Tag Archives: literature

Motive, Spring 2019

The Literariness of Political Texts

In a Tortoiseshell: In this paper about the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988, Sophie Evans’ original use of key terms — “the literariness of political texts” — allows her to flip the current scholarly discourse — what Edward Said calls “the worldliness of literary texts” — on its head. In the first few paragraphs of her introduction, Sophie constructs motive by orienting readers as to how the literariness of the Declaration, written by a prominent Palestinian poet, has been overlooked. She then argues for why and how her close reading of the literariness of political texts can be brought to bear on Palestinian history and even its political situation today.

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Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting and C.S. Lewis’ Scholarly Side

Writing is an empathetic act; the good writer must always keep the interests of the reader in mind. I consider orienting one of the most overt empathies in scholarly writing. How much should I, the writer, define, describe, and elucidate? How do I find the middle ground of understanding which fall somewhere between overwhelming the reader and patronizing the reader?

C.S. Lewis is a remarkably empathetic orienter. Although he is better known today for his fictional works (The Chronicles of Narnia, of course!), he was also a prominent medievalist at Oxbridge. His medieval scholarship, like his fiction, is complex yet accessible, formal yet conversational.  I’m thinking especially of his book The Discarded Image, which, as he puts it, provides a “lead in” to an understanding of the medieval worldview for modern students (ix). He observes that scholarship can sometimes overwhelm and distract students to the extent that they lose interest in the object of study altogether. His solution, then, with The Discarded Image, is to provide a map of sorts, a general overview to the medieval worldview so that students can dive into medieval literature and the scholarship on it more confidently. The book as a whole, is a kind of extended orienting.

One of Lewis’ first orienting moves is the dispelling of a longstanding myth about the Middle Ages: that it was a savage, illiterate time. See what he does here:

“Some time between 1160 and 1207 an English priest called Laȝamon wrote a poem called the Brut. In it (ll. 15,775 sq.) he tells us that the air is inhabited by a great many things, some good and some bad, who will live there till the world ends. The content of this belief is not unlike things we might find in savagery. To people Nature, and especially the less accessible parts of her, with spirits both friendly and hostile, is characteristic of the savage response. But Laȝamon is not writing thus because he shares in any communal and spontaneous response made by the social group he lives in. The real history of the passage is quite different. He takes his account of the aerial daemons from the Norman poet Wace (c. 1155). Wace takes it from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (before 1139). Geoffrey takes it from the second-century De Deo Socratis of Apuleius. Apuleius is reproducing the pneumatology of Plato. Plato was modifying, in the interests of ethics and monotheism, the mythology he had received from his ancestors. If you go back through the many generations of those ancestors, then at last you may find, or at least conjecture, an age when that mythology was coming into existence in what we suppose to be the savage fashion. But the English poet knew nothing about that. It is further from him than he is from us. He believes in these daemons because he has read about them in a book; just as most of us believe in the Solar System or in the anthropologists’ accounts of early man. Savage beliefs tend to be dissipated by literacy and by contact with other cultures; these are the very things which have created Laȝamon’s belief. (2-3)”

Simply by tracing the origin of this single medieval poem, Lewis provides the reader with a more nuanced way of understanding the Middle Ages more generally. This orienting sets the stage for an argument that Lewis will develop throughout the course of the book: the Middle Ages were characterized by a curious bookishness that tends to get overlooked today. As he notes, “Though literacy was of course far rarer then than now, reading was in one way a more important ingredient of the total culture” (5).

I think in scholarly writing we tend to get impatient with orienting – we just want to get to the argument. What Lewis and the best writers show, however, is that orienting is absolutely essential to the argument. Just like in fiction, where the exposition of setting, atmosphere, and feeling primes us for the characters that occupy most of our attention, in scholarly writing, orienting primes us for the analysis and evidence. Orienting is the all-important appetizer: it teases the appetite for a delectable argument.  

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Quotations from C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image taken from the Cambridge UP edition (2016).


Cast List: Social Performativity within Hamlet and Consequent Dramatic Abilities of the Play

In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt from Victoria Gruenberg’s essay, “Cast List,” concerns the layers of performance in Hamlet and the implications for both the performers and the audience when experiencing the show. Because the essay deftly situates the complicated audience-performer relationships in the play and considers the broader questions Hamlet asks of metatheater, we believe this essay demonstrates the characteristics of a strong conclusion Continue reading


“One thing only, as we were taught”: Eclipse and Revelation in Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”

In a Tortoiseshell: This paper analyzes a 1982 personal essay written by Annie Dillard about the experience of watching a total solar eclipse. The author, Isabelle Laurenzi, observes a strong link between the structure of Dillard’s essay and the subject of Dillard’s recollection, thus arguing that the essay features an eclipse of its own. The excerpts below, taken from the paper’s introduction and body, balance a chronological organizational strategy with a thematic one, thereby showcasing the author’s excellent command over the structure of her essay.  Continue reading


The Intellectual and the Physical in The Faerie Queene

In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt comes from an English paper that analyzes “the differences between contemplation and action, or…the intellectual life and the physical” in the epic poem The Faerie Queen through a close reading of three passages. It is particularly strong on in its masterful use of evidence and textual analysis. Continue reading


“She Preferred it Sunk in the Very Element it Was Meant to Exclude”: Making Sense of Nature and Sisterhood in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

In a Tortoiseshell: In the introduction to a Junior Paper on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, the author sets up her argument by defining the subtle difference between Nature (capital N) and nature (lowercase n).  This exploration of key terms allows for a smooth transition into her thesis about existential and social questions and the separation of biological sisters.  

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Evidence & Analysis

The Secret of the Secret of the Nights

In a Tortoiseshell: In this excerpt, the author engages with a particularly risqué scene from “One Thousand and One Nights,” demonstrating a strong use of evidence and analysis. Newberger quotes a long scene, then sifts through it, step-by-step, which paves the way forward to support his unique argument.   Continue reading


“A Smile on a Tormented Face”: Absurdist Consciousness and Post-Reflective Identity in Camus’ L’Étranger

In a Tortoiseshell: This essay analyses the character of Meursault in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger), contextualizing him in the space of the novel as well as in a larger scholarly conversation. The author analyses a set of critical reviews, and motivates his argument by suggesting that there is something the critics are missing — a clear understanding of Sartre’s existentialism. The author posits the term “post-reflective” consciousness, and develops a thesis with this term to refine the scholarly criticism and propose his own interpretation of Meursault.

The thesis (and paper as a whole) involves complicated and philosophical literary criticism, and succeeds in clearly orienting the reader to the text, scholarship, and a very sophisticated argument. What is excerpted here are the first three pages of a twenty-page paper. Continue reading