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Week 12 - "Useless" Beauty --> Useful Literary Adaptations?

Anne Dalke's picture

So .... where are we on the story of literary adaptation? Do you think it is a good scientific story? One that might be useful for thinking about other things as well (including science)?

Your thoughts, on Forster, on Smith, on their evolution and our own, as we move into the wrapping up (or is it an unfolding?) phase of this course?

ttruong's picture

Yes it does exist!

ergg... my post didnt post so here goes....again

I think that there is a reality despite what Professor Grobstein says. reality exists independently of our observations or interpretations. There has to first be a reality for there to be a something for us to perceive. i think objects in teh world have many properties that are not all accessible to us due to limiting our faculties of perception, but this does not mean that reality doesn't exist. reality exists, but we may never see it in its entirety. as of now we only have small windows with obstructed views to complete reality.

Both science and literature endeavor to crystalize or capture reality with language  through words and numbers. They do it in the same way through experimentation and observations, methodology and creativity, and building one previous works of their field's predecessors; they just do it in different styles.

Anne Dalke's picture

?? there a reality?...will this post?...or will i be told that the comment to which i am replying does not exist? is this a hoax?

LS's picture

Adaptive Adaptations

So last week in Grobsteins discussion we talked about adaptations, good ones and bad ones.  In particular we were talking about literary adaptations and the different medias that are used for these adaptations.  We though it might be interesting if this class talked about adaptation of literature through different medias.  The film version of Howard’s End spiked our interest in this but the class didn’t follow through!  In particular we were talking about what makes a good adaptation and what makes a bad adaptation.  We all agreed that Zadie Smith was a bad adaptation but that we did think that there could be good ones.  For example, there are several different interpretations of Hamlet but we all agreed that the Ethan Hawke version was a BAD adaptation!  Yet, the modern adaptation Scotland, PA was an enjoyable good adaptations of Macbeth.  We started talking and we though that perhaps it involved how much was changed from the original and what happened to the main message of the original story.  I think that for an adaptation to be “good” in literature, we like to see big changes, we like to see things drastically changed (lines, setting etc.) but not the main message of the story.  When a story or book is not changed enough it is easy to get caught up in the little details and not focus on the full effect.  When the adaptation is closely married to the original we expect it to be the same and in our class we didn’t quite feel that this was generative, when the change is drastic you are not expecting anything and are pleasantly surprised how the same message is reached or addressed with a different story.

Shayna or Sheness Israel's picture

Good is Just an Agreement

Maybe it is just comforting for our I-function, which like predictability, to have the moral be the same and maybe it is also comforting for the rest of our nervous system, which likes change, to have the lighting or the scenary change. Maybe something is good when it pleases both the I-function and the rest of the nervous system. More plainly--good is just an argreement.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

as i've said in class, i

as i've said in class, i think that a good adaptation departs from the original so that it can be a new work of art, great in its own right. for example vincent minelli's madame bovary from 1949 starring jennifer jones and van heflin invents a scene that does not exist in flaubert's novel. it does this because it is too short to show a slow progression of feelings, so it makes all of the tension that mounts in the book explode at the ball. (the ball scene exists in the book, but charles does not get drunk and embarrass emma, windows aren't broken and she doesn't faint, it's just a typical ball). another great adaptation is "the heiress" from 1939 starring olivia de havilland and montgomery clift.

hayley reed's picture

What makes a successful adaptation?

Like Kristin I was struck by our discussion on Thursday about adaptations. Adapting a text, film, or any other form of media can be very difficult because if a creator stays too close to the original piece they can be criticized for not using their imagination. Adaptations that resemble the original piece are often labeled “boring” and “safe”. But, at the same time, if a creator takes too much liberty in preparation of an adaptation they too can be criticized. An adaptation can go too far in trying to bring imagination to an original work. So, considering all of this where is (and is there) a happy medium?

I tend to think the answer to this question varies from subject to subject but, I am not sure. Speaking from experience, I can say that Matthew Bourne’s all male version of Swan Lake is a good adaptation of the original Swan Lake. This particular ballet uses the same storyline as the original but, the dancers adopt a slightly different attitude.  Nicknamed the “gay Swan Lake” by the British and American press it definitely is a different Swan Lake then I am used to seeing. But, just because it is different does not mean I don’t enjoy Bourne’s interpretation of a classical piece. I don’t think anyone can out due the elegance of the original Swan Lake but, I still fully appreciate this new rendition of Swan Lake. I think a successful adaptation should engage the viewers in a new exciting way but, still remind the viewers of the beauty of the original piece.

LF's picture


In thursday's class we argued about reality. What is reality? How can we define it? and is one reality different from another person's reality even if they experienced the same situation or event? These questions become so confusing that after a while i began to wonder if there was even a point to the discussion. If someone witnessed something in the room yet others did not, does that person experience something different to every one else? I believe that people search too deeply for alternate meanings and perceptions and that this world is a lot more simple than people would like it to be. It is a waste of time to discuss how close to reality humans can come because what we experience is reality and is truth. Each person can percieve "it" in a different way, but they are no closer or further from the truth. It becomes to complicated when so many questions are asked. It seems to me that people search for complications and desire them. Can we not except that while i am writing this posting i am looking at this screen watching the little black letters appear as i type? There is no other reality than that- it is what is really happening!

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

the story of reality

The discussion about reality as a story really intrigued me.  When I think about it, I feel that there are two aspects to discussion, perceived reality, and actual reality.  It seems obvious to me that perceived reality is a story created by whoever is perceiving the reality.  A human’s reality is different from a dog’s, and I feel that its safe to say that one human’s reality even differs from another, and one dog’s reality differs from another.  Each individual perceives a reality different from everyone else for two reasons.  First, no individual has the same experiences, and different experiences change the way one views reality.  Second, the anatomical “machinery” used to convert the actual reality into something perceivable differs from one individual to another.  All humans may have the same general anatomy, but no two humans have the exact same eyes or neural networks.  Ultimately, everyone has their own story of reality.

The notion of different perceptions of reality is straightforward, simple, logical, and an argument in which most would agree.  A discussion about an actual reality is much more theoretical and up for debate.  Many would argue that there is an inherent actual reality that we can never truly experience, but does in fact exist.  Initially, when I began thinking about this I agreed, but the more I think about it, the more unsure I am.  If no organism can truly experience the actual reality, than does the actual reality actually exist?  This is exactly the same as the age old philosophical question: If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  A part of me wants to say it doesn’t, but at the same time a part wants to say it does.  I am torn. 

Although there are aspects of reality that change from individual to individual, such as the way they experience seeing color, or the way they experience hearing something, but there are physical constants that are universal to all, aren’t there?  For example, everyone experiences time in the same manor.  A second to one individual is a second to another, right?  Well, theoretically, it is conceptually possible that one person experiences time differently than another.  Everyone knows what a second is, but that doesn’t me that one’s experience of a second is not different than another’s.  A second to one may be the experiential equivalent to 1.25 seconds of another.  That could explain why some people are better at sports…things just move a little slower for them.   Now this is just a theoretical possibility, and although it may not be correct, I don’t see any evidence that suggests it’s wrong.    

But, at the same time, I feel like there must be some inherent, actual reality, that everyone experiences, but in a different way.  Even if we do experience time differently, I feel that the difference is created at the biological level, not the physical.  The bottom line, however, is that there is no way we will ever know what this inherent, actual reality is, Likewise there is no way to know who’s story of reality is closer to the actual reality, or if we get closer or farther away from reality as we, as a species evolve.   

Here’s an interesting question: if there is an actual reality, and if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is correct, would evolution force our perception of reality closer or further away from actual reality?

Kristin Jenkins's picture

Adaptations in different media

Today's discussion in Grobstein's section really sparked my interest. We discussed adaptation and its meaning in both the biological and literary world. They actually have two very different meanings: In the biological world, adaptation has to do with change and growth, whereas in the literary world, adaptation is more of an homage to another work. This is actually how Smith defines her book, as an homage to Howard's End. We then discussed the various ways in which works in the literary world can be adapted. The first piece that came to my mind was Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story is an adaptation in play form, Franco Zeffirelli made a movie in 1968, and Baz Luhrmann made a completely different movie in 1996 (there are of course many more adaptations of this play, but these are the first three that came to my mind). Each of these adaptations are fascinating on their own and in their relation to the original works. Luhrmann's adaptation is actually one of my very favorite movies, solely because he makes an adaptation using all of the original speech from Shakespeare's play, yet inserts this speech into modern times with modern people, places, and situations. Innovative? Definetly. Generative? I think so. I think this is a novel idea in which one can express oneself through a ceratin type of language that doesn't neccessarily bridge the ages (I mean, I wouldn't come up to your window asking "Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou....") and place it in a genre in which today's generation can identify with. I would have to agree with some of the ladies in our section when they say that the second half of this class could have dealt with evolution and adaptations in the artistic world as a whole rather than just having dealt with these two particular books.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

i don't think that it's

i don't think that it's appropriate to say that a novel based on another novel, an adaptation, is evolution. evolution is a process that occurs over millenia and refers observations about a scientific process. with a literary adaptation, though, a single author chooses to create a new book and he or she is inspired by an older one. this is a single decision, this is an author's reponse, so it can't be an evolution.

cevans's picture

if you try and make

if you try and make litereary evolution the exact same as biological evolution of course they aren't the same thing but I think it might be a little harsh to say adaptations are absolutely not evolutions of the original work. The way I think about it an adaptation is the same general framework after it has been exposed to different selection pressures, whether they be the preferences of the author, the society, or the publisher. i don't know if you can really say that any book being written is a single decision, its more like an accumulation of decisions. So although it may be on a more personal scale, and a much shorter time frame an adaptation is the evolution of one work into another through the pressures of its new 'environment'. I think this is the word thing because adaptation IS NOT biological evolution. There are however similarities in the concepts, the problem comes from the fact that evolution really is a loaded word.

azambetti's picture

Evolving Stories

Both scientific journals and literature have a similar objective and theme.  Both try to grab their readers’ attention by discussing one place and time that the authors themselves are intrigued by.  Evolution is prevalent in both and, eventually, a conclusion concerning the particular evolution must be written to satisfy the taste of their readers.  Scientific journals typically discuss the importance of a particular organism (usually an animal or plant) in its natural environment and investigate a variety of possibilities to how that organism evolved or has lived, which ends with the most logical of suspected conclusions.  This is not very different from literature, where a reader is acquainted with a number of different characters, who, over the course of the book, emotionally and physically evolve, culminating at the conclusion.

Andrea Zambetti

J Shafagh's picture

The fundamental difference I

The fundamental difference I see between biological evolution and the evolution of stories is that with biological evolution, we can legitimately get things less wrong and perfect our story, but with the evolution of stories, (which are still up to more interpretations than one), we are not necessarily getting it less wrong, rather than adapting stories or changing them.  In literature, I feel like there is never a right answer, and it annoys me.  I said this in the beginning of the course and I still feel this way.....that with science, I feel more secure because I actually feel like there is more evidence that backs it up and I feel like I am getting things less wrong.  With literature, I feel like it can be interpreted in billions of different ways and never know what the author intended to mean (or if the author themselves knew what they were actually getting at).  So, essentially, I believe the processes of evolution is applied a bit differently under the two circumstances!

Jenn Dodwell's picture

on the power of vocabulary....

It goes without saying that biological evolution is different from other types of evolution.  That having been said, when it comes time to articulate this difference, what seems to end up happening is that in the act of explaining the difference, more similarities seem to emerge between the two than differences.  This perplexes me: How is possible to talk oneself out of such a strong intuition?

 I think that Evan makes a really interesting distinction between literary trends and biological evolution.  As he says, trends come and go, whereas biological traits evolve on an irreversible continuum.  Is there such a thing as literary evolution?  Or is it really just about trends?

I think that Katie's idea fits in well here too.  As Katie says, humans have the power to invent literature; every piece of literature we read is a human creation, and every concept in literature has emerged as a result of writers' decisions to deal with those concepts.  I think this is a key difference between biological evolution and literary evolution: the process of biological evolution is something that is completely beyond human control. 

Which brings me to ekorn's point--that in the process of evolution, it is the original evolutionary source that provides the most insight into every adaptation of that source that comes after it.  Is this the case with the two terms: biological and let's say, linguistic evolution?  The idea of biological evolution (I think) came first before other types of evolution were considered, and therefore it is biological evolution that provides the discourse for other types of evolution.  If we didn't have an understanding of and a vocabulary for discussing biological evolution, we would not have an understanding of or a vocabulary for discussing any other type of evolution.

So then, is the reason why it's hard to articulate the difference between biological and other types  of evolution because there is only one discourse for evolution--the original, which is biological evolution?  It is the case that whenever we attempt to distinguish between biological and other types of evolution it is difficult because there is no vocabulary by which we can effectively do so?

ekorn's picture


Though I do believe that stories can evolve, I think that no matter what path that evolution takes we must always look back to the original story to have a fundamental understanding of the story.  A story-teller can tell the same story in 500 different ways, but I believe it is the first story that holds the most meaning, for it has not gone the any processes of modification…it has not yet evolved.  It is the original story too that will outlive the others ultimately (we do this in the biological world as well, searching for our most remote ancestors to learn something more about ourselves).  It is for this very reason that I believe that Forster’s story will last longer than Smith’s.  Though they are different stories, similar themes and characters are apparent within Smith’s story relating to Forster’s.  Her story has in fact evolved from Forster’s, so that the modern version of his story is apparent in her novel.  I think that years from now, readers will tend to look for the story-teller who produced the first story, rather than the second, because it is here in the second that the meaning of the story becomes altered and to some degree lost. Maybe literary adaptations are not useful at all in the long run, but only to contemporize a story that has already been told.

Shannon's picture

Tracing stories...

I agree with you, Emily, that we must trace back to the origin of a story to completely understand its evolution. I do believe though that a story's significance is different for every individual (in response to your comment, "I believe it is the first story that holds the most meaning, for it has not gone the any processes of modification…it has not yet evolved"). I don't think the first story will always be the most significant -- have you ever played "Whisper Down the Lane"?

This game is a perfect example of how stories can be twisted & conformed over a short amount of time... where the meaning of each story may change regarding its interpretation as people hear different things "down the lane". But which story is the "correct" one bearing all the importance... the initial story or the story someone heard from the person in the line before him?

Technically, the initial story is the one that everyone should have heard, but the evolution of stories does not always follow this plan. Another example --the stories by Homer had been changed a million times by word of mouth before anyone documented them in books. Hearing a variation of a story (its evolution) allows for new meanings to arise and be generative...

J Shafagh's picture

Evolution of Stories..

I like where this discussion is going.  I definitely believe that stories also evolve, but again, I don't necessarily thinik that the original story or framework from which it was made is necessarily the most significant, or that reading the first makes the second any more easy to understand/comprehend or appreciate.  Every story, no matter what, stems from the writer's intellectual pursuits, from their life experience, or from ideas stemming from any conversation, life story, or other work of literature.  So in a sense, knowing the original story isn't that important, for the evolved story can make sense in its own context....and as life evolves itself, the same principles, themes and topics can have a new meaning and be viewed in a new light.  So, that said, I don't think it was necessary to read Howard's End before On Beauty.

Christina Cunnane's picture

It's just a timing thing...

I'm kinda maybe beginning to see the connection with evolving stories and evolving biological processes. I see it as a time frame sort of thing. On Beauty came out during a time period when the content of the book would make sense. We are struggling with the issues that her book addresses, especially race, today. It has evolved to the right thing because of it's time, and has therefore survived. I think if Smith hadn't changed as much as she had, like only flopped the gender of the characters, the story wouldn't make sense in modern times. People wouldn't relate to the time period and it would be an evolutionary failure. Howard's End was a success because it too was appropriate for it's time and audience. Biological evolution is a timing thing also. Humans wouldn't have survived if we evolved in the early oxygen-lacking atmosphere.

I'm still having a hard time saying that literary and biological evolution are exactly the same. I can't see the randomness in literature that biological evolution has. Maybe it doesn't have to be there. Literature and art are not organisms, so maybe they don't evolve exactly like them. Maybe the processes of evolution are different for each medium, but they still occur.

kaleigh19's picture

Also maybe a topic thing?

I'm in the final stages of drafting my thesis, which looks at late Roman theory of rhetoric - the act of speechmaking. According to Cicero and Quintilian (two ancient rhetorical authorities), the first step in delivering an effective speech is finding a topic on which to speak. This process is called inventio, literally "invention," which comes from the Latin verb invenire meaning both "to invent" in the sense of inventing something new but also "to find or discover." A good orator, in the inventio stage, draws from loci communes, or commonplaces, to find his topics. These commonplaces are more or less stock situations that an orator can elaborate or manipulate to suit his purpose. For example, if someone is speaking in defense of a man's murder of his wife because she cheated on him (actually legal in ancient Rome - egads!), a commonplace that the speaker might start with would be the importance of fidelity in marriage.

I think what people are picking up on is that the act of writing is an act of inventio - for example, Smith uses Forster as a source of commonplaces, like class issues or female tolerance of infidelity in marriage, which she then manipulates and elaborates to suit her own purposes. She also draws from a whole slew of commonplaces not expressed in Forster - e.g. art, beauty, intellectualism, etc., and these commonplaces become themes or motifs that she traces throughout On Beauty.

It seems to me that this is pretty closely tied with biological evolution. Commonplaces are preexisting genes, some of which are viable, and some of which are not. Invention is a combination of gene expression and gene mutation. The net result of commonplaces and invention, or genes, mutations, and expressions, are works of literature or species of organisms (obviously the question of agency or control is potentially problematic). Because success of literature is limited to cultural reception and species viability limited to environmental factors, and no work or organism can ever be truly perfect, the only hope can, indeed, be to "fail better."

Katie Baratz

danYell's picture


Race is certainly a large element of Smith’s, On Beauty. But rather that distinguish between the so-called races I think Smith is using this text to illustrate that there are many ways of being, regardless of race, that have more to do with class standing. The perception of what race is has changed over time, and today we know that using race as a signifier of other elements of personhood is inutile. I think Smith is playing with this idea. Levi is discovering himself, and in the process he questions his black icons, and the way in which he thinks about blackness, his own and others. Kiki plays with her identity a number of times. She uses her girth and her way of speaking to project a certain image. Does this image that she projects line up with the individual within? It is her way of adapting to changing environments. This process of personal evolution and adaptation is offset by the change in society between Forsters England and modern New England. I would argue that when it comes to blackness not much has changed in essence. Forster romanticizes Africa, while Smith romanticizes blackness, though Forster was somewhat unaware of what he was doing and Smith is well aware and toying with our ideas of identity formation and perception.

We discussed that one way in which On Beauty is different from Howards End is that On Beauty does not leave any thing to the next generation. There is no illegitimate child of a Bast to inherit the University. I do think though that there is something to be said for the mixed race individual that is inheriting the racially divisive society of her or his parents. While the Bast baby, the mixture of the classes, is inheriting all riches of England, Kiki’s children, the mixture of nations and ‘races’ is inheriting the university, the analytics, and hopefully a bit of the beauty of their parents.

As for its generativity, I find On Beauty to be even more generative for me than Howards end. When I leave the text I can still see the characters walking around and talking. They are alive for me, and in my mind I can generate more stories about them.


evanstiegel's picture

I am interested in the

I am interested in the difference between some literary adaptation as a story of evolution and literary "trends".  Forster deals with class issues and Smith deals with race issues.  Each author chose their topic based on what was pertinent at that time in their societies.  Today, race issues have been popular because racism is being talked about more and more as opposed to being ignored.  In several years, another issue maybe a hot topic in our society and that time period's literature will reflect that issue.  Therefore, I think that race issues in contemporary literature is a trend rather than an evolved form.  In the future, class issues may be of greater concern as our middle class has been disappearing and the gap between the poor and wealthy has been drastically increasing.  This means that what is prevalent and written about in our society will have come back which goes against scientific evolutionary patterns as traits usually do not come and go.



marquisedemerteuil's picture


i think what you've put forward is too simple -- smith deals with class issues, too. most wellington professors are upper middle class, or middle class, howard has a big house but an unstable financial situation, the trinidadians are very poor and suffer from the difficulties of life in their situation, the kipps' are rather rich, and this all has significance in the novel. class boundaries today are more blurred, and smith's novel reflects that, but smith goes into detail describe the middle class town of wellington so she is focusing more on one or two classes than describing many.

hayley reed's picture

class mobility a real struggle

 This weekend I was going over some of the parts of “On Beauty” that I found interesting and came across a quote that I found particularly relevant to a recent trend I have observed. In a discussion with Kiki Monty says that, “Opportunity is a right-but it is not a gift. Rights are earned. And opportunity must come through the proper channels. Otherwise the system is radically devalued.” In principle, I agree 100% with what Monty says. I don’t think opportunities should be considered a free for all and I believe people should have to work hard to gain respect and rights. But… having said this, I have come to realize that America’s middle class is growing smaller and smaller. In practice Monty’s theory on class does not work. The idea of the middle class has always been apart of the American dream but, today the middle class is really struggling. Today it is not enough to play by the rules and work hard. It is not necessarily true that I will find financial security and rise above my parent’s socio-economic class by solely relying on my work ethic. I would agree with Monty that rights are earned but, I think to a certain extent opportunities are inherited as gifts. When the top 10 % of Americans collect almost half of the total gross income in this country it seems apparent to me that something is not right.

rebeccafarber's picture

Zadie Smith's work and our

Zadie Smith's work and our analysis of it in class has made me consider the repurcussions of being an academic as Smith puts it. Immersed in the realm of textbooks, scholarly journals, and papers, according to Smith, academics are seeking meaning that does not exist, yearning to put their name on a new idea that is the illegitimate spawn of the original and functional thought.
I am bothered by how quick Smith is to assume that academia is a permanent field of creating stories that do not belong. I see reasons why academia should persist and do not understand how can Smith assume that everyone is as (and these next few points are debateable and certainly subjective..) poignant as she is, as capable as she is in forming a story, and as equipped to understand the changing world without this education she so greatly condemns? Certainly Smith does not want to see the population refuse to go to class and learn the basics, but it is my understanding that her perception is that those in the field of academia spend simply too much time and effort devoted to picking apart what should just be left untouched. Perhaps Smith's message is that these academics do not leave well enough alone, but rather attempt to create stories and meaning beyond what is there. This presumptuous practice causes Smith to discount the work of academics, yet I think Smith is just as presumptuous to do so.

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Generative Literature

I find myself considering a subject we discussed previously in class, whether or not Zadie Smith’s On Beauty could ever be as generative as Forster’s Howards End, or for that matter generative at all.  It seemed pretty unanimous in class that Smith’s work would not have the staying power of Forster’s, but the reason behind this fact is difficult to articulate.  Both works are grounded significantly in the times they describe, however, Howard’s End seems to transcend the trappings of culture to deal with larger themes.  Smith also deals with larger themes, but those she chooses to handle, the downfall of academia, the importance of beauty and the subconscious seem more tied to modern intellectual concerns than Forster’s critique of intellectualism, practicality and class.  It seems the most universally relevant theme in Smith’s work regards questions of race in modern society, but this alone does not make her work stand out as one that will withstand the passage of time.  Perhaps the mark of a great work of literature is not an attempt to “fail better” as Smith suggests, but the ability to withstand the passage of time while remaining relevant and generative.  In this way, the life cycles of literature are highly evolutionary.  A work’s survival may depend upon its ability to generate new ideas, while still remaining viable in its original form.

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Brooks' problem

Scanning through Sunday’s paper, I too was excited to find yet another article that related to this class.  This time it was David Brooks’ op-ed piece, “The Age of Darwin.”  However, after reading the column, my initial excitement quickly faded.  His initial point, “Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere,” is very observant.  In fact, after discussing and connecting evolution in our class for almost an entire semester, I feel that Brooks’ statement is actually very reflective of my own personal awakening to the dominate presence that the topic of evolution holds in our modern world.  And yet from the conversations in class, I cannot help but be skeptical about nearly every subsequent claim Brooks makes concerning the process of evolution.  In his praise of evolution, Brooks’ proclaims that evolution, “holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.”  This argument seems not only overly simplified, it simply does not hold up to either biological or anthropological reasoning.  Having just read the book, “Unnatural Emotions” by Catherine Lutz, I feel that Brooks’ equating of “emotion” as simply a trait is just false.  And biologists would agree.  The fact of the matter is, emotion is socially constructed.  And not only that, in biological evolution, only the genetic components of variation can have true evolutionary consequence.  Again, in his claim that, “nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival,” I wonder what he means with his use of the word “things”.  Populations?  Individuals? It makes a difference.  While trying to write a short sweet piece on the “grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history,” Brooks further complicates the “meaning” of evolution and provides his readers with misleading examples to explain the significance of evolution in our current society.  

I.W.'s picture

Fear and Love

In class and discussion we keep coming back to the critique of Smith using a 400 plus page novel as a means by which to get across her anti-academia message, but personally I don’t see any hypocrisy in doing so.  In my view Smith is not arguing that we should not read novels, she is instead arguing against the way in which academics tend to over analyze things to the point of removing any real life from them.  Through his intense lectures on beauty Howard is draining the enjoyment out of works of art that were meant to inspire.  Smith gives no indication that she disapproves of the works of arts and bodies of literature that the academics are destroying with their analysis.  Furthermore if she has any issue with novels themselves then why would she make her living by writing them? 

            Also I have been thinking about how limiting I feel it is that we have begun classifying everything as narrative or non-narrative and assigning words like lyric, static, or evolving into either of the two categories. Whenever people start to classify life into just two categories it always reminds me of the scene in Donnie Darko when the teacher asks the students to classify the moviations of actions as being rooted in either fear or love. 


Donnie: Life isn't that simple. I mean who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.

Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.

Donnie: Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here. Like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can't just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else!

Katherine Redford's picture

Smith's evolved species reflects our social evolution.

The differences between Howard's End and On Beauty are numerous.  While initially I was annoyed with Smith's calling her novel a hommage to Forster, as I read on, I began to understand that this was not the plot copy I initially thought it to be.  She is applying the timeless themes from Howard's End and applying them to the modern era.  Smith's novel appears to me, to be much more complex than Forster's.  This is not to say that Smith is not more clever, but rather, that our modern society contains many more conflicts than the society in which Forster's novel was written.  While Forster's novel deals mostly with social classes, perhaps just touching on the issues of gender and nationality, Smith goes in depth with these themes and more, especially race.

Another one of the more interesting themes I found in Smith's novel was the role of religion.  It is a common question, "what role does religion play in today's society?".  It is not an easy question to answer.  The article above makes a good point, in a nation where almost anything is possible, is it logical to believe in God?   While Howard refuses to change his ways, he is staunchly against religion throughout the novel, mocking it as well as becoming angry toward it.  But if it is as hindering as some believe it to be, where is Howard's actions coming from?

 Still thinking..

Anne Dalke's picture

a newish grand narrative evolves?

And now (surprise!) two relevant pieces from The New York Times today:

David Brooks has a piece on "The Age of Darwin," which both resembles-and-doesn't the sorts of stories we've been describing here:

"these days, historians hate..unifying grand narratives, and the idea that history is a march of isn't even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.... [But] in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us Darwin is everywhere....evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior....the logic of evolution...holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose...nature will not expend energy on things that don't enhance the chance of survival..."

And Laurie Goodstein reports on the evolution of Hispanic immigrants out of religious practice:

"We pray to God when we feel the need to...but when we come here to America we don't feel the need"...."In El Salvador, people went to the church because there's nothing much else to do"...."Migrating to the U.S. means you have the freedom to create your own identity...when people get here they realize that maintaining that pro forma display of religiosity is not essential to doing well"'s strict rule were a hard sell...."People like a superficial religion"....


evanstiegel's picture

In the beginning of this

In the beginning of this course we talked about how evolution is the best summary or story of how we came to be but, yet, it is not necessarily true.  Other stories explaining how we came to be still have the potential of correct.  One of these other stories was the religious idea of creationism.  Now, the subject of interest, as seen in the Laurie Goodstein article is how religion itself is supposedly becoming the victim of natural selection. 

tbarryfigu's picture

The Vestigiality of Religion

Much like the human tail bone or wisdom teeth, it seems that religion has become a vestigial structure, unneccessary for the continuance of human growth and development in this day and age. The article Hispanic immigrants out of religious practice touches on this concept, using data collected from religious census groups to confirm the notion that religion has lost favor in many americanized latino households. I took an interest in this article, as my family seems to contribute to the statistic of long-gone catholic church attenders. However, the true evolution of this development lies with my grandmother, my father, and his siblings.

As a family of plantation workers in Puerto Rico, my grandmother and my grandfather found hope in the sermons of the Catholic church. During a time when food and money were scarsely available, they looked to God to protect them and their children from the hardships they would surely face. If one believed that God would favor them by attending church on a weekly basis, then they were convinced of a better tomorrow. Undoubtedly, my grandmother and her 8 children attended mass every Sunday until she had the opportunity to move to the Bronx, NY in 1950. By this point in her life, she was alone in providing for her family and had to work 7 days a week, including Sundays. When times were hard, she would pray, because God seemed like the only answer in a country where everyone spoke English (something she didnt' understand).  

Christianity alone seemed to be a universal language.

As my father and his siblings grew older, they too faced the burden of daily work, in addition to constant schooling. Church was always held in high regards, but God seemed to become a go-to guy as things fluctuated between bad and worse. As my family gained their foothold in American society, its members began to attend Protestant churches. My father explained to me that Catholic masses seemed to treat God as a burden, whereas Protestantism allowed average every-day people to rejoice in his presence (allowing his family to feel no shame when taking credit for their successes and hard work). Over time, my family assimilated into American culture and religion lost the appeal it had once offered. However, many continue to attend church on a weekely (or, atleast bi-weekly) basis.

 It is my belief that religion is a very large cultural aspect of the totality of latino communities. Though our faith in humanity seems to have outgrown our faith in religion due to the secularity of American ways, our cultural roots dictate that we alone are not responsible for the success we gain. So, we may not always go to church, but we frequently look to God when we alone are out of answers. This is not unique of Latino peoples. In fact, it is my personal opinion that it is simply human nature to look away from oneself in a time of distress, for comfort. Perhaps, as Latino immigrants have continued to prosper in America, we have slowly lost our need to look up. 

J Shafagh's picture


I feel somewhat of a connection here...I mean, I was never raised with any specific religion, although I attended an Episcopalian high school, and so I never needed to pray to any specific God for anything.  That said, I was always spiritual in my own way and believed mostly in myself and the good in other people, and I guess just in the supreme power of the existence of the universe.  But, instead of looking to a certain "God" when in distress, it was the people in my life that I turned to, so I guess my way of life is its own religion...specifically to me, and that religion itself was never existent and a force in my evolutionary existence....!

Julia Smith's picture

Headlong Dance Theater

Last Wednesday I attended a Headlong Dance Theater rehearsal, and the group was working on finding a balance in their improvisational exercises between the abstract and the literal. 

I found that this really identified with our discussion, particularly in Tuesday's class, about the Rothko painting and trying to achieve just a feeling instead of a story. Headlong, I guess, in oppostion to Zadie Smith, wants their audience to feel somewhere inbetween a feeling and a story. They define it as being between a place where you can make perfect sense of what's going on (making a story) and a place where you have no idea what's going on (a feeling). I wonder if this is the true ideal of modern art (and by art I mean the broad spectrum from painting to theater to literature). 

We've talked a lot in class about how Smith's theory that all art should be viewed as a feeling is ironic considering it's the theme of a 450 page novel, but perhaps, because it's a novel stating that we should view art as something static, it really does fall into that middle section that Headlong is trying to achieve in their work. 

I don't really know what to make of that, but that's what I've been thinking about.

marquisedemerteuil's picture


much modern art is, in fact, more analytical than what you've put forth, including rothko.

Student's picture

writing & thinking

I was online, and got to thinking about writing and the translation between thoughts and words spoken versus words typed.  Sometimes it's easier to say things you don't mean- things you wouldn't say face to face- online.  If you wouldn't say them in person though, do you really mean them?  And, from that, how do you know which side of you to go through, to carry out the actions of that particular side.  Is it both sides that make up a person's thoughts, or is one side a more theoretical side- a side where you can think, and things can maybe pan out, maybe don't?  When an author writes, the words are going from his head, to the paper.  They aren't being spoken, told down from one person to the next like stories often were before writing or the printing press, but written, word for word.  It seems to me that some meaning must get lost in this translation- that literary works are maybe limited in worth because of this missing meaning, but maybe when discussing as a literary work, it's implied that these are just the words- that side of the brain, and not the part dealing with what's spoken- with the social ramifications of person to person interactions.  Maybe there aren't two completely different realms of thoughts here.. maybe one is just more socially conscious than the other..

LF's picture

Question of Race

Foresters novel and Smiths novel have much in common but at the same time differ in many ways. The issues concerning class appear in both novels but the issues concerning race are found in "On Beauty". Smith raises the controversial question: How should one act in accordance with one's race? Should we fit in to the stereotype  and if so, what is the stereotype? If we do not, does it mean that we are going against our race and culture? How is the "right" way to behave? Smith takes an intereseting look at different races and the social status within.