The Blue Man: Expository Essay
Two chocolate eyes look right through me, drowned by thick black eyebrows. One side of his face is thoughtful, the other concerned. I frown. Did I offend him? No, he must be thinking of something or somewhere else. Such a raw intensity hints at an untold narrative. For a moment I wish I could get one glimpse of his innermost thoughts, or just talk to him. Instead, I step away to examine the painting as a whole.
An orange boot at the bottom of the canvas instantly catches my eye. I slowly move my gaze along his cerulean jeans, his white shirt, and into his eyes again. How freeing it is to stare at one person so indefinitely! I can scrutinize all the specificities of his attitude, his expression. These smelt together to offer me a key to his psyche at the exact moment and thought it was captured in. When I see his open shirt and nonchalant stance, I am surprised to find darkness in his brooding expression instead of candid vibrancy.
It’s that frown… it draws attention to a certain bipolarity in his attitude. One arm rests on the chair, the other is tense; one eyebrow is furrowed, the other is still. He must suffer from some type of inner conflict. His nails are painfully short – a sign of care or anxiety? Both his jacket and his shirt are open, but his legs are crossed, his foot turned away from me, ready to walk out of the painting at any moment. A suggestion of movement in his figure. There is a certain raw brutality to the hair covering his head, his body, like a mask. A thick moustache right above his mouth prevents him from speaking. He is right before me and seems miles away.
The man has a cobalt silhouette, blue paint in the streaks of his hair and clothes. It leaves a ghostly impression; lingers long after you leave the gallery. The immediate and sketchy brushstrokes create a fleeting intensity. The limbs and the chair running out of the frame convey the feeling that the subject is only there temporarily, while also giving him room to move and escape. The essence of the subject is tinged with blue, a despondency exposed to us, no longer hidden behind hair or a jacket.
The chair he is sitting in is also cobalt. Deep, royal, it melts like an ice cube on my tongue, cooling the visceral heat of the painting. The chair’s stripes are prison bars, and the subject is trapped. Locked in the frame, in the idea of himself he tries to portray to the world. A constant battle against his melancholy nature, a societal obligation to display confidence and ease. Yet he blends into the chair, and once more he becomes evanescent. I hold my breath. He is still there.
I look to his hands, his face, and it is now clear they are the most polished part of the painting. It is as if the painter wanted to add more nuance to the focal points of human communication, adding layer upon layer of paint… Or perhaps so many beiges, browns and greens show an inner turmoil, all his emotions coming up to his skin like a blush. Uncertainty? Anger? Fear? None of these? We can only guess. All we know is that there is a life beyond the painting.
But what about the backdrop, so subtle I almost forgot to look at it? Yellow on the bottom half of the painting, and grey on top. The subject is obviously the principal focus of the piece, and a blue halo of sadness and life envelops him. It is as if the yellow opposes the grey in a simplified representation of the man’s interiority; the stark contrast of his nonchalance and brooding sadness. I look at the white plaque besides the painting: The Arab, Alice Neel, 1976.
Alice Neel stubbornly pursued a career as a figurative realist painter in the age of modernism. While she painted still-lives, landscapes, and genre scenes, her favorite subject-matter was people. Not receiving any acclaim until she was well into her seventies, she did not paint for any monetary gain; her art was democratic in nature. It was first and foremost a personal endeavor, and Neel described herself as a ‘collector of souls,’ using art as a way to better connect with the people around her. Her home itself was a gallery of unbought portraits. She painted in three principle phases: her earliest paintings were of the Left-wing artists and political activists in Greenwich Village, then the residents of the Spanish Harlem, and finally the New York artworld, marked by the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s.
Neel painted people because she found them interesting. Her main focus was bringing out their psychology in her portraits, much like Van Gogh in his painting of Dr. Gachet. A portrait by Alice Neel is a snapshot of her subject’s thoughts and interiority at a moment in time. Be it a family member, a celebrity, or a complete stranger in the New York Harlem, each portrait embodies a profound sense of intimacy, showing the subject through Neel’s eyes. She called herself a ‘psychiatrist,’ and looking at The Arab long enough, that’s exactly how I feel. Given the time to examine all the aspects of the painting, you begin to interpret the subject’s mannerisms in a way that you could not in real life, where staring at someone too long is a great offense. However, Neel’s emphasis on psychology is just a piece of a larger purpose, because according to her, ‘every person is a new universe unique with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by’ – her portraits serve as a reflection of a moment in time, be it historical, social, or political.
An awareness of being observed is clear in the expression and pose of The Arab. Sittings with Alice Neel often lasted over three hours, and boredom could not have been uncommon, visible here in The Arab’s distracted expression and careless arm swinging off the chair. His foot is turned away from us, peeking out of the frame, impatience to leave. Neel was not concerned with physical setting, but with the manner in which the figure occupied pictorial space. Digging deeper then, beyond weariness, and studying the subject’s body language, we can notice a contrast here between confidence and insecurity.
My first encounter with Alice Neel’s The Arab was laced with curiosity. How could a man be at once so open and so closed? By letting her subjects choose their own pose, Neel gave them room to live in her paintings. Thus, his psyche also shines through his bipolar stance: one arm relaxed, one brow furrowed, shirt open, legs closed. In a public context, these details would have gone unnoticed, but because of the nature of the painted portrait, I sat for over thirty minutes gradually getting past the wall of apparent confidence The Arab was projecting.
I then began to notice the cobalt blue lining his silhouette, in his hair and clothes, like a ghost of his inner melancholy. It was a conscious decision on the part of Alice Neel to show how this projected confidence was tinged with inner sadness. Judging by his clothing choices (fashionable boot-cut jeans and bomber jacket), The Arab was very much aware of his appearance. In a “boys don’t cry, man up!” world of hegemonic masculinity, where men were expected to interiorize their emotions, it is only natural to find these same behaviors in The Arab, a reflection of his time.
The most emphasized parts of the painting are his hands and feet, holding a proportional importance, where colors are layered in a mix of blue, green and beige. According to Neel, ‘the head contains most of the senses. You feel all over, but you hear, see, smell and taste with the head. You also think with the head. It’s the center of the universe, really….’ The head and hands are the nucleus of feeling and of human communication. We could also think of the tradition of caricature that recognized that the best way to show an emotion was by exaggerating facial expressions. In this sense, Alice Neel’s portraits are a sort of metaphor for the sitter’s character. The Arab’s is one of hidden vulnerability completely exposed to the viewer, which in turn creates an undeniable intimacy.
The lines in Neel’s painting are fleeting, sketch-like, a rushed psychological snapshot of the subject – who is in himself the echo of an era. She said herself at Moore College of Art in 1971, ‘people’s images reflect the era in a way that nothing else could.’ The 19th century German philosophical concept of Zeitgeist is relevant here, as it refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch, the ‘spirit of the age,’ if you will. This is exactly what each of Alice Neel’s portraits are, a little piece of an era, because to her, identity was inseparable from the public realms of occupation and class. What does The Arab tell us about America in the 1970s? Neel chose to paint minorities because to her, American culture could no longer be defined as white middle class, but could there be political implications here as well?
In our analysis of Alice Neel’s The Arab, it is key to recall the representation of Arabs in the second half of the twentieth century. Just three years prior to the execution of this painting, the heavily mediatized Yom Kippur War, or 1973 Arab-Israeli war, was fought for almost a month. During this time, and all throughout the twentieth century, Arabs were vilified and portrayed extremely negatively as the ‘enemy,’ in movies like A Son of the Sahara (1924), or even Aladdin (1992), that enforce cultural stereotypes of Arabs from black and white Hollywood movies; belly dancers, sabers, camels and all. However, the most relevant example of this must be John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, released just a year after The Arab was painted. In this motion picture narrating the determent of a terrorist attack by the group Black Sunday, Arabs are dehumanized and assimilated to Grinch who ‘stole Christmas’ as they try to wreak havoc on the Super Bowl, an American tradition.
It is in this socio-political context that Alice Neel created The Arab, fully aware of the connotations of titling the portrait this way. This marks an interesting paradox: while at first glance he is just another one of Neel’s sitters, the title of the painting defines him by his race; Neel wants us to be aware that he is Arab. The first effect this has is that it places The Arab on the same level as her other sitters – though Arabs are vilified in American media and seen as enemies, to Neel they are people, just like any other minority in America. He is victim to the same emotions, the same insecurities as the viewer, who finds himself face to face with a peer; we are on the same level. Because he is ultimately a painting on a canvas, I can stare at him as long as I want without offending anyone, and slowly the prejudices of society fade when I begin to look at body language, and realize he is uncomfortable, just as anyone would be if they were scrutinized for hours at a time.
However, we cannot force a political narrative on Alice Neel’s paintings. While she spoke openly about including African American and Hispanic minorities in her portrait gallery, she has never made any reference to Arabs. Perhaps it was just a missing piece to her pictorial anthology of Zeitgeist portraits, a minority she had no yet painted. Or it was simply a friend or acquaintance she found interesting who insisted she title the painting thus. Sadly, there are no records available on this often-overlooked painting that immediately caught my eye in the Cantor art collection of Stanford.
When looking into The Arab’s eyes, echoes of a conflicted soul, it is clear that intimacy is key in the effect of the painting. It serves two purposes, and the first is to create a relationship between the sitter and the viewer, where The Arab’s psyche gradually reveals itself to us. This is what makes the painting a metaphor of the subject’s character; without this connection with The Arab I would not have been compelled to look at him for as long as I did, or want to understand him thus. The second purpose is political – through this connection, we become open to the potential message Alice Neel wishes to convey. The Arab is an equal, and suddenly we find ourselves questioning Arab stereotypes in the media.
However, while intimacy is absolutely key in The Arab, it is perhaps not used with the same objectives or even used at all in Art. Often, it will serve themes such as love or identity, and even just in the genre of portraiture, intimacy could ruin the effect of majesty and command commissioned by a king. Thus, it is important to remain aware of intimacy in Art and what effect it has on us as individuals experiencing it. While it is not always necessary, it is interesting to consider its purpose in a certain context.
The Narrator: the Actual Voice in Children’s Literature
The narrator, a voice that conveys a story is if not just important in children’s literature can be considered one of the most integral subjects which in many ways is at par with children themselves. Children’s literature is in itself a controversial genre of literature, much like some others where one is concerned with the intentions of the author; the one who writes, the reader; the one who reads, the narrator; the one whose voice is heard and the listener; the child or maybe another audience. Furthermore, it is also inevitably required to understand the texts of children’s literature— ‘…is children’s literature texts designed especially for children, or (ones that are) read only by them…’ to this question that Grenby raised in The Origins of Children’s Literature I would hope to include the presence of the narrator, the internal voice in the story (author) and the other narrator who is the external voice in the story (the actual narrator). When I just say the narrator, I mean the person who is reading out the story. Through this paper I will expand on— ‘the internal and the external narrator’s role in eliciting a response from the adults and also from the children in how they consume it.’ This will explore the understanding of the author, the narrator and the addressee in how they perceive the text as something that makes this genre of literature unique.
Wall explains in his book The Narrators Voice: The Dilemma of children’s Literature of Children’s Fiction as a children’s book is ‘not what is said, but the way it is said and to whom it is said’ (Wall 3) which is the biggest question of all, which is the target audience— children and in many cases young adults and even adults themselves. The relationship between the narrator and the child in the retelling of the story not only gives the reader more agency in how the narration takes place to shape not only the understanding of the text to the child but also delves into the meaning of the story for the adult who is most likely the narrator. Often times in children’s stories, there may be a dual narrator. The one in the text who tells the story of the characters- “Once upon a time there was a…” and the second narrator or the author who is the addressor gives the story and the written narrator a voice, the adult—parent, teacher etc. This narrator, an external being away from the story can be equated as a secondary author because of his or her ability in modifying the text to their capacity and in invoking prejudice to the characters and most importantly in their capability of vocalizing the text and manipulating it.
In a book that you read to others, it becomes that the retelling may have your own version of certain events. This is such that there is a cause for manipulation based on what the narrator may deem right. Authors when writing a book for children make sure to understand the duality of readership where her or she may not tell the whole truth which could be understood by the adult reader. When an adult is reading to the child, he or she has the full agency to give a character more depth or even less depth and give another character none at all. Although the essence of the story written by the author would not be subject to change, one can expect that there will be a certain lack or abundance of immersion that may or may not be intended by the author. The question that could arise at this juxtaposition is—do authors write children’s books knowing there is an adult or a narrator who understands the book in which case, does he intend to write to the child through the narrator?
In children’s literature, the written narrator or whom we can conveniently call the “author” has imbued the story within himself or herself such that they are a part of the story—as something of an external character that watches over the other characters. His or her job is reciting the story that is subsequently to be told. Although they are very much a part of the story they can tell us nothing about the story other than them being a subject that was present with only the ability to recite the events. His voice is in the hand of the external narrator who is the means of communication for the author of the story. He provides a framework or a skeleton by creating a design that is dependent on the retelling. The idea of the author can unconsciously shape the narrative of the story and the narrator or the reader can consciously shape the narrative of the story. What is the role of the author in children’s literature? Is he just one who is to give the story an idea or to give an idea a story?
Unfortunately, as we understand it, in children’s literature unlike adult literature, the role of the narrator triumphs the role of the author. As I have enunciated in the previous paragraph, the narrator has the ability to change the characters and the story. He has the ability to leave some parts of the story out and the ability to add more content to it as well. Is the child expected to understand what the author idea and inspiration may have been? Or even if the understanding of the author as a person. When a child says, “Daddy/ Mommy, tell me a story” and when the adult proceeds to read from a book—the adult is then being the narrator who is in control of the story and to the child, the parent or the adult is more or less the author to them. While the author writes his or her story from within the story, he or she doesn’t exactly expect the story to be intended for a particular section of the population and in this case, the children. Their intention, I would argue is to not provide the readership to just children but to expand the readership to adults as well or, as it has sometimes always been. This, though has many inlaid assumptions which would argue that children’s literature is almost patronizing in the way the story conveys the text as a lesson in most cases although, this form of writing or idea isn’t blatantly put out by the author themselves, the subtle shade of unconscious dwelling of this tone is provided, not only by the author but also by the narrator.
C.S Lewis and Roald Dahl authors of many well-known pieces of children’s literature have written stories that form an opinion between the narrator and the child as a reassuring figure who focuses on just children as their audience, with their often patronizing and almost superior tone. Dahl in Matilda often says, “I will”, “I might”, “I could”, “I insist” as a third person in the narrative which could insinuate the author trying to write down to the reader—be it the child or the narrator. Authors like J.M Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, on the other hand, wrote to multiple audiences through the same texts. He writes to children in a childish manner something like, “all the world is made of faith, trust, and pixie dust” and at often times, it would seem like he is narrating to an adult reader when he said something like, “And thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless”—referring to the children as an external being, not something that would include themselves, adults. When Barrie, talks about the white men and the redskin who attacks in Peter Pan, explains with a sophistication about the ‘savage warfare’ (Barrie 149) that one cannot expect a child to comprehend. This is where the relationship between the narrator and the child can be brought out. The manipulation of the text by the narrator using the words of the author brings out the intimate and intricate relationship the child will possess to have with the reader.
The books, an instrument used by the narrator is a tool which he uses to invoke a moral conscience on the child. The author of a work of children’s literature is more likely to write a piece of work where the internal voice in the story can be easily relatable for the external narrator or reader. He or she would strive to create a relationship with the narrator to delve into the text more, for a better understanding, not only for the narrator but for the listener and child himself. Because an author can never understand if a child would understand a certain text and that is the where the narrator mediates. However, when a child has reached the point of being able to read the books on his own he will position himself or herself as the reader wherein he is able to formulate the text on his own. For the purpose of this paper, I have expressed the close connected relationships of the author, narrator and the child. It was most often always the narrator who could invoke any kind of empathy in both adults themselves and children. The narrator also observes the child’s views and then manipulates the text according to it. He or she may also express his or her own views while narrating the story such that it often becomes a part of the narration. The external voice of the story, through the narration, allows itself to look back and analyze the text from a more adult perspective and also helps him/her look into their own childhood through the child.
What I hoped to have brought out through this paper, is that an adult can never read as a child and his or her opinion on children’s literature should be considered irrelevant. The question that would need further exploration then is who decides what is relevant to a child? Is it not inevitable that the parent is the decider in what their child reads or what is read to them? The relationship of the author with the narrator and the audience also proves to be a questionable one. The author/writer who writes for the child has a more understanding relationship with the narrator rather than the child because of his or her dependence on the narrator or the adult in reading the book out to the child, in explaining the themes and the ideas expressed by the adult in a manner that would be understandable to the child. The relationship between the three relies simply on one’s dependence on the narrator—the author on the narrator and the child on the narrator. For it is his or her voice, the narrator’s insight into the text that gives it meaning which makes him the actual voice in children’s literature.
The Age of Awakening
Revelations, hardships, worldly experiences and a difficult search for one’s identity. Such are the conventions of the coming-of-age genre. Which aims to focus on the psychological and moral growth of a novel’s protagonist from youth through to adulthood. By analyzing Call me by your name (André Aciman) and Oranges are not the only fruit (Jeanette Winterson) the themes of relationships, religion, identity, sexual expression and sexual orientation the elements of the Coming-of-age genre will be examined.
The first person narrative technique of Oranges are not the only fruit allows for readers to assess the inner workings of Jeanette, the protagonist’s mind, her experiences, her opinions and track her growth as she is explored in greater detail than any other character. In this novel other characters act to support the main character and enrich her journey. However Oranges are the only fruit makes use of the second and third person narrative. Jeanette often understands conflict in her life through her often comical retelling or referencing fables, biblical tales and fictional stories (ie Jane Eyre). She does so in the third person. Jeanette uses the second person to address the readers a number of times. Thus the structure of the novel moves mostly chronologically but with scattered flashbacks and fictional stories throughout. As opposed to Call me by your name which strictly uses the first person narrative technique as Elio, the protagonist sequentially recalls the events of the summer of 1987. Both novels make use of this narrative technique as the main form of narration. This technique effectively guides the reader along the characters respective journeys of self discovery and creates a sincere relationship between the speaker and the reader. Thus proving to be a very beneficial tool in connecting readers to characters in the coming-of-age genre.
Jeanette as a character As previously stipulated, the supporting characters in Oranges are not the only fruit are rather flat. Although they do play major roles in Jeanette’s formative years and her overall attitude to life they are not as fully delved into. Jeanette’s mother is a religious fanatic and acts as the constant reenforer of Christianity in Jeanette’s life. Which was a considerably large part of Jeanette’s life and constituted many of her opinions, mannerisms and actions in her youth. An example of her putting the Lord before anything would be when Jeanette said, “I love you almost as much as I love the Lord.” to Melanie. Other characters like her apathetic father who isn’t present for much of the novel and Melanie, her first (lesbian) lover are shown to not love Jeanette as much as she loves them. Such experiences encourage Jeanette to journey further on her quest of self appreciation and acceptance.
The same cannot be said about the characterization in Call me by your name. Understandably Elio Perlman is the most established of all the characters. He comes across as a very cultured and inquisitive teenage boy. As Elio becomes increasingly infatuated with Oliver an older more mature character readers simultaneously get a look at his repressed intimate nature. Which Oliver prompts him explore throughout the novel through their relationship. Elio is blossoming with desire and passion: “Do with me what you want. Just ask if I want and see the answer you’ll get, Just don’t let me say no” and insecure “I tried imitating him a few times but i was too self-conscious. Like someone trying to feel natural while walking about naked in a locker room only to end up aroused by his own nakedness” [Part 1], when it comes to accepting his feelings for Oliver, his first male love-interest. He is very timid “Why wouldn’t I show him how like butter I was? Because I was afraid of what might happen then? Or was I afraid he’d laugh at me? Told everyone or ignored the whole thing on the pretense that I was too young to know what I was doing” [Part 1]. Elio also proves to be very impressionable: “The summer I learned to love fishing. Because he did. To love jogging. Because he did. To love octopus, Heraclitus, Tristan.” Inquisitivity and insecurity are common attributes of these the main characters and are often explored in coming-of-age stories.
Along with those common personality traits there are common themes which are used to explore the genre of coming-of-age. In both novels the themes of sexuality (orientation and expression), religion (how it shapes people’s lives and opinions) and family (how family supports or doesn’t support the main characters growth). Religion is used in both novels to push the protagonists closer in the direction of their true selves. In Oranges are not the only fruit Jeanette tackles the notion that hetrosexualilty is a must in the Christian faith. As a young girl brought up in a Northern English church in the 1960’s the church and all its conformities were all she knew and she was shielded from ‘unnatural behaviours’ which were never explicitly spoken of but were constantly alluded to. Conservative Christian views of sexuality in this novel demonstrated by Jeanette’s mother and Pastor pressure Jeanette to find herself and become independent of her family and show how isolated Jeanette is from society as a lesbian such views are exhibited when Jeanette’s mother says “The Devil looks after his own”, in the moment Jeanette is cast out of her home. However in Call me by your name Elio never feels the pressure to be hetrosexual because of his Jewish beliefs. However he does feel isolated from society as a Jew in 1987 Bordighera, Liguria (Italy) but s both Oliver and Elio subscribe to Judaism the religion serves to bond the two rather than divide as it does in Oranges are not the only fruit. Unlike Jeanette all of Elio’s desires are explicitly made known to readers and it apparent that Elio has more freedom to express his sexual fascinations without judgment from religion or family. Which can be credited to the novels descriptive and confessional style.
Each of the novels makes use of fruit to symbolize the emotional state of the protagonist. In Call me by your name Elio pleasures himself with a peach and Oliver devours it after he catches Elio in the act. The peach then comes to symbolize the height of intimacy between the two of them and open themselves up to loving each other, “I simply let myself go, if only to show him something equally private about me as well. I reached for him and muffled my sobs against his shoulder.” The sexual act of one person becomes the moment in which two people are the closest to one another. This symbol appears only once in the novel as opposed to the use of the orange in Oranges are not the only fruit which appears throughout the novel. Oranges represent the lack of emotional support Jeanette recieves particularly from her mother and they act as her comfort. An example of such a situation: “My mother looked horrified and rooting around in her handbag she gave me an orange. I peeled it to comfort myself, and seeing me a little calmer, everyone glanced at one another and went away” [pg 36]. Her mother offers her oranges in time where her emotional support would be better suited as depicted when Jeanette is temporarily deaf in hospital.
“When she couldn’t come herself she sent my father,
usually with a letter and a couple of oranges.
“The only fruit,” she always said”
The authors of these two novels explore the genre of Coming-of-age using the above literary elements very effectively. The first person narrative and chronological capture the finer details of the main characters psychological and emotional growth. The protagonists are complex and although they are very different they share many qualities that are common to characters of the coming-of-age genre. The authors utilize settings to shape the characters opinions. The two novels illustrate the respective journeys and experiences two young people face that are pivotal for their overall self-development.