Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Trusting the Narrator Pym

Poe urges us to mistrust the narrator Pym.  On the one hand Poe uses "the potent magic of verisimilitude," making the book believable to the ignorant public.  Yet on the other he slips in multiple occurrences of contrasting observation and questionable memory.  We mentioned in class the deliriousness brought on by liquor that allowed Pym to appear as a real ghost to the mutineers.  When the boat they see turns around it is mentioned that Augustus in particular thought the boat was still coming and that seaweed was a boat to take him away.  We only have Pym to rely on to know that there was even a boat, not just a fragment of imagination brought on by suggestion and desperation.  After Pym and Peters were rescued, change in memory brought on by time and change in situation is brought up.  "I have since found that this species of partial oblivion is usually brought about by sudden transition, whether from joy to sorrow or from sorrow to joy-the degree of forgetfulness being proportioned to the degree of difference in the exchange. Throughout the book he flip-flops between intense sorrow & joy, even marking the extremes with fainting fits.  The fact that he mentions his faults in memory do not make them any more authentic.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Truth in the Form of Fiction

     Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pynn, seems to highlight some of the pros and cons of fiction versus nonfiction narratives. We have discussed in class that nonfiction books tend to be more susceptible to criticism by readers on accuracy and choices made. We have, ourselves, criticized several aspects of the nonfiction books we have read thus far (i.e. validity of facts, decisions made by leaders etc).  In the preface, we see that Pym (an extension of Poe) is struggling with this particular decision as he was urged to share his narrative to the public. Pym is afraid to do so because he did not keep a journal and might be unable to write from “mere memory.” He states that he could “only hope for belief among my family, and those of my friends who have had reason, through life, to put faith in my veracity”(2). This indicates that not only do we enjoy communicating our adventures for validation but also have a fear of being discredited. A “dishonest” narrative can be seen worse than not having shared the adventure story and thus Pym felt initially reluctant to "recount" his adventure. Even as a fiction novel, it can't help but contain several elements of truth by shedding light on aspects of human nature.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Piracy and Adventure

One of the things that I find most interesting in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is the tension between the two parties of mutineers between turning to piracy and seeking adventure in the Pacific Ocean. We have yet to encounter an adventure in a non-arctic climate so we have not yet examined whether open water piracy represents an adventure or not. Clearly many of the mutineers view piracy as a more appealing adventure than sailing the Pacific to explore as we constantly hear of crew members ditching Peters' party for the first mate.

I am struggling with whether piracy is an adventure because, to my knowledge, pirates don't set specific goals when they set sail. Yes, they want to plunder and find treasure, but their seafaring adventures are nothing like the trans-arctic and antarctic epics of endurance that we have studied so far. In many ways pirates view adventure the same way that Earnest Shackleton did pre-Endurance, as a means to a financial goal. However, I think that the lack of specific goals makes piracy not an adventure based on the definition that we have been using.

Idealized Boyhood Bond

The adventure constructed in this novel is centered around the bond between to young men. Poe refers to their indelible, unsullied bond as something that allows these boys to escape from the mundane and domesticated regularity of life into an epic adventure. This ideal is certainly reflective of a caricature drawn in many young adult stories of steadfast male friendship. But I really despise its implied dismissive regard for an equivalent female bond. This character structure made me think about my favorite childhood book series, the Bloody Jack books. These stories follow a young female orphan from industrial era England who disguises herself as a young boy to become a deckhand aboard a merchant ship. She eventually becomes a badass pirate, but that's really besides the point. The connection really lies in her need to impersonate a young man in order to experience this deeply altruistic bond with another boy. What is it about this concept that seems so tantalizing to writers and why can't I think of a single example of a similarly epic tale that involves two adventure thirsty girls?

The Deliverance of Tragedy

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe is a distinctly unique blend of adventure narrative. Poe masterfully employs his flair for depravity to create an adventure story about adventure narratives, similar to The Voyage of the Narwhal, which is imbibed with the theme of human corruption. One literary device that I found particularly antagonizing was Poe’s use of a reticent narrator. Pym narrates from a similar perspective as Arlene Blum did, in that he was “convinced” to write about his adventures out of a perceived duty to others. The difference, obviously, is that this story is fiction, and was designed to be written. Beginning at the preface, I am not reading out of a desire to see Pym through his adventures safely. I know he’s safe. Instead, my satisfaction is derived from Poe’s continuous deliverance of tragedy. This is Poe’s forte, and by guaranteeing that his narrator survives the events to follow, he relieves his reader of a responsibility to empathize with him. I am fully aware that this book is actively manipulating me, but as opposed to feeling cheated, I feel freed by its fictive nature to dive into Poe’s depraved world.

Why sail?

Far from answering the question, I felt as though the narrative of Arthur and Augustus’ near-death experience on the Ariel while drunk really made me wonder, why sail? You would think that such a terrifying, almost ridiculous experience would deter someone from pursuing similar adventures, however, it only motivates Pym to seek maritime journeys obsessively. At the beginning of the semester we discussed the fact that maybe the appealing side of adventure lies in the fact that it pushes people’s boundaries. That being taken to the brink of death is somehow invigorating, exciting, and appealing. I wonder if in this horizontal adventure, the motivation is the same. Pym is potentially seeking to escape the mundane of everyday life for the unpredictable life at sea.

I also enjoyed the fact that there was sort of an adventure within the larger maritime adventure. An adventure that, unlike what we have read so far, is less focused on the actual being at sea aspect. Much of this first section focused instead on the mutiny and Pym’s entrapment rather than on the actual difficulties and challenges of being at sea like Albanov or Lansing.

Many Narratives in a Narrative

One significant difference between The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and the other adventure narratives we have read is the main agents level of unpreparedness.  In other stories we have read the main agents knowingly engage in activities they understand to be dangerous. Mountain climbers know the danger associated with mountains and arctic expeditions understand there is risk of getting stranded.  Considering this knowledge the adventurers can adequately prepare.  On the other hand, Augustus and Pym seem highly unprepared.            Augustus and Pym are armchair adventurers who devise a plan to go out on a whaling ship.  However, despite their knowledge of adventures they do not seem to consider the risks. As a result of the mutiny and subsequent events Augustus, Pym, Peters, and Parker are left truly ill equipped for survival in the ocean.  In other stories the crews have had sufficient supplies to last their journey or offer the adventurers a good chance of survival.  On the other hand, those aboard the Grampus are so desperate for food that they turn to cannibalism and sacrifice Parker.            This story also differs from many other adventure narratives in that it details many adventures that are part of a larger adventure rather than a single-minded adventure.  In vertical adventures the goal is to reach the summit. In the arctic adventures we have read the goal of the characters was to escape and survive.  In this narrative Pym’s goal changes numerous times.  First Pym is a stowaway, then he is trying to retake a ship, then he attempts to sail through storms.  All of these adventures have an isolated feel but also contribute to the overall narrative. The narrative could easily have ended when the Jane Guy rescues Pym and Peters however Poe chose to continue and extend the narrative.  

Alcoholic Adventure on the Ariel

After reading the introductory chapter of the drunken adventure with Augustus on the Ariel, I was initially confused as to why this had been included (other than to grab the reader with a hint of excitement and fear). Rather than curb his desire to adventure and thrill, this near-death experience only adds fuel to the fire: “It might be supposed that a catastrophe such as I have just related would have effectually cooled my incipient passion for the sea. On the contrary, I never experienced a more ardent longing for the wild adventures incident to the life of a navigator than within a week after our miraculous deliverance.” (pg. 13) How could Pym’s experience in the Ariel not leave a lasting impact? Moreover, why follow Augustus onto the Grampus? However, the farther I read into The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the clear purpose of including the story became clear. This chapter highlights how Pym exaggerates/embellishes the details of his story, and led me to question the reliability of the narrator. This chapter also demonstrated some of the more implausible and unrealistic elements of the story. While it seems impossible for these two shit-faced sailors to survive their voyage, incredibly both are saved - even Augustus who was drunk as a skunk and had to be tied upright. C’mon! 

Setting the Tone

As I see many other people did, I immediately noticed the sentence in the preface which states: "One consideration which deterred me was, that, having kept no journal during a greater portion of the time in which I was absent, I feared I should not be able to write, from mere memory, a statement so minute and connected as to have the appearance of that truth it would really possess, barring only the natural and unavoidable exaggeration to which all of us are prone when detailing events which have had powerful influence in exciting the imaginative faculties" (43). Obviously, given our discussions in class, I found this very interesting. It particularly brought me back to an idea that I presented at the end of our last class. Both Lansing and Albanov present very early on their take on the "truth" of their narrative; Lansing promises truth, while Albanov acknowledges his own concern about time altering his memory. I wondered in class whether their "setting the tone" in this way affected your reading of the texts. To answer honestly for myself, I found myself thinking "was this how it happened?" and "is this real?" and "why did he choose to include that?" in the texts that warned me of their own prejudices. However, I appreciated it more, since I felt like they had forced me to acknowledge the nature of narratives and our own "slanting" that always happens when we relay events. While the tone that was set affected my reading by making me more suspicious, I felt that I engaged in the text more because it welcomed me to doubt.
With this, I was brought back to the idea Janelle posed about Voyage of the Narwhal: these stories, the ones that engage with the slanting of narrative (even within their own text), may act as Bildungsromans (I couldn't resist bringing it back to this) for the reader as they require a more critical reading. I think after these last few books and the tones they set with this admissions of prejudice (or conversely professions of truth) made me believe even more in this idea. What do you guys think?

Suspense in Pym

The dark, suspenseful narrative common in Poe's works certainly adds a completely new dynamic to the genre of adventure narrative. While we've encountered a lot of stressful, suspenseful and dramatic situations in our earlier texts, Poe’s flair adds a whole new level to the idea of narrative suspense.
Pym’s narrative voice reminds me of what Simpson’s might have been, if he had written a horizontal adventure novel. The chapter in which Pym is trapped in the crawlspace under the ship, running out of food and waiting for his friend to come could be compared with Simpson’s description of his exhausting journey down the mountain after falling into a crevasse. Both characters are undergoing physical stress and narrating their stories in the first person, speaking directly to the reader.

Yet for some reason, while I read Simpson’s text and find it suspenseful because it is nonfiction, I don’t have that same response to Poe’s novel.  Poe creates a completely different type of narrative thrill, through his use of unexpected plot twists and creating believable out of the unbelievable. Simpson’s novel was relatively predictable, and the elements of foreshadowing throughout the beginning of the novel hinted at the disaster that was to come. Yet in Pym, we are completely caught off guard. While many of the scenarios in Pym seem objectively unbelievable (like his dog showing up out of nowhere) when told by this first person narrator, they seem to have the authority of a nonfiction story. 

"Natural and Unavoidable Exaggeration" in every narrative

From the beginning of Pym I have been taking note of the commentary on what it means to write a narrative. From the beginning of the preface I thought that Poe clearly addresses the question of authenticity that we have discussed often in class. How authentic is it? Why do we care? Poe articulately describes how narratives and the aim for truth work naturally-- "as to have the appearance of truth it would really possess, barring only the natural and unavoidable exaggeration to which all of us are prone when detailing events which have had powerful influence in exciting the imaginative faculties" (Preface, 2). And furthermore, "In no affairs of mere prejudice, pro or con, do we deduce inferences with entire certainty, even from the most simple data" (13). These quotes looks at the inevitable flaws in human recollection, specifically narratives.

Poe highlights how no narrative is accurate or entirely true. Everyone manipulates a narrative they construct simply because it is our brain and our imagination that has created it, and everyones mind is different and will perceive, process, and interpret things differently, even if it is only to the slightest degree. No narrative is flawless and exactly aligned with what "actually" happened. This addresses the concept of authenticity within technically non-fiction books but does not really apply to our discussion on fiction versus nonfiction and how we evaluate those differently. Poe (or Pym) says that the narrative is so absurd it may be hard for readers to believe it, he can only hope for belief... how does this impact the way we read Pym's narrative- does it at all? How are we viewing this narrative different to the others we've read?

Poe's Armchair Adventurers and the Sea's Appeal

Armchair adventurers are mentioned in the first sentence of the preface. Arthur Pym says: "several gentlemen... were... urging it upon me, as a duty, to give my narrative to the public. I thought that this was very interesting because it suggests that people's adventures are received as gifts to the public, which I would not agree is a fact. Arthur Pym goes onto admit that he is not a good writer and thus the task of writing the narrative fell on Poe. It is interesting that Poe felt it important to construct this scenario behind the narrative. In some ways, it seems to be meant to acknowledge the reader. I am eager to see where class discussion about this goes tomorrow.

On another note- I am always fascinated with people's seemingly instinctive categorization of the sea as a romantic and appealing place. I thought that Arthur's urge to be at sea after his harrowing experience with Augustus the evening of the party, was interesting. I suppose this gets at what we've been asking all semester: why sail? I think that reasons to sail include the desire to live on the ocean, on a 24 hour schedule. The striking difference of life at sea as compared to on land allows many people to formulate new perspectives. Beyond that, it often allows for peaceful, solitary nights on watch, under gorgeous stars while the boat rocks you back and forth. However, as we know and as Arthur has experienced, this is not consistently the case. There is a lot of suffering involved for those few magical moments. As far as I have read, Arthur has yet to even experience one....

What makes an effective adventure narrative?

In the intro of “Pym,” Kennedy writes, “Defying the conditions of its own composition, Pym offers a memorable portrayal of the rite de passage by which a young man loses his innocence and achieves a horrifying view of the deviousness and cruelty inherent in human nature” (xi). Many of the books we have read this semester act as coming of age works. In “Touching My Father’s Soul,” Norgay reaches self-actualization after successfully following in his father’s footsteps, but the path to self-actualization is never easy. There has to be bumps along the way in the telling of the story to entertain the reader. At the beginning of “Pym,” Poe shakes things up with some conflict, and we get a sense of Pym’s devious and innocent side. He makes the drunken decision to sail out to see with his friend Augustus, and things go sour from there, which is something—drinking times—we as college students should all be able to relate to in one way or another. Was this the boys’ first time drinking? Rather than coming of age stories, it seems like we are intrigued by stories about “firsts.” The first ascent of Mount Everest, the first ascent led by a Sherpa, ect. Effective adventure narratives seem to center around a first experience and start from a point of conflict. When the narrative starts on a point of conflict, there is nowhere to go but forward. There is a lesson to be learned. For Pym, he takes control of the ship on behalf of his drunken friend, completing his first lesson in being a man. 

The Dangers of Fictitious Truth and Vice Versa

On page 3 of the preface of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Related Tales, the “author” clearly states the importance of distinguishing fiction from truth. I found this really interesting to be in a work of fiction and I can only assume that it is there purely because Poe was clearly aware of the problems that occur when the line between fiction and truth is blurred. If this is the case, I totally sympathize with Poe’s sentiment as I, myself, have felt somewhat betrayed by an author if, when reading a supposed “true story,” I discover that much of the events and dialogue have been embellished or even created. As soon as I discovered this in several of the narratives we read this semester, the author, in my mind, completely lost his credibility and my interest in the work took a serious hit. Consequently, in light of this, it seems that Poe, recognizing the potential dangers and the possibility of insult to the reader, is either making fun of the reader and playing with satire, since this is a novel, or he is, through the voice of A. Gordon Pym, cleverly hinting at the fact that this novel is in fact a work of fiction in the case that an ill-informed reader mistakes the fictitious events in the life of A. Gordon Pym for a true story. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The morality of survival

I feel that a recurring theme in the narratives we keep coming across is the questionable morality of certain actions in survival situations.  In Poe's Pym, we run across cannibalism in chapter seven, where Pym and his companions are forced to draw lots to see who is eaten among them.  And yet, despite how awful an act this is, I found myself accepting of their actions because of their desperate circumstances.  I similarly found myself approving of the actions of Simon in Touching the Void when he chose to cut the rope to save himself, and in Into Thin Air when rescue climbers chose to leave behind climbers on the mountain who couldn't be saved.  My acceptance of such things really leaves me wondering what else could I rationalize doing if my life depended on it?  I think this is a question that anyone would ask put in the right set of circumstances.  But what really strikes me about Poe's narrative is that his account is fictional, but ultimately believable.  There have been instances where sailors have had to eat other humans to survive because they had no other options.  This is what makes me believe that what Pym goes through could actually happen, and why I am able to rationalize their cannibalism.  Yet, I think that if this never happened in real life, I wouldn't be able to accept their actions.  I think that we the reader are only able to accept such low moral choices in fiction if they are based in truth.  Thus, despite Poe's, let say interesting, narrative choices, I am able to accept that Pym and company had to resort to eating each other in order to survive.  In survival situations like the one the faced, it happens to be a valid option.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Shackleton's Voyage Recreated in 21st Century

I forgot to mention this in class today... Tim Jarvis!

A better late than never post about the fact that Lansing has goals too

As we discussed in class, goals are important driving forces in all the texts we've read. Goals change and people must adjust. These goals do not come out of nowhere, rather someone enforces them. Shackleton lays out goals for the crew and adapts goals that he relays to the team, but this is a constructive text. Shackleton may appear to be a driving force, and we may think we are getting an honest depiction of the story because quotes are inserted to acknowledge our presence as readers. But this is all part of Lansing's strategy, which is a great one in my opinion and can be best describes by Kurt Vonnegut, when he said, "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center." It's like standing on the edge of a bridge, 700 feet above a river, looking down. You don't want to go over because you are reflective of your current state and can see your fear in front of you. Lansing tries to bring us to the edge of the expedition, so we can reflect on the expedition and see what might not have existed in the expedition itself. Maybe it wasn't Shackleton enforcing goals for the crew, but the setting of the arctic. The ebb and flow of the crew's goals could be a result of the simple movement of the ice.

Monday, April 21, 2014


The account of Endurance that we have read seems to contain a theme of understated and unspoken altruism contrasted with instances of individuals resigning to abounding, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. An example of each would be the men rowing for hours on end and developing grotesque injuries from their toils while Orde-Lees selfishly refused to contribute. The contribution of each individual to the survival of the group is pivotal. These men have a strong, unspoken commitment to altruism that reflects the nature of life on ships. My captain on SEA Semester referred often to the fundamental concept of sailing philosophy, "ship, shipmate, self." It took my quite a while to objectively wrap my head around this paradigm and even longer to respect or accept it. These men have existed in an alternate world of the high seas, which is a very rigidly structured and carefully crafted society without room for individual desires, fears or opinions. After five weeks at sea I can't pretend to understand the entirety of the seafaring world's ideology, but I would assert that altruism sits among its highest values. Perhaps it has to do with the tortuous watch schedule and often brutal physical conditions of the high seas necessitating a steadfast bode of confidence in your shipmate's mutual willingness to endlessly endure.

Back To Everest (Sadly)

I want to bring our attention to the avalanche that just happened on Everest last week where 13 sherpas were killed. It set the record for the largest single-day death toll on Everest and the sherpas are now deciding whether they will go on strike or continue climbing this season. One of the sherpa teams that was killed was the team that was assisting the Discovery Channel for the wingsuit jump, and they have since cancelled the event. This comes on the heels of the Nepalese government's announcement that they were lowering the fee to climb the mountain. This year there are a record 334 approved climbers and they are all currently at risk of having their expeditions cancelled by a sherpa strike. There are many differing opinions on the matter and, not surprisingly, the owners of the western outfits are urging the sherpas not to strike. The unabashed greed here is pretty astounding and it re-raises (but doesn't answer) many of the things we talked about with Into Thin Air.

Here is the New York Times article about it, definitely worth the read.

This is another article detailing some of the history between western climbers and sherpas and it raises some interesting questions about how the changes that we all feel are necessary should begin.

I am going to write another post about Endurance, but I want to finish Caroline Alexander's version and compare the two books. She focuses much more on character development than Lansing does and it gives the book a pretty different feel. Also, the pictures are pretty freakin' sweet. Not quite finished with it yet.

Optimism & Endurance

When reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing, I thought about a post Agathe made a few weeks ago about hope and how mental strength was critical for survival in the Artic. After the Caird left the crewmembers on Elephant Island, I was impressed with their optimism: “On this score, their general feeling, at least outwardly, was confident. But how else might they have felt? Any other attitude would have been the equivalent of admitting that they were doomed. No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope for survival on something and then expect that it will fail.” In Endurance, although optimism didn’t guarantee the crew survival, without it, failure was inevitable. For me, Shackleton’s ability to recognize this early demonstrated his leadership skill. He immediately recognizes Hurley’s disgruntlement and yearning for influence on the expedition, and chooses to include him in meetings to prevent him from spreading discontent to the rest of the crew. In order to preserve team morale, Shackleton assigns tents and carefully picks the crew to travel to South Georgia Island, all while considering each individual’s attitude and their influence on the group’s mindset. In their dismal situation, the crew’s optimism, resiliency, and even jubilant attitude helped to ensure their survival and persevere: “So there was always that niggling little ray of hope which kept them climbing the lookout bluff religiously each day. But it also served to slow the passage of time.”