nature. Our morphology, sense organs, language, culture and ability to ideate are some of these advantage rendering characteristics. Yet these same advantages come to naught when we are displaced from the settings in which our characteristics are designed to work. ‘Displacement and its discontents’ – that appears to be the key theme of H.G.Wells’s ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Country of the Blind’.

Griffin, the anti-hero of ‘The Invisible Man’ displaces himself out of the ordinary world by becoming invisible, while Nunez, through serendipity displaces himself out of the ordinary into the world of blind in ‘The Country of the Blind’. The interesting aspect is that at the start of their fateful journeys, both entertain notions of unquestionable advantage and power over their surroundings. Griffin, in a moment of sobriety testifies to this view when he says:

And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom

and for Nunez, the drumbeat theme is that of power:

In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King

However, both realize that they are glaringly wrong about what their positions have to offer them. And as events unfold, they arrive at conclusions which are diametrically opposite to their starting positions. While ego, hubris and luckless circumstances lead Griffin to untimely death; clever adaptation, rationalization and maturity keep Nunez’s hopes of escape alive. Through this depiction of differentiated reactions to displacement, H.G.Wells offers an unforgettable lesson of warning to mankind that there are alternative paradigms which sometimes are beyond our comprehension and need to be dealt with wisdom and humility to avoid disastrous consequences.

( I re-read these classics as part of an online course on Science Fiction I am currently pursuing at http://www.coursera.org and this brief essay is part of my assignment submission)

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