Bonk on the Head and Artistic Amnesia in the Underworld
Bonk on the Head and Artistic Amnesia in the Underworld John-James Ford’s Bonk on the Head illustrates the outlandish and exhausting journey of an ordinary man, which culminates in an ironic and irrecoverable downward spiral. The purpose of structuring a narrative in the symbolic framework of a descent is to emphasize its theme, which is very direct: “The general theme of descent, we say, was that of a growing confusion of identity and of restrictions to action” (Frye as per Hurleys handout).
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This loss of identity during the descent thrusts the protagonist onto the archetypal quest for truth, and this theme is latently mphasized within the allegorical underworld. In literature, those who embrace art and language are empowered with the ability to transcend suffering, while those who reject these are condemned.
In Bonk on the Head, Herbert rejects the essential truth within his reach that is made available through art and language, and their intrinsic ability to communicate and evoke thoughts and feelings; consequently, this rejection plunges Herbert into the night world, accelerates his dehumanization and prevents him from ever realizing the essential truths. Art and language operate within Bonk on he Head as the essence of fulfilment and identity, and this theme is emphasized within the framework of the descent narrative and the ironic model.
Art and language operate as a central theme within descent narratives and the ironic mode. The ability to express thoughts and emotions and communicate are fundamental to the essence of humanity; consequently, the loss of identity and humanity depicted by the paradigm of the mythic descent is further emphasized through the loss of expression. The Colonel is an explicit personification of this inability to communicate; e is clearly objectified through his identification as the Colonel and his restriction to “MilSpeak” to the point that he can no longer carry out a dinner conversation.
The Colonel represents the objectification of the individual for which art cautions; unfortunately for Herbert, the fated father complex dominates his existence and he was fated toa similar loss of humanity. Gertie represents the romantic ideals of artistic expression and freedom, for which her underground newspaper provides a literal and figurative escape; accordingly, if Gertie was the protagonist of Bonk on the Head, the narrative would be characterized by the comedic mode and ascent. Her newspaper was a medium for subverting and transcending the oppression of society: Gertie’s Rag was the product of slow and patient work.
She wrote about our culture – and did it in a way that was honest and unmerciful. The only teacher who had fought against her expulsion, Mr. Bayne, talked to me about it after Gertie had left. “It’s really too bad about your sister. Gertie is Just a girl who has grown too tall too fast for the short blanket of denial” (Ford 41). When Gertie could no longer express herself freely, he was required to escape in a more literal sense. Her archetypal Journey of ascent operated within Bonk on the Head as a direct contrast to Herbert’s descent.
While Gertie was reborn from the womb of the crawlspace under the stairs into freedom of and loss of individuality. By exploring Bonk on the Head through Northrop Frye’s descent narrative framework, it is evident that art initiates Herbert’s Journey, and, consequently, descent towards a lower world. Herbert explicitly experiences a fragmentation of consciousness, where he can neither define nor comprehend his oncept of freedom and individuality (Frye as per Hurleys handout): I remember we arrived home when day had ended and night had not yet come. Cast in half-light, Buttercup seemed illusory, as if she was more of a friend than a vehicle.
The expedition was already dreamlike. What had been accomplished felt nothing short of genius, as if we’d taken part in a masterwork of art (Ford 21). Herbert’s “growing confusion of identity and of restrictions on action” (Frye as per Hurleys handout) blind him from realizing his identity through art and abandon him in a world of darkness. The post cards, letters and Journal entries symbolize an intimacy within art and language; however, his inability to identify with his former self is evident when he denounces his poetry as a lie and concludes “Poet, my arse.
I’d be better off as a soldier” (Ford 24). Thus, Herbert commences his downward plunge with emphasis on his loss of identity; eventually, his inability to communicate results in the destruction of his Journal and postcards. This rejection of art demonstrates Herbert’s regression and gradual transformation into his literally impotent father: according to Frye, this egressive metamorphosis resurfaces as a central theme in the mythic descent as “the reducing of humanized beings to something subintelligent and subarticulate” (Frye as per Hurleys handout).
The third chapter of Part 3 of the novel -The Holy Ghost -is titled “Don’t You Believe a Word,” and it functions as an omen for the reader and a turning point for Herbert. The obstacle course represents a ritual coming of age, a rebirth into the college community as a new officer cadet. Ford ensures that the reader does not confuse Herbert’s experience with this romantic deology by cursing Herbert with a perverse and corrupted baptism: “the murky water of this stagnant obstacle had served as a receptacle for shit, piss and puke to drunken senior cadets for weeks.
We were swimming through a sewer” (Ford 199). Ford’s imagery explicitly illustrates the underworld and reinforces that Herbert is trapped within this waste -literally and figuratively. Herbert completes the obstacle course in a dream-like trance, lost in perpetual motion without progress and the loss of control over his body. The very fabric of time was confused, and he exchanged a hotographic representation for his identity; Frye reveals that this exchange is fundamental to the descent narrative: “We remember that a central image of descent was that of being involved with pictures… n a way that suggested the exchange or original identity for its shadow or reflection” (Frye as per Hurleys handout). He felt betrayed by his emotions and no longer regarded himself as an individual. The ideal of being devoted to a calling greater than oneself is revered; however, Herbert is aware that their ideology was perverted and mocks their proverbial baptism: “The Great Unwashed absolving ourselves of the past weeks in inches -eking closer with each obstacle as a higher form of penance.
If this was what was happening, the whole focus seemed misguided” (Ford 201). The religious symbolism emphasizes the underworld and sacrilege through the dichotomy; consequently, if Heaven is out of reach, all that remains is Hell. The exchange of the original identity with that of the panics and questions the letter he finds in the time capsule written by his father; however, his resolve quickly disappears, and he emphatically accepts his father’s ords as his own: “To be made a man of? To be made a man of! (Ford 201). The central themes of metamorphosis and timelessness are manifested within this eternal transformation, which culminates when Herbert faints in the shower. Fainting represents a momentary death that embodies a model for his entire descent, from which he awakens as something less than before -almost subhuman. The recurring theme of art does not only amplify the descent narrative symbolically, but Ford provides explicit illustrations that cannot be ignored by the protagonist or the reader.
The most forthright example is the English Professor’s dialogue exploring the descent with regards to the father complex: It is almost as if the father-son relationship defines his experience on the island -and the concept of ‘island’ is significant??”and he accepts rather than questions the events which lead him to what he knows will be his demise. The tension between the family members reflects the danger of son becoming father -this is what we see when Luke is in peril of Joining the dark side of the Force.
Each son takes a lesson from Darth Vader, as does each father (Ford 236). Ford utilizes this dialogue to emphasis many key points central to the ironic model and mythic descent, all of which can be dissected from the modes critical analyses. Joseph Campbell describes Darth Vader as “a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system” (Campbell as per Hurlers handout), and his isolation and alienation are further portrayed through the island concept.
Additionally, the “dark side of the Force” is an unmistakable parallel to the “descent into the night world” (Frye as per Hurleys handout) as described by Frye. By inserting uch an obvious mirror reflecting the way in which the ironic narrative is functioning between Herbert and the Colonel, Herbert is forced to realize this fundamental truth; however, Herbert can no longer function within the artistic realm. Herbert rejects the “runes of wisdom” (Campbell) and instead surrenders himself to the dark underworld of self-inflicted amnesia.
Alcohol became a coping method for Herbert, a means of numbing his senses to the horrors of this underworld; however, initially he viewed it as a medium of expression and clarity: “The sauce was doing the trick for me. Everything I wanted to express of say or feel was right there, available to me” (Ford 49). Unfortunately, as Herbert tumbled along his Journey of descent, the emphasis regressed from the expression and communication to the alcohol and oblivion. The inability to communicate climaxes with Herbert’s reunion with Gertie, returning them to where they began.
With Gertie, he shared a connection through art -they understood one another through art as communion. Herbert realized that Gertie knew him better than he knew himself, and reflects that she could have been the one to alter the ourse of his Journey: “Perhaps Gertie would have talked me out of it, but she was two thousand miles away’ (Ford 41). Ultimately, it is Gertie that forces Herbert to realize the truth, even if it can no longer be expressed in words: Then I see what it is she’s looking at. There he is, right in the centre of her iris, in the flush of her face. In looking at her I can see it’s the Colonel she sees.
Suddenly she looks uncomfortable, and rolls off me. She doesn’t say anything and nor do I. We still have to catch our identity and instead wears a mask he found in one of the letters and pictures found ithin the time capsule -the Colonel. Although Herbert is portrayed as being dehumanized to the extent of being without a voice at the end of Bonk on the Head, Ford further reiterates art as a means of expression and escape through the poetry written by Herbert at the end of his manuscript: Death is oil and water, is empty shoes on a highway, is the process of elimination.
Death is forgetting. Death is a cruel Joke. I’ve missed the punchline. Talk to me I’m as bard as a rock. I’ll talk, you’ll see. Steel, stronger mettle can’t break me, until slip that stone and look around: rooping eyes, head cast on ground??” waylaid, played, surveyed then weighed and lost again, not found. (Ford 589) This selection reveals the explicit irony of Herbert’s entire existence within Bonk on the Head, and it is through poetry that Herbert is able to communicate this final truth.
Thus, Ford portrays art as a means of enlightenment for which an individual can find meaning, emphasizing how these themes function in reverse in ascent narratives. As a descent narrative, the kernel of wisdom, for which Herbert is constantly at the cusp, could never be truly realized due to his rejection of art. His dehumanization and loss of identity directly correlated with his loss of language and inability to communicate.
His rejection of art manifested as a means of denying his own identity; consequently, his identity became the masks and uniforms he wears, causing him to regress from individual expression to subhuman “MilSpeak. ” In contrast, Ford demonstrates that embracing art provides a means of escaping oppression towards enlightenment through imagination, individuality and freedom; Gertie’s newspaper facilitated ascension from the underworld to the ordinary world, hose rhetoric was conveyed literally and symbolically.
Ford’s thematic emphasis on art and language reveal how embracing or rejecting art can set the archetypal journey in motion as either a descent or ascent narrative, representative of the comedic and ironic models. If Herbert had realized his potential as a poet before the end of the novel, he may not have been doomed to the ironic archetype of “perpetual motion that has no progress or meaning” (Foulke & Smith as per Hurleys handout), but could have instead achieved enlightenment through poetry in motion.