Monthly Archives: September 2011

New Perspectives on 9/11

September 5, 2011
September 11, 2011 marks the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Professor Terry Doody is teaching “Politics and Other Fictions”,  a literature class that centers around this event. Recently, we visited with Professor Doody to find out more.
WIH Reporter: Three of the novels featured in your class focus on the actual event, but the rest do not. What informed your choice of novels for this class?

Doody: The anniversary of 9/11 is exactly the reason I want to teach the books–not only the three of them immediately focused on the event itself, but the other novels that give us a sense of Islam, in some of its very many forms.

WIH Reporter:  How can reading fiction enlarge our perspectives in approaching this event? 

Doody: Shelley says in “The Defense of Poetry” that we must be able to imagine what we know. What we merely know are facts.  Imagination, at least for the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century, is the greater power necessary to comprehend our whole reality with the fullness of our consciousness.  And fiction is not merely useful but always essential to our comprehension precisely because it takes us beyond ourselves and our familiar reality into the minds of others.

WIH Reporter: What is an example of the importance of imagination in relation to merely knowing facts?

Doody: One of the reasons we lost the war in Viet Nam is that we could not imagine losing it. We could not imagine the culture, the need, the endurance of the Vietnamese.  We thought they would react just as we would react, and they didn’t. 

As the old saying goes, the generals are always fighting the last war, which was in the jungle not in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, which itself is not a modern nation-state. They are not us, and we are having trouble imagining them, despite all the information technology at our disposal.-

Politics and Other Fictions begins on September 8th, 2011, and features the following novels: Malgudi Days (Narayan),  The Satanic Verses (Rushdie);  Palace Walk (Mahfouz);  Let the Great World Spin (McCann);  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Foer);  The Good Life (McInerney);  Say You’re One of Them (Akpan);  Unaccustomed Earth (Lahiri); and  The Thing Around Your Neck. (Adichie).

Are You Well Read?

September 5, 2011

Question: How many 19th century novels (short stories or novellas) can you name that prominently feature a character who descends into madness?

Hint: One famous novel features a madwoman in the attic.

Answer: Nineteenth-century literature reflects changing Victorian attitudes to mental illness. In the early decades, madness was often described in terms conveying horror and disgust. Only in later novels do we find a more compassionate portrait of mental illness. Indeed, this adjustment in attitude was evidenced in two separate works by author Charlotte Bronte. Her earlier novel, “Jane Eyre”, offered a characteristically Gothic interpretation, introducing the repulsive, feral madwoman in the attic. Some years later, Bronte painted a more enlightened picture of mental illness in her semi-autobiographical novel, “Villette”.
Here is a list: 
Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (1837)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (1847)
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (1850)
Vilette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Little Dorritt, Charles Dickens (1857)

Cassandra Florence Nightengale (1860)

Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon (1862)

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Follow-up Reading:

Books and articles on this subject can be found as follows:

Allan Beveridge and Edward Renvoiz

McCandless, P. (1981) Liberty and lunacy: The Victorians and wrongful confinement. In Madhouses, Mad doctors, and Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era.

Lisa Appignanesi, Mad, Bad and Sad: A history of the mind doctors from 1800 to the present (Virago 2008)
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination (Yale University Press, 1979)
Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, madness and English culture 1830-1980 (Virago, 1985).

Of Biblical Proportions: Power, Revenge, and Salvation in The Book of Samuel

September 5, 2011
For two thousand years, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been reading the Bible, and it has never lost its fascination. This fall at the Women’s Institute of Houston, Professor Seymour Rossel’s is offering a dynamic class about the Book of Samuel, titled “Prophets, Priests, and Kings”. We asked Professor Rossel to tell us about the particulars about his class, and more. 

WIH ReporterWhy have you chosen this particular book of the Bible for your class?

Rossel: It is one of my personal favorites among the books of the Bible. I like it for the same reason that I admire the three films of “The Godfather.” It is filled with towering moments of drama, with characters struggling for power and repute, with stories of Judges, priests, prophets, and kings and how they interact, with stories of soothsayers and witches, with the desires of real people to make a better nation for themselves, with tales of marriage and divorce, rape and murder, crime and punishment, and wars with enemies and wars within families. 

The Book of Samuel (found in modern translations in two parts, as First Samuel and Second Samuel, but still one book) has everything that made the “Godfather” so compelling (aside, perhaps from a horsehead in the bed).

WIH ReporterWhat other parallels to our time can we find in The Book of Samuel?

Rossel: In a time when we ponder with issues of how much power should be vested in our national, state, and local government, Samuel takes on the same issue and provides some surprising insights. In a time when we wonder why so many of those who rise to high office manage to fall through their own human weakness, the Book of Samuel proves that this is an age-old dilemma. At a time when splinter groups seem to wield so much political power and divisiveness seems to dominate our national politics, the Book of Samuel gives us glimpses into the processes that drive people apart and the best in us which can sometimes reunite and heal our national will. No wonder, then, that the ancient sages recommended that we “Turn it, turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.”

WIH ReporterWhat were the strongest influences in your life and work?

Rossel: The strongest influences in my life have always been teachers who became friends and friends who became teachers. I have been remarkably blessed in this sense. You might not recognize many of the teachers I have had the honor of knowing, but you would certainly recognize one or more. As a youth, I had a brief interview with Martin Buber that proved influential. Ever since, when I read his books and essays, I hear his voice and recall his presence, so he has remained my teacher. 

I was fortunate enough to study writing with Marshall Terry, a fine Texas author, and Ken Shields, a brilliant critic and interpreter, both of SMU and both of whom became lifelong friends. In New York, I studied at NYU with Cyrus Gordon and Manuel Gold, both of whom became close friends; and I was fortunate to study with Joseph Campbell at his workshop The Open Eye and to become his friend, as well. As a teacher, I continue to try to emulate these folk and others who brought wisdom and learning into my life and what I love most about the Women’s Institute is the closeness that allows those of us who teach to be friends with those of us who are taught. We have so much to learn from one another.

Professor Rossel’s class meets on Tuesday afternoons, from 1:00 – 3:00, and starts September 6, 2011.