Sunday, 18 January 2015

Becoming - Being - Meaning

Finding out one's true identity and becoming who one is meant to be have been important themes in literature from all times and places. Please re-read Skaay's myth about the Sapsucker (which was told and transcribed in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii in 1900) and compare it to Franz Kafka's Parable "Before the Law" (written in Prague in 1915). With how many different symbolic interpretations of the two texts can you (individually and/or collectively) come up? And which of these readings seems the most meaningful to you?
Link to the English translation of Kafka's text:

Please feel free to write a symbolic poem or story that defines identity and post it here.


  1. The two poems have many similarities. Ostensibly, their plots are very simple and one could just take away a literal meaning from them. However, when one does an analysis, the possibilities for interpretations are broad and there is no one exact meaning or interpretation to either poem.
    The relationships between the two protagonist characters in each poem, in ways, are comparable. Both the Sapsucker and the man “Before the Law” ultimately, did not have a choice in what happened to them. Although the Sapsucker was gifted his feathers/identity his grandfather said, “this is why you have been with me” which, could be interpreted that it was his destiny to go into the tree and receive his gift. Similarly, the gatekeeper also suggests that the man’s life was destined to be what it was when he said, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you”. Though this inference of the poems may be incorrect, nonetheless, in both pieces the protagonists choose to adhere to the greater authority, which greatly alters their lives. This segues into the next similarity between the two poems: the choices the protagonists have made changed their lives and impacted who they were. For the Sapsucker, he attained feathers, which, as we have discussed in class could symbolize his identity and freedom and meant that he no longer faced limitations. The opposite was the case for the man. By listening to the gatekeeper and not taking a risk, he never saw beyond the gates and his life was wasted away in his efforts of trying to be warmly welcomed beyond the gates.
    I am still unsure as to which poem I think is most effective. Each speaks to inherent desires of all humans: identity and belonging, and, if you take the law literally, law: protection, safety, etc. and with both attributes, one could argue comes a sense of freedom, and assurance.

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  2. Grand World

    Granny, I learned all about day and night! My teacher said Earth orbits the sun, spins around, around on its axis. The side facing the sun has day, the other one night, and we never stop turning. Earth is really small, but the sun’s so big that more than a million Earths will fit inside. Then my teacher told us the story of Raven. Once, the whole world went dark when an old man stole the sun. He hid it in a box, but that Raven was really smart...he thought and he planned. When he found the box, he grabbed the sun in his beak, flew up high, put it back in the sky so there was light again. Everyone could see….

    Granddaughter, ravens are really tricky birds but they aren’t that nice all the time. I know one. He’s shiny black, crafty, sits on the telephone wires near the grocery store up in Watson Lake and watches, his black eyes beady-bright. He waits, waits, waits…. then when shoppers put bags of food in the backs of their trucks, go off to do other things, that bird swoops down like a bullet, rifles through all the groceries with his beak. He picks the good things, grabs them in his beak: steaks, sausages, maybe a chicken, then flies away with them. His raven friends like to help him sometimes, big bands of black birds. Be wise, Granddaughter. Unkindnesses are everywhere.

  3. I couldn’t resist commenting after posting my poem. The Sapsucker and Before the Law are so similar, yet so different. Both the sapsucker and the young man from the country are seekers - without knowing exactly what they are looking for - or Beggars according to Carolyn Myss: “…the Beggar archetype represents a test that compels a person to confront self-empowerment beginning at the base level of physical survival.” Both are confronted with exactly that kind of test when they encounter their Mentors (I’m drawing heavily of Myss). Where the sapsucker meets an elder, the young man encounters a gatekeeper. The differences in the outcomes of their myths/stories are entirely dependent on the characteristics of their mentors. Where the elder has been waiting to impart his ‘wisdom’ to the sapsucker in the form of feathers, the gatekeeper generates a fear that is overbearing; he seeks control over the Beggar rather than extending benevolence or offering knowledge. Where the sapsucker accepts his identity and carries on being the sapsucker he was always meant to be, the young man’s fear of stepping through the door prevents him - through his entire life cycle - from self-actualization or becoming the man he was always meant to be.
    Symbolic differences are pervasive in both pieces. The concept of circularity is pervasive throughout Skaay’s piece: the place was round, surrounded by grass; the sapsucker travelled around in it; a spruce trunk is round; there is circularity in the poem’s beginning and end. In the beginning, the sapsucker is drumming for food; so too is he drumming at the end. A little less obvious is the circularity of custom: wisdom passed from elder to younger, their riches contained in boxes embedded within each other symbolic of wisdom embedded in time.
    The door through which the young man must pass to find “the law” he sought, is rectangular/square. Rather than impart wisdom, the gatekeeper exerts power, engenders fear:
    “But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper.” The image Kafka creates of gatekeeper is square as well: he wears a fur coat with fleas in its fur collar, has a large nose, and a black Tartar beard. If the gatekeeper questions the young man, he is indifferent to the answers. In the end, he lets his dying beggar know that the door has always been his, meant for him alone. The moral of this story is existential: the young man, unable to overcome his fear of the gatekeeper, could not realize his own potential.
    Both poems are meaningful; both are peopled by similar archetypes. The variations brought to the characterizations of the mentors suggest differences between cultures. While both myth/poems present valuable truths, I find the first so much more palatable than the second.

  4. Margaret Atwood’s poem, The Moment, reminded me of a recent series of public service announcements funded by Conservation International. To me, both the poems and the PSAs speak to the anthropocentric views humans have toward nature and Mother Earth. Both also speak to the ambivalence and ignorance of humans and the fact that despite the destruction humans are creating and perpetuating on Earth, only the destructors will experience the negative effects of their actions. As the PSAs slogan puts it so simply and effectively: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature”. In the poem too, it is Nature that reigns victorious.
    If you interpret the poems as though Nature is the speaker, the idea that Nature does not need people is also reflected.
    The first stanza of The Moment reflects human expansion and the false ownership humans have always felt they have over the land simply because of their perceived entitlement and claiming something as theirs with arbitrary signs and boarders. The unclear voice of Nature in the first stanza allows the reader to assume Nature is being passive and creates a sense of false security for the reader; ostensibly, there is no reason to doubt humans’ arbitrary claims of ownership over something they feel they ought to have. This changes throughout the final two stanzas. Nature’s voice is prominent, powerful and ominous. Unlike the human(s)which Nature is speaking to, Nature is enlightened and aware that humans’ ignorance will create their demise. The final two stanzas illustrate despite humans’ efforts to have control and order over nature, that “[w]e never belonged to you”. In the second stanza, Nature rebels against humans, the birds reclaim their voice, the ground “fissure[s] and collapse[s], the air moves back from you like a wave and you cannot breathe”. The line in the final stanza, “you were a visitor” also reiterates the idea that Nature is omniscient and since humans’ inception, our time on the planet was always meant to be finite.
    For me, both the poem and the PSAs have a profound effect and address the reality many of us are too in denial to accept. However, unlike the PSA, I find The Moment more pessimistic and apocalyptic. I realize this sort of “scare tactic”, for most, may not be an effective way to produce change when in the form of a PSA. However, given our global climate, I think if Conservation International were to produce more PSAs in the future, they may want to focus more heavily on the destruction humans have created as a result of their anthropocentric way of being.
    Conservation International PSAS

  5. One of the first things to stand out to me when comparing these two poems is the idea of layers. In "Sapsucker," the first stanza establishes circularity in layers. First comes "the place," then the grass within, and finally the Sapsucker on the inside. The elder's box is also a clear example of layers. In Kafka's "Before the Law," the gatekeeper tells the man that there are many gatekeepers to be faced before reaching what he wants - there are layers of obstacles.
    Both Sapsucker and the man are actively seeking their goals. In the case of the Sapsucker, he goes about knocking in an attempt to discover his identity. The man desires access to the law, journeying all the way from the country in an attempt to get through the gates.
    On the surface, it appears that their endings are quite different, with Sapsucker earning his wings in the end while the man dies without ever having gained access to the law. However, I feel as if the Sapsucker story does not have as positive an ending as it may initially appear. The line "Then he did the same thing as before" gives me a feeling of deflation more than anything else. Although he has now discovered his identity and is able to fly freely, he continues to do the same things he always does. What has changed? This is a feeling that I also got from Kafka's work. In the end, nothing successful came out of the journey.
    Both are good, deceptively simple stories but I find Kafka's more relatable because it is likely the way many people feel today when they attempt to gain fair access to the law.

  6. Ever since my uncle was hospitalized with lung cancer and nine tumors in his brain,
    Mom became a sad person.
    It wasn’t the kind of sadness that could be erased with a few tissues,
    Nor the kind that could be forgotten in a few weeks.
    She stopped eating, she remained in bed all day long, and she stopped smiling.
    She cried and cried and cried,
    Like the Nile, flooding the land of Egypt in order to give life to its civilization.
    Except my mom’s tears brought no life to her soul.
    Her skin became darker, her hair greyer and her eyes tired.
    And as the days grew longer and the nights grew darker,
    I finally understood why we mourn for those who have not left us yet.

    We mourn for their unrealized dreams,
    Their lost hopes in people,
    Their fading memories of what used to make them happy.

    Thinking now, my uncle taught me some of the greatest lessons in life:
    How I needed to eat well and grow strong so others couldn’t stop me from achieving;
    How I needed to drive through the forest trails of Abbotsford and prairielands of Kelowna in order to enjoy the true freedom God has given to us;
    How I needed to overcome one thing I fear a day so I could mentally and emotionally prepare for the worst in life.

    I guess the worst thing in life isn’t death,
    But the expecting of our deaths,
    And the dreadful feeling of never knowing who we were when we lived.
    The end of our fate, the last of our breaths, the final moments before we part.

    My uncle taught me not to fear these things, and yet
    I sit here in my bed, exactly 10,080 kilometers away from the very hospital he is lying in,
    And I am trembling with this uncontrollable fear.
    For one day when my day arrives I fear that I’ll cry not because I am afraid of the Unknown,
    But because I shall leave with the unspoken regret of not haven seen
    The world turn into a better place,
    And myself within it.

    That regret will be etched in the blurred vision of my eyes,
    As I lay my head back and the last of me gives in.
    While I write these lines I am sitting in the comfort of my own bed,
    And I realize what a luxury it is to understand the meaning of life before it is too late.
    “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give it away.”
    I wish not to die with any regrets,
    So therefore I will ensure that I will not.