Jack, a Canadian soldier recuperating in a European hospital during World War I, begins a correspondence with Louisa, the librarian in his hometown whom he has only seen and loved from afar. Their letters turn romantic. But when the war ends and he returns home, Jack never shows his face to Louisa and marries another woman, leaving Louisa to wonder if she’s been the victim of some diabolical trick. Then Jack becomes the victim of an accident at the local factory. Wes & Erin discuss Alice Munro’s short story “Carried Away” and asking how the unforgiving machinery of a factory might mimic the so-called machinery of courtship, and how being carried away, whether by love or by ideas, might prove dangerous.
Time and Taboo in “Back to the Future” (1985)
In the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall, Doc Brown plans to use his Delorean time machine to head 25 years into the future and see, as he puts it, “the progress of mankind.” But like the license plate on the Delorean, Doc is out of time. Through his absent-mindedness—and angering some terrorists—Doc has failed to provide a future into which he or his friend Marty McFly can progress. Meanwhile, Marty’s own options and possibilities have been foreclosed by the mistakes of his parents, whose inaction and passivity have failed to secure happy lives for themselves or their children. Out of time and without a viable future, Marty’s only way forward is back. Wes & Erin discuss the 1985 film, “Back to the Future,” and how securing the provisions for one’s own future depends on two modes of confrontation: one in the present and one with the past.
The Violence of Redemption in John Donne’s “Batter My Heart” (Holy Sonnet 14)
In “Holy Sonnet 14,” John Donne would like his “three person’d God” to break instead of knock, blow instead of breathe, and burn instead of shine. This vision of redemption is about remaking rather than reform. And it seems to be motivated by a sense that reason and the typical rhetoric of faith are not enough to bridge the mortal and the divine—what’s needed is God’s violent intervention. Wes & Erin discuss Donne’s surprising and paradoxical use of war and rape as metaphors for salvation.
Mortal Pretensions in John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” (Holy Sonnet 10)
A recusant Catholic turned Protestant, a rake turned priest, a scholar, lawyer, politician, soldier, secretary, sermonizer, and of course, a poet— John Donne’s biography contains so many scuttled identities and discrete lives, perhaps its no wonder that his great subjects were mortality and death. His Holy Sonnets, likely composed between 1609 and 1610, and published posthumously in 1633, are a collection of 19 poems written after the sea change in Donne’s subject matter from the secular to the sacred. They reflect his anxiety over his conversion to Anglicanism and his eventual decision to enter the priesthood, and meditate on salvation, death, and the wages of sin. Erin & Wes discuss Sonnet 10 in this series, “Death Be Not Proud,” an address of Death personified, whose power gradually diminishes beneath the force of Donne’s dazzling poetic rhetoric.
Trauma and Repetition in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974)
Roman Polanksi’s 1974 film “Chinatown” seems to have little to do with its titular neighborhood, which is the setting for only one horrible and final scene. Chinatown functions instead to represent the traumatic moment that drives this story just because it is hidden from view—a place indecipherable even to the hard-boiled private investigator who has seen it all … the place he doesn’t go … the place that bothers him to talk about … the place where inaction and evasion are the only ways to avoid causing harm. Wes & Erin discuss what Chinatown has to do with “Chinatown,” and how the theme connects the seemingly disparate themes of police work, political corruption, water rights, and incest.
Better and Bested in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
It’s a play full of contradictions, secrets, lies, and unspoken rules. It’s a play decidedly for adults, but about a child—an imaginary one, no less. It takes place on a college campus, but it is absent of students. And it’s about “fun and games” and “playing pretend,” but its games are harsh and shocking, and playing pretend involves vengeance and even murder. Wes & Erin discuss Mike Nichols’s 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, adapted from Edward Albee’s 1962 play, and ask what it has to say about the nature of game and play itself, as well as what might be generative on the one hand or contraceptive and inhibiting on the other about our relationships with our spouses, our parents, our children, and our work.
Pagan Poetics in “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was an ungainly insurance executive, but his poetry is serene and secularly reverential. In particular, his poem “Sunday Morning” seems to suggest that the rhythm of the natural world—if we give it enough rapt attention—is as good as any chant or prayer. But can a return to nature worship solve the problem of nihilism, once monotheism has been eclipsed by modernity? Are memory and desire as permanent heaven, and can the poet become their high priest? “Sunday Morning” is a poetic dialogue about these questions. And whether or not we’re satisfied with its conclusion that the world is nothing more than an “old chaos of the sun,” the poem itself is an orderly and beautiful form of communion. Wes & Erin discuss.
Production for Use in “His Girl Friday”
Howard Hawks’s 1940 film His Girl Friday knits together two plots from two very different genres. One is a romantic comedy that intends to reunite its main couple in something like wedded bliss. The other is a dark drama of murder and corruption, complete with a gallows lurking just outside the window and a suicide attempt that takes place on screen. Yet Earl Williams and Hildy Johnson’s fates in their respective plots are twinned. Both are, in a sense, looking for their own reprieves. And Hildy has her own production-for-use dilemma. What was she made for—the life of a newspaperman, or the life of a housewife? To what kinds of production should we devote our own lives? What are we made for—risk and adventure or security and insurance? Wes & Erin discuss.
Post-Doctoral Bedevilment in Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus”
Dr. Faustus expected more from his education. After a lifetime of study, his professional options—philosophy, medicine, law, and theology—all seem disappointingly ordinary. He is of course not the first to have this experience. At a societal level, the promise of knowledge is power, especially once it has become technology. At an individual level, what education seems to make us is an insignificant part of a formidable machine. For Faustus, the only way to make book learning great again is to extend it to the domain of black magic. And yet all this seems to earn him is an all-expenses-paid European vacation—notwithstanding the perk of having Mephistopheles as tour guide—to be followed by eternal damnation. What’s the point of selling your soul to the devil? How do we avoid subordinating our own search for meaning to the desire for power? Wes & Erin discuss Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus.”
Fate and Blame in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”
Who is to blame for Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction? Is it Mary herself? Is it Edmund, her younger son, after whose difficult birth Mary was first prescribed the drug? Is it Jamie, her older son, who caused the death of the brother that Edmund was born to replace? Is it the doctor who prescribed morphine too readily? Or is it James, Mary’s husband, who hired a third-rate doctor because he was too cheap to pay for his wife’s proper care? James, in turn, will have his own story to tell of familial suffering and a miserliness acquired from a childhood fear of the poorhouse. To ask who is to blame for Mary’s addiction, or for the alcoholism that seems to plague every other Tyrone, is to ask who or what is responsible for our own suffering. Are our woes self-created—or at least self-perpetuated? Or is suffering something visited upon us by caregivers, the legacies of nature or nurture that we are powerless to control? If so, whom do we have the right to accuse? Wes & Erin discuss.
Work as Madness in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)
In the beginning, Colonel Nicholson seems to be a stickler for principle, willing to die rather than have his officers do menial labor in a Japanese prison camp. In the end, his principles seem to be a cover for personal vanity. He is willing to put his officers to work building a bridge for his enemies, as long as it leaves him with a legacy. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a reflection on the meaning of work, and whether the ravages of time, if not war, imply that being happy in one’s work—to use a phrase repeated several times in the film—is nothing more than futility and madness. Is work the key to freedom, or is it inevitably a form of bondage? How do we distinguish the desire to be creative from the desire for prestige? When is destroying something more creative than building it?
What Falls Upon the Living in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
In 1906, presumably finished with his short story collection Dubliners, James Joyce wrote to his brother with dissatisfaction that, though he set about to create a comprehensive portrait of Ireland’s capital city, he had not managed to render its famous, unrivaled hospitality. His efforts to rectify this omission resulted in “The Dead,” the book’s final story. It takes place chiefly at a party in the home of the elderly Morkan Sisters on the Feast of the Epiphany, and fittingly its central character, the Morkans’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy, will have his own epiphanic experience by the story’s end. Gabriel preaches about Irish hospitality in his after-dinner speech but does not realize that he will grapple with a stranger of sorts later that night. How might the virtue of hospitality include the need to incorporate difficult feelings about our families, our homelands, and ourselves? And is the story’s ending, with its incorporative vision of snow falling on both the living and the dead, hopeful or hopeless? Wes & Erin discuss.
Finding Home in Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.” (1982)
Stephen Spielberg once said that he was “still waiting to get out of [his] Peter Pan shoes and into [his] loafers.” Being a filmmaker, he said, was his way of remaining a child. Sort of. While his film “E.T.” is told from a child’s vantage point, it does not completely honor the wish to remain there. Like the alien he befriends, Eliot has been abandoned. And to this, many of us can relate. But in the end, the point of phoning home isn’t to get rescued by adults, but to avoid—even as we succumb to the responsibilities of adulthood—alienating our childhood talents for imagination and play.
The Power of Calm: Two Wordsworth Sonnets
William Wordsworth wrote no fewer than 523 sonnets over the course of his career. (By comparison, the second most prolific Romantic sonneteer was Keats with a paltry 67.) Two of Wordsworth’s best-loved efforts in the form are both Petrarchan sonnets with the same rhyme scheme, written in the same year, published in the same volume. Yet their messages, at least at first blush, are fundamentally opposed; one admires London’s cityscape and establishes a truce between the trappings of human innovation and the untouched features of the natural world, while the other laments a developed, industrialized, disenchanted England. How might we reconcile Wordsworth’s two minds on city life? What characterizes his so-called pagan creed? And must devotion to an ideal alienate us from the tune—however discordant—of our own age? Wes & Erin discuss Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” and “The World is Too Much With Us.”
What Nature Betrays: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (Part 2)
In Part 1 of our discussion of “Tintern Abbey,” we talked about whether Wordsworth was right to suggest that our experience of nature was good not just for restoring our weary spirits, but for helping us to mature and even for making us better people. In part two, we explore his justifications for this thesis, in particular the claim that nature connects us not just to our senses and baser instincts, but to our capacity to think, experience beauty, and ultimately act ethically and autonomously. Does nature really never betray the heart that loves her, or has the poet ignored her more sinister dimensions?
Mother Nature’s Nurture in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (Part 1)
After an absence of five years, the poet William Wordsworth returned to the idyllic ruins of a medieval monastery along the River Wye. The spot was perhaps not so very different from his last visit, but Wordsworth found that he had undergone a significant transformation in the intervening years. In a long blank-verse meditation, he explores the changes that the memory of this landscape has affected on his psyche and the role it played in his now-mature comportment towards nature, impulse, and desire. What can Wordsworth’s poem teach us about our own relationships to the natural world? Can Mother Nature truly exert a parental influence? Can nature even make us better people? In this Part One of a two-part episode, Wes & Erin discuss the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s 1798 poem, “Tintern Abbey.”
The Fool Gets Hurt in Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954)
Fellini called his film “La Strada” a dangerous representation of his identity, and had a nervous breakdown just before completing its shooting. Perhaps this identity, and its vulnerability, have something to do with the film’s portrayal of a disappointed hope that love might vanquish pride, if properly assisted by the forces of playfulness and creativity. The problem is that such forces are often themselves an offense to pride, and become the target of its cruelty. And so while the clown and tightrope walker Ill Matto convinces tenderhearted Gelsomina to stay with heartless Zampanò, his murder severs their tenuous, highwire connection. Wes & Erin analyze a classic.
False Roles and Fictitious Selves in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin
In the late 19th century, the “New Woman” was a term coined by Henry James for a particular kind of feminist who demanded freedom of behavior, dress, education, and sexuality. Out of that paradigm came “The Awakening,” a novel that scandalized critics upon its publication with its tale of New Orleans society wife Edna Pointellier, who tries to throw off the shackles of society’s expectations for women and follow her own passions. What might the novel have in common with a fairy tale? How do Edna’s artistic ambitions frustrate her role as a wife and mother? And do Edna’s efforts to cast off her so-called “fictitious self” and live honestly constitute a triumph or a tragedy? Wes & Erin discuss Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel.
Wes & Erin continue their discussion of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The Pain of Anonymity in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Though sometimes accused of a sentimentality dubbed “Capracorn,” Frank Capra’s films are clear-eyed about the suffering of the everyman. A quintessential director of the Great Depression and World War II eras, Capra expressed better than most the desperation at the heart of a young country’s ambitions. And as a chronicler of his age’s disillusionment and alienation, he joined an American cultural landscape stretching back to Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain. How is George Bailey, a purveyor of the American dream, representative of the anonymyzing terror of 20th century society? And how might Christmas, rather than providing merely the heart-warming scaffolding for Capra’s tale, form an integral part of his message? Wes & Erin discuss the 1946 holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”