Journal of Planning Literature current issue

American Literature current issue

The Journal of Commonwealth Literature recent issues

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Getting Into the Soul of Things

I would like to first thank the invitation to be a guest here at Mormon Mentality – I am unsure what led to my name being brought up, but I am flattered that it did. It was suggested to me to share some thoughts on art, aesthetics, or literature. I do not propose that I am an expert in such matters, just simply an opinionated observer with a passion for the subject. I hope my thoughts are coherent and interesting enough that I may be invited to guest post again in the future.

My pet area of concern, when it comes to literature, is the form we commonly call “the novel,” usually a long prose piece that narrates a fictional story. Simple enough. But over the years the novel has revealed slowly to my own experience to have greater possibilities that may not initially be brought to a reader’s mind. Usually, but not always, we turn to a novel to be entertained – in which there is nothing wrong with that perspective, but the novel has the capacity to do more than what some may expect.

These greater possibilities of the novel ask the question, “What can novels do that other forms of literature and books usually are limited in doing?” Basically to put it another way, why spend hours on end reading a made up story, when you could be reading something more practical, like the scriptures, self-help books, history, news articles, general authority addresses, or nutrition labels? I hope to approach this question and offer one out of many possible answers, however scant. And in doing so, I hope that how we approach novels will create a richer interaction between reader and novel.

First, let me tell you where I am coming from. When I sit down to read a novel, I hope that it will be an experience that will have a lasting affect on me – whether it is a classic, genre work, or post-modern text. I want to be entertained as well, but I always hope for the aesthetic experience that will tear away my staid perceptions and offer a greater view of life across this world.

Unfortunately, I have seen many friends who will only approach a novel if they know beforehand that it will “uphold” their belief system and reinforce their values. Or they will only read “safe” literature that is deemed only as “entertainment” for the sake of avoiding the very appearance of evil. This is actually quite reasonable, since most people don’t want to have their comfortable lives messed with. But comfort is not always the best thing.

So where does this bring us? I have lately been reading a new work of criticism on a theory of the novel by Milan Kundera called “The Curtain.” Kundera, the Czech-Franco writer of such classics as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” offers some fascinating insight in what the novel and novelist can accomplish in exploring the lives they write about, and what this means for the reader.

Kundera explores this question in regards to Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” which on its release was and still continues to be a controversial book. Flaubert does not “use” the story of Madame Bovary to present a morality lesson or focus on the “uplifting” parts of Bovary’s life. An early critic, Sainte-Beuve, said of the novel, “My objection to his book is that the good is too much absent.” Kundera says:

Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire. He does not write his novels to communicate his judgments to readers. He is after something completely different: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things” (60).

In developing this line of thought, Kundera continues on the next page about the “exclusive” doorway that the novel accedes to that is different from a musician or poet. One of the purposes of the novel, among several, he describes:

. . . the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral; thus “getting into the soul of things” and setting a good example are two different and irreconcilable purposes (61).

You may already be thinking, I am supposed to just lay back and accept “unsafe” literature for a Sunday afternoon? Are we only to read about the terrible and bad things that go in the world? Can’t I just read something that will make me feel better? You can, for there are plenty of books that do just that, but you may be relinquishing your power as a reader to engage in the questions and issues that a novel can explore. From Kundera:

To emphasize: novelistic thinking, as Broch and Musil brought it into the aesthetic of the modern novel, has nothing to do with the thinking of a scientist or a philosopher; I would even say it is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does no proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs, its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful; and mainly it never leave the magic circle of its characters’ lives; those lives feed it and justify it (70-71).

What Kundera is getting at here is that an author’s focus should be to illuminate existence, to get at the soul of things. It is not the author’s job to teach lessons, give good examples, or tell us what to think. That is the job of Sunday School teachers, sacrament meeting talks, and General Authority books. What novels can do is explore and plumb the knowledge of people and experience, in which it then becomes the reader’s job to engage with the story and make their own judgments and conclusions, after “living with” the characters of a novel.

After you have experienced great characters from a novel, you begin to understand the complexity of human life and how choices and fate are sometimes not what they seem from the outside looking in. It becomes easy to judge people in our daily lives and the choices they have made, but the novel offers a way to experience, perhaps only intellectually, what it means to be someone that is different from you.

And where you go from there is up to you. For me it offers an opportunity to understand how to love another human being that is different, diverse, complex, or afflicted. For me this is the essence of true religion. To “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted” is what great literature offers those who dare to

Susan Jarratt –”The First Sophists and the Use of History”

In “The First Sophists and the Uses of History,” Susan Jarratt identifies the historiographical “othering” of sophists that began with Plato and Aristotle, was reinvigorated in the nineteenth century by Hegel, positivists, German idealists, and English conservative intellectuals, and has since continued with both literary study and composition scholars who tend to reify the binaries of Plato/Sophists, truth/probability, philosophy/rhetoric. In an effort to interrogate what kinds of histories scholars are re/creating in the 20th century stage of rediscovery and establish a link between these histories and the field of comp and rhetoric, Jarratt explores current reconsiderations of sophists at play in the academic arena across disciplines. Self-consciously succumbing to the Aristotelian tendency of taxonomizing or what Schilb calls taxomania, Jarratt identifies three versions of sophists created by contemporary scholars: analytic, performative, and pragmatic.
Some historians, Jarratt explains, value sophists for their analytic, highly philosophical ways of thinking which are opposed to Plato in terms of logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. Sophistic ways of analytical thinking ironically serve as the foundation to some degree of “epistemic” rhetoric and a sophist composition pedagogy, which maintains that meaning/reality is created in/through/by language. Historians focusing on the performative talents of sophists create possibilities of linking literacy studies with composition by redefining the sophists as “acrobats” of literature, who elicit emotional responses from their audience through stylistic power of their language rather than contribute in epistemologically meaningful ways to construction of knowledge or reality. Historians adopting a pragmatic view of sophists value sophists for their problem-solving abilities and social organizing mechanisms. They offer the sophists up as an alternative to Platonic/Aristotelian systems of political theory, communication, epistemology, and pedagogy and thus provide links for composition and political science and anti-foundationalist philosophy. In terms of composition and rhetoric, Jarratt believes the latter views of sophists show the most promise for elucidating how disciplinary discourse is comprised of “literary” features or “to what degree ‘scientific knowledge’ is shaped by social and aesthetic forces as they are manifested in discourse” (75).
After reading Schiappa’s “Sophistic Rhetoric: Oasis or Mirage,” it is difficult to buy into any of the views of sophists that Jarratt identifies in this article or comment on what value the sophists may have for the field of composition and rhetoric. For as Schiappa argues, “sophistic rhetoric” is a fiction created by Plato that we continue to reconstruct for our own contemporary purposes. Furthermore, in looking back to the sophists for what contributions they may have for our contemporary field commits what Schilb calls Brumairism, or evoking past rhetorical traditions to respond to present day conjunctures in our field. As Jarratt explains, however, the present conjuncture in which composition and rhetoric finds itself at the time this article was written and still finds itself even today is the perhaps self-imposed pressure to overcome the hegemony of literary criticism as well as the lack of fixed status, content, and disciplinary location of composition courses. Therefore, in light of this real anxiety, it is understandable why historiographers in the field of composition and rhetoric are reconsidering sophist contributions to our field; as Jarratt notes “sophistic rhetoric,” with both its performative and pragmatic natures, can in a sense validate and help “fix” the field of composition and rhetoric in the present day academy. What interests me in both Jarratt’s article and in Vitanza’s article “Critical Sub/versions of the History of Philosophical Rhetoric” when he calls for “an expressive, literary rhetoric” is the idea of marrying literature to composition and rhetoric in order to divorce itself from foundationalist philosophy—a move scholars obviously feel is necessary in order to stabilize our own discipline. I understand the postmodern desire to deconstruct objective truths, uncover the rhetorical nature of all knowledge, free up language, and, as Vitanza writes, “expel the influences of philosophy” from rhetoric all together, but why employ literature in the effort? Why not divorce rhetoric from literature as well as foundationalist philosophy? Why elucidate how disciplinary discourse is comprised of “literary features” rather than rhetorical strategies? Why create “an expressive literary rhetoric” rather than just “an expressive rhetoric” in and of itself?
The rhetorical scholar side of me wants to divorce rhetoric from literature all together. For I see the two disciplines as two very different enterprises and despise the elitist, hegemonic, belletristic nature of literature. I blame the rise of literature for the absence of rhetoric from contemporary K-12 public education—a condition which I think contributes to the obscene domination of corporations and the ruling class in our society, not to mention the ever-growing totalitarian administration that currently has upset the checks and balances system initially set up to ensure a healthy U.S. democracy (ouch!). Yet, the creative writer side of me thinks Jarratt and Vitanza are right in that embracing the “sophistic” tendency to employ literary features in order to move an audience would be in our field’s best interest for a number of reasons.
One, embracing literacy devices in our own scholarship would make our writing and our students’ writing much more interesting, stronger in terms of appeals, and more in line with authentic writing done outside the academy. Two, embracing literary criticism as Vitanza notes, would make the field of rhetoric less disciplinary and more diverse in terms of the theories we employ in our field. I wonder how productive it would be to join forces with literary critic scholars in an effort to obtain some of our educational, social, and political goals. Three, embracing a literary notion of rhetoric might open our eyes to different kinds of rhetoric employed both historically and currently across cultures. If we really want to enlarge our conception of rhetoric, as Enos and others have suggested we must do, then why not open the canon to literary texts clearly armed with rhetorical strategies and written with rhetorical aims? Lastly, embracing rather than distancing ourselves from literature might in fact elevate Rhetoric to its rightful position (hah!) and subsume literature as a type of rhetoric that uses specific literary/rhetorical devices employed to achieve specific aims. Big ideas with many political problems, I know, but isn’t it time we begin to complicate and deconstruct the great literature/rhetoric divide? Or is the only way to preserve composition and rhetoric as a field/discipline to divorce ourselves from literature? Jarratt certainly seems to think establishing a stronger link between literary studies and composition is a good idea. Although she wrote this article in 1987, I would be curious to see how she feels about this idea now…

Literature: Tales of a Female Nomad

“The fear of sounding foolish is the insidious enemy of learning a foreign language.” –Rita Golden Gelman, in Tales of a Female Nomad (2001)

Small WorldRita Golden Gelman is a modern-day nomad. She has been on the go for over twenty years, traveling all over the world to live within different cultures and to learn from the people she meets along the way. RGG says: “I’ve been living my nomadic existence since the day in 1986 when, at the age of forty eight, on the verge of a divorce, I looked around and thought, ‘There has to be more than one way to do life.’ There is.” Her book, Tales of a Female Nomad, is a collection of tales about how people “do life” all over the globe.

As I read RGG’s book this week, one theme emerged: it’s that in order to be with others and to learn from them, a person must consciously live in the present. “While I’m here,” says RGG—“here,” meaning wherever she is at the time— “I want to be 100 percent here…When I am writing, I am inside the sound and meaning of the words…When I am eating, I luxuriate in the taste and texture of every bite…And when I am with people, I am really with them.” Espousing this attitude, RGG has been able to move throughout the world and share meals with women in their kitchens or around their cook fires. She has slept in palaces and thatched huts. She has learned to speak in foreign languages and to communicate without words. RGG is older than my mom, and I found her story to be an inspiration because it’s really a story about living without constraints. Age, gender, color, and culture do not stop this lady from living out her passion for people.

Traci Macnamara cruising 50ccOne of my friends working in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Fiji sent this book to me, and while I read it last week, it made me wonder at what point a person attains “nomad” status. I haven’t had a permanent address in nearly four years, so I wonder if I fall into the category. I’ve been hoping for more stability in my life (this autumn, I’ve promised myself, I will stay put)—but RGG’s book certainly rekindled my desire to be present within these beautiful moments of geographic unrest.


A Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz wins Nobel for literature (JTA)
BUDAPEST, Oct. 10 (JTA) — An Auschwitz survivor who recently was criticized for defending Israel became the first Hungarian to win the Nobel prize for literature. The award to Imre Kertesz, 72, was announced Thursday. Hungarian Jews said the prize was gratifying to the entire community, while

Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told Kertesz that because of him, “the citizens of Hungary can be proud to be Hungarians.”

Kertesz was deported from Budapest to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. His books, all of which deal with the Holocaust, have been especially popular in Germany.

Among his most popular books are “Without Fate,” an autobiographical account of his experiences in the Holocaust, and “Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” in which he condemned a world that permitted the Holocaust.

Kertesz has been a frequent target of the Hungarian far-right. Far-right writer Istvan Csurka condemned Kertesz for saying that “my luggage is never unpacked, waiting in my house to leave Hungary.”

Kertesz has been an outspoken critic of the far-right, often writing in Hungarian newspapers to condemn the anti-Semitism espoused by the nation’s extremists.

This spring, after Kertesz visited Jerusalem for a conference of Holocaust survivors sponsored by Yad Vashem, he was criticized in a Hungarian literary journal for writing a pro-Israel article.