Wednesday, 29 August 2012

From Literary Theory to Grammar; from Lecturer to Assistant-Professor

Image Source
This is the first week of teaching for the Fall Semester. As is often the case, the first week is quite hectic—not because of the workload, which is rather sparse during the first week because classes entail mostly introductions and orientation, but just because so many changes can occur in those first few days and students still have all of the first week to drop or take up new classes. This semester is no different. This morning one of my classes that I rather looked forward to teaching this semester, Literary Theory, got cancelled due to a lack of students; classes with less than seven students are automatically cancelled. Since this class was a borderline case with student numbers fluctuating between six and seven students the academic office said that they can freeze the registrations and ensure that the class is kept, but of course I will get a reduction in pay. Classes with less than, I think, 12 students result in a pay reduction to the lecturer's hourly stipend for that class.

My chairperson suggested that I cancel the class and instead teach another class that a rookie lecturer feels uncomfortable teaching—Advanced English Grammar. Now grammar is not my forte. I know it sounds odd hearing such an admission from a university lecturer teaching in an English Department. It is not that I'm particularly bad at grammar, it is merely that it is not my love. My grammar ability is that of most native speakers—a natural, instinctive ability that requires little reflection. As a English lecturer I obviously spend more time considering grammar than the average Joe, but seldom out of choice. My teaching focus is literature, not syntax. But (in academic English one should never start a sentence with a conjunction such as for, or, nor, but, yet, or so) this class has 26 registered students so I don't have to worry about further pay cuts. Another class of mine also has less than the optimal number of students so I'm already facing a pay deduction from that class. After an evening of deliberating I decided to give up the class I hoped to teach and take the grammar class after all. It's going to be boring, but in times of economic distress it's better to make the more practical decisions. In any case, I'm teaching four other classes, three of which I'm sure to enjoy: Public Speaking, 19th & 20th Century American Poetry, and Creative Writing.

Something else was revealed today that I found a pleasant surprise. My contract was renewed for two years again and with the renewal also came a raise in pay. These two things are not the pleasant surprise I was referring to. The surprise is that my title will be changed. I used to be 강사 or Full-Time Lecturer, but as of September 1, 2012, I'll be 조교수 or Assistant-Professor (in the American and Canadian usage of the term). That is a rather quick academic promotion after only four years of working here and with only a master's degree, but it seems quite a number of people with only master's degrees received the upped statuses as of this semester. Curiously, apart from the change in title, my contract has not changed. My core responsibility is still lecturing, and not research, as one would expect of an assistant-professor. While I would love to do research, my teaching hours are just too many for that to be practical. Nonetheless, whatever their purpose was for the “promotion,” it definitely enhances my academic resume. Also, the shift from lecturer to assistant-professor means that once I have a PhD, I will be eligible for working towards tenure-track at this university. Although this is still unlikely seeing as I am a foreigner, at least it is now a possibility, which it was not before.

Friday, 24 August 2012

On Writing Poetry (in English)

Image Source
I usually write poems in Afrikaans. The reason is simply that I find Afrikaans to be innately more poetic in its compilation and collocations. Take the word "hartstog" for example, which means passion. Directly translated, "hartstog" is heart's journey. In other words, one's passion is the thing that takes your heart on a journey. That is a poem by itself. (I have in fact actually used it as the theme for an Afrikaans poem once.) Or the word "versoen" which means reconcile and directly translates as to kiss. The Afrikaans word for reconciling is this intimate image of kissing. (This had also been the inspiration for a poem before.) With such innate rich and colourful imagery it is no wonder that I prefer Afrikaans as my poetic medium. This doesn't mean that I don't write poetry in English or that I'm not inspired in English. Actually, as far as reading poetry goes, I read mostly English poems and quite often too. In fact, I often have some anthology of poetry in my bag with me, and it is usually an English anthology. For instance at this very moment I have Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in my one backpack and a translation into English of a selection of Tomas Tranströmer's poetry in my other backpack, and I always leave home with one of these two backpacks.

True, I do write much less poetry in English, but sometimes an English poem wants to be written. Like last night. I was walking home listening to the soundtrack of Spring Awakening when the phrase "good riddance" lodged itself in my mind and just begged to be used in a poem. When I got home I sat down and wrote it in one sitting. (Which of course means that it could probably benefited from more time and editing before I posted it.) Often poems I write in English feel like they want to be translated into Afrikaans, or sometimes an Afrikaans poem calls for an English translation. The "Good Riddance"-poem, which you can read on my poetry blog, has no such ambitions. It is a happy, thoroughly English poem. Well, mostly. It is not a happy-themed poem, so it is not happy in that sense. I mean that the poem is happy to be an exclusively English poem. Also, one of the words I used is quite questionable. It is not a properly established word in the English language, well not in the sense that I use it. It is the word "palateless", meaning "lacking in delicacy of taste", which, upon searching online, I could only find it used in this sense in Merriam-Webster's dictionary, and noted as one of their "unabridged words"; i.e. a very uncommon word. Palateless has become a slightly more common word to describe dentures as palate-less; that is, dentures that do not have an artificial palate (roof of the mouth) part -- not the variation of the word I had in mind.

In July I translated two of my Afrikaans poems into English: a homo-erotic / bisexually themed poem "and I wonder why" and "Percieve", a poem of romantic longing. The latter I also translated into Korean and is currently being edited by a Korean friend. In July I also translated an English poem, A. E. Houseman's "I did not lose my heart on a summer's even" into Afrikaans, and in May I translated those beautiful English lines (189-202) from the final scene of Beaumont and Fletcher's play “Philaster” into Afrikaans.

But since it has been so long for me to write an exclusively English poem I thought it worth announcing here on my main blog. And so it starts, as an angry confession: "If I should lose you, / I say: 'good riddance!' / I've already lost my heart, / what more is there to lose?" But turns into a sad revelation of unrequited love, and how life loses all its wonder and pleasures when one finds oneself in such a state.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Try to transcribe the lyrics of this "English" song.

According to the description this song is a parody by singer/songwriter-comedian Adriano Celentano for the Italian TV programme Mileluci and is sung entirely in gibberish designed to sound like American English. Really, you may think you recognise the words, but listening closely you'll notice that it is all meaningless. The great thing about this is that itit helps us native English speakers "hear" how we sound to those people that do not speak English.

The naughty teacher in me wants to play this video to my Intermediate Listening-and-Conversation class that I'm teaching this semester and tell them to write me a synopsis of the lyrics. Or better yet, have them describe the lyrics!


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

New Blog: Korean Minute

I'd like to introduce my new blog "Korean Minute 한국의 분이". The premise is very simple: one minute videos of random Korean moments. I like taking pictures of Korea, but photos often hi-jack reality for an aesthetic purpose. Photos are deliberately cropped and edited to produce a pretty picture. The result is aesthetically pleasing and while one gain something, you also lose something. You lose the feeling of the actual moment. The purpose of this new blog and these one minute videos is to capture these often everyday, random, unedited actual Korean moments.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Consolation: A Pair of Nikes

My vacation has come to an end. I start teaching again next week. That's okay, I like that part of my job. Yesterday and today, however, was spent in faculty meetings, which are particularly boring seeing as my Korean ability is so limited.

At least one consolation is that the university gave all the faculty new pairs of Nike trainers.

Getting shoes that fit me in Korea is quite a challenge, so I'm particularly happy that they got me a pair that fits wonderful. It is a pity that they could only find me a white pair, as I'm not good at keeping shoes clean, and a white pair is sure to soil quickly. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to testing these out soon. (Maybe doing parkour!)

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Spring Awakening

A theatre production I really wish I could see is the rock musical Spring Awakening, which had won numerous Tony Awards, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album (2008). Actually, this is not the first time for me to write about my wish to see it.

I have the soundtrack and have even watched the bootleg video on YouTube. While such an illegal copy on YouTube is supposedly taking revenue away, according to the Media Industry, it has caused in me quite the opposite reaction -- I want to see the actual performance even more now.

There used to be a Korean version of the musical, but I missed it. It was reworked into Korean in any case so that I would not have understood it even if I saw it. Still, I'm regretting it a little that I never did go to see it. But who knows, maybe they will one day come by on tour. I did after all get to see Rent when they came to Korea.

The song below from Spring Awakening is one of the most beautiful and brutally honest love songs I have ever heard.

Another big Broadway production of which a Korean version is currently running in Seoul is Wicked. I'm considering seeing it.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Preparing for Dementia
My mother suffered from dementia for years before she finally passed away, weak and withered. Her dementia was the result of a series of strokes that occurred over many years.

We still have no absolute certainty about the reason for her strokes. In part, the doctors said, cholesterol played a role. Although one's lifestyle can curb cholesterol problems, there is also a clear hereditary link. If parents have high cholesterol chances are that their children will suffer from cholesterol too. Not only is there a hereditary link with cholesterol, there is also a hereditary connection for strokes. A family history of strokes increases one's risk of strokes.

While I have very healthy cholesterol levels at present, I do have a family history of strokes on both sides of my family. One of my paternal uncles also suffered from strokes.

My mother also suffered from depression, which may also have contributed to her later dementia. While I have been depression free for years, there have been times that the monster got me too. Artistic personalities are often prone to depression, but I have been lucky in that I've learned to recognise the symptoms and take pro-active measures to side step the pit most of the time.

Although I am healthy now and hopefully far too young to show signs of dimentia, I still need to be realistic and consider a possible old age that may include dementia.

How does one prepare for it? The YouTube video below shows one woman's approach. She mentions honing the types of hobbies that even a person with dementia could derive pleasure from; building up strength and balance so that when the typical weakness that often goes with a decrease in brain function occurs, one is not unnecessarily helpless; and building a good character so that when your mind is stripped naked, the purity of your character may still come through.

For me, controversial as it may be, assisted suicide for terminally sick people is also something I believe deserves consideration. I have mentioned before (in an Afrikaans post) that I support someone's choice to die with dignity for I have first hand experience of how such a terminally ill person is deprived of nearly all that makes one human. I do not want my loved ones to remember me as a senile old man, that dirties his pants, burden them emotionally and financially, and so steal from them all the good memories they had of me.

And so, as I get older, I start to think of these related things. I save for a pension, I try to keep up my health, and I consider such possibilities as getting dementia and how I can make it easier for those I care for.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Taming of Smeagol

"The Taming of Smeagol" by Donato Giancola

I stumbled onto this absolutely exquisite painting, depicting a scene from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It is by multiple award winning artist Donato Giancola. The title "The Taming of Smeagol" refers to a chapter from the second novel of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, "The Two Towers", in which Frodo and Sam captures Smeagol (Gollum).

A scene from a staged production of
Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew",
directed by Conall Morrisson (2008).
(Image Source)

Tolkien's chapter title "The Taming of Smeagol" alludes to Shakespeare's play "The Taming of the Shrew" in which a gentlemen "tames" his stubborn bride into becoming obedient. The "taming" in The Lord of the Rings is summarised as follows on the Tolkien Gateway wiki:

As the hobbits huddle in the cold, Frodo spots a crawling insect-like creature on a distant cliff, clinging to the wall by its hands. Sam realizes the creature is Gollum. As the creature draws nearer, he leaps on Sam. They wrestle. Frodo draws his knife Sting from its sheath and thrusts it against Gollum’s neck, demanding obedience from the creature. Gollum is suddenly subservient and vows total servitude, but Frodo does not trust him entirely. Gollum suddenly bounds away, attempting escape. The hobbits get him back and harness him with the Elf rope, which causes Gollum great pain. Gollum again vows obedience, and this time he seems sincere. The creature leads his Hobbit masters onward to Mordor.

Many readers, particularly readers of later generations, have wondered if the relationship between the Hobbits Frodo and Sam are possibly homosexual, considering the strong love the Hobbits have for each other and the physical affection that Sam shows towards his master Frodo. I think this misconception reveals the sad state of modern Western culture where any intimate friendship is assumed to be sexual. As if the only way to intimacy is through sex. No, any close reading of the text makes it clear that the two Hobbits are not homosexual. They do, however, express great camaraderie and platonic intimacy and such physical affection between same-sex friends are quite common in many cultures around the world and carries no sexual significance--not in many parts of our world, nor in Tolkien's Middle Earth.

The painting by Giancolo, on the other hand, flips the tables and asks a different question; not if there is sexual intimacy between Frodo and Sam, but rather if there is a type of sexual tension between Frodo and Smeagol, or Sam and Smeagol.

"The Taming of Smeagol" by Donato Giancola

The homo-erotic elements in this painting is glaringly obvious. The naked Smeagol sits on Sam's back; Smeagol has toppled Sam and mounted him, hinting at an attempted rape. Fortunately Frodo intervenes and pulls Smeagol away by his hair, while keeping "Sting", his sword threateningly close. Frodo's violent action is paradoxically contrasted with his face so intimately close to Smeagol's that it almost appears like Frodo is about to kiss Smeagol. Furthermore, swords are by their very nature phallic symbols and in this painting with its close proximity to the naked Smeagol, the sexual symbolism is obviously alluded to.

Giancolo's depiction evokes a lover's triangle. Those that have read the book (or seen the movie) will know that an actual lover's triangle between these three characters do not exist. Yet the painting makes us aware of such a possibility nonetheless and we are forced to rethink the relationship of these characters. And so we do find a lover's triangle of sorts--not of Frodo and Sam and Smeagol, but of Frodo and Smeagol and the Ring. Smeagol's obsession with the Ring, his "precious", is stronger than any normal erotic obsession. Smeagol's seeming attempt to get closer to Frodo, i.e. Smeagol's "taming", is based on his obsession with the Ring. While Frodo finds the Ring burdensome, he also becomes infatuated with it, and because he knows that Smeagol understands this infatuation, he feels a special bond with Smeagol. The Ring draws them both to itself, but also strangely to each other. Sam is the one left out, the one "underneath", separated from Frodo and Smeagol's special intimacy. Notice how the menacing sword points at Sam, showing how he is "threatened" by Frodo and Smeagol's connection.

Giancolo's homo-erotic interpretation highlights the intensity of the Ring's power--brilliantly comparing it to an erotic obsession.

You can view more of Giancolo's artwork at his website.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Public Speaking

One of the classes I teach at university is public speaking, and I will do so again this coming semester. It is one of my favourite classes to teach. For one, there are much fewer assignments to grade than the typical literature classes I teach, and grading essays does not make my innards bubble with excitement. Another and probably better reason for enjoying this class is because I can more dramatically see the improvement in the students. I can compare the presentations the students give at the beginning of the semester, with the speeches they give at the end of the semester, and see how they have applied the skills, overcome their extreme nervousness, and ordered their presentations in engaging and coherent ways. Just providing them with some simple ways to organize their speeches in a sensible way, dramatically improves their communication.

If you want some advice on public speaking, my main point would be do not to read. You can skim your notes, or read quotations or statistics. Such "reading" is okay. But keep in mind, it is as Ze Frank in the YouTube video below says: "It's public speaking, not public reading." There are few things more sleep-inducingly boring than having to sit there, while somebody reads to you. There is a reason we read to children at bedtime. So if you are not to read, should you memorise your whole speech word for word? No. Instead, thoroughly familiarize yourself with the topic, then memorise the main points and sub-points, and then using your outline speak freely about the topic, following your outline. Doing so you will cover all the things you wish to cover, while having a "conversation" with your audience. When you are not reading, you can make more eye contact instead of hiding behind your notes; this will immediately build better rapport with the audience. You will look more confident and knowledgeable about the topic.

But now, here is Ze Frank with more advice:


Saturday, 4 August 2012

Thoughts on the "Christ in Majesty" Mosaic by Jan Henryk de Rosen

On a social network a friend linked to a photo of "Christ in Majesty", a beautiful mosaic in the main dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D. C., which serves the Catholic University of America.

I was immediately fascinated when I saw the mosaic and its depiction of Christ, because it seems to be a contextual depiction. Contextual evangelism is an attempt to bring the gospel and theological doctrines to the people in a way that is coherent with their own cultural context. Here we have a very European looking Christ, for a mostly European descendent audience. But I soon realised that my conclusion that this is a case of contextualization is wrong, because we find in this mosaic elements that are Oriental, rather than Occidental. 

A close-up of the face of the "Christ in Majesty"
mosaic. (Image Source)

Russian born
Alexander Godunov, a
North Eastern "Nordic",
with typical Aryan features.
But let's first look at the Occidental, i.e. European elements. The Christ looks Aryan, with Nordic features: blond hair, fair skin, light (blue or green) eyes, a long headed face with fine features and slender build. The speculative Aryan race are a supposedly superior people and depending on the tradition may have been the inhabitants of the mythical Atlantis. The Nazis seemed to have believed in Nordic-Atlanteans, and a book Der Nordische Gedanke unter den Deutschen ("The Nordic Thought and the German") by Hans F. K. Günther possibly became the inspiration for later eugenic activities. I find it fascinating that the artist of this mosaic, Jan Henryk de Rosen, should choose to depict Christ in this fashion. 

Jan Henryk de Rosen
(Image Source)
De Rosen was Polish, from a Jewish family that converted to Calvinism. Himself later converted to Catholicism. As an artist he worked primarily on religious themes. Being forced to take refuge in America when the Nazis persecuted Jews in Europe, I find it curious that he should depict Jesus in the ideal that the Nazi's used to persecute his people. At first I thought that maybe he only depicted Jesus in this idealistic European fashion as an contextualization attempt for the predominantly European descendant audience of Washington D. C., but this particular mosaic was not the only time that De Rosen depicted an "Aryan" Christ. 

A Christ Icon by Jan Henryk de Rosen
on display at the
Ukrainian Museumand Library of Stamfort
in Connecticut. 
There are other interesting things about the "Christ in Majesty" mosaic. Let's take a look at the halo. 

Notice the cruciform halo with the three
branches of fire. (Image Source)
Image Source
The halo, a circle of light around a person's head, is a common element in iconic art to indicate holiness. The cruciform halo is a variation of the halo embedded with a cross and is generally used exclusively to depict Jesus. The cruciform halo in the "Christ in Majesty" mosaic above shows a burning cross, which is very unusual. It is not a version of the cruciform halo of Christ icons that I have seen before. I cannot help to think of the burning crosses used by the Klu Klux Klan who also based their ideology on "Nordic Thought" and believe in Aryan supremacy. Yet the burning cross need not be an allusion to the KKK's cross burning, it could have an Oriental connection.

A mosaic of Apollo with beams of light
emanating from his halo, from the 2nd
century, Tunisia. (Image Source)
A Greco-Roman depiction
of the head of Apollo from
the 4th century.
(Image Source)
Notice the similarities in the
hair of this sculpture and the
hair in De Rosen's depiction
of Christ. 
The Greco-Roman sun god Helios (or Apollo) was often depicted with beams of light emanating from his halo (see above).

The Grecian god of light and the sun, Apollo, was often depicted as a beautiful youth, quite similar in likeness to the Jan Henryk de Rosen's depiction of Christ (albeit beardless). In paintings (on pots) and mosaics Apollo is usually attributed with beams of light emanating from his halo, as already mentioned. What I haven't seen illustrated are beams of fire, such as those we see in De Rosen's mosaic. There is however other religious traditions outside of the Western tradition where aureola are shown as flames. An aureola is an expansion of the halo around the figures whole body; i.e. an aura visible as a "golden glow" of holiness. In art from particularly Indo-Persion and Far Eastern traditions we find fiery aureolas.

Vairocana Buddha
(Image Source)
For instance the Vairocana Buddha is usually pictured with flames of radiance surrounding him. (Interestingly, the Japanese term for the Vairocana Buddha is Dainichi, a name used by Christian missionaries in Japan (Francis Xavier) for the Christian God, because Dainichi sounds similar to Deusu, Spanish for God.) Deities with fiery aureolas are evident in Hinduism, Jaism, Zoroastrianism and even Islam (see a picture of Mohammed with a flaming aureola). The flames, of course, are not wholly foreign to Christianity, for the Bible describes God as "a consuming fire" (Exodus 24:17, Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29.)

Buddhist Monk in monastic robes with one
shoulder bare, sitting with legs crossed.
(Image Source)
One of the most curious elements to me of De Rosen's depiction of Christ is his attire and seated position. 

Compare the colour of the robes, the bared
shoulder and cross-legged seated
position with that of the Buddhist monk.
(Image Source)

The similarities between the De Rosen's styling of the robe, colour of the robe, and seating of the figure to that found in Buddhism is striking.

(Image Source)
Keep in mind that this mosaic depicts the "Christ in Majesty". That is, when Christ sits on the throne of God as ruler over everything, an icon that is usually part of the Last Judgement scene. The "Christ in Majesty" scene is a well established scene in Christian iconography, but what we nearly always see in these "Christ in Majesty" icons is a Christ sitting with his legs bent at the knee and hanging down in front of him, as he sits on the throne, as we can see in the picture on the side. I've never seen the "Christ in Majesty" (or to be frank, any Christ icon) depicted in this meditative position that is the customary depiction in Buddhist iconography.

The colour of the robe is also reminiscent of Buddhist monastic dress: Theravada Buddhist monks dress in a saturated orange robe; Tibetan Buddhists dress in crimson coloured robes. The red colour of the robe in De Rosen's "Christ in Majesty" does have Biblical foundation, as the Christ of Judgement is described in the Book of Revelation as "clothed with a vesture dipped in blood . . ." (Revelation 19:13), but the garment dipped in blood is part of another Biblical image, that of Christ sitting on a white horse (Revelation 19:11), and not of Christ seated on the throne.

Jan Henryk de Rosen's "Christ in Majesty" mosaic is a beautiful piece of work, but also an enigmatic one. One I do not completely comprehend. The cruciform halo in the form of a burning cross is quite strange. For me it reminds me of Oriental auroras or KKK burning crosses. Depictions of Christ as Caucasian are nothing new in Western Christian art, but this one seems especially Nordic, yet it was created by a Jew who ought to be in disagreement with "Nordic Thought". Then there is the curious Buddhist robe and meditative cross-legged position, which is almost certainly an allusion to the seated Buddha of Buddhist iconography.

The postmodernist in me wants to exclaim that this is obviously a post-modernist artwork, but that to me feels like a cop-out solution. While it is true that the the basilica was indeed completed within the postmodern zeitgeist, I'm not convinced that saying the enigmas in this mosaic can merely be explained away by envoking postmodernism's a-little-bit-of-this-a-little-bit-of-that characteristic. Iconography are always embedded with symbolic meaning, this is true even for postmodern iconography.

I'm sure I will continue to think about this mosaic for some time still.

(You can read an interpretation of this artwork here, by a Catholic source.)