“You pierce my soul. I’m half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I’m too late. […] For you alone I think and plan.”
–Captain Wentworth, in the best-loved love-letter of all time in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’.
Do you ever feel that you’re an anachronism? That you’d rather have been born in a time and place where romance was simpler and yet more complex than now? I get that whenever I watch or read period romances. Like I’ve been doing for the past few days. I started with ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’, moved on to ‘Lost in Austen‘, then watched all the four episodes of BBC’s adaptation of ‘North and South’, got worm-holed (my friend V’s expression, I hope you don’t mind me borrowing, V!) into watching my favorite scenes of ‘Emma’ (Jonny Lee Miller playing the gorgeously correct Mr. Knightly), and rounded up by watching Ciaran Hind in ‘Persuasion’. And WOW! I just can’t ever get enough of historical romances in general and Jane Austen in particular.
Amanda Price, I totally empathize with you!
Lost in Austen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
To continue with my (self-congratulatory at best and vain at worst) series of Coursera essays, here is the 340-word essay on H.G.Wells I wrote for my free online ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course.
One of the major elements of science-fiction literature is to attempt to predict or speculate about possible future events which might come to pass if mankind traverses a certain scientific and moral path. Wells, however, forces us to stop on the way and consider the journey itself—what happens when we presume to being enlightened, as the masses in ‘The Star’, but in fact, are as blind as the people of ‘The Country of the Blind’.
“Common-sense was sturdy everywhere” , Wells writes sarcastically. In the face of catastrophe, nine out of ten men on earth are “scornful, jesting, […] inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful” . He even equates common-sense to “barbarism and savagery”; the men, with “unalterable convictions”, scorn the respectable mathematician and go about their businesses unheeding the star. Similarly, the blind men mock Nunez and steadfastly stick to their beliefs—”it was an article of faith with them” . So much so that in order to cure Nunez of what they think are delusions, they decide to surgically remove his eyes and thus make him “perfectly sane” . “Thank Heaven for science”, Yacob says , and again Wells hints at the dangers of vainglory.
In both the stories, Wells warns us against intolerance and self-aggrandizement. Science enlightens mankind so that at any point in time we know more than we did in the past, but we should also realize that knowledge is illimitable, that there are many things we haven’t yet discovered. Just as the blind men lived in a world of their own making and limitations, so can we live either in a blind valley of a world or choose to open our eyes to truth and wisdom. Like the mathematician, we can hold “all the universe […] in the grip of this small brain” , the only requirements are acceptance and humility. Otherwise, one day someone will truthfully say that “Man has lived in vain.” 
 The Star, by H.G Wells
 The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells
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Audiences, as a general rule, dislike stereotypes. See what I did there? I stereotyped ‘audience’. Stereotypes are a part of life, whether we like them or not. Somewhat like cliches (and I just found out that cliches and stereotypes are etymologically related, being terms associated with printing).
Most of the times I can’t decide whether I mind it when people classify and categorize others. For example, some of my friends hated ‘Raj’ from ‘The big bang theory’ during the first few seasons because Indians (as we think of and know ourselves) are not like him. His accent for one is weird. But I always found him very cute in a self-deprecating way. Another time, I read a blog post about Indian weddings which advised the Indian woman to stay away from the guy she loves, because she won’t get to marry him anyway! (It was supposed to be a comment on arranged marriages, that Indian girls are not allowed to marry guys they love; but that’s for the most part misinformation perpetuated by bollywood movies). It was a very well-written paragraph, and of course it’s possible things like that happen in such a greatly populated country like India, but I know a lot of Indian girls (single and married, arranged and otherwise) and none of them have experienced this dilemma. So I couldn’t make up my mind whether I should be offended by that blog post or not.
I assume the bad feeling associated with cliches in general, and in literature and movies in particular is because a cliche is evidence of unoriginality. And I believe my ambiguous attitude towards cliches is because my original creations (as well as speech) abound with them, and towards stereotypes is because I consider myself one. That is to say, I seem to fit into many categories: the stereotypical woman, the Indian girl, the novice blogger, the amateur/wannabe poet, the female driver, the bride.
We don’t like stereotypes because they make us feel average; the background artists of the blockbuster called life. They take away our illusions of uniqueness, of being one of a kind.
One should still avoid cliches like the plague, especially while writing, even though they are as old as hills and we may be rushed for time. However, all’s well that ends well.
“When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
–Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass’
I love how the English language is so flexible. Of course there are rules, but there are also exceptions. And there are exceptions to the exceptions! These things bothered me no end when I was a child. Should it be ‘who’ or ‘whom’? How can the same word mean three different things when used in three different sentences? You know what I mean.
In fact, some things still confuse me. And many grammatical mistakes irk me no end (people using “your” instead of “you’re”, saying “literally” when they mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively”). However, I still love the fact that I can say something like, “I’m so technologically handicapped that I can’t even operate a hair-dryer without electrocuting myself”, and still make sense! (And if I’m still not making sense to you, ‘technologically handicapped’ isn’t really a thing.)
I think what Carroll was trying to say through Humpty Dumpty is that context is as important in English language as the rules of grammar. An example is his extremely famous poem ‘Jabberwocky’. An excerpt:
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
The grammar and syntax are perfect, but the verse itself is nonsensical; yet we love the poem and understand it exactly how it’s meant to be understood. (Like Alice says after finishing the poem, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate”)
Another fine example of the importance of context is Douglas Adams’ Vogon poetry from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’:
“Oh freddled gruntbuggly
thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.”
We might not know the meaning of the words, but we get the gist anyway; and we realize first-hand why Vogon poetry is the third worst in the Universe. (If you want to know the worst and the second worst poetry in the universe, read the book. I assure you it’ll be worth it.)
The fluidity and voracity of the English language is what makes it so universal. All the Grammar Nazis notwithstanding–and I confess I’m an occasional milder version, if there is such a thing, myself–that is the most interesting and fun thing about writing!
Like Alice, I might not always say what I mean, but “at least I mean what I say”!
I have to confess, I find ebooks and my Kindle Reader app extremely convenient. All I have to do is keep my phone charged, and I can access tons of books anytime and anywhere. Well, they’d be a ton if I had hardbacks for all of them!
Having said that, I still carry my usual, on average, 2.5 books in my backpack for long trips. I can still spend hours in a bookstore (and do so at least once a month), and my library card is always maxed out. That is why for the WordPress poll, my vote went to ‘paperbacks’. However, I don’t really know why I love paperbacks more than ebooks. Probably I’m just a traditionalist and paperbacks remind me of all the great times I’ve had with books: laughing at Suppandi’s antics, having adventures on the Faraway Tree, solving crimes (actually, if I’m honest, ‘being perplexed by’ would be closer to the truth) with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Dirk Gently, falling in love with Mr. Darcy and Robert Kincaid and all the various heroes of the gazillion romance novels I’ve read so far, Hitchhiking the Galaxy with Arthur Dent, and basically doing everything inside my imagination that I’ll possibly never do in real life.
Nostalgia. That’s what makes things precious.