Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Secondary Lit Post: Vathek

R.B. Gill takes an interesting approach in analyzing the critically acclaim novel, Vathek. He focuses on the author, William Bedford, as a person and how "a man unwillingly hastened by his
family and his wealth from one performance to the next, seems never to have found that inner being with which he could be at peace" (Gill, 241-242). In understanding and analyzing Bedford's life, a greater understanding of his writing style and choice of plot can be formed. Gill argues that the persona that is portrayed in Vathek and the life of Bedford are ones that were created, despite their biographical appeal.

Understanding the type of person William Bedford was will help me, as a reader, understand his writing style and purpose for writing works such as this one. Many have said that this book was an exaggeration of an actual event that occurred in Bedford's life. Apparently Bedford held a party at his house, Great Gatsby style, a chose to reiterate it in a fictional tale that is much more elaborate than the actual party that he had. Vathek is ambiguous in that it's style is clean and clear, but it is uncertain whether the tale is true or not. It can be interpreted both ways and many critics have done so. Gill's article helps me to know if questioning who the author really is and the authorial intent is necessary. I find that it may quite possibly be necessary because Bedford seems to be coming from a place of fiction in this novel. There are a lot of elaborate things in the novel (the five different palaces that cater to each sense, for example) and I am not sure if this and other instances of grandiosity are based on real life experiences, or made up fiction. Bedford grew up affluent and so these things could have quite possibly been true, but there is doubt present. I am also not sure if this novel should be passed off as fiction if some of or most of the events are based on nonfictional occurrences.

I ask you guys, is it necessary to question who the author is, really and his or her intent on the work? If we are just reading for entertainment, pleasure, academic purposes, etc; why is it necessary to know the true blue life of he writer? If it is not necessary, by not knowing the author, will that take away some of the value of the work?

Gill, R.B. "The Author In The Novel: Creating Beckford In Vathek." Eighteenth Century Fiction 15.2 (2003): 241. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

For Credit: Tables Turned

You've spent this semester learning how to make sense of C18 Fiction: how to understand its conventions, how to make sense of the social roles and behaviors it depicts, how to understand the cultural streams that feed into it, how to makes sense of its arcane vocabulary and bewildering sentence structure.

Now, how about you take a shot at explaining a work of C21 cultural production to a C18 audience?  

Imagine yourself transported to the drawing room where Frances Burney, Laurence Sterne, William Beckford, Horace Walpole, and the anonymous author of The Female American are gathered on a dull winter's afternoon to hear what a time traveller from the future has to tell them about the literary and cultural forms that are going to evolve.  You open up your laptop computer, only to find that only one of the C21 texts that you had stored there survived your journey through the time/space/reality continuum:

How do you explain this video? What background information do Burney, Sterne, Beckford, et al. need in order to make sense of it? How might you help them connect to its aesthetic values?

Deadline: Saturday (12/10), midnight.

For Credit: 5 Years from Now

The following clip, "The Five Minute University," featuring Father Guido Sarducci (comedian Don Novello), is a few decades old, but still current:

What will you remember from English 429 in five years' time?

Deadline: Saturday (12/10), midnight.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Authorial Identity in Vathek

In the article, “The Author in the Novel: Creating Beckford in Vathek,” R.B. Gill remarks on the self-conscious writing style of Beckford. Gill argues that Vathek consisted of many “Beckfords” meaning one could draw many different identities from Vathek and from some of this other works. The author states, “Not finding that centre or authorial identity, critics (and Beckford himself) have created a number of identities to satisfy their own perceptions of the needs of the novel” (242). For Beckford, he utilized a self-conscious writing style, like Sterne, to create an “authorial” identity within their works.
For Vathek, Beckford creates a world of contradictions. “Like Sterne , Beckford watches himself write and is intrigued by the possibilities of expressing himself in guises -now moral, now perverse, now coy, now sublime. He cannot resist indulging himself momentarily in some ludicrous or incongruous aspect of his material” (243). These contradictions, for Gill, allow a certain distance, but “Beckford wants us to observe him laughing at his subject , manipulating it: a gentleman engaged with compromising material but, never the less, in thorough control of it and able to smile knowingly at his own folly. In this mixture of opposites, Vathek, like many other neoclassical works, has a civilized sophistication that acknowledges its own role –playing” (243-244). From this acknowledgment as a piece of fiction, Beckford was highly aware and intent on creating himself within his work according to Gill.
But, through his self-conscious writing style, Beckford both creates himself and distances himself from this identity within the novel. He uses his “self-abnegating humour” and contradictions to allow a literary distance from the Caliph he fashions for himself. This distancing would allow a gentleman like Beckford to create an “authorial identity” within his scandalous novel, yet still maintain an identity as a gentleman. Gill writes, “The novel's puzzling mixture of opposites invites the reader to seek an inner author, the ‘real’ Beckford accessible through psychological examination” (245). It’s easy for the reader to draw comparisons to Beckford’s life and see Vathek as an extension of Beckford.
Gill goes on to explore the seeming opposites of Beckford’s life. Stating Beckford was involved with a man, yet married and had two children. For Gill, the contradictions of Beckford’s life may explain the contradictions we see in Vathek. Because we can draw many different meanings from this novel, we can create multiple different Beckfords. Gill suggests that, like the character Vathek, we can create our own understanding and image of Beckford whether or not this is true.
I find this article interesting in that it suggests that we don’t really need to know the “true” Beckford to understand this story. Whether or not Beckford was Vathek is not the issue for as readers we can construct our own image of Beckford. Do you think that this novel made you understand Beckford psychologically? Can you see any instances of Beckford’s self-conscious writing style? What “Beckford” do you get out of this novel?
Works Cited:
Gill, R. B. "The Author in the Novel: Creating Beckford in Vathek." Eighteenth Century Fiction. 2nd ed. Vol. 15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. e6ccb7-00d6-4df2-a294-bf39c691d3fe%40sessionmgr104&vid=5&hid=112>.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

FYI: Class on Tuesday

Just to reiterate what I said in class on Thursday: our class on Tuesday (last class of the semester!) will be an in-class exercise for extra credit (up to 10 points). You can prepare by reviewing the names of the supporting characters in all the novels we read (who they are, how to spell their names, which novel they appear in, what they do that's interesting). Part of our exercise will be open-book/open note, so you can bring your books to class with you if you like.

For Credit: Propose an Exam Question

If this course had three-hour, timed, handwritten exam instead of a final paper, what would a good essay question for that exam be?

Deadline: Tuesday, 12/6, start of class.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

For Credit: What's New with Vathek?

Madame de Pompadour as a Sultana (1752)
If you think back to the beginning of this class and the first few novels we read, one of the challenges was figuring out how to read a C18 novel. We talked about how these were novels that said what they meant--we weren't supposed to read around an unreliable narrator, discern deep hidden truths buried in apparently innocuous stories, brace ourselves for surprise endings, or expect entertainment designed for our tastes.

By 1786, the rules were starting to change (and would eventually morph into the familiar patterns that you had to shed in order to grapple productively with C18 fiction). The interpretive skills, specific to C18 literature, that you have acquired and honed in this course are not as useful for understanding Vathek as they were for the other things that we've read.

In a world that expected fiction to "delight and instruct," Vathek does neither. If it "delights," it also confronts you with the spectacle of violence, gore, and ruthlessness. If it "instructs," it does so in a very roundabout manner: its surface lessons are too trite (avoid eternal damnation!) or bizarre (heaven is an eternity of sexless immaturity!) to be useful.

How do the tools that you bring to bear on more modern literary texts help you in making sense of Vathek?

What would have have liked to say in class today but didn't have the opportunity to?

What would you like to add to today's discussion?

Final thoughts on Vathek?

Deadline: Saturday midnight.