I wish people would not make grand sweeping statements, especially when they are not entirely well-advised, as in "End the independent study. Forever. Done and done." (This may be why I'm never going to make a career blogging about politics.) Certainly, as Schuman says, beginning graduate or undergraduate students should not take independent studies--which is why my campus requires them to have completed six credits of coursework prior to taking one (i.e., they need to get through their first semester). I see no reason why other departments shouldn't impose similar limitations, although a dedicated sexual harasser will find other ways (or are we going to ban office hours next?). Beyond that, while it is true that faculty are generally not compensated for leading independent study sessions, although some departments have ways of negotiating around this, it is not true that there are no good reasons for ever doing such a thing. Here's an example. We have two versions of the independent study: 1) "independent study" (not based on an existing course) and 2) "directed study" (a one-person version of an existing course). Because our MA students are usually working full-time and therefore can only attend one class per day, the chair tries to schedule courses so that there are no conflicting time slots. However, because we're a fairly small department, course offerings are also rotated according to the period, so MA courses in one field will always be in Semester X and MA courses in another in Semester Y. (This is in part to make sure that faculty who are willing to teach MA seminars--as seminars are only offered at night, not all faculty wish to do so--have their assignments spread out over time.) Students who, for some reason, get their calendars out of "sync" with the rotation (didn't plan far enough ahead, took a LOA, had to drop a class, etc.) may find themselves stranded at the end. Either they have to pay extra $ to take a course at another university, twiddle their thumbs for a semester (or longer), or...wait for it...they take an independent or directed study. Indeed, I'm teaching a directed study next semester for that very reason. This is not something that can be remedied by the democratizing effects of a "reading group," since it has nothing to do with elitism and everything to do with the urge to actually finish one's degree--which, as far as I've observed in my seventeen or so years here, is the number one reason our students ask for independent or directed study. That's not to say that our students don't pursue independent studies in order to study subjects that aren't normally on the curriculum--for example, one or two of my colleagues with language expertise have taught independent studies for the few students really interested in the area. Now, perhaps graduate students at UC Irvine who did independent studies had more "personality conflicts with other faculty and students," but I would gently suggest that this is probably not the case.
The Jungle Book has, as they say, baggage. The newest CGI + live actor version, which is more an adaptation of Disney's animated film than it is of Kipling's Mowgli tales (the opening credits to the contrary), does its best to sidestep and subvert the implicit (and frequently not so implicit) imperial and racial themes of its various predecessors, with sometimes more and sometimes less success. Despite the new-and-improved Shere Khan, the film is certainly more upbeat than Kipling's tales, in which Mowgli's ability to find community in either the jungle or the village remains starkly limited, leaving him with an identity crisis that anticipates the one haunting Kim later on. If we take "In the Rukh" to be the canonical ending to the Mowgli tales, even though it appeared first--Kipling liked to repurpose his characters--then the only way to make sense of Mowgli is, as Muller says, as "Adam in der Garden, and now we want only an Eva!"--or perhaps some narrative even older than that.
As a technical feat, the film is certainly gorgeous to look at. The CGI animals are all rendered with exquisite realism, with only occasional blips revealing their computerized origins (neither Shere Khan nor Bagheera looks quite right while jumping on rocks, perhaps because the sense of impact is absent from the rendering); so too is the jungle, filled with all sorts of tiny creatures, which shifts from sunny to ominous at a moment's notice. Despite a fair amount of violence, there's no blood; however, some of the fight scenes involving Shere Khan seemed to be a bit much for the younger children at the matinee I attended, not least because one of them involves a jump scare that startled a bunch of adults, too. Aside from a few strained line readings, Neel Sethi, the child actor playing Mowgli, does admirably under the CGI-heavy circumstances. (The survival of his red underwear remains a wonder for the ages, although at least the film provides a flashback explanation.) The voice acting is all convincing, enough so that it's only later that you wonder why everyone in the jungle, Mowgli included, has an American accent, except for the big cats. Idris Elba is especially menacing as the murderous Shere Khan, who is far more dangerous than his urbanely unpleasant animated counterpart--who was, in turn, far more dangerous than the rather ratty original. (Both films avoid the mockery that Kipling's characters aim at Shere Khan's disability.) That being said, Christopher Walken's voice really didn't seem to go with a Gigantopithecus...
Which brings us to the plot. Like both the original Mowgli tales and the animated adaptation, this Jungle Book is in part about what it means to grow up--a familiar enough theme in a Disney film. In Kipling's tales, the answer is deeply bittersweet at best, as Mowgli is first rejected by his wolfpack (thanks to Shere Khan's machinations) and then by the villagers (after he kills Shere Khan); he eventually returns to the jungle, until his own burgeoning desires drive him out of it again for good as an adolescent. But in Kipling, Mowgli's coming adulthood also confirms his superiority. Mowgli's power is signified by his ability to stare: as a child, he can stare down Bagheera, even though the panther can resist him for a while; similarly, when Shere Khan tries to dominate him by snarling "Look at me, Man-cub!" Mowgli simply gazes at him "insolently" and the tiger "turned away uneasily" ("How Fear Came"). Contrariwise, Mowgli can gaze on Kaa's hypnotic pulsations without feeling any effect, even though Bagheera and Baloo are drawn in themselves. By the final tale, Mowgli rules all the creatures in the jungle, his old friends included, and it is again his eyes that signify his powers: "'The mouth is hungry,' said Bagheera, 'but the eyes say nothing. Hunting, eating, or swimming, it is all one—like a stone in wet or dry weather.' Mowgli looked at him lazily from under his long eyelashes, and, as usual, the panther's head dropped. Bagheera knew his master" ("The Spring Running"). Mowgli's unreadable gaze overpowers, but gives nothing back; he comprehends the beasts, but his own psychology has moved beyond their comprehension. The jungle was sufficient for childhood, not for adult passions. (Again, though, assuming "In the Rukh" is part of this continuity, Mowgli meets his own match in the form of the white forestry officials.) Both this version and the animated one play down this skill, inasmuch as Mowgli easily falls prey to Kaa until someone else rescues him, memorably Shere Khan (inadvertently, obviously) in the animated film and Baloo in this one. In general, the animated film does its best to eliminate any hints of Mowgli's mastery altogether, even as it also quietly eases him out of the jungle at the end with the promise of adult sexuality. Now, though, things are a little more complicated.
The 2016 film separates Mowgli from the other characters by identifying him with homo faber--man the maker. Although fire is integral to both the original tales and the Disney adaptations, this film specifically insists that it is not just Mowgli's ability to use fire, but also to make and use tools, that renders him "other" to the jungle beasts; indeed, both the wolves and Bagheera repeatedly reprimand him for such "tricks." Mowgli's mini-MacGyveresque engineering skills emphasize his status as that evergreen favorite of children's stories everywhere, the misunderstood outsider. In the beginning, Mowgli tries to fit in with the wolfpack by running with them, something he obviously can't do, and Akela's warnings are all about the danger of sticking out. Once he decides to leave the pack to protect them (not entirely successfully, as it turns out), he winds up with the solitary Baloo, who, in the beginning, is all too willing to abuse Mowgli's skills to fulfill his own hunger for honey. Phases I and II thus swing between having one's individuality suppressed in order to conform and having one's individuality celebrated...in order to be exploited by somebody else. It is perhaps not surprising that in phase III, the King Louie sequence, King Louie turns out to be a warped Baloo. In the Mowgli stories, the monkeys or Bandar-Log introduced in "Kaa's Hunting" have some of the most overt racist overtones in the entire sequence, all the more loaded given the context of nationalist movements in 1890s India: "They were always just going to have a leader, and laws and customs of their own, but they never did, because their memories would not hold over from day to day, and so they compromised things by making up a saying, 'What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later,' and that comforted them a great deal." Capable only of mimicry--one feels the urge to consult Homi Bhabha--the leaderless and therefore anarchic monkeys exist in stark contrast to the hierarchical regime of the Jungle Law that holds elsewhere. The monkeys like to go on about being "free," and yet their freedom lies in ruins and forgetfulness. While giving this group a leader eliminates at least part of Kipling's scornful satire, King Louie's song, "I Wanna Be Like You," brings the mimicry right back, with racial overtones yet again--nothing good is implied by a talking orangutan (in the animated version) or Gigantopithecus laying out his desire to turn himself into a distorted copy of a human being. Still, the 2016 film tries to work their way around this yet again with the Baloo parallel: whereas Baloo uses Mowgli to satisfy purely personal hungers, King Louie wants to weaponize him for conquest. Baloo's selfishness can be overcome through friendship--recognizing Mowgli as an individual, in other words, not a tool--but King Louie's desires, which require him to not pay attention to Mowgli as an individual (he wants fire; Mowgli doesn't know how to get it yet) can only lead to his own destruction. It is only in Phase IV, when Mowgli returns to the pack in order to kill Shere Khan, that everyone "matures" via what amounts to an allegory for cultural diversity. Although the pack acknowledges him as one of theirs yet again, Bagheera warns him that he must fight Shere Khan "like a man," instead of trying to copy the wolves, and so Mowgli does. And so everyone (er, except Shere Khan) lives happily ever after, having accepted the importance of celebrating individual difference for the greater good of the whole. Indeed, Bagheera's concluding voiceover tells us, Mowgli manages to unite the entire jungle against Shere Khan, despite having "no People" himself; far from maturing out of the jungle, Mowgli concludes the film essential to its fabric precisely because of his difference. No future exile from the jungle even seems to be on the cards.
Mrs. Stevenson, A Wife's Faith, or, Reaping the Whirlwind (Church of England Temperance Society, n.d.). A young woman's faith eventually keeps her husband on the straight and narrow after his drinking brings about near-disaster, whereas a close friend of his drinks himself into insanity and commits suicide. (eBay)
Rev. P. B. Power and Edith M. Dauglish, Linked to a Thought and Soldier and Servant and Other Stories (Church of England Temperance Society, n.d.). A novella and a short-story collection. I described the former here. (eBay)
Henrietta M. K. Brownell, God's Way: Man's Way: A Story of Bristol (Catholic Publication Society and Burns and Oates, 1885). Catholic novel. When one woman is believed dead, her husband marries another. Just one problem... (eBay)
Mother Mary Peter Carthy, English Influences on Early American Catholicism (Catholic U of America, 1959). Published doctoral dissertation about an "Anglo-American" tradition in the Catholic church, including missions, education, responses to anti-Catholicism, etc. (Amazon [secondhand])
John Watts, Scalan: The Forbidden College, 1716-1799 (Tuckwell, 1999). History of an illicit Scottish Catholic seminary (which I didn't actually order, but the seller didn't think it was worth their money for me to return it...). More information here. (Amazon [secondhand])
1) I've dispatched both of my conference papers for the semester. That will be the end of conferencing for the time being (the "time being" being until next summer at the earliest, in all likelihood).
2) ...But one of the conference papers has been selected for the conference proceedings. Fortunately, I don't have anything to write, as the longer essay already exists, but I do have to do some scrubbing up (or down?). The final version is due next March.
3) Now I have to finish up the article I'm writing for BRANCH about post-Papal Aggression anti-Catholicism (end of the semester/beginning of summer).
4) And then dispatch a book review (same time frame).
5) Plus another teeny little book review (end of this month).
6) Followed by an introductory overview of Victorian religious issues for one companion (next semester). Which I'll be working on alongside...
7) ...an article about fin-de-siecle Catholicism and literature for another companion (end of next semester).
8) Meanwhile, I'm also reading up for an article that got a revise-and-resubmit, which has to go back to the editor by the end of the year.
After all that, I can get back to Book III 1/2.
Er, if I haven't committed myself to something else in the interim.
Despite the sharp pointing finger of its title, China Mieville's This Census-Taker is, in fact, exceptionally vague. We appear to be on earth, but at an indefinite time in the past, there was a war (semi-apocalyptic?) that destroyed a lot of advanced technology; nevertheless, there are still things like generators for electricity, rifles, typewriters, and so forth. At the same time, there is either superstition or actual magic at work, in the form of the narrator's father's "keys," which are apparently enchanted in some way (or, at least, are believed to be so). There still are "immense foreign wars" (loc. 339), but it is not clear where they are, or why anyone is fighting. Some nations appear to have held on to more of their technology than others, as indicated by the "neon" lights of the city where the narrator writes (loc. 277). People have journeyed from place to place, although it's not clear if they're always refugees or not. Our narrator grew up speaking one language, yet tells us that he is writing this narrative in a different one, the language of his father (loc. 1332), which he only learned as an adult from the eponymous census-taker (although it's a double title: the narrator becomes a census-taker himself). The eponymous census-taker had a previous trainee who disappears for reasons he claims have to do with skulduggery on her part, but this story is never verified. The reader does not know what languages anyone speaks, although the narrator hears his father's language as "ugly baying gibberish" (loc. 1339). The reader does not know why the narrator's father left his home, although his habit of killing things is certainly a hint. Nor, indeed, does the reader ever learn why the narrator is under guard; for that matter, the reader does not know the narrator's name, or the names of his parents. Reading the novel is a long exercise in negative capability.
But instead of regarding the novel's setting as vague, we could also regard it as hyper-focalized, constrained by the limitations of the narrator's childhood gaze and consciousness. For, as is frequently the case with Mieville's fiction, this story is in part about the problem of narration. It opens, in fact, with a child seeking an audience for a frightening story: "A boy ran down a hill screaming. The boy was I" (loc. 76). This splitting of the narrative voice frequently occurs when the narrator tries to represent moments of great emotional trauma, attempting to dull pain by severing the phases of the self through language. (Similarly, he cannot recognize his mother's own writing, despite having witnessed her doing it; the action and its result drift apart from each other.) Such trauma also manifests itself in the narrator's reversal of the act that galvanizes most of the plot. "My mother killed my father!" (loc. 98), he cries, even though the opposite has happened: "Still now if I consider the thing I saw in my house that day what comes back to me first is my mother’s hands: her calm expression, the sight of her braced and striking, her hands coming down hard, a knife, my father’s eyes closed, a glimpse of his mouth, his mouth full of blood, blood on the pale flowers of the walls, and the boy has to think all that, first, I have no choice, I can’t think around it, and every time it takes me a moment to reflect and prepare to say that no, that’s not what it was, surely, that the face of the person being hit was hidden, or certainly that it wasn’t my father’s" (loc. 134-38). From nearly the very beginning, his memory overwrites the act of violence, transforming the glimpsed fragments of the event into a coherent declarative statement that, after all, turns out to describe the very opposite of what happened. The true(r) memory only comes later, but always remains in the shadow of what he did/did not initially see. Each time he tries to tell his story, he finds himself foundering on this moment of brutality, which momentarily wrests his language out of control.
The narrator's troubling, problematic memories contrast sharply with two other forms of making sense on offer, neither of which allow for any ambiguity at all. The first is the law, administered locally by amateurs and treated with almost scriptural reverence ("It would be a young schoolteacher with a faintly scarred face who would interpret the books of law" [loc. 693]). It is hardly a shock that, ordered to tell a neat story, the narrator is instead puzzled by the prospect of identifying "what the beginning was" (loc. 684). The law can do nothing to prosecute the boy's father; nor does the law protect him when he tries to run away, for "the law had said I was his and they had a lot of respect and fear for the law in that town" (loc. 1132). Despite the need for "interpretation," the language of the law is treated in quasi-fundamentalist fashion, running roughshod over individual cases. The law's organizational function finds its echo in that of the census, which takes "people and things" and puts them into "sets" (loc. 1478). Census-taking is a response to the ill-defined wars, past and ongoing; the census-taker specifically tries to place each member of his own "polity" (loc. 1478), which includes the boy's father, within the proper set, so that by a joint effort everyone can be properly located. The outcome of this project is not specified--in fact, the adult narrator ruefully notes that his "first book," the coded census book, is "for everyone, though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it" (loc. 294). Like the law, the census classifies and arranges relationships; unlike the law, the census seems to have no actual audience (despite its official government purpose) beyond the census-takers themselves. Moreover, even though the language of "sets" and "counting" suggests transparent clarity in the name of control, pinning down those people who have moved, there is no sign that a national government exerts anything in the way of effective surveillance or power over the country's inhabitants. This is, as it were, a form of census theater. The census-taker certainly feels free to enact justice on his own account, as we see near the end, but there is a strange lack of bureaucracy behind him.
There is, however, yet another pattern, a found pattern, which is the "rhythm" of his father's killings. The boy first realizes that his father is attacking someone--who turns out to be his mother--when he "heard a rhythm" (loc. 136); he and his mother hear a "rhythm," a "methodical thudding," when his father kills an annoying client (loc. 639); and he detects a "growing beat" as his father kills an animal (loc. 1270). At one point, this rhythmic brutality converges oddly with the act of writing, when the census-taker, explaining the "second book" to the narrator--the second book is the book for dialogue, the third for secrets--points out that even though the second book is written for an audience, one can still convey hidden meanings through, among other things, "arrangements and rhythms" (loc. 301). Rhythm may or may not be spontaneous, and may or may not have intentional signification; unlike the codified languages of the law and the census, its status as a bearer of meaning remains permanently unclear. We tend, after all, to turn repeated sounds into rhythms. This instability carries over to the father's violence, in which the boy finds a rhythm that, nevertheless, completely fails to explain what is going on, or why his father feels driven to kill. Like so much else in the plot, the mystery of his father's behavior remains unspoken to or by the narrator, although the census-taker coolly informs him that "I know" the reason the father left his original home (loc. 1491).
At one end, the census-taker bears most of what passes for knowledge; at the other end, there is the figure for the unknowable, which is the rubbish hole. All things wind up in the hole, so deep that whatever is dumped into it simply "tumble[s] into silence" (loc. 254-55). The boy witnesses his father kill a dog and then throw it into the hole; later, he thinks that his father "was feeding only the darkness" (loc. 576), endlessly hurling corpses into a hole that cannot be filled. When he attests that his mother, too, has been murdered and thrown into the hole (along with rather a lot of other people), he finds that his witnessing is useless--nobody can verify his claims, given the hole's depths. For the narrator, this hole proves to be the limit point of what can and cannot be represented. By contrast, when presented with the hole, the census-taker, MacGyver-like, simply pulls out the necessary equipment to climb in. "“Yes, well, I have a job,”" he calmly explains, "“I have to count. I have to track everything”" (loc. 1529). And yet, emerging from the hole, he says nothing about what he saw--although the novel implies very clearly that he executes the boy's father in retribution for whatever it was. The ongoing presence of this literal and figurative gap in the boy's consciousness is in stark contrast to his "catechism," written in dialogue with that of the census-taker's previous trainee, which both promises absolute clarity--"The Hope Is So: Count Entire Nation. Subsume Under Sets. - Take Accounts. Keep Estimates. Realize Interests. So Reach Our Government’s Ultimate Ends" (loc. 1782-84)--and yet defers it endlessly. A hope, not an accomplishment; ultimate ends, not goals immediately in sight. The promise of knowledge, but knowledge that is never quite entirely within one's reach.