Reflective Journal

This journal is an opportunity for me to look back at the transformation I have undergone during my Masters at University College Cork. It aims to express not only the progression in my writing and reading but also an evolution in my interpretation, my understanding and myself. Also, it will demonstrate how my thesis proposal eventually came into existence. When I began this Masters I was truly terrified, and with good reason. Looking back on my first blog Roots it was obvious that the waters I was entering was uncharted territory and indeed the person undertaking this voyage was one I barely recognised.

“Sitting in the shadows of week one it is safe to say that the world of academia that I knew in my undergraduate has truly evolved. It has passed through the tunnel of adolescence and emerged a mature, thoughtful and reflective being.”

The entire point of Roots was the difficulty in pursuing an academic path with no guaranteed job opportunities in today’s financial climate. When doing a Masters in a subject such as English we must constantly defend that choice as worthwhile and this constant need for defence can create doubts even in the surest of people. I couldn’t help but imagine the transition in attitude that the world has taken in relation to the arts. It is no longer about creating something beautiful, it is about creating money; money is the new art.

“While reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde this week I began to wonder about the adversity poets, authors or philosophers may have faced in that era, or even the adversity their characters may have faced. I find it difficult to imagine that someone would tell Chaucer that he was foolish to write, that he should go and get a “proper” job. The Arts were given a certain precedence and reverence and those who studied them were considered very fortunate. Chaucer, Dante and Spenser are all men who helped create and shape the English language as we know it, what would the English language be today had they chosen to become lawyers or doctors? Through the vast time and space between now and then our thought processes regarding the Arts are dramatically different. A career as a poet is considered conventionally as impractical and foolish. Scholars are considered pompous and arrogant and young children who prefer reading books instead of sitting in front of a Technicolor box are ridiculed by their peers. The study of the English language, particularly historical stories, poets and figures such as those mentioned above is as important as studying the historical facts of the environment they lived in. It teaches us about their interests, beliefs and emotions. As I sit here, typing these words into my laptop I often envisage that time; someone soaking vellum in lime in order to prepare it for manuscript, or a monk spending endless hours creating the beautiful pieces of art that we are fortunate enough to have remnants of today. It is impossible to move forward in life without acknowledging the past. Every symbol and syllable we utilize is a result of centuries of evolution and growth. We only exist as we are, as a direct result of what has gone before us.”

It is a task in itself to get out from under the weight of expectations in our financial atmosphere and it is entirely liberating when we do. The world of academia, however, comes with its own barriers and boundaries that one must choose to keep rigidly or break through entirely, and when I wrote The Principles of Communication… The Principles of Behaviour I was feeling the strain of exactly that decision. What inspired this blog for me was one day in the module Contemporary Literary Research: Skills, Methods and Strategies Dr. Maureen O’ Connor said the words ‘less is more’. This was quite shocking as far as I was concerned. I had always believed that one should use the most extravagant language in order to illustrate their point; it was welcome news that I was incorrect. The psychologist in me couldn’t help but look at the rules of language in conjunction with certain expectations in life.

“Language is an inescapable part of life. The majority of us use it as our primary source of communication. So, it would make sense that the “rules” surrounding both language and life are synonymous. The only difference being, one can achieve perfection, although rarely, through one medium, but not the other. Surely in the world of the English language where certain ornamental words flow so seductively off the tongue and intelligence is judged by how many syllables your word contains, it is hard to imagine that trimming all that down to the fundamentals may actually, occasionally, better your writing. Sadly, flamboyant language never came naturally to me and knowing my love affair with thesaurus was going to have to expire someday, hearing the words “simplicity is always your friend” was a rather extraordinary notion. As a matter of fact, many of the principles of writing may apply to real life. You must be clear, concise and presentable, occasionally humorous, occasionally academic and always at precisely the correct moment. ‘Use more sophisticated conjunctions but don’t overuse semicolons, it looks ostentatious’ translates to ‘act seasoned and professional but not pompous’. There is a fine line that we constantly flirt with, between unusable and arrogance, known as perfection. The principles of both writing and life appear to be the same and the advice for either appears entirely interchangeable, for example, “be your own best editor”. This advice equally applies to life, knowing your weaknesses and flaws is your greatest strength. We study English literature through a restricted framework and as in life, one is expected to bend to the social and accepted norms and while individuality is technically accepted and encouraged, it appears that ideally one should never stray too far from the beaten track.”

On reflection, this blog was the first time the influence of psychology presented itself and it stayed quite firmly with me throughout the remainder of my Masters which we will see later. Another thing that I noticed about these first two blogs were how prevalent my own fears and anxieties about doing an English masters were, they were at the forefront of my mind. While others were writing academic blogs with subject matter from a class that week, my fears were keeping me in neutral and their only escape was through the keys of my computer.

Christmas gave me the opportunity to reflect on my progress so far, what I found was that, doing an essay on Jonson and his anxieties made me feel far more comfortable with my own. His fear of being misunderstood was impossible to ignore and when I wrote about The role of the reader in the representation and construction of a writer’s authorial identity – Ben Jonson and John Taylor his fear of being considered too dilettante was also impossible to ignore.

“If we first explore the frontispiece of Jonson’s Workes (1616) it is possible to get an insight into how the early modern readers and consumers of the time may have interpreted the piece and how this may have contributed to their notion of authorial identity. Sara Van Der Berg said in Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio “The multiple definitions of the word author worked out in Jonson’s Folio is implied in the iconography of the frontispiece. Because Ben Jonson took such care with the preparation of his book, the title page can be considered a visual depiction of his personal ideology in relation to the general ideology of authorship available in his culture.”(114) Peter Berek states that “Title pages functioned as a form of what we would call advertising: They tried to persuade potential customers to buy a book.” (The Book of the Play, 162) The intricate detail of the frontispiece proposes the idea that Jonson was either comfortable with this form of ostentatious display or else deeply desired to be among it. It is evident that he considered only the elite eligible to read his work. Van Der Berg also discusses how the frontispiece “links Jonson to the coterie audience of humanist scholars and aristocrats who presumably shared his classical learning and values.” (Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio 114) The early modern readers and consumers may have been repelled by Jonson’s arrogance or intimidated that they would not understand his work or indeed may have been attracted to the invitation for the elite only. Its elaborate columns and Romanesque architecture would have been relevant and would have appealed only to the upper educated classes.”

It was only in hindsight that I saw the comparisons between Jonson’s uncertainties about being elite enough and the comparison between my own fears about giving the wrong representation of myself on paper. It is so evident now that psychology was such a prominent theme from very early on in my blogs but it was not until February and our study of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp that I finally gave in to the idea of psychoanalytic literary analysis. It was almost impossible to avoid where these extraordinary women were concerned. So the blog Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp from a Psychological Perspective was born.

“Julian attempts to de-humanize herself within her text. In her attempt to reach enlightenment and become closer to God she lives life as an Anchoress, locking herself away from the world. This demonstration of what we would normally consider an unnatural isolation is used to show us that Julian believes that physical isolation does not mean that God is not there. She believes that God cannot be absent from any place and so the idea of loneliness for her, simply does not exist. This lifestyle choice, however, does lend itself to the idea of unending voyeurism. Her decision to exclude herself from society follows a long established ascetic tradition by earlier religious figures. She gives herself entirely over to mysticism which may well have had detrimental effects on not only her body but also her mind. It is possible that this traumatic existence was the trigger for some of Julian’s visions although there is little evidence to back this up. Margery Kemp also suffered her own share of psychological trauma. From the conception of her first child Margery’s psyche began to suffer and she describes how ‘aftyr that sche had conceyved, sche was labowrd wyth grett accessys tyl the child / was born’ (Kemp 132-133). Her first vision of the devils at her bedside during the birth of her first child may have been a result of the trauma of the pregnancy or of internal feelings and insecurities about not wanting to be a generic maternal figure. Her actions after her fourteenth child may be considered an extension of this, possibly manic post-natal depression. “The notion of the maternal instinct underpins the contemporary construction of motherhood. It underlies notions of femininity and required maternal behaviour, and its absence is used to explain women’s maternal failures’ (Nicolson Post-Natal Depression 14). Margery displayed certain actions after her pilgrimage such as constantly crying or wailing in the presence of anything that reminded her of God’s suffering or wearing white, a symbol of virginity and a rebellion against her previous life, actions and self. These actions suggest she may have been suffering from a psychosomatic illness. Psychosomatics believe in the physical manifestation of our psychological state. Alongside this is the bio-psychosocial model. The bio-psychosocial model views the being as a whole and that any physical or mental illness is a combination of your biology, psychology and social environment. It believes that these are intrinsically linked and cannot exist independently. Margery’s actions such as when she ‘cryed […] and wept wythowtyn mesur / that sche myth not restreyn hirself’ may have been a coping mechanism for her body when she was unable to put into words the impact that all of her experiences had on her (Kemp 1653-1654). Looking at the way these women are presented from a psychological perspective is significant as it gives us an insight not previously gained through literary criticism alone. It allows us to strip each person down and view them as humans and as equals but obviously due to temporal restrictions as well as dependency on biased literary accounts, it is hard to offer more than conjecture.”

It was here when I realised that, while I had always discussed the idea of medicine as a thesis topic, I had in fact, never once wrote about it. Psychology or philosophy, nevertheless, had been cropping up since the beginning which leads us to my blog on The Faerie Queene – Book II.

“Having said that, my long term affair with Edmund Spenser was still on-going, much to Shakespeare and Chaucer’s dismay I am sure. I just was not quite ready to turn my back on him (Or on my addiction to the The Spenser Encyclopaedia!).”

It was Book II of The Faerie Queene that gave me exactly what I needed.

“The depiction of Alma’s castle in Book II was really what ensnared my attention. Alma’s castle is the image of achieved temperance but it is also a depiction of the human body. On reading this, naturally, the medical professional inside of me jumped at the idea of finally finding a way to mix the medical with Spenser. This, however, was a complete failure. Spenser, it was evident, did not care for medical authorities at the time, nor for anatomical correctness. And in the midst of my despair, I was quite like the red-crosse night in Book I, I found exactly what I had been looking for, not medicine, but psychology and philosophy buried deep under allegory. I was always aware of the density of Spenser’s work, but it was only when I really focused in on a small number of stanzas, and began to peel back the layers upon layers of meaning that was within them, that Spenser and I truly took our relationship to the next level. His work is deliciously rich, disturbingly complicated and anxiously intentional. Every sentence, every syllable, there is nothing exists within The Faerie Queene that Spenser did not intend to have there.”

Dr. Edel Semple gave a paper entitled “The Writer, The Queen and The Director: Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, and Emmerich’s ‘Anonymous’” and in this she quoted a line which I thought was incredibly relevant to my feelings toward Spenser. It is a quote from the film Anonymous where Oxford addresses Jonson and says “All art is political Jonson, otherwise it would be just for decoration, and all artists have something to say, otherwise they would make shoes, and you are not a cobbler, are you Jonson?” (Anonymous). This summed up not only my thoughts about Spenser but of everything we studied throughout this Masters. Art is never art for art’s sake, it always has purpose, always has meaning and that meaning and purpose change with each era it is read in and with individual who interprets it. What Spenser wrote in relation to the philosophy of his time is still connected to the psychologists of our time and finding these connections is the direction I want my thesis to take.

“An example of where modern day psychology meets the philosophical ideas that Spenser would have believed in is, for me, demonstrated in Sigmund Freud and The Tripartite Soul. Many people believe that Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, (who did more than just create The Oedipus Complex) was the original founder of the Id, Ego and Superego. But I think he may have had some help. In case anyone does not know what the tripartite soul is, according to both Plato and Aristotle, the rational soul is located in the brain, the sensitive soul’s seat is in the heart and the natural or vegetative soul’s seat is in the liver or stomach. The idea of the tripartite soul for me is echoed in Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality. Freud created the idea of the Id, the Ego and the Superego as a theory on how we make decisions. The Id is the most primitive self, the pleasure seeking self, appetite, lust and no knowledge of delayed gratification i.e. the stomach. The Ego attempts to mediate between Id and reality; the balanced self. It has some of your primitive urges, but at the same time is highly influenced by the Superego – the Superego being the brain. The Superego is the rule governed, logical self, in contrast to the rational soul, which is the search for greater knowledge, it can occasionally be suppressive. It is our inner critic. The most significant difference between these two models is that Freud makes no associations between physical placement and his theory.”

Spenser tends to make his characters the manifestation of one or at most two parts of the tripartite soul. The Palmer in Book II for example is entirely synonymous with the idea of the superego, while Mammon represents the Id, or the vegetative soul. By doing this Spenser guaranteed that we as readers, who all, according to Freud have an Id, Ego and Superego, can at any point in the book relate to any one character, no matter how virtuous or indeed filthy they may be.

Concluding from this, it is easy to see the progress that not only my blogs have made throughout my Masters so far but also the process of evolution from first thought to thesis topic. I never imagined I would see so many connections or patterns through my blogs as each was written in isolation and as an individual, stand-alone unit. It was incredible that upon re-reading my blogs in preparation for this reflective journal, my thesis direction, which I believed I stumbled upon, was so evidently there from the start.

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