Oberlin Blogs

Winter Term Routine

January 26, 2012

Tess Yanisch ’13

Winter Term is, alas, nearing its end, but before it closes, I want to explain what I've been up to all this time. My roommate, Emma, told me that winter term is for relaxation. I took her advice. While freshman year I was scurrying around to different colleges analyzing the intricacies of bathroom graffiti, among other things, and last year I was far too busy with computational modeling, 6 a.m. lifeguard shifts, and training in people for my advisor's research lab, my project this year is relatively simple. I'm reading Les Miserables, Moby Dick, and Bleak House.

I didn't think I was being ambitious, I swear.

My idea was to read things I feel like I already should have read; Moby Dick by itself didn't seem wide-ranging enough to cover a full month, so I looked around for more. The project is officially titled "Classical Literature Marathon." The original plan was to scope out other more-or-less classic books once I finished the big three--I say "more or less" because The Screwtape Letters is much newer and Mary Wollestonecraft's books are older--plus squeeze in a little non-classical reading just for fun. I love reading and I don't usually have a problem with denseness; this summer I sped through all 850 pages of A Game of Thrones in a week, while working eight-hour days. I forgot that some books have a different kind of denseness, one that demands you sit and think about weighty issues instead of who's secretly betraying whom, and those ones take a while longer to digest.

That said, I'm really enjoying this project; I wish I had more time, so I could get around to the other things too, but these books are all very good (obviously) and I'm glad I have this chance to read them. So far I've gone through Les Miserables and Moby Dick. I read Les Mis in translation. I theoretically could read it in French, but it would take me much more than a month to do so. Victor Hugo's writing reminds me a bit of Charles Dickens, which makes sense as they're roughly contemporary with each other, but with less comic relief and more lengthy philosophical tangents. It's tough enough in my native language.

Les Miserables is not just a high drama: it's social commentary. Hugo seems to have set out to highlight the follies of human nature and inequality that feed on each other, the vicious cycle of poverty, blame, and revolt. He digresses several times to talk about insurrections as political expression and referenda: if enough of the populace agrees with the rebels, the government is not in touch with the needs of the people and the city will rise. If the city doesn't rise, the people are content enough with their lot, or think there's a better way to fix things.

Other topics of tangents: the battle of Waterloo (in which he manages to draw a huge amount of nationalistic fervor out of a famous defeat--the only reason brave men surrendered was because Napoleon had enough power to upset the balance of Fate, and he had to be stricken down); the necessity of free, compulsory education; the history of the convent where Jean Valjean and Cosette hide for five years; whether or not convents and other cloistered communities are outdated or no longer good for society; and the way people in love aren't in touch with reality at all. This is not to mention internal debates, like Jean Valjean deciding to cease being a thief and then deciding to go give himself up twenty years later or Javert's attempts to reconcile The Law Is The Only Morality with This Convict Is Actually A Very Good Person.

{NOTE: The following paragraphs may range from a little bit confusing to all-out befuddling to those who haven't read the book or seen the musical.}

Not surprisingly, the musical is incredibly condensed. All these philosophic interludes are left out, of course, as are certain other characters and connections: Marius' grandfather, Gavroche being Eponine's brother, their abandoned younger brothers, Eponine's other sister, Cosette's jerk of a father, Marius owing the Thenardiers because M. Thenardier accidentally saved his father's life while trying to loot his body, the life story of the bishop Jean Valjean tries to steal the silverware from . . . .

Many of the characters left in are idealized, too. Fantine is not nearly as saintlike in the book, which makes her much more realistic: starving, ugly (she sells not only her hair but also her teeth), drunk, and half-crazy when Javert brings her in. Unlike in the musical, she really doesn't care about losing her dignity--she feels like she should care, but she hasn't the time or energy to spare. It's really heartrending, as, of course, it's meant to be--social commentary!

Even Jean Valjean is a trifle shy of perfect. There's no equivalent to the song "Bring Him Home" in the book--he actually hoped Marius would die so he wouldn't lose his adopted daughter. (Then he went and saved him anyway, so she'd marry him and be happy, but he hates Marius even while he's rescuing him.) I like that greater complexity.

Eponine, too, isn't merely a heartbroken note-carrier between Marius and Cosette. She tells Marius about the barricade right after he's learned Cosette is going to England in the hope that he'll take himself off and get killed. But she still dies saving him, and she told him where Cosette lived in the first place, and warned her father and his cronies not to try robbing the house. She's conflicted, sad, wants to better herself--again, more realistic than how she's portrayed in the play. She and Gavroche have a certain honesty, pluck, and off-hand dignity that is truly remarkable considering their parents and their upbringing. To tell the truth, Gavroche is probably my favorite character--him or the bishop.

I could go on about this for ages, and in fact, I already have. The other part of my project is to keep a journal of my thoughts and reactions while I'm reading. I can't write down everything, of course, or my journal would be nearly as long as the books in question, but I've managed some interesting and, I hope, insightful comments.

I finished Moby Dick just the other day. Compared to Les Mis, it's short, cheerful, and to-the-point. I don't know how it got such a reputation for being dense or dry. Ishmael is--how shall I put it?--a pretty chill dude. He's a good narrator. He doesn't take himself too seriously, though he's not reckless; he's happy to learn things and to respect people; he's thoughtful without losing the ability to enjoy happiness.

Ahab, on the other hand . . . Well, my take on his obsession with Moby Dick is that he has lost that ability. He said himself that the white whale represents a "wall" between observed action and an unknown controlling force. "'That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him." That inscrutable thing--what he doesn't understand but feels compelled to understand--is what he's actually preoccupied with. You know how it is when there's something you want to understand, but can't--some apparently paradoxical phrase, instructions for putting together a piece of furniture, the rationale behind some mathematical theorem--and you throw yourself at it, over and over, but you can't make it click? I think Ahab feels like this all the time. He doesn't know what it is that he doesn't understand, but he always feels the itch, and he's determined to conquer it. On the other hand, he doesn't feel that his compulsion is entirely of his own making. Towards the end of the book he actively pushes away people who make him feel sane or make him think of home, precisely because he wants to listen to them, but he needs to chase the whale. "'What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?'" Great stuff.

While it doesn't have the hundred-page-long interludes of Les Miserables, Moby Dick isn't limited to the story of Ahab chasing his whale. Ishmael goes to great lengths to describe whales and whaling to the reader. There's a very amusing chapter where he lays the smackdown on all those silly naturalists who say whales are mammals. They swim, don't they? Then they are fish. Fish with horizontal tails and lungs, but fish nonetheless. I don't know if that's Ishmael's ignorance or Melville's talking, but it's funny either way.

Now, I've talked with several people who've read and liked Moby Dick, and I got different comments from everybody. My advisor read it with her husband in the middle of a snowstorm while camping in Russia or something crazy like that. My friend Guy loves it for Ahab's frenzied speeches and over-the-top defiance. Alex (a Sci-Fi Hall dweller) was lukewarm about the characters and the story, but is actually fascinated by the whaling industry in the eighteen-hundreds, so he really enjoyed all the explanatory chapters. And me? I like thinking about the people in it and how they interact. There are short profiles of nearly every named character, and I keep wondering, "Why put this in? What was Melville trying to show? This is satirical, but what is it satirizing?"

But lest you think I've been doing nothing but read and think Deep Thoughts all winter term, here's a typical day:*

7:10--wake up. Turn on computer and heat water for oatmeal and tea. While the oatmeal absorbs the water and the tea cools, stretch and do crunches while listening to NPR, if any of the audio is available yet. Read non-audio NPR stories while eating.


10:00--listen to any remaining NPR stories and/or watch The Colbert Report and The Daily Show while playing Free Rice, ideally in some visual subject mode. "Flags of the World" works well for this. I'm getting pretty good at it and have some favorite flags. I like the distinctive ones. Seychelles, for instance.

Saudi Arabia's is pretty cool too. It has a sword on it.

Barbados has a trident.

Comoros is also pretty neat . . .

The next step is to know exactly where all these places are, probably with another FreeRice setting. I just looked up Seychelles today; it's a group of islands off the coast of Africa, a little bit north of Madagascar.

Once I finish my daily news briefing/flag favoritism interlude, I go giggle over whatever Emma's knitting that day. If there's time before lunch, I read or write about what I've read.

Of course, this can vary somewhat. Last week, when Colbert was exploring a bid for President of the United States of South Carolina, I watched The Colbert Report first--as in, at seven in the morning. He's testing the limits of what you can legally do with a Super PAC--satire at its most involved. He and Jon Stewart are like little kids about this. If you're interested in political finance reform, I'd suggest you go watch last week's shows from both of them.

12:20--Lunch! Delicious co-op lunch, sometimes a theme meal. Yesterday's lunch was Harry Potter themed, for instance, complete with pumpkin juice, pumpkin pasties, and salad from the Forbidden Forest.

After lunch--Read more, write more, go for a walk. If I'm making something for the co-op, this is usually when the most time-intensive stuff happens. I've made whole wheat bread a few times. I tried making cinnamon rolls, like last year, but they didn't rise for some reason and were, alas, practically inedible. Maybe I'll give it another shot next week. On the upside, I made granola yesterday and that came out very well, especially considering it's the first time I've ever tried it.

6:20--Dinner! Also often themed--we've had "Snowflake Day" (some Clone High reference; it meant cake and tacos, so I'm happy) and a Redwall feast.

After dinner--Goofing off. Sometimes I read more, sometimes I talk with people . . . lately Connor and I have been watching Doctor Who. He works on chain mail, I knit. It's fun.

And at 11:00 I go to bed so the whole thing can start again!

*Note: this is an amalgamation of normal days. Other, more exciting things do occur from time to time--brunch with friends at Black River, a game night, raiding Pyle, playing cards, etc.

Responses to this Entry

I applaud your book selection.

I always thought Moby Dick worked on multiple levels. It's a documentary about whaling, an essay about class and class distinction, and adventure story, a character study, psychological thriller of sorts, and a commentary on nature of good and evil.

I've also always thought that it's an examination of "man's" alienation from nature, wrapped in something of a transcendentalist contemplation. These guys are completely cut off from "civilization" and immersed in nature, yet Ahab is so incapable of reconciling himself with nature that he provokes into a violent response. Ahab's refusal to recognize his place in nature becomes a suicidal obsession, a futile attempt to master nature rather than live with it. One thing I know, There's a lot more going in Moby Dick than I'm comprehending. Some scholars have spent their whole careers just studying that one book, and I can see why.

You know Moby Dick was inspired by a couple actual events in Melville's day, one of them was the ramming and sinking of the whaler Essex by a big sperm whale. There's a book by Nathaniel Philbrick: "In The Hear of The Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex". It's a really good read in it's own right but it also gives you some idea what Melville might have been swinging at.

Posted by: Paul Udstrand on January 29, 2012 6:51 PM

Not that there isn't a better place to put this, but since I feel vaguely awkward as I read your blogs with masochistic intensity whilst awaiting a reply from admissions...

I recommend you read Cast in Shadow, by Michelle Sagara. Just...make sure you have a library close by once you've got the time. I went through a nearly sleepless week catching up on the series.

Posted by: Tia on January 30, 2012 12:22 AM

@Paul: I'll have to check that out. Thanks!

@Tia: Heh, I don't mind blog-stalkers. It's nice to know that people besides my parents and my friends are reading. :) I'll have to have a look at Cast in Shadow. What's it about?

I hope you get in--good luck!

Posted by: Tess on January 30, 2012 9:47 AM

I don't really know how to describe it without giving too much away. But, it does have a 'real' human female protagonist (which is always a plus!)

Posted by: Tia on January 30, 2012 10:52 AM

Tess -

Your project is beautiful in its simplicity.

Just sayin'.

Posted by: Will on January 31, 2012 1:29 AM

You're welcome for my personally providing 50% of your "more exciting things" list.

Posted by: Noah on January 31, 2012 6:12 PM

Clearly I've grown overly dependent on you for entertainment.

Posted by: Tess on February 1, 2012 3:35 PM

SNOWFLAKE DAY. You guys are great!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on February 7, 2012 11:01 AM

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