Ask Nifty: Sage Advice for Fictional Problems

Hello, dear readers! I’m feeling a bit whimsical today and I love to give advice, so I thought I’d dispense some common-sense solutions for some troubling fictional problems. Happy reading!

Dear Nifty,

Weird stuff happens around me all the time, but I never got my letter from Hogwarts! I’m in my thirties now, but still feeling really bummed about it. What gives?

–Sad Muggle, Birmingham, England

Dear Muggle,

I get the sense that you are feeling down on yourself and questioning your abilities. I know it’s disappointing not to get into the schools you want, but remember, when one door closes, another opens: if you’d become a wizard, you’d never have gotten the probably very exciting job you have now, right? RIGHT? On a more serious note, if you turned 11 in the 1990s, it’s important to remember that the English wizarding world was experiencing great upheaval due to the events of the Second Wizarding War. The Owl Post Office would have been in disarray, Hogwarts was at that time undergoing several rapid changes in headmasters, and in that dangerously prejudiced political climate, it simply would not have been safe to accept new Muggle students into magical society. The fact that you didn’t get a Hogwarts letter is not a judgement of your magical abilities and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

I never got one either.

I never got one either.

Dear Nifty,

I was so excited about having my first real guest for tea that I accidentally gave my bosom friend currant wine thinking it was raspberry cordial, and she drank three tumblerfulls! Her mother thinks I got her daughter drunk ON PURPOSE and won’t let us be friends anymore. I’m in the depths of despair. Why do I keep getting into these terrible scrapes?

–Lady Cordelia, Avonlea, P.E.I.

Dear Cordelia,

Anyone who gets to a third glass of anything before she realizes she’s drinking wine probably isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer–you might be better off without her. This would give you more time to focus on your intellectual pursuits and be top of the class at school.

But if you still miss your friend, don’t worry. I have a feeling that in an emergency your “bosom friend” would be about as useful as a box of hair. Eventually her annoying younger sibling will get the croup and you’ll come out of THAT scrape looking like an effin’ rockstar. Just make sure you have plenty of ipecac on hand.

Derp derp.

Derp derp.

Dear Miss Nifty,

I am the third of five unmarried sisters who are all out in society at once. My two older sisters are very beautiful, capable and graceful and I just can’t compete. Meanwhile, my two younger sisters don’t seem to care about anything but men and parties, and my mother just encourages them! There’s always so much chatter at our house, but whenever I want to say something, nobody listens to me! I don’t really feel like I have anything to connect to (apart from my piano forte) and no one seems to take much notice of me. What should I do?

–Mary B., Hertfordshire, England

Dear Mary,

Don’t take it personally, but you seem like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Is it possible that’s why you’re feeling ignored? No one likes a party-pooper, Mary! Maybe, instead of focusing on whether or not other people take notice of you, you should focus on finding ways to be happy with yourself.

In the meantime, it’s likely that your family situation will improve on its own. If your older sisters are as beautiful and competent as you say, they’re sure to marry rich, saving your family from poverty in the event of your father’s death, and saving YOU from having to marry out of desperation. Also, if your two younger sisters are really that silly and man-crazy, there’s a good chance at least one of them will go off and do something stupid, trapping her in a loveless marriage, yes, but also helpfully removing her from your day-to-day existence at home. Don’t use this occasion to gloat; rather, see it as an opportunity to forge a better relationship with your remaining sister and to set a good example for her.

Wow, Mary, you sure look happy to be here.

One of these things is not like the other ones.

Dear English Paper: Go Write Yourself

Dear English Paper,

I’ve been avoiding you, and I’m sorry.

In a way, this is all my fault. I took my first undergraduate English literature course when I was 18 years old and now, nine years later, I still don’t seem to have learned my lesson. I admit that it was arrogance on my part to register in a first-year fiction course with the assumption that I (who have been taking upper level English classes for the past few years) would find it easy. In my defense, I thought it might be interesting to get back to fiction basics, and also, the student bus pass I get when I take courses is SUPER cheap. All excuses aside, we’re here now, and I know it’s childish of me to hide from you.

But does this really have to be so hard? It’s not that I don’t want to write you, I do! In fact, I absolutely love having written an English paper, it’s just that I don’t want to go through the act of writing you, rehashing the same old MLA guidelines over and over, dealing with word counts and pretentious-sounding titles. We’ve been through it all before and every time it exhausts me.

We have some history, you and I. It’s not as though you’ve always been kind to me–I recall several occasions during which I was slumped on the rug between the shelves of the library’s journal collections crying because I couldn’t find the article I was looking for (and when I did find it, it wasn’t useful anyways). There’s been a lot of wasted printer ink. A lot of late nights. I give and I give and I give, English Paper, and it’s never enough for you, is it?

But I don’t want to blame you. You want me to be better. You want me to read more critically, think more deeply, and write more persuasively. I understand this, but it still hurts. In the dead of night when I’m hunched over my laptop and I want nothing more than to close my eyes and sleep or maybe, just maybe, read a damn book for pleasure now and again, it hurts.

I want you to know that the relief I feel every time I hand you off and stop thinking about you is immense. But something keeps drawing me back to you, English Paper, and I just can’t keep myself away–soon we are entwined in the same familiar dance: introductory paragraph, argument, textual support, properly cited references, conclusion… I spice it up with a few clever turns of phrase, something daring, something a bit flashy even, but soon that spark disappears and we go through the motions, plodding along, torturing one another until I’m so sick of you I stop caring whether I’ve done right by you, whether I’ve done the best I could.

Tell me, English Paper, how does the family dynamic affect the characters’ emotional growth in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers? And would you say any of them find fulfillment? Why or why not?

But you won’t tell me. You’ll simply blink at me, your blank face transmitting nothing but my own words, words which seem foolish upon reevaluation. You will take my words, and give me nothing.

And yet, here we are. All paths lead to you. It is time for me to conclude this epistle and meet you face to face once more, on the barren white battlefield of our difficult and pedantic love.

Adieu, adieu



Conceptual Art I Like (on Srikanth Reddy’s “Voyager”)

Cover of the Voyager Golden Record, on board the Voyager spacecrafts.

I must admit that before this spring, if you had asked me if I liked conceptual art, my answer would have been an unequivocal no. Signing a urinal, calling it “Fountain” and selling it for lots and lots of money seems to me to smack more of douchebaggery than of genuine creative passion. Oh I know conceptual art is about process, and process can be interesting. I know it’s often meant to be intellectual, not emotive, and the intellectual can be interesting.

But a bunch of scenesters making whatever crap it comes into their heads to make/write, giving it some smart or artsy-sounding title, claiming it’s about “the suffering of the existential spirit in a post-apocalyptic Nietzsche world” or some such B.S. and then labelling it “conceptual” as a way to weasel out and seem clever when someone points out that it’s just a huge piece of crap that took neither talent nor brains to create is NOT the kind of culture I tend to enjoy.

I’m not saying that I need the art I engage with to be accessible. I don’t. But I need to be able to see intention on the part of the creator, a real question or form being tackled. If the artist hasn’t invested time, talent, or brains in a piece of work, as an audience member (or reader), I don’t feel the need to invest even an iota of my time and my brainpower trying to respond to something that was never a sincere question in the first place. To those that smile smugly and say I just don’t “understand” their work, let me say that I can usually tell the difference between something that has energy and genuine engagement invested in it (even if it’s not my taste), and something that’s just a pile of trash thrown together. Let me also suggest that you stop being an asshole and make an actual effort next time.

Luckily for me, I have been exposed to two pieces of conceptual poetry this semester that have really knocked my socks off and shown me that the conceptual can be effortful. The first was Inger Christensen’s alphabet, a complicated alphabet poem that grows according to the Fibonacci sequence. The second is Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, and if you ever want to read a really intentioned, committed, and effortful piece of conceptual literature with a concept that’ll blow your hair back, this is the book for you.

To summarize the awesomeness:

Unless they’ve studied history or politics, people in my generation may not know much about Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary-General of the UN (1972-1981). I certainly didn’t before this semester. To bring you up to speed, Waldheim was Secretary-General when the Voyager spacecrafts were launched into deep space in 1977. It is his voice which speaks for humanity on the Voyager Golden Record, a copy of which is aboard both spacecrafts.

All of this would be well and good, (you know, the UN Secretary-General representing the planet, etc.) if it weren’t for the slightly unsettling fact that Waldheim has been accused of being a Nazi war criminal and though he apparently “didn’t know” about the routine execution of civilian prisoners close to where he was stationed, and “didn’t know” about the rounding up of Jews to be sent to Auschwitz, it does make one uncomfortable to think of his voice as being representative of the entire human race.

This “disappearance” from memory of major and obvious wrongs has since been called “Waldheim’s disease”, in reference to Kurt Waldheim’s convenient ability to not remember or know anything about the horrible atrocities which surrounded him during his time as an SS officer.

What does Kurt Waldheim and “Waldheim’s Disease” have to do with conceptual art and Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, you ask? Well, Waldheim wrote an English-language memoir called In the Eye of the Storm and when Reddy sat down to write his political book-poem Voyager in response to “Waldheim’s Disease” he did so not by writing words from his head but by taking a chapter of Waldheim’s memoir and then crossing out most of it, leaving the words that comprise Voyager behind. Reddy did not use any words that were not in this chapter, and did not change the order that the words appeared in the book (he actually did this three times to the same chapter, making the three “Books” that comprise the poem).

This is what blows my hair back: Reddy wrote an entire book in response to a man’s erasure of history by erasing that man’s memoir. Reddy’s concept is his message. Reddy’s voice is within the voice of his subject (it doesn’t get much more “engaged” than that). He doesn’t tell us how erasure and disappearance changes that which is revealed. He shows us. Is your mind blown yet? Mine is.

The best part is that Reddy doesn’t rest on the laurels of his amazing process (which can be viewed at The incredibly intelligent and disciplined commitment to his concept aside, Voyager is just a damn good poem. In Book Three, a hell-dwelling Minister keeps a zoo of political leaders, harpoons one, and eats the man’s skin raw, “which he insisted/ was the best way/ to eat a respected/ former Congressman.” Keep in mind that all of these words do exist, in this order, in Waldheim’s memoir, and it is only the erasure of words by Reddy that leaves these lines behind. KA-BLAM.

"Voyager", published by the University of California Press

THIS is a concept I can get behind. This is art whose point is its concept (a very clever one, I might add) but because the work was sincerely tackled by the artist, who took the time to truly empathize with his subject (so much so that the poem blurs the lines between the poet as a separate voice commenting on Waldheim and Waldheim as a voice of the poet himself), the book becomes so much more than concept. This book is not even a condemnation of a former Nazi officer. It is a thorough and passionate engagement with a political figure and with what is shown and hidden in history.

Like a lot of conceptual art, Voyager will make you feel small. But you will not feel small in the face of inaccessibility and a sense of douchebaggery. You will feel small in the face of an overwhelming feat of creation and literature. This is the kind of small you want to feel when you experience any art, conceptual or otherwise.

Read it. Engage. Blow your mind.

On Early Modern Lit, the Afterlife, and WHOA.

Whether religious or not, every person is expected to have some kind of belief about the afterlife. Even atheists have a belief about the afterlife (their belief is that there isn’t one). Since dying is an inevitable part of life, and we as humans are conscious beings with the ability to picture what lies beyond our own physical existence (both where we might be, and the physical world, continuing without us), thinking about what may (or may not) come after death is unavoidable. Even for those who practice an established religion, views of the afterlife are not absolute or concrete.

Why am I thinking about such a morbid subject on such a beautiful day you may ask? Blame my Early Modern literature professor. Learning about the Medieval Catholic doctrine of Purgatory fired my imagination, artistically and intellectually. Learning about what this doctrine meant to the average English person during England’s Reformation forced me to think about religion, death, and art in a way I hadn’t before.

In a very VERY quick and dirty nutshell, the Medieval Catholic doctrine of Purgatory breaks down to this: after death, some very wicked sinners go straight to Hell. Some very virtuous people (usually saints) go straight to Heaven. And the rest of us not-too-bad but not-too-great people go to Purgatory, where our souls spend some time in torment before we are purged of the sins of our lives and go to Heaven. (To any Catholic readers I am very sorry if I am getting this offensively wrong, I am not Catholic and am only going by what I’ve learned about specifically Medieval Catholicism.) According to Medieval Catholics, the living could lessen a soul’s time in Purgatory through prayers for the dead. That is, even after your death, the living could provide aid and succor to you while you were in Purgatory. This belief in Purgatory and the power of intercessory prayer helped both to map the Afterlife for Medieval Catholics and also, more importantly, allowed those in mourning to maintain a connection to their departed loved one, and even provide help and comfort to them after their death.

There were problems with this, however. Firstly, Purgatory is not mentioned in the Scriptures. For 1200 years a Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, had been used, and sermons had been conducted in Latin. The average English person did not actually know what the Bible said, and had to rely on their priest for translation and interpretation. The invention of the printing press, the translation of the Bible into English, and the increase of literacy among English people (we’re looking at the 16th century here) meant that for the first time people began to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and began to question those Catholic rites and traditions that are not described explicitly in Scripture.

Secondly, the Catholic Church at the time was gaining a reputation for corruption as many 16th-century Catholic clergymen would perform intercessory rites and prayers only for the souls whose bereaved families could afford to pay for them. Those families who could not pay were further grieved by the belief that their loved ones were suffering untold torments in Purgatory and were not being helped. Pressing this image was a good way to squeeze a couple of pennies out of a poor and guilt-ridden family.

Through many political and religious machinations, messy negotiations, and a lot of bloodshed, England undergoes the Reformation and badda-bing, badda-boom, England becomes an officially Protestant nation (again, a very quick and dirty nutshell, and probably without the badda-bing). No more corrupt priests everybody! Woohoo! But oh, that Purgatory thing? You know, that place where you thought that your dear grandmama was receiving help and prayers from you? Doesn’t exist. She’s dead. If she’s not in Heaven, she’s in Hell. Well, have a nice day.

It’s a little shocking, to say the least. In a relatively short period of time an entire nation had to re-imagine their concept of the afterlife. The effect this had on the literature of the period is profound. Take, for example, the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: where does he come from? Within the Catholic religion, ghosts can easily be explained as souls in Purgatory who have not moved on to Heaven. Sounds good. But hold the phone–in Shakespeare’s time, Protestantism was the official religion and therefore Purgatory technically did not exist. So where, exactly, is this Ghost from? If you read or watch the play you’ll find that the Ghost himself is fairly vague on the subject. If the Ghost has nowhere to come from, how is it that it keeps popping up? Where does it disappear to? Does it really exist? How come we can see it? ARE WE ALL LOSING OUR MINDS?

Gripping stuff. Hamlet’s a real page-turner.

Lucifer's Fall - Gustav Dore - based on Paradise Lost

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the author decided not to be vague and described Heaven, Hell, and the Chaos between in vivid detail. The descriptions in Paradise Lost were so influential that even today, the images many people’s minds conjure of Heaven and Hell are actually based on Milton’s epic poem. One of my favourite YA series, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, is inspired by Paradise Lost:

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,  (Milton 2. 910-916)

Phillip Pullman does not seem to view The Fall in the same way as John Milton (so they say, I’ve so far only read two of the twelve books in Paradise Lost, but I can safely say at any rate Pullman’s work does not agree with Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin) but that doesn’t change the fact that Early Modern imagining of the afterlife by artists and intellectuals obviously still influences and inspires Western art and culture.

And that’s AWESOME. It’s hella interesting. When I signed up for a course in Early Modern literature I remember thinking that it would be bone dry, and now my brain is just itching from all the creative possibilities these ideas have presented me. I mean, WHOA.

But back to the afterlife. Maybe after all this excited rambling about Shakespeare and Milton and Purgatory you’re wondering what I believe. On Facebook I list my religion as “I would like to meet a luck dragon” but in all seriousness I identify as agnostic. So far in my young life, most death I have experienced has not been in my immediate family, so I like to believe that the afterlife is whatever the family of the departed person believes it is. Believing that the thing that might bring a grieving family comfort is true brings me comfort. As for what I hope happens to me when I die (hopefully as a funny old lady), well…I hope the people I leave behind remember me fondly. And me? Where will I be? I just don’t know.

But isn’t it interesting to think about? I mean, WHOA.

(SIDE NOTE: Did you know that the term “pandemonium” is a term coined by Milton in Paradise Lost? Pandemonium is the name of the palace the fallen angels build in Hell and means “all demons” the way Pantheon means “all gods”. INTERESTING.)

Procrastination Makes It Happen

Stop your distracting dancing, Devil! I'm trying to write a paper!

I’m supposed to be writing a paper. For my Early Modern Literature course. The due date for this paper was made plain as day on the syllabus I received in May. More detailed instructions were given to us two weeks ago, complete with helpful paper topic ideas.

I have no paper. I have no paper topic. I am feeling a little screwed. The worst part about this situation is that, like a hangover, I know it’s all my fault.

Actually, no. It’s not. Maybe it’s this blog’s fault because I simply couldn’t concentrate on anything paper-related until I fulfilled my self-inflicted, Internet-based responsibilities. And of course I couldn’t blog until I thought of something to blog about. My inability to find anything to blog about is, of course, the fault of the Vancouver Canucks, who, let’s be serious, have pretty much overwhelmed the hearts and minds of Vancouverites and I’m not sure any of us can be asked to think or do anything until the Playoffs are over.

Obviously, the fact that the Canucks have to go to Game 7 tonight instead of finishing with a Stanley Cup win last Friday like I wanted them to is the fault of the Boston Bruins. To sum up, my paperless situation is the direct result of a “house-that-Jack-built” series of events, and the blame rests entirely with the Boston Bruins. There was simply nothing I could do.

Unfortunately, life’s not fair. And even though the fact that I haven’t started my paper yet is ALL BOSTON’S FAULT, I’m pretty sure the writing of this paper is going to fall to me. Boo.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to write a university paper, and I’m not sure I remember how to. I’m also not at all sure I am an expert in Early Modern Literature. Perhaps, like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, I can exchange my soul for knowledge. Maybe I can move to the country described in Thomas More’s Utopia and live a very communist (albeit very monastic and Catholic) life free from concerns of personal academic glory.

Hey Marlowe! I bet you know a LOT about Early Modern Lit. If you weren't dead you'd write a great paper about it, I'm sure.

Hey, did you know that Christopher Marlowe (who wrote Doctor Faustus) was killed at the age of 29 by a knife wound to the eye sustained in a tavern fight? And that maybe he was an Elizabethan spy? And that other people in the tavern that day were maybe spies too? Suspicious. And exciting.

But I digress (a lot). Ahem. Paper-writing. First thing’s first: are there dirty dishes in my sink? Because if there are, I’m going to have to take care of them right away. I can’t be expected to work in a messy environment. Once taken care of, and now that I’m in the kitchen, I’m feeling a little hungry. Having been exposed to continuous cries from bleeding heart liberals who say lunch programs in schools help kids think better, I am certain my paper writing will go a lot more smoothly if I have a snack. Making and eating a snack obviously dirties more dishes which need to be washed and set in the drying rack. And now, I sit down at my computer. As I settle into my chair I am presented with the niggling feeling that I need to go to the bathroom.

Throw in paper-writing music, impromptu dance parties (caused no doubt by the music), and visits to Twitter to complain about aforementioned paper, and you can see I’m well on my way to unravelling the mysteries of Early Modern Literature in a concise, convincing, and intelligent manner.