Why do I study Literature? Why should anyone?

The short answer: because literature makes humans human. Literature benefits humanity in many ways. Aside from the general mental health benefits of reading and the associated activities, literature fosters empathy within readers; it connects the present to the past (or perhaps in genre fiction, to the future); its “story truth” gives way to a more clarified understanding of “true truth;” it asks questions and attempts to provide answers to in often nonconventional methods, and it provides a cloud of witnesses through characters and stories that act as models and companions through life.

A fairly recent study by the New School in New York showed that people who actively read literary fiction had a greater capacity for empathy. There are, of course, many speculations as to why this is, but perhaps the most significantly appropriate is that actively participating in reading a story draws the characters and situations into a form of reality within the mind of the reader. This literary reality becomes a living world with living people for whom the reader genuinely grows to care. The Modernists knew this at the beginning of the Twentieth-Century and began writing in ways that forced readers out of the state of lethargic, pacifistic reading and into the more active and important role of interacting with the text.

Through its empathetic powers, literature is connective. It connects people from times past to times yet to come. This happens not only on the obvious level of the past made present through the works of the past, but also through the power of narrative to connect the disparate. Charles Dickens, for example, in his Christmas Carol uses the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to make the entirety of Scrooge’s life tangible and alive to him in a single moment. A slew of science fiction authors all imagine the future and attempt to bring to the forefront of our minds the consequences of the choices of the present. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy tells of the far-reaching wisdom of a man who sought to learn how to deal with the future and the mistakes of the masses. The stories of literature, both fantastic and “real,” offer nearly infinite venues for the mind and heart to connect with. And it is in these places and stories, these far off planets and very familiar suburban towns, that the post-modern reader’s stoic, desensitized sensibilities are slowly worn down to the warm fleshiness of empathy, compassion, and honest humanity.

We are post-modern readers, and as such, we have become desensitized by the influx of entertainment and advertising media. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements, film, photography, and other such sensory distractions. Our artistic sensibilities have been spoiled with the instant gratification – often without a request – of something to fill in our time. Thoreau’s maxim still applies: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And it is in that quiet desperation that men are still seeking Truth* and still seeking important answers to important questions. Questions like TS Eliot’s in The Waste Land: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” Humanity is still begging this question. What life is there in the dead, rocky existence we are walking through? The onslaught of new media over-stimulating our sensibilities cannot seem to offer anything more than distraction from the broken condition of the post-modern reader.

Much has been said in literature about the predicament of the post-modern reader – or more openly, the post-modern individual. James Joyce’s Ulysses offers both a connection to the past through its parallelism to the Odyssey and an attempt at understanding the future (more specifically, what life looks like in the modern/post-modern world). Eliot offers that we cannot know or guess because all that we know is a “heap of broken images.” Joyce offers – in Ulysses – a heap of broken images pasted together to create a quasi-whole image of post-modern life. The image that Joyce pastes together is one of loneliness, confusion, and waywardness. Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist – if you can call him by such a positive title,  is shown throughout the duration as a wanderer unsure of how to continue living his life after the shattering events of his son’s death and wife’s infidelity. This is the dilemma of the post-modern age: the seemingly bleak and dead future and the unfaithful and altogether unfair present.

ee cummings also offers a version of this wanton ambiguous post-modern person in his poetry. This is perhaps best exemplified in his poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” cummings’s style is one that often utilizes general nouns such as “anyone” or “someone” as proper nouns. In this way, cummings exemplifies the stripping of individuality in the post-modern age.

Literature offers some semblance of condolence to this broken heap through which the post-modern world is meandering. TS Eliot and Hemingway offer similar answers. Eliot pleads that his readers find “Shantih Shantih Shantih” which he translates in his end notes as “the peace that surpasses understanding.” Hemingway points to finding peace in our time, learning, as Nick Adams does at the end of “The Three Day Blow,” that “nothing is ever lost.”

Other answers are given to this question in many different forms. In the light of the depravity of another significant war, the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien writes The Things They Carried: a short story cycle set during the war and the years surrounding it. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien tells of a time when the main character (a version of himself) is asked if one of his stories about a friend’s horrific death is “really true.” His response is a returned question as to whether or not it matters if it is true, if the answer is yes, he says, then you have your answer. “Story truth,” he says, “is truer than true truth.”

This is not a novel principle. Even the ancients understood that a story can convey a truth stronger and more emphatically than a lecture – that is why we have the great pantheon of mythologies and folktales. Mythology and folklore are the beginnings of fiction and learning through story. Through the tales of supernatural myths and preternatural folktales, important truths about reality were able to be presented in a way that fostered change and inspiration without the amount of condemnation that can accompany a straightforward lecture. George Orwell understood this theory of myth and folktale and implemented it in many of his writings, most notably Animal Farm and 1984. By setting his disparaging views of certain governments and their treatment of people in a farm filled with only animals, he was able to escape some of the damning repercussions and his message was perhaps more likely to get out. In 1984, Orwell uses predictions of the future in order to critique his present society (again exemplifying the union of times, present and future and past).

One final answer that literature offers to the plight of the post-modern person is a companion to the empathy it produces. Literature offers to the reader the condolence that she is not alone. One of the many biblical concepts that recurs throughout the canon of literature is the concept of the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in the book of Hebrews. The great cloud of witnesses is theorized to represent many things: the most popular being that as we live our lives, we are under the watching eyes of those that came before us, whether as angels, or as spirits, as guides, or simply as audience. Tim O’Brien brings this concept to the forefront of his story “On the Rainy River.” The setting is a river between the US and Canada. The main character (again a version of O’Brien himself) is in a boat considering crossing the border to escape his draft notice. While he contemplates he begins to see apparitions around him of famous men and women and men and women he knew from childhood and college. Eventually, he is surrounded by apparitions of people; some he knew personally, others by their fame, and others not at all. This appearance of a “great cloud of witnesses” causes him to feel the weight of the past and the future on his present. JK Rowling in the fourth book of her

Tim O’Brien brings this concept to the forefront of his story “On the Rainy River.” The setting is a river between the US and Canada. The main character (again a version of O’Brien himself) is in a boat considering crossing the border to escape his draft notice. While he contemplates his dilemma, he begins to see apparitions around him: famous men and women, men and women he knew from childhood and college, and others whom he had never met or recognized. Eventually, he is surrounded by apparitions of people; some he knew personally, others by their fame, and others not at all. This appearance of a “great cloud of witnesses” causes him to feel the weight of the past and the future on his present. JK Rowling in the fourth book of her Harry Potter Series – The Goblet of Fire – utilizes this concept when Harry faces the dark lord toward the end of the book. His parents, who are dead, and a friend of his who just died appear around him and offer a small bit of aid that helps him escape the dark lord.

The great cloud of witnesses is not just present in the stories of the literary canon, but in the canon of literature itself. TS Eliot refers to it as the Tradition in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Tradition, says Eliot, should carry weight in how we evaluate every new piece of art. The new piece should not be compared to the Tradition in terms of “better or worse,” but rather in similarities – its heritage as it were. Every new work must be crafted in the light of all the works that have come before it. Perhaps that is how the post-modern individual must learn to live his life: in light of the continuum of people and art and events that have come before as well as those that are happening and living contemporaneously.

Literature helps facilitate that consciousness. Mark Doty, in a lecture explained the need for poetry, and it does apply to all of literature. He said that poetry takes someone a million miles away, who may only be part of a statistic or part of an abstract idea that we have of what a certain place might be like, and turns them into a passion, a lover, a mother, a father, a human being. And when everyone in the world is a human being to you, he says, then “you won’t carpet bomb them, or drive a plane into the place they work, or grotesquely hate them for an obscure reason.” Literature makes people human by connecting everyone past and present and future. It makes people human by fostering empathy and softening hardened sensibilities and emotions. It makes people human by pointing us in the direction of the peace that surpasses all understanding; and maybe by showing us the way to find it together.


*Capital-T Truth differing from lowercase-t truth in the Platonic sense. Truth meaning the ultimate Truth that surpasses our temporal understanding and. truth meaning the lesser and more observable truth: face value truth.

Not “save me from the world,” but “save the world from me.”

In this very interesting article Can Jesus Save the World From Christians?, Pastor Morgan Guyton expresses his belief that as Christians, we must be seeking sanctification and justification from God rather than what he calls “afterlife insurance” that is auctioned off at many churches in America these days. “Afterlife insurance” speaks toward the way that salvation is pitched from the altar as though it were from the mouth of a sales rep rather than a shepherd. If we continually put salvation in the context of eternal torture and what we need to give up or “pay” for it, we reduce it to nothing more than a self-serving, bargaining chip for the the end of our days.

Guyton uses God’s confrontation with Saul as an example. Saul was a man who tortured and terrorized Christians. God blinded Saul while he was traveling and asked “Why are you persecuting me.” Guyton says it this way:

when Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus, he didn’t say, “Accept me as your personal lord and savior, or else you’ll be tortured forever after you die.” Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus’ offer to Saul wasn’t a heavenly hand-stamp to secure his admission into the right afterlife. Jesus offered Saul an invitation to stop being an asshole (and thus leave hell). Saul accepted this invitation, changed his name to Paul, and became an apostle. In the process of becoming Paul, Saul wasn’t saved from anything outside of himself. Rather, Jesus saved the world from Saul by turning him into Paul. The world is saved from each of us who become Christian in a similar way.

So could it be that our prayer should in fact be “God, save the world from me” rather than “God, save me from the world”? I realize there is much in this world to be saved from, and there are many evils out there. But if we are more focused on being right about the external issues – more concerned with the rest of the world doing it the way we think is right – won’t we miss doing things ourselves the way God thinks they should be done?

Perhaps a better prayer is “God, Save me from myself.” I like that one. I find more often than not that, even if I find a way to be able to shield myself from the things of this world that would devour me, I can find ways to screw things up. The point being simple – don’t seek to be saved from this world, seek to be saved from yourself, seek to be saved from a world without love. And most importantly, pour more love into the world. That’s the only way we will make this place more like heaven. Which is the ultimate goal, is it not?

Gamify Learning – Part 1

James Paul Gee talks about the relationship between gaming and education and the flaws within the education system that games address. I am going to write up an article on gaming and education after I do some more research, I am interested in unconventional sources to incorporate in learning. And gaming in the classroom seems like it may just be the next big step in progressive education. Think about the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek – It is basically just a big game that Kirk needs to beat. Makes you think — Which routes really are the ones that will get us to the future that science fiction dreams up for us?

In Defense of the Artifact and Tangible Living

We all joke about “first-world-problems,” but life in the twenty-first century is tough in some very peculiar ways. First, our days are spent in front of some kind of glowing device — touching one screen, scrolling down another. Many people work all day, sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen, just to come home to stare at a television screen or a laptop or a phone or tablet. Everything we do is connected to the wonderful world wide web. This, theoretically, leaves us connected to an electronic device for more hours a day than we spend sleeping.

(And to be clear from the starting gate, this isn’t some luddite fantasy-rant advocating the destruction of technology. I am very much in favor of the technological and information revolution. My entire master’s degree was completed through an online venue.)

A second difficulty with life in the twenty-first century is the odd sensation of owning digital content. Digital content is truly a marvel, and e-readers and ipods/iphones make it possible to carry your entire book and music library with you everywhere. That’s a miracle that we hold in our hand every single day and few of us, if any, bat an eye at it. iTunes makes it unnecessary to buy CDs any more, and they, and other websites like Netflix, are making it less profitable to buy DVDs or Blurays. And in the realm of video games, Steam and consoles that have access to online stores built in are making it less and less logical to ever buy hard copies of games. Together this leads to the majority of people owning more digital versions of movies, books, video games and music than hard copies.

Where does that leave us, you know, the humans that exist in the tangible world?

Digitally fatigued.

The saturation of digital context and digital connectivity is leading to more and more lives being led in the digital world rather than the physical one. (Again, still not advocating an Amish fantasy camp.) To all of us who spent our preteen and early teen years before the digital content revolution (I put this around the late 00s —08, 09, 10 etc): don’t you remember what it was like saving up for something, or asking for something for Christmas / your birthday and finally getting your hands on it? It was a marvelous feeling, wasn’t it? Opening the packaging, whether you were a rip-and-tear kind of kid or a carefully-peel-the-tape kind of kid, and finally holding that action figure or that trading card or that CD or DVD (VHS for some).

That kind of wonder is slowly getting lost. It’s not entirely lost, and I don’t know that it ever will be entirely lost in some contexts, we will probably never have digital-only-clothes, but hey you never know. But in the artistic world and in the gaming and entertainment worlds digital content is diluting the idea of the artifact, the idea of the possession.

There are entire religions and cultures based on the idea of objects possessing innate sacred properties. I know what you might be thinking, “But I don’t live in the Amazon rain forest where those crazy people who think like that are.” (Ok, you might not be thinking that, but, if you weren’t, pretend you were.) How about Catholicism? Or a little closer to home: Christianity? Both religions place value on objects. Christianity much less so than Catholicism, but still think about Communion, or the pulpit at church, or your Bible. Those are just the basic ones that Catholicism and Christianity share. There are plenty of others to talk about, but I think you get my idea. The sanctity of an object is not as foreign of an idea as we might think.

When considering everyday objects, you might not be so quick to associate the idea of sanctity. You wouldn’t consider your coffee pot sacred. But some people would, or would at least consider it a special artifact in their kitchen. Contrast this to the way some people go to Starbucks daily and don’t own a coffee pot. They love coffee and wouldn’t go a day without it, but they don’t connect it to their home, or to a permanent artifact of fixture in their lives. This is generally the way digital content intersects our lives.

We form connections to things without having to commit to them.

And that’s a big problem. We don’t allow ourselves any room for commitment, not even to things. This affects our family life, our spiritual life, our romantic life, and our general enjoyment of life. Lack of commitment in these seemingly small ways leads to lack of commitment in big ways.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 6:10-12)

This verse speaks to a lot to the idea of owning artifacts and the ideas of property, but there isn’t enough room to get into it all in one post. Perhaps a theme for a future post.

All my friends and family know that I love books. I love to read them. I love to own them. I love to hold them. I love to smell them. (Yes, smell them.) But this affair with books is not some weird papyrus fetish, it’s about a commitment to stories and poetry and narrative. It’s the same reason I have an exorbitant number of journals and notebooks. I still do a good amount of my shorter writing and note-taking long hand. When I write or read a story or poem on actual paper, I feel infinitely more connected to it, more involved with it. And I know that a book is more liable to affect me if its a hard copy than if it were an ebook.

What does this mean and does it matter?

I’m not advocating we all become the hoarders we all gawk at on reality tv. I’m trying to examine what it means to be connected to this world. I could go on and on about the dangers of having all of our possessions being at the mercy of machines that someone could infiltrate and loot to their heart’s content. But I won’t because that’s not the point and trying to make it is like beating your head against a boxer’s fist — Sometimes you just shouldn’t try it, no matter how thick-headed you are. The more important point is that we are tangible and intangible beings, and as such we should not forget to live in the tangible world at least occasionally. I would invite you to ask yourself this question: What am I potentially missing out on by living digitally?

Nature isn’t digital.
Story isn’t digital.
Your family isn’t digital.

God isn’t digital.
You are not digital.

There is a fun article called “In Defense of Cardboard: Trading Card Games as a Remedy for Digital Fatigue” by James Pianka. It’s mostly about video games and the Magic: the Gathering trading card game, but it is the inspiring piece for this post and I invite anyone who is interested in the idea of finding cures for digital fatigue to look into both Pianka’s article and Magic. The last paragraph of the article sums it up well and addresses some of the reasons that artifacts and tangible living rather than digital living is important.

“So while video games accomplish much that TCGs do not, cardboard scratches the itch while circumventing screens… Cards command more presence than items we can’t touch, while serving in comparable roles, and sophisticated visual design allows each to act as canvas… TCGs run on different fuel.” (Pianka)

Let’s find a way to run on a different, non-digital, fuel. I think we will all be far better people for it.

Do you have any ideas on how to fight digital fatigue? I’d be interested to hear your remedies.

There was an article in a NY Times blog about the effects of Digital Fatigue on Children.

Ralph W. Emerson’s “Blight”

For the sake of saving space and time, I won’t post the entire poem. You can read it all here at Emerson Central for yourself. But I want to highlight and talk about a few key passages. “Blight” essentially follows the course of the devolution of scholarly and academic pursuits. This description makes this poem sound like the most boring there could be. A poem about academia? I’d pass if that was how someone described it to me. But Emerson gets at more than just stuffy academia. In fact he rails against the poor state of things (the state of things in 1843 that is). Take this passage for example:

“But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And traveling often in the cut he makes,
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.
The old men studied magic in the flowers,
And human fortunes in astronomy,
And an omnipotence in chemistry,
Prefering things to names, for these men
Were unitarians of the united world” (12-21)

Emerson was a pastor of the Second Unitarian Church in Boston before he resigned ten years before writing this poem. He also attended Harvard for his pastoral schooling. He was a religious and educated man. Applying these two bits of knowledge to the last two quoted lines, we get a picture of Emerson that suggests he removed himself from the church to practice a more unbound spirituality.

But perhaps we could assimilate the duality of Emerson into a new whole to understand this poem in a more relevant context. Emerson’s inanition from the lack of vigor in academia is akin to the inanition of the Christian church. Is our spirituality just “Latin names”? Are we more focused on surfaces? To answer these, I offer another segment of “Blight” speaking of the posture in which research is conducted on plants and minerals.

“For we invade them impiously for gain;
We devastate tem unreligiously,
And coldly ask their pottage, not their love.” (33-34)

Don’t Emerson’s words resound with the familiarity of our spiritual lives. Do we not invade the spiritual realm impiously for gain, asking not for the love of Christ, but for His presence as a fixture like a potted plant?

Perhaps we are as Emerson says with armed eyes but “strangers to the stars” (25). Seeking only the surface of spirituality, the surface of Christ without a magical and loving connection, we are doomed to the dark future Emerson predicts.

“And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves,
And pirates of the universe, shut out
Daily to a more thing and outward rind,
Turn pale and starve.” (41-44)

Let us study and search for truths. Deeper truths than the surfaces of shapes and shadows. Give us truths that we might not die of inanition.

Interrupting Forever

“we should always remember the cruel phrase, so often repeated, which says that what’s past is past…on the other hand, thanks to what we, in current phraseology, call historical awareness, [believe]  that the living should never be separated from the dead and that, if they are not only will the dead remain forever dead, the living will only half-live their lives, even if they turn out to live as long as methudelah” (178)

Saramago develops his book around a single driving question: What happens if we stop dying? For centuries, the search for immortality has been covered by many different disciplines and in many different ways. The alchemists sought for the formula to create the Philosopher’s Stone. Explorers and conquerors searched the world over to sip from the Holy Grail. Mystics and spiritualists abandoned the world and devoted themselves to abnegation in the hopes that it would bring them to a higher level that did not include death. Artists even attempted a form of immortality within their works.

In Death with Interruptions, immortality is a gift or rather a lesson taught from death herself (death as a character makes it very clear that she is death with a lower-case d, no human can fathom Death with a capital D). Only a single country is affected by the absence of death. And death gives her reasoning to the people of that country in a letter, announcing the return of the normal state of things, death and dying:

“I should explain that the reason that led me to interrupt my activities, to stop killing and put away the emblematic scythe that imaginative painters and engravers of yore always placed in my hand, was to give those human beings who so loathe me just a taste of what it would mean to live forever, eternally, although, between you and me, sir, I must confess that I have no idea whether those two expressions, forever and eternally are as synonymous as is generally believed, anyway, after this period of a few months of what we might call an endurance test or merely extra time and bearing in mind the deplorable results of the experiment, both from the moral, that is, philosophical point of view, and from the pragmatic, that is, social point of view, I felt that it would be best for families and for society as a whole, both vertically and horizontally, if I acknowledged my mistake publicly and announced an immediate return to normality” (109)

There are more than a few interesting points that death makes in her letter. First, her reasoning is that her reasoning for interrupting the normal state of things is to teach humanity a lesson that dying isn’t a bad thing, and that living forever (or eternally?) just might be. Second, she refers to the hiatus of death as an “endurance test.” Third, that she makes a distinction between forever and eternally. A distinction I tend to think differentiates as follows: forever means for the rest of time, while eternally means for the rest of the timelessness after time has ended. Perhaps that is a crucial distinction. Fourth, she divides the importance of death to families and society into vertical and horizontal importance. The components of this letter amount to this: that death and dying are completely different from what humanity understands them as.

As Saramago develops in his Death with Interruptions, becoming an undying race could be the worst thing for humanity. He breaks down the consequences and repercussions of becoming deathless into two spheres, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic. In the macrocosmic sphere, we see what happens to the Church, government, business (such as life insurance providers and mortuaries), and culture. The maphia (yes the alternative spelling is intentional) becomes active in providing a means to death for people. The situation is thus: no matter the health of a person, they cannot die, no matter what. However, this phenomenon only occurs in one country. If a person who should be dead because of any of a myriad of reasons crosses the border into another country they can die. So the maphia facilitates a way for families to pay for their loved ones to finally rest in peace. Among other things, the government has to deal with overpopulation and overcrowding in care facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. Saramago delves deep into the socio-political turmoil that would ensue in such a situation.

On the microcosmic level, Saramago shows the effect this has on family life. How do families care for their comatose loved ones who for all intents and purposes are dead without actually being dead?

Another element of the microcosmic level comes into play when death creates a new deal with humanity. A week’s warning before death via a purple letter in the mail. This is more respectful says death. Giving the people a chance to get their things in order. However, in an odd semi-magical-realist twist, death becomes infatuated with a man whose letter cannot be delivered. She dons a human form and begins to fall in love with him. In the end she burns his letter, climbs into bed with him and the book ends with the same sentence it began with: “The following day, no one died.”

What does this mean? I think the simplest way to understand it (because let’s face it, there isn’t a simple way to understand it) is to take it as an attempt to shift our view of death and dying. It should not be feared, but rather embraced. And by embracing it, by respecting it, by not scorning it, we find a way to escape it. Not only in our own deaths, but living in the shadow of those who have died before us. Taking a lesson from TS Eliot (yes, him again) in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” we must live and create in the wake of those who have died before us. Only then can our work be truly great and impacting. 

Now this view obviously rejects the spiritual norm of a life after death, or at the very least it avoids the subject of the afterlife. I think that it is an important element of the story. The reason it ignores the afterlife is because the story is meant to affect the way we live in this life, not to try and convert its readers into a particular view of the afterlife. In the end, Saramago and death (the character) ask us to reevaluate the way we look at concepts like forever, eternity, death, life, and love. Perhaps the only way to understand death is to love. Perhaps that is the only way to understand life. Maybe if we look at eternity different from forever, we will be more comfortable with forever ending and eternity beginning.