Fellini’s Satyricon, and The Sexual Revolution of the Hippie Counterculture


By David R. Gayton

When speaking of counter cultures and “sexual revolutions” it is important to note that sexual mores and societal codes of conduct belong to a realm of ethics and social politics that have been in constant ebb and flow since the dawn of mankind. The importance of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, however, lays on the fact that as a social movement of extensive precedent, it was able to gain worldwide momentum with unprecedented rapidity through the use modern information channels such as journals, television, books, music and the arts. Influenced by the works of Freud, C. G. Jung, D.H. Lawrence, and the surrealist movement, at the heart of this sexual revolution lay the belief that sexual repression had a harmful effect upon man. What resulted was a drastic social reevaluation of gender roles and the traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationship. For the first time in modern history questions about sex, masturbation, eroticism, pornography, gender and sexuality where set forth openly for discussion within the mainstream.

In 1969, within the midst of this atmosphere of open dialogue came Fellini’s film adaptation of Gaius Petronius’ first century CE “novel” Satyricon. Titled simply Fellini’s Satyricon, the film, like Petronius’ own extant narrative, follows the adventures of two young Roman men and their slave boy across the Mediterranean, or what was then the Roman Empire. In making this film Fellini said, “it was impossible for me not to see that the world described by Petronius bore a remarkable similarity to the one in which we live today…Trimalchio made me think of Onassis: a gloomy immobile Onassis with the stony glare of a mummy. The other characters remind me of hippies.” Of the original Roman story Fellini retains most of the principal characters, their general relations to each other and a handful of scenes or episodes. Further, by adding scenes and characters of his own creation or ‘borrowed’ from other sources, Fellini added not only his own personal imprint onto the ancient text but thoroughly reconstructed it as a personal vision and an independent work of art. As such, Fellini’s Satyricon stands not just as a reflection of the ancient Roman world with all of its savagery, excesses and sublime sensitivities, but rather as a reflection the world which Fellini himself inhabited in the late 1960’s.

Picking up Petronius’ narrative at about half point, Fellini’s film opens with a long shot of a stark, stained and heavily graffitied wall that could easily pass as an “obscene” Picasso painting. As the frame expands, the silhouette of a slender young man is brought unto the mise-en-scene. From within the darkness of the frame the blackened figure of the young man is heard spewing unto this obscene wall a vituperative monologue against the wretchedness of his state of affairs and the unfaithfulness of his slave-boy and lover, Gitone. Suddenly, the figure of the young man thrusts around and the entire frame is filled with a close up of Encolpio (Martin Potter), the principal narrator of both the ancient text and the film. Young, blond, blue eyed, in love, and in a rage Encolpio sallies forth from hereon on a frantic search for his slave/lover, setting thereby the tonality and mood of Fellini’s film.

Filled with cinematographic idiosyncrasies such as the use of brash atonality in the musical score and the stark use of Technicolor and primary color lighting, Fellini designed this picture to be as he himself put it, “a film outside of time, an atemporal film.” Consequently, what these idiosyncrasies do is help create a disorienting sensation on the viewer that could almost equate to the effects of alcohol, hallucinogens, or a “trip.” Irrespective, the effect is undoubtedly intoxicating, and as such it invests the film with both the potential of nauseating or lowering the viewer’s inhibitions. In fact, by its very nature, the narrative forces the auteur to veer yet further away from classical cinematography by moving abruptly from one shot to the next with sometimes nothing more than a fading soliloquy to link two contiguous scenes.   It is in this manner that the viewer is presented with what could be one of the most beautiful scenes in the film. After Trimalchio’s lavish dinner party, Encolpio and the poet Eumolpo are seen stumbling through a vast horizon of furrowed and eerily lit fields; they both fall to the earth, and with the minimalist simplicity of a Rothko painting, Eumolpo (Salvo Randone) is captured reciting a mournful farewell and praise to life, the elements, and poetry. No sooner is the poet done with his recitation, however, than the frame suddenly bursts with blaring light and sound only to find the film’s narrative completely altered and Encolpio in chains.

Startling as some of these effects may seem at first, they serve to accentuate within the viewer the sensation of peering or entering into an entirely different world. Fascinated from an early age with the ancient culture of Rome, Fellini was well aware that the ancient Latin world, although recognizable in our own, was above all a Pagan world. Savage, dynamic, and exceptionally refined, ancient Rome lacked most of the restrictions and taboos on sex, marriage, and even death that Christianity would later bring to Western culture. Recognizing their own values within the culture of ancient Rome and perceiving this pagan world as being more in tune with the “real nature of man” the hippie generation found within it the validation required for rejecting the values of the preceding generations.

As stated within the widely acclaimed PBS documentary The Sixties, “at the core of the sexual revolution was the concept—radical at the time—that woman just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs.” Following this idea then, Fellini’s Satyricon is filled with sexually insatiable women, nymphomaniacs.  Herein Fellini presents the viewer with a nymphomaniac who bursts into a room in the theatre, lays down, and invitingly pulls up her skirt for the men around her, then with the nymphomaniac Ariadne, who in the Festival of Laughter feels degraded and besmirched by Encolpio’s inability to get an erection as he mounts her, and lastly with a nymphomaniac tied to a wagon, who’s distraught husband must constantly provide her with sexual partners to sooth her sexual urges.  Along with these women of insatiable appetites are also women who embark upon lesbian relationships such as Trimalchio’s wife Fortunata and Scintilla, wife of Habinnas. For these women far removed is the Christian idea that sex is only for procreation. In other words, these women are women who are well aware of their sexual nature and who enjoy it.

Conversely, just as Fellini’s Satyricon manages to acknowledge female sexuality through these sexually liberated women, it simultaneously helps showcase the male centered society of both the ancient Roman world and the Western World of the 1960’s where women were legally and socially treated as inferiors to men. To showcase this fact, Fortunata, the wife of Trimalchio is publicly humiliated by her husband, while Trypheana, wife of Lichas of Tarentum is the silent and obliging companion to her husband’s depraved whims.

Along with this visual awareness of female sexuality the film proceeds to recognize that aspect of male sexuality that the western world still holds as taboo: Male Homosexuality. Along with the homosexual relationships depicted within Petronius’ ancient text, Fellini uses humor and awe to lead to the audience into the intimacy, serenity, and tenderness of of the relationship between Encolpio and Gitone. To further emphasize this aspect of, there is Vernachio’s slave auctioning of the Gitone as superior to a wife; “he is neat, he is clean, he’s been trained to play Helen, Penelope, Cornelia”, Vernachio shouts out to the audience of decadent theatre goers, blurring thereby the lines between gender roles. Finally, as is to fully drive this point home brings in the scene with the hermaphrodite; that ultimate symbol of the ambivalences of gender and sexuality. Having both male and female genitalia the hermaphrodite was for the ancients, as it is for us, a subject of wonder and much cause of consternation. Containing both genders the hermaphrodite absorbs all the contradictions of gender and sexuality, yet its ambiguity it stands practically sexless.

Contrasting this image of irresolute wantonness, yet maintaining that same emphasis on the freedom of the sexes, Fellini also focuses on portraits of the virtuous men and women of ancient rome.  One such episode is the episode in the villa of the suicides. Noble and expecting a terrible death, the patron of a country villa takes his own life while his doting wife looks on only to follow his same fate. That she sacrifices her own life for her husband should not be deemed as inconsistent to the hereto mentioned view of females and their liberated roles. For in this scene the viewer is made to understand that the woman has willingly accepted the role of dutiful wife and companion and as such she is willing take her own life in order to fulfill that role.  Another instances of this type of spousal fidelity is to be observed in the scene with the forlorn husband of the crazed nymphomaniac of the wagon. In his case, however, the gender roles have totally been reversed. Here the husband has willingly accepted his role as a dutiful husband and and just like the matron of the villa he must sacrifice his own interests and provide his wife with men to satiate her sexual urges.

Since, and even before Fellini’s Satyricon there have been many other versions of Petronius’ fascinating work, however, there have been none that have reached the felicity and artistry clearly visible in Fellini’s master piece. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Federico Fellini lived and worked at the precise moment when such a film such as his Satyricon was possible, yet on that aspect one can only speculate. However, one thing stands for certain, Fellini’s Satyricon, along with all of its stark beauty and social commentary, stands as a work that illustrates the fact that life is ultimately is brief, beautiful and dynamic. Our lives being transitory and meant to be forgotten, very much like the Fellini’s Satyricon will one day need neither beginning or end to be treasured or understood. For as the film suggests, life is a lavish and barbaric feast such as the feast held by Trimalchio, so why not simple take some time to enjoy it?


Revisiting the Autobiography: A Look Back at Los Angeles and the Autobiography of Luis J. Rodriguez

By David R. Gayton

In the realm of literature there exists a place specially reserved for the autobiography as a literary genre. Some of the best examples of this genre are great and pivotal literary works such as Rousseau’s Confessions, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running.   A singular characteristic of these books, and the autobiographical genre in general, is that often these books have been deemed controversial, and in fact many, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running have often been spotted on the lists of the most banned books in America. While it is true that these works often contain unabashed literary representations of violence, sex, addictions, and abject poverty, it is also true that by their very nature as autobiographies these literary representations mirror the unabashed violence, sex, addictions and abject poverty of a very real American way of life.

Published in 1993, Always Running is the first of Luis J. Rodriguez’s autobiographies.  Subtitled “La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” Always Running is an admonitory tale that traces the author’s development from a shy and uncertain boy who pees himself in class, to a juvenile delinquent who subsequently becomes a young man who possess a clear and assured vision of himself and his place within society.

Born in El Paso, TX, but reared in Ciudad Juárez, México, Luis J. Rodriguez’s narrative begins with the tale of his family’s arrival in Watts, a south central neighborhood of Los Angeles, during the late 1950’s.  Then, as now, Los Angeles has almost always been a city of great contradictions, a city were extreme wealth, glamour and splendor coexists with extreme poverty, misery, and squalor.  One such contradiction is the role Mexicans and Mexican Americans have played within the civic life of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County.  Romanticized within the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architects such as Bertram Goodhue, and in literary works such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, Mexicans, their descendants, and their culture have often faced a very bitter opposition in the United States.  Often that reality has been one of injustice, segregation, disenfranchisement, and marginalization by a political, legal and societal system that has for a very long time been inherently exclusive.

From Watts the narrative continues, and Rodriguez and his family eventually settle in the unincorporated towns and cities of the San Gabriel Valley.  East Los Angeles, Monterey Park, Torrance, and Garvey form the background of Rodriguez’s story and formative years.  Relegated to a marginalized existence at the fringes of Los Angeles, Rodriguez informs the reader that during the 1950’s the streets of the South San Gabriel Valley often went unpaved and basic domestic utilities were in many cases lacking.  Neighborhoods in the Valley such as El Jardin, Monte Flores, Bolen, and Las Lomas became veritable ghettos entrenched in deep rooted rivalries between territorial neighborhood gangs. Rivalries, such as the conflict between the gang Rodriguez would eventually join (the Lomas) and the Sangras (short for San Gabriel), often dated as far back as the 1940’s or prohibition days.  Under these circumstances, Rodriguez’s transition from child of immigrants to juvenile delinquent can be seen to have been a very subtle, although not an altogether unavoidable process.  Entering Garvey Middle School during the mid 1960’s, the decay that the young Rodriguez encounters there is already decades old.  He writes of his old school:

Bloody Kotexes on the hallway floor.  Gang graffiti on every available space of wall.  Fires which flared from restrooms trash bins.  Fights every day, including after school on the alley off Jackson Avenue.  Dudes who sold and took drugs, mostly downers, and yesca, but sometimes heroin which a couple of dudes shot up in the boys’ room while their homeys kept lookout.

Delving further into the gang initiation rites and the personal anecdotes of friends such as Payasa who would get her tongue sliced by her brothers whenever she lost a street fight, the reader is reminded of the fact that these so called hardened criminals are just high school kids.  To emphasize this point Rodriguez recreates the headlines of the day.  Death after death, and crime after crime, every headline is an act of violence perpetrated by a 15 or 17 year old against another 15 or 17 year old.

An important realization and a pivotal point in Rodriguez’s narrative is his realization that a lot of the violence and rivalries between gangs were instigated by the members of the Sheriff’s Department. At one point, the narrative says:

In the Barrio the police are just another gang…sometimes they come to us in the corner while we linger on the street corner and tell us Sangra called us Chavalas…other times they approach dudes from Sangra and say Lomas is a tougher gang and Sangra is nothing.  Shootings, assaults, and skirmishes between the barrios are direct result of police activity.  Even drug dealing.  I know this.  Everybody knows this.

If its possible for “everyone to know this” and yet for the internecine fighting to continue, the narrative reminds the reader of the social forces pulling and tugging at every character. Entangled within an almost apartheid political and social structure, the characters of Rodriguez’s narrative find themselves in an oppressed situation from which they find an escape not impossible, but unthinkable.

It isn’t until Rodriguez enters high school that a complete turnaround begins to happen in his life.  Opposed to a failed educational system, Rodriguez begins to hang out at his school’s library where he discovers books and literature.  According to his catalogue of books read during this period, there are works by Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and others such as Brown’s Manchild in the Promise Land, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Eventually, through the help of the staff at his school’s Chicano Student Center, Rodriguez begins to slowly separate himself from the Lomas until the point where he graduates from high school and gets accepted into Cal State Los Angeles.

Today, decades after Rodriguez’s first publication of his memoirs, the position of minorities and the poor in America is far from being anywhere near ideal. To this day the Chicano community is still plagued by some of the same issues that Rodriguez helped uncover through his books.  Weighed against these issues and the long history of social injustice in America, Always Running is as much of a timely and pivotal work now, as it was in Los Angeles in 1992.


Let’s Get Lost: Mystery and Truth in Walden

By Anthony Miller

In a peculiar journal entry from 1841, Henry David Thoreau recalls the myth of the Sphinx and its riddle, commenting “our Sphinx is so wise as to put no riddle that can be answered. It is a great presumption to answer conclusively a question which any sincerity has put. The wise answer no questions–nor do they ask them.” Whereas the Sphinx of Greek mythology must self-destruct upon having her riddle answered, Thoreau presents an alternative, one of presumed immortality – after all, a Sphinx who puts forth an unanswerable question need not worry of any Oedipus solving her riddle. But more interesting is Thoreau’s idea of how such immortality can be achieved through the process of questioning, and at times, by pressing against this process as well. By writing “it is a great presumption to answer conclusively a question which any sincerity has put,” Thoreau alludes to the idea that most answers to questions are mere surmises, for how can any question of sincerity ever fully be answered? The act of answering a question is the same as drawing a conclusion to bring closure – by putting forth an answer to a question, we assume that we understand well enough the functions of truth and experience to comment definitively on the nature of things. But as Thoreau suggests in declaring that the wise ask no questions nor attempt to answer them, there is a certain sense of enlightenment that comes with living to experience rather than living to know.

When Thoreau went to the woods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” he did so under the impression that he could separate precisely “all that was not life” from all that is. But as he realizes upon leaving the pond, living deliberately is much less of an end-goal than it is a continuous and active process that requires getting lost a few times along the way. One way to better understand Thoreau’s intent is to look into the etymology of “question.” Question derives from the Latin quaestion-, which means “act of searching, problem, subject of discussion.” From a fundamental level, to question something is to consider it from all angles in order to better understand and perceive its functions. But nowhere in the basic definition does it imply there is an answer, only the search involved in finding one. It is this search that Thoreau finds himself in at Walden Pond, and it is this search that he recognizes has no answer, no destination. Much in the way that Thoreau would like to “toe the line” between the past and present, he too wishes to live in the state between question and answer – the state of mystery. And by getting lost and living our lives in this state of mystery – accepting that we cannot and will not ever know Nature – we find our true purpose.

“Shelfie”: Rachel Park


This is my “shelfie” aka what I’ve been reading (or re-reading) the past few weeks, both for school and for fun.

  1. On Revolution by Hannah Arendt
    Hannah Arendt will always be, in my opinion, one of the coolest, most bad-ass women ever in the history of philosophy and just in general.
  2. L’État honteux by Sony Labou Tansi
    I’m writing my thesis on this novel so I may be totally biased, but he is a really wonderful and underrated writer. It’s a bit difficult because there is no English translation of this book, or of most of his other works, so it is limiting in that you have to know French to read it. But if you ever needed motivation to learn French, here it is.
  3. Freedom Time by Gary Wilder
    This was published very recently, in January 2015, and it’s a nice reminder of how there is always new scholarship and studies out there and that we don’t necessarily have to stick with just the canonical works, or that things have to be published for an “x” number of years before we can consider them “seriously”.
  4. The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
    The Korean language, in my opinion, does not translate very well into English which makes it very difficult for non-native speakers to access any Korean literature. What little texts that have been translated are usually missing this intangible “something” that really makes it beautiful. I love Chang-Rae Lee because all his works are written in English, but he also writes about the experience of being Korean, whether it is as an immigrant, a first generation Korean-American, a mixed-race person, and more. His writing style is absolutely beautiful and I love that he is making a part of Korean culture accessible to the mainstream in some way.
  5. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
    I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book (seven? eight?)
  6. The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

    Time for me had always been measured in terms of the rising sun, its setting sister, and the dependable cycle of the moon. but at sea, I learned that time can also be measured in terms of water, in terms of the distance traveled while drifting on it. When measured in this way, nearer and farther are the path of time’s movement, not continuously forward along a fast straight line. When measured in this way, time loops and curlicues, and at any given moment it can spiral me away and then bring me rushing home again

    That was a quote from the book. I don’t think I can write anything more that can justify or prove how achingly beautiful the writing is.

  7. The complete collection of Aimé Césaire’s poetry 

Swordfights and Kazoos: A Look at the Humor of Shakespeare and Calderón

By Lauren Cooper

Women dressed as men, feuds fueled by honor, a power struggle for a foreign throne, and a swordfight to the death. This plot summary could describe any Shakespearean drama that the typical American student has been forced to read time and time again throughout her prolonged education. After a while, the tropes become old and bleed together until they are nearly indistinguishable. But what if I told you that the final battle wasn’t staged with swords, but kazoos—a massive kazoo battle culminating in a dance-off. The play doesn’t sound Shakespearean any more, does it?

In fact, it’s not Shakespeare, the English Bard, but his Spanish contemporary Pedro Calderón de la Barca, whose 1635 comedy La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) not only enjoyed massive popularity in its day, but has also played a key role in the twentieth-century Spanish and French avant-garde movements. These two playwrights, who created during the same period in rival empires, tell nearly identical stories. Hamlet and La Vida es Sueño, for example, are steeped in drama, suspense, and occasional bawdy humor. But it is the centrality of the humor, or lack thereof, that distinguishes the two.

The first place that this humor shows is in the text itself. The first scene in Hamlet shows a ghost; the first scene in La Vida es Sueño shows someone falling off of a horse—the tone of each play is set from the first lines. However, more than the text itself, the differences between these two national playwrights can be seen in the portrayal of their works on stage. When confronted with a three-hour long play, stage directors are forced to make cuts to the text, and they are often faced with a choice between the subplots that add to, but don’t define, the narrative (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and humanizing fillers (suggestive jokes that appear between scenes). In modern day productions, directors of Hamlet seem to side with the dramatic, while directors of La Vida es Sueño, as evidenced by the kazoos used in a recent English adaptation at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, emphasize the absurd.

It is difficult to determine exactly why this difference has emerged in the modern day. Looking at production styles from the seventeenth century, it seems that Shakespearean plays—both tragedies and comedies—could be raucous events, just like Calderón’s plays in Spain. At some point, this changed in England, perhaps due to the events shaping English society during the following centuries. As the fledgling English empire grew, gaining control of a good portion of the world’s landmass, perhaps a more serious image was required. This conservative style is certainly reflected in later English cultural production. Meanwhile, the once powerful Spanish empire, recently defeated in a naval battle with England, entered into a period of decline known as the Decadencia. Confronted with a loss of political power, perhaps the humor present in political dramas became a central and sustaining focus.

Turning to the modern day, Shakespeare has not only entered into, but has also become a central figure in a literary canon filled with dramatic texts. It is perhaps this academic focus that prevents the modern reader or audience from fully appreciating the humor in Shakespeare’s texts. Calderón, on the other hand, while well known in certain literary circles, remains largely unstudied in academia. Read in the context of other Spanish works—often defined by satire, parody, and absurdism of a level unseen in the English canon—Calderón’s humor can be appreciated without diminishing his importance within the Spanish literary canon.

You’ve heard of Shakespeare—he’s good. Even if he seems a bit conservative, he deserves your recognition. But so does Calderón. And within his dramatic texts you may find something altogether different, something that that you don’t feel the need to “take seriously.”

Meet Tony Soyka: Traveler, Writer, and Comparative Literature’s Newest Academic Advisor

By: Rachel Park

One of the first things you notice upon entering 4118 Dwinelle is the colorful array of maps that cover the majority of one entire wall, turning its boring, grey uniformity into, quite literally, whole other worlds. It is here, in the office of the undergraduate advisor for Comparative Literature, that we have our first indication of Anatole Soyka’s wanderlust. Having earned  Bachelor’s degrees in Food Science and Medical Technology as well as having a Master’s in Education , it might seem counterintuitive at first that he is the advisor for Comparative Literature majors, a domain that seems far removed from the factual theorems and laws that dictate the realm of science. Nevertheless, it is precisely this love of traveling, as well as his unexpected roots in science, that make him so well suited for the unique world of Comparative Literature.

In fact, you might even say that he was born for this job. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan to refugee parents from Russia, Tony’s world has always contained multiple languages. He confesses to having struggled with his own identity as a result of this multilingualism: “My parents didn’t speak English, and there I was, trying to learn, but with nobody to help me or teach me”. Yet this did not deter him and along with language, he found other unexpected ways to adapt to American culture: “For me, baseball was my tool to ‘assimilate’, rather than language. It was universal, and made me feel more a part of American culture without having to speak English straight out. After that, I changed my name from ‘Anatoli’ to ‘Tony’ because it was more “American”.

Like most children, particularly those that are first generation Americans, Tony felt the struggle of negotiating two separate cultures and trying to place them in his own sense of identity. It was not until Tony started attending Michigan State University, however, that he was able to re-connect with his cultural roots and heritage. Though he earned a double Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Medical Technology, Tony admits that he was “not that drawn to it, but in terms of career-choices, I thought it was practical”. Looking back, he admits that it was definitely the Russian language classes he took during his undergraduate career that he benefited from the most because it allowed him to understand and access his heritage and culture in a way he had previously never been able to. For him, learning the language of his parents and native culture was not just a means of being able to communicate or understand the Russian language, but a means of understanding the “spirit” of being Russian, of understanding the context and intangible connotations that each culture seems to carry. For instance, he mentions a class he took that studied aphorisms and he still remembers how they were given a phrase in Russian “Тише едешь, дальше будешь” which, when literally translated, means something along the lines of “The quieter you ride, the farther you will go”. But the English translation they were given was the more popularly known: “Slow and steady wins the race”. Beyond the linguistic discrepancy, Tony found the translation remarkable because of what it implied about each culture. The English version places an emphasis on the goal, on “winning” rather than the journey itself, while the original Russian aphorism highlights the importance of the way or the path to getting to a goal.

“I think this nuance is very important, especially as so much of academia is focused on the end-result and the product. As cliché it is, life is a journey and what we really should be focusing on is what is gained along the way. What are the lessons along that path? What skills or experiences do we gain?  What sorts of unexpected encounters do we have along the way?  Most importantly, I think that acknowledging and focusing on your own journey allows you to have a kind of flexibility and resilience when things aren’t going the way you want: it lets you adapt to change and to be accepting of yourself. If we focus on just achieving the goal, we are always living in the future, always asking, ‘what’s going to be my next destination?’ But you have to ask yourself, then, are you living in the present? It’s important to make goals, but also to not become so attached to them that they completely determine your identity”.

His Russian language classes are also what prompted him to visit his family in Russia for the first time. As a child, he had somewhat resisted learning Russian and embracing his Russian identity, but finally learning the language and realizing the nuanced differences between languages and cultures “humbled” him enough to step out of his comfort zone. And, true to expectations, his first time in Russia was a huge culture shock, in which being immersed in an entirely different culture and society completely destabilized his ideas of what he thought was “normal” and “universal”. It also taught him an important idea behind language and communication, which, as an avid traveler, would prove useful to him time and time again: “A lot of the time, surprisingly, you don’t need to have perfect knowledge of a language to comprehend or convey meaning; a lot of times, you can find the general gist of what a person is saying just through intonation, expression, and even gestures”.  Ultimately, Tony’s three trips to Russia (in actuality, the separate country of Belarus) and his subsequent travels to New Zealand, Nepal, Turkey and Peru became a kind of proof of this sense of universal “human-ness”, that there is a dimension of being human that transcends languages and geographic borders as long as we humble ourselves enough to try and understand – that there is something universal in all of us that resonates with one another. It is altogether fitting then, that Comparative Literature feels natural for Tony and why he can empathize with those of us in the major:

“I think the word ‘passionate’ is over-used, but my advice to all undergraduates, Comparative Literature or not, is to find something that resonates with you – something that really connects with you. I think that one of the greatest aspects about Comparative Literature is that it goes beyond this language and cultural barrier so that you can always find someone or something you can resonate with. Reading is just another form of traveling, of coming into contact with another culture and challenging your norms, and it is this contact and its subsequent humility that continually reminds us of how much there is of the world we don’t know, but also, how much there is left for us to discover”

Correction: October 2, 2015
An earlier version of this interview stated Ти́ше е́zдешь – да́льше бу́дешь as the original Russian saying. Courtesy of Yana Zlochistaya, one of our editors, we corrected it to the proper spelling: Тише едешь, дальше будешь

Challenging the Discipline, One Code at a Time: Comparative Literature and Its Discontents

By: Lydia Tuan 

Last July, I had a conversation with a British customs officer that went something like this:

“Oh, so you’re a student?  What do you study?”

“Comparative Literature.”

“What is that?”

“Literature… that you compare… with other literature.”

“So if I read a pamphlet on airports and another one on fixing aeroplanes, would that be considered Comparative Literature?”

My sudden unwillingness to correct a figure of authority forced a very brief, yet shockingly incorrect response to be uttered at that very moment: “Yes.”

The customs officer, having just conquered all understanding of Comparative Literature on his first try, looked pleased with himself and welcomed me into the UK.  At least I was not asked what I was going to do with my major.

Comparative Literature is difficult to define.  Of course, sources like Wikipedia give the reductionist definition of ‘dealing with literature of two or more cultural groups.’  The major here at the university is structured so that students can compare world literatures that are read not in translation, but in the original language: French with English, Italian with Spanish, German and Russian, or other creative and less expected combinations.  Engaging more theoretically, Comparative Literature can also be the comparison between primary and secondary texts, critical texts and their primary texts, or texts from another discipline and literary texts.  These definitions are generally thought to represent Comparative Literature in the most straightforward sense of the term.  

As a student of literature, I do not hold enough authority to define the limits and boundaries of the discipline.  If we are to stand by the most widely accepted definition of ‘comparing national literatures across nation-states, languages, cultures, and centuries,’ then we could even say that a paper I wrote for a Comparative Literature seminar on narrative theory of 19th to 20th century (mostly) French literature last semester can hardly fall into the defined boundaries of the discipline.  In that paper, I subjected the following citation to an analysis following the conventions of literary theory.  Hold your enthusiasm:

“MEEOW…. Me. mew Mew. MEOW. Meow meooow me meoow meow meeooooow me meeeoow; mew me Mew. MEOOW me meeeow me meeeeow.” –MEEEEOW’M MEEEEEEOOW

For those unfamiliar, I have just cited a computer-generated version of Moby Dick: the product of an algorithm that has taken each word in Melville’s canonical text and rewritten it in the form of a randomized variation of the word “meow.”  Does analyzing a ‘literary work’ of 50,000 meows, produced from lines of code, and comparing those ‘meows’ against computer-generated “poetry” count as a valid contribution to the field of Comparative Literature?  Briefly returning to what I may — or may not — have falsely confirmed at the UK border a few months ago, can a pamphlet about airports actually be considered a work of literature?  

What is literature?

Some conservative scholars in the discipline might contest that “MEEOW…. Me. mew Mew. MEOW.” is not literature in any general, widely accepted sense of the word and that by analyzing that sort of text, I have not produced any sort of academic, or even remotely fruitful, literary criticism.  Critics might even argue that computers cannot write literature and that they never will — that only humans can write and contribute to the humanities, the literary canon, the great oeuvres of literature — or that creativity is exclusively human: it begins and ends with human beings.

But does it really?  Can creativity be computer-generated, and can what we understand to be humanity be computer-generated?  I remain optimistic and wishful that Comparative Literature, as an academic discipline, can eventually move into the territory of acknowledging computer-generated text as literature, forcing us to rethink the inescapable presence of science not only in the creation of literature but also in the way in which we define humanity.