Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How Does Creativity Work in the Brain?

Is this cheating? It's probably cheating, especially since I posted it to another blog. But anyway, I keep noticing patterns in the articles and ideas I keep seeing on how creativity works or how to become more creative. These patterns all relate back to some research I once used in examining writers and creativity. And it's scientific! Or mostly. As much as brain science can be, anwyay. ([insert zombie voice] Brainssss! Brrraaaaaiiiiinnnnssss!!!!)

So here's the short version for finding out just how the creative process happens--and it's no longer quite so mysterious!

Books with Tea: Creative Christmas Edition

(or
http://connect.capstonepub.com/2015/12/books-with-tea-creative-christmas-edition.html )

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The INTJ and Vicarious Experience: Empathy through Fiction versus Reality


INTJs don’t like to express emotion. This is true—it messes with the control complex. Repression is more likely, though emotional expression can break through. Emotion, with the tertiary introverted Feeling function (Fi) is very private. However, as numerous articles have also attempted to correct, INTJs are certainly not emotionless. In fact, perhaps the opposite is true. INTJ emotion is just much more internal, and possibly inward-focused. With a dominant introverted intuitive function (Ni) combined with an inferior extraverted Sensing function (Se), INTJ emotions are very intense. It has just taken a while to figure that out when so many of those articles stop at the “oh, yeah, INTJs definitely feel emotion, they just repress it since it it’s riskier to allow than logical control” line. In effect, emotion is still downplayed for this MBTI personality type.

I’ve also read several articles and posts that suggest INTJs are also less likely to cry during a movie (or express emotion at any other art form) than other types. However, I know this certainly cannot be true—at least not in all, and maybe not even most cases. I might attribute this belief to the fact that I’m a female INTJ while most of these posts are authored by males. But I also know I’m not alone in being deeply affected emotionally by movies, literature, and sometimes other works of art as an INTJ. I have seen this same catalyst for expressed emotion self-reported in other discussions and by another female INTJ I know. Actually, the general consensus among these people is that we all feel significantly more for characters in works of fiction than for people in reality. What is harder to pin down is how and why the empathy works differently in each situation—or why outward empathy for an INTJ is possible at all, much less for something that doesn’t even exist. But through a deeper study of the personality types (MBTI as well as others and how they match up) and a connection to some of my old cognitive science and creativity research for my master’s thesis (there’s probably newer stuff, but Patrick Colm Hogan’s 2003 book is, in my opinion, the best resource for this topic), I have concluded that the phenomenon in caring more for fictional characters than real people is not only neurologically possible but also more likely to occur in INTJs.

Here’s how this works, with a little crash course in the cognitive psychology of the reader from Hogan’s Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. Hogan looks at theories of how literature provides room for associations with its “suggestiveness” (156). In cognitive science, the idea is that while reading fiction, areas in the brain are activated through this mental process. This could include many different parts, but altogether they are the “set of all activated nodes connected to the work of art in any given reader’s or viewer’s mind” (156). And it might be assumed that memories are a significant part of what creates emotion in the first place along with “appraisal” or the reaction to degrees of selfish goal fulfillment (168). Then, universal emotional triggers create a sort of innate, and usually immediate, response (186-7). But I am still simplifying the concept of emotion and all the cognitivist disagreements about it for purposes here. It is more than “feelings,” but here I lump it all together as one and the same.

The process then, proceeds as follows. First, “all experiences leave traces in our memory” –or anything activated in the brain during those experiences, and therefore also the emotions we felt at those times (156). These accumulate over time, providing context for new experiences (156). In a new experience, links are created to past, related experiences, but sometimes the links don’t recall a full memory, but only the emotion of that memory, and that emotion may not always relate appropriately to the current circumstance (156). Also note that memory is “fragmentary” and “decays,” and therefore memories are not usually fully reconstructed as complete memories when reading (161). So even if a memory is activated and not just primed (Definition: “An item in memory is primed when it is activated to a high degree, but just below access” [158]), it may still only be a fragment, and the attention to the work of art or fiction is still intact (rather than getting sidetracked down memory lane), not alerting us to the fact that all those things are happening on a personal level in the brain (161).

The emotional reaction comes in when the remembered emotion becomes more than just a memory. As the memory is activated, the associated feelings can actually be activated again (157). As we read (or otherwise consume some art form [“high” or “low”]), “[r]elevant memories are continually primed in our experience of literature” (158). This prolonged priming is not how we usually experience reality, though.

The main difference between fiction and reality, then, is the way in which we process and engage with the experience, to an extent. Hogan states that “in literature the memory triggers are fairly consistent and continuous for particular primed items” when normally, in real life experiences, the effects of priming do not last long (158). In reality, a memory may be “primed once,” quickly “replaced” by another, making the emotional effect small (158). This idea may help to explain the small amount of empathy INTJs can show for real life emotional situations. But fiction is longer-term for the mental activity: “In contrast, the suggestions of literary works keep the emotion-laden memories primed for long stretches of time. Thus their cumulative effect may be very strong” (158). Simply, stories prime memories for extended periods of time, creating a stronger emotional reaction. Maybe even strong enough for an INTJ? (Although I won’t get into it here, there are thresholds of emotion, which help determine when, essentially it boils over into outward expression, and finally, a total takeover, eliminating control. So, fiction might at times push into the upper two thresholds for INTJs.)

So, we return to the problem of caring about something that’s not even real. But Hogan has determined that in reading literature, we misattribute our emotions—also a common phenomenon in everyday life—to feeling for the characters in the book, but the target of the emotion is really oneself (159). In other words, we’ve connected with the protagonist, and have drawn, mostly subconsciously, on emotional memory from our personal experiences to engage with the story—creating the vicarious experience anyone might have when reading fiction. And then, the fiction (not real) part is “irrelevan[t] to the reader’s egocentric goals,” and the empathy still works (160). We have hypothetical goals and invested interest in the character because of our own imagined or vicarious experience through the character.

Furthermore, basically, how our brains deal with emotional responses has nothing to do with how we judge whether or not something is real, according to Hogan (185). However, perceiving emotion in others can also have a role in triggering that emotion in us, which seems to hold true for fictional representations of people exhibiting a certain emotion (177). Hogan does conclude that really, there are no egocentric limits on emotion triggers—there are certain emotions that seem to have a universal bearing on people. In such experiences, or at the stimulation for one of those emotional triggers, we feel certain innate emotion ourselves regardless of whether or not the situation directly applies to us.

But, these triggers can be “too distant” without imagination in some situations (186-7). As in fiction, we need to imagine ourselves in the character’s place to some extent in order to express a reaction to one of those universal emotional triggers. Plus, we use personal memories to more fully realize, or imagine, the world and details of the story that text cannot cover (160). And, as it turns out according to findings in cognitive science, vivid imagination equals reality when it comes to the brain’s reactions (181).

Therefore, it would seem to follow that intuitive types would have an advantage in a higher level of creating that fictional reality to a very full extent. From there, then, there would also be more emotional memories being primed, felt a second time, and providing even more to react to. Hogan illustrates a full circle of this process:

  • Emotional response of a work from primed personal memorie-->
  • Those personal memories help to fully imagine the work-->
  • The memories are “reprimed,” creating emotional response—like at beginning of cycle. (161)

From pairing these ideas together with personality type, it seems clear that the INTJ (and probably other Ni types) would experience an even higher level of emotional stimuli from fiction than others.

Hogan also discusses a possible, though less scientific, correlation in moving between abstract and more particular thought to empathy (or emotion and moral evaluation) when considering a work of fiction. When moving from abstract analysis to specifics, Hogan noted a lack of emotion. But in the reverse, moving from specific to abstract thought, emotional response was much more likely (190). This, too, when connected to the idea of personality types, would explain why INTJs have a hard time empathizing in reality. Other types, when relating some emotional event, convey the specifics. But an INTJ’s mind is wired for the abstract. Therefore, the INTJ will perceive the event in the abstract—using a global or moral evaluation to analyze the situation as the first priority. Then, when the INTJ tries to move to the particulars of the experience, following Hogan’s observation, this would result in a lack of emotion toward it. The problem-solving side kicks in instead. As INTJs are preoccupied with ideas and more abstract patterns and judgments, it is not likely they would perceive the situation the other way around, which might result in some more emotional reaction.

But of course, INTJs still repress all emotion—right? Well, my theory here is mostly conjecture, but I would state that it is more necessary to an INTJ to repress emotion in public because of the perceived risk that may involve. Hence the awkward and purely logical reactions to what, for other people, should be a highly emotional experience or relation of such an experience in real life. (Or, if the INTJ’s own emotion pushes over some threshold to result in its expression when in public, the result is generally uncomfortable embarrassment—feeling the lack of control.) The idea that emotions in real life are primed much less continuously also furthers that idea of empathy lack from a cognitive perspective. On the other hand, in fiction, the emotion experienced can be both personal and private. Not only does the emotional experience needed to imagine a story come from internal memory, primed over and over, but the act of reading itself can be a private activity—a safe place providing an outlet to the deep introverted emotion of an INTJ. Showing emotion in such a situation would hold a relatively low risk in an INTJ’s analysis. The outlet of emotion in that case may then even be a purposeful pursuit, a catharsis that the INTJ intentionally seeks possibly even for the very controlled outcome of feeling the benefits of such a purging.




References for Cognitive Science and the Arts

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Martindale, Colin. “Biological Bases of Creativity.” Handbook of Creativity. Ed. Robert J. Sternberg. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 137-152. Print.

---. “Creativity and Connectionism.” The Creative Cognition Approach. Ed. Steven M. Smith, Thomas Ward, and Ronald A. Finke. Cambridge: MIT P, 1995. 249-68. Print.

Turner, Mark. “Double-Scope Stories.” Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. David Herman. Stanford: CSLI, 2003. Print.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Life of an Oil Painting

Spring 2010 on the Arno
2' x 4' oil on canvas

Session 1: Sky background complete, some layout of colors


Session 2: More blocking in of colors


Session 3: Detail work on left side


Session 4: Some detail work moving to the right side
  

Session 5: Some corrections to the original buildings sketch, plus work on trees


Session 6: Completed bridge


Session 7: Completed river


Session 8: Finished glazing for shadows, depth, and color


Finally, finished and framed! 
(Framed by Hobby Lobby)


Monday, September 7, 2015

As You Like It: Education from Arden


A close reading examining the concept of education in the forest of Arden...

William Shakespeare’s As You Like It begins with Orlando bemoaning his elder brother’s neglect for Orlando’s education. Orlando, as nobly born as his brother Oliver, feels he needs the formal education his other brother Jaques is receiving as he believes there is no advancement in living “rustically” (1.1.7). However, the rustic country people met later in the play, and the natural ways of the forest seem to offer a more honorable and even Christian knowledge and sense of the world than formal university training imparts. The forest of Arden in As You Like It provides the characters with an education they need to live within the parameters of fallen human nature.

At court, corruption, deception, and malicious conniving have run amuck. The politics of power have clouded good, honest sense and judgment while the court formalities restrict and confine more natural relationships. Brothers such as Duke Fredrick and Duke Senior turn against one another. Oliver plots against Orlando: “I hope I shall see an end of him; for my soul (yet I know not why) hates nothing more than he” (1.1.164-166). Even when reason is acknowledged as absent, Oliver does not pretend the slightest need of it for motive in getting rid of his brother. Even when the characters attempt to express love, the court seems to throw up its barriers. As close as sisters, Celia and Rosalind cannot accurately articulate their feelings for each other. Celia tries to cheer Rosalind by taking a wrong approach. Offering Rosalind Celia’s own father to take for her own when he is the very man that banished Rosalind’s beloved father shows that Celia’s heart is in the right place but does not actually soothe Rosalind’s sense of loss (1.2.9-14). Yet, Rosalind still loves Celia, but also cannot communicate her true affection as Celia notes: “Herein I see thou lov’st me not with the full weight that I love thee” (1.2.8-9). Romantic love is also confined to the point that Orlando cannot respond to Rosalind whom he has fallen in love with on sight. Orlando asks himself, “Can I not say, I thank you?” and “What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?” (1.2.249; 257). Contrast these moments to what happens later in the forest of Arden. Brothers must help one another in survival, reconciling one another. Friends rely on each other and trust one another in ways that do not need to rely on speech. Lovers can take the time to learn about one another and communicate unconstrained. Formal education and practices of the court seem to fail where informal education teaches within Christian values and true relationships.

Although the country rustics are technically uneducated, they demonstrate more knowledge of honest and sincere living than do the courtiers, initially. As Orlando compares himself to the rustics, he fits in this category, too (1.1.7-9). His brother Oliver muses, “Yet he’s gentle, never school’d and yet learned, full of noble device, or all sorts enchantingly belov’d, and indeed so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether mispris’d” (1.1.166-171). Still, after neglecting Orlando’s formal education, Oliver finds him knowledgeable and well-loved by his people. Oliver shows Orlando to have that sincerer connection with others and a gentle demeanor even though it was not learned at university. In the forest of Arden, the court clown Touchstone finds some similar attributes to be true of Corin, a shepherd. Touchstone asks Corin if he “[h]ast any philosophy” in him to which Corin answers in a series of observations about living life, concluding with, “he that hath learn’d no wit by nature, nor art, may complain of good breeding, or comes of a very dull kindred” (3.2.21; 29-31). Corin’s negatives suggest that “wit” can be in a man’s nature. Touchstone pushes Corin, saying, “Why, if thou never wast at court, thou never saw’st good manners, then thy manners must be wicked, and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation” (3.2.40-44). What is more important here is what Touchstone is not saying. By not being at court, Corin has also never seen the wickedness and corruption of the court. Corin relents, saying that Touchstone has “too courtly a wit” for him, but the word “courtly” brings along the other corrupted aspects of courly life as well; Touchstone is being tricky and deceptive in his playful argument. Corin instead proves his own honesty and sincerity as untainted by the power struggles of the court.

In the forest of Arden, the confines and restrictions of the court are loosened, and the characters learn a more honest way of living within a fallen world that loves to breed corruption. The courtiers get to play (or act out in) a space without danger or threats from one another, in so doing, being educated in the life of the rustics. The rustics, however, are not without knowledge. Their knowledge of life has been taught to them more informally, but seems to keep their lives sincere and relationships genuine. Living in direct contact with nature and the forest seems to provide the characters with a deeper connection to Truth.   


Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 403-434. Print. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Weight of Contractsˡ in The Merchant of Venice


 Something of a teaser before Friday night's Merchant of Venice reading...

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the bounds of the law are airtight—or so they seem. Portia’s dead father has stipulated the conditions for Portia’s marriage in his will. Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms of a loan for Bassanio, agreeing to a pound of his own flesh as collateral. Portia and Nerissa make their husbands promise to keep their rings at all costs. The overarching concept of weight in The Merchant of Venice balances these precarious contracts on the scales of law.

It is unclear what binds Portia to her father’s will. Presumably, without fulfilling the stipulations of the will, Portia will not receive her inheritance. However, who is enforcing the will? Even Portia suggests a lack of enforcement when she states, “[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25). The very person who wills Portia to adhere to specific terms under which she may marry is incapable of seeing his will carried out. Perhaps it is due to love and honor for her father that Portia will not abandon the will’s conditions as Nerissa seems to say: “Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lott’ry that he hath devis’d in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but on who you shall rightly love” (1.2.27-33). Nerissa also implies the soundness of Portia’s father’s reasoning and character. Even so, the weight of the will on Portia’s “little body” makes her “a-weary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). Contrastingly, Portia’s adherence to her father’s will still pushes the limits of that will. If Bassanio would only stay with her a while, Portia “could teach [him] / How to choose right” (3.2.10-11). However, she still falls back within the will’s bounds, recognizing that she is “forsworn” not to give away any clues (3.2.11).

Antonio, unable to pay Shylock’s loan, believes he must give up his life in order to pay the specified weight of a pound of his flesh when the promise of triple the sum owed to Shylock fails to appease him. Shylock in multiple instances demands revenge through “flesh and blood” even while arguing for the humanness of Jews (3.1.37).2 This repetition of the concepts of both “flesh” and “blood” throughout the play is reversed in the court scene when Portia, in disguise, resorts to the exact wording of the bond to decree that precisely one pound of flesh is granted Shylock, but he must find a way to take it without one “jot of blood” (4.1.306). This loophole threatens the scales of law, but they are able to remain balanced since it does not overreach law's bounds.

 Portia’s and Nerissa’s tests of their husbands creates a strange test of binding contracts. For some reason the women feel the need to deceive their husbands in order to see how faithful they are in their oaths to their wives, even accusing them of cheating and pretending to have cheated on them. Gratiano exclaims, “Why, this is like the mending of highways / In summer, where the ways are fair enough. / What, are we cuckolds ere we have deserv’d it?” (5.1.263-265). And, truly, it does not seem that the men have deserved this treatment. Indeed, because Bassanio and Gratiano actually did give the rings to Portia and Nerissa respectively, they did remain within the bounds of their promises. The “heavy husband” of each woman is made light of (5.1.130).

Measurements, scales, and weights define the law and contracts with utmost precision. However, the very weight of these contracts are made lighter by the ways in which the characters push against boundaries to find room for love and mercy. 
             
Notes
ˡ My thanks to Dr. Allen for raising the question of binding contracts at Dr. Farabee’s Sept. 29, 2011 playreading.
2 These words concern Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, but in the same scene Shylock goes on to apply similar images of blood and flesh directed at Antonio and those who would wrong Jews.



Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 288-317. Print.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The (Humanities) Adjunct Conundrum: It's My Career

Or
The Perks of Adjuncting

That's right. I am doomed to have no job security whatsoever while my job is to teach just like any other college faculty member. But, not as like any other faculty member in other ways--this job I must do only "part-time" or, as I would state more accurately, even less so. And, then I must work this less-than-part-time job at multiple campuses simultaneously, which actually adds up to an average full-time teaching schedule without the pay or benefits at any one of them. I can't and won't pretend I am alone in this. I am only describing what I know so many other humanities graduate degrees are also experiencing because, most likely, they are not yet taken seriously in the professional world (despite other positions or part-time work experience along the way) and have been passed up for someone with equal qualifications but more years and experience in the position or its equal that would have provided a much more stable and secure full-time position (or, not to mention, part-time).

So, that leaves these degrees with the experience they do have--and, consequently, leads them to the one type of job they can get. All that slave-labor as TAs in grad school pays off in one way on CVs where it fails on business resumes since it proves to college department chairs or deans that the grad behind the teaching experience section can survive the 101 classroom gig and help to fill their colleges' ever growing number of sections for a small fee--one that will undoubtedly be accepted as one of their only options because if they don't take it, someone else will (not much to negotiate, there...). And why do they do it? Perhaps there truly are no other options available (or granted to them) for financial income of any sort. Perhaps they hope if they gain more teaching experience it will eventually lead to something full-time, or, more likely, hope that if they teach long enough somewhere, it will have to become permanent sooner or later--even if it's later. Perhaps it's simply pride: if they don't keep up with positions at a level more prestigious professionally than working retail, food service, or nannying, they will never achieve the kinds of jobs they worked and hoped so hard for in grad school, and their degrees will be for naught. But then again, perhaps that slave labor in grad school simply convinced them that the classroom was where they best belonged, and to pass up the opportunity to be there, no matter in what form or for what pay, became unthinkable.

While I may have arrived at this last conclusion myself (though not without a mix of several of the others), I also can't and won't pretend I wasn't grasping at any other professional- (or even para-) level full-time (or continued part-time) position I could get just to add any kind of stability to my material life possible. In some ways, I still hope that I will come to a point where one of these positions is available to me--or at least that adjuncts will gain some semblance of the slightly longer stability (or simply a smoother hiring process and better foresight for future appointments) that at least two campuses I teach at are in continued negotiations and speculations over. Yet, for all of the uncertainty, I have come to several more realizations.

For one thing, I love teaching, and I love what I teach. Teaching is the only kind of job I've had that I can't say I dread going to do every day. Even on bad days, once I get into the classroom, I'm "on" and don't have room or time for anything else because my students never deserve it--no matter how much some classes try to push irritable buttons. I have a habit of teaching Yolanda O'Bannon's short essay "Living What You Do Every Day" in my developmental writing courses because it reminds me that "you have to live what you do every day of your life, so better to do what you love." Beyond that, I probably love it because I find it rewarding. It is one of the more directly rewarding and fulfilling types of jobs, and I guess that keeps me reminded of why I like doing it. I also enjoy the fact (yes, I believe it is a fact) that teaching is the best teacher, and find that it improves so many of my own skills each time I get to try it.

Now, I've basically convinced myself that those reasons mentioned are the only ones I really need to be happy and satisfied with my probable life as a career-adjunct, but the common downsides have still attempted to thwart complacency in my status without wanting to reach for more. I have to admit, I often attempted to convince not only myself, but also others to whom I felt the need to justify my precarious position, by glibly listing all of the "perks" I actually experience as an adjunct that I couldn't in a higher status. Among these are included the seeming lack of authority over me; the random, but scheduled hours, which actually allow me to be home in between most classes and let me get other household tasks done bit by bit--not to forget the relatively few hours I am not able to schedule my own time unlike full-time 8-5s; and all of the meetings and committees I am not expected to be a part of, so I can simply come to campus, teach, and leave!

Of course, what I don't mention are the opposite sides of each of these. With no real attachment anywhere, I fall into the "adjunct void" in which I truly don't seem to belong anywhere or get to know any colleagues. Nor do I feel I have any real opportunities to try to make a difference in any of the institutions I work at as I might if there were a higher level of commitment to me as an employee of that institution or from me to it. The actual hours I teach classes may be far less than the standard eight-hour day, but every moment in between (even if I'm juggling laundry and dishes at the same time just because I may be at home) must be dedicated to grading and lesson-planning if I am to keep up or have any evenings or weekends free. On a larger scale, if I don't manage to get about seven classes a year, I won't make enough for my budget, and I never have the certainty that I'll be able to get them. Moreover, with only continuing "teaching" for my CV/resume experience list, it seems unlikely I could move into any more stable administrative or other professional type of full-time position that I might enjoy if teaching full-time (in title) never becomes possible.

Yet, despite everything, my biggest realization of all is how humbling this adjunct conundrum has been for me in teaching me reliance and trust not on myself, but on God. I have always been one to make things happen one way or another, and I've generally learned I can't rely on anyone else to make them happen. I like things stable and predictable. I have always felt that if something didn't work out the way I thought it should, I wasn't doing something well enough or that I went wrong somewhere. I would forget who was really in control. Having come into this direction in life working from semester to semester as an adjunct has obliterated all of my naive notions about my life. I have now begun to rethink everything it means for me.

In such an unstable, unreliable position with no worldly job security, after submitting my CV, or my name pleading for any opportunities, I can only pray and rely on God to provide. If He chooses that it would be best if I only get two classes to teach one semester instead of three, I trust (although sometimes that's still a work in progress) that he will see me through somehow, by either providing another opportunity or by making up for it in another semester. If nothing else, my lack of control and uncertainty keeps His prayer line on my speed-dial--at work, getting ready, on walks, driving between classes... I know I've been self-reliant for far too long (or so I believed it was I making everything happen as it should), and God made sure to show me that mistake. But, at the same time, he has graciously blessed me with an (unreliable, yet fairly continued) job I enjoy so much, and I praise him for such a rare opportunity. I also believe he has used this situation to show me that worldly wealth is truly only earthly and temporal. Through adjuncting, I've been earning, semester by semester, just enough to feel perfectly content. Due to these things, I remember much more often what is truly important, and I try more and more to direct my thoughts heavenward. I guess adjuncting has been a lesson in being satisfied with what I have and humble about where I am at, without having to constantly strive for more--which would still only be earthly "perks" anyway.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lancelot of the Lake: The Burdens of Knighthood

Another close reading, this time examining the purpose of the knight...

There seems to be a problem with the definitions of Christian worth and nobility along with the definitions of knighthood and duty in Lancelot of the Lake. Lancelot has some very selfish ends to be in compliance with these ideals. But, it can also be seen how these ideals do not fit together quite harmoniously, either. Lancelot starts out with a pureness, an innocence, in which he spouts “noble advice” and simply feels it feels right address Lionel as his cousin (44). Lancelot also has a profound definition of what it means to be noble realizing that “all men are descended from one man and one woman” so a “great heart” is all that is necessary to make a nobleman (44). Lancelot is definitely a more spiritually connected being here than he seems to show evidence of later on. This rather inherent spirituality does not contradict what is said to be the original purpose of the knight as a protector of the church.

As a protector of the Holy Church, the knight is almost more of a symbolic figure as a soldier against evil, sin, and unbelief in the abstract sense. Literally, in Lancelot of the Lake, the whole of the knight and his purpose is a multifaceted metaphor for the Christian believer in general. The knight is the son to his mother the church, standing between her and evil (just as the knight’s shield is between him and the blows), to “protect” and “avenge” her (53). The knight should vigilantly defend the church as his hauberk defends the knight against attack (53). His double-edged sword serves both God and His people and the point signifies obedience to the knight—or perhaps this could be read, too, as obedience to the will of the Holy Church as the knight is a servant of the church? And the people the knight aids should aid him materially where the church should keep him spiritually through prayer and alms (55). This metaphor and the “two hearts” the knight is meant to possess are reminiscent of the Christian putting on the armor of God from Ephesians 6 and the idea of being in the world but not of the world from John (55). Where this separation and balance starts to become hazy is when loyalties, oaths, and the quest for renown and prowess become conflated.

Lancelot appears to become much more self-serving once he reaches knighthood. Even this he obtains through his own way. After this, we never quite see the same sort of spiritual connection so prominent early in the text. Certainly, Lancelot still seems to be serving the Lady of the Lake above all as he is carrying out her will for him by gaining immediate knighthood and carrying out all types of tests and adventures to gain his fame. However, Lancelot’s knighthood in practice (mainly meaning his carrying out of the Lady of the Lake’s predicted future for him) does not closely follow his expected role as defined in the beginning for knights. Even though part of that role is serving God’s people, which Lancelot would seem to be doing by serving King Arthur, it still looks like he is really serving himself. First, he breaks his promise to Yvain to return and goes off to aid Lady Nohaut first, taking leave of Arthur’s court a bit prematurely. In this, he serves his own desire for Guinevere to be the one to knight him, and the Lady of the Lake’s desire for his future—which in essence is also Lancelot’s wish. His love for Guinevere is then his new driving force, but also a selfish one (not to mention an adulterous, un-Christian one), on top of these others. Most peculiarly of all is Lancelot’s mostly unexplained need “to travel in complete secrecy, so that no one should recognize him, as he wished to win honour and renown (98). This perhaps makes his deeds appear to have a less selfish intent, but the result is truly greater renown as he becomes the mysterious knight—who is, of course, always recognized from his description by the queen, serving his more selfish end.

When Lancelot’s selfishness seems to have consequences, or at least when this friction between the loyalties, oaths, and quest for renown start to take effect, is in Lancelot’s conquering of the Dolorous Guard. There are some rather disturbing scenes of brutality that are described, and it is hard to distinguish just how Lancelot feels about all of it. The knights of the Dolorous Guard are problematic because they sincerely want Lancelot to succeed and lift the enchantments, yet they serve their lord, King Brandin, and do his bidding. On the other hand, they do his bidding because it seems they must in order for someone to be able to break the enchantments. But, where this is unsettling is in that these knights tell Lancelot this, making it clearly known to Lancelot. And, although Lancelot must understand this, he much more appears to ignore it in order to succeed. Lancelot continues to attack those knights who are being replaced even after their replacements arrive. Although this may be necessary to lift the enchantments, it conflicts with the moral and knightly code of mercy and nobleness. Moreover, the means by which Lancelot goes about defeating some of these knights is excessively brutal:
He went over to him, and struck him with his horse’s chest, so that he knocked him back down to the ground, then rode over him until he was quite battered, and unable to get up. Then he looked, and saw the knight lying in the stream, who was already getting up again. He went towards him, sword in hand, and struck him without slowing down, so that he completely stunned him and knocked him down again in a daze, and rode his horse over him also, as much as he had the other, so that he badly injured him and he passed out from the pain. (108)
Lancelot is also “forced” to kill those knights that were unconscious and unable to answer his command for them to become his prisoners calling on God to “never be his witness if he went on feeling sorry about killing them” (115). Necessity or not, these instances feel uncomfortable in terms of serving “God’s people.” What is worse is that there is no immediate gratification or relief for the people of the Dolorous Guard when Lancelot does not complete the lifting of the enchantments right away.
In the end, with Lancelot’s adulterous love for Guinevere, I am not sure we ever see his original innocence returned. As great a knight as Lancelot becomes, the sometimes questionable (or at least very hazy) things he has to do to get there make him much less admirable. Even when Lancelot weeps for some of the things he has done, it does not last long or hold much weight over him. But, at least these moments might show a troubled conscience—but then if they do, how is what Lancelot does as a knight following the protective order of the Holy Church?

Works Cited

Lancelot of the Lake. Trans. Corin Corley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.