Reading and Return

October 6, 2011

When a conversation turns to politics, or religion, or any of the other taboo subjects known to produce ire and dispel good humor, the tone in a room changes perceptibly. Longer pauses precede speech for some; others begin to flush. Air passageways constrict, and feet shuffle on the floor. Without needing to be told, everyone present knows that the stakes have risen.

I found myself thinking of this scenario when I was reading a passage from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” Take a look:

Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. (CR2 259, emphasis mine)

I love Woolf’s advice in the middle of this passage. In her vision, to read is to open yourself to the mind of another. The subject matter may be just as sensitive and controversial as the conversation I described, but something about the form of a book differentiates the two scenarios.

In a conversation, you have one chance at a particular encounter, a particular moment in the conversation — one chance, as it were, to say the right thing. You can cycle back to the same topic again, but the encounter is not the same. (Thus, the air of hesitancy or of reckless abandon: the first response is crucial and irrevocable.)

In contrast, the beauty of a book is the ability to return and revisit an idea exactly as it was. You will have changed, your response to the ideas having been modified by what you have read and seen since your first encounter, but the text of the book remains the same.

The implication is that a book provides a safe venue in which to encounter ideas wholly outside your comfortable paradigm. It is safe to open yourself to an author in the manner Woolf describes, because you can read the book a second time, with a critical eye. You can accept the author’s preconceptions and presumptions on their own terms, then return to question their merits.

As a result, you can identify the pathos in Shakespeare’s greatest villains. You can appreciate Machiavelli’s subtlety and pragmatism. You can read Kipling and Orwell alongside Coetzee and Rushdie. You can suspend judgment long enough to see, as Woolf writes, “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, [which] bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other.”

However, if this type of encounter remains possible only with a book or a fictionalized narrator, then the promise of literature is a weak one.

Rather, my hope is that our practices of reading could begin to translate to our practices of encountering others and other ideas. Although I have made the claim that a one-to-one comparison is impossible, I believe we gain something when we train ourselves to read for “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness.” Literary encounters could serve as “training wheels” for the encounters in which we must meld critical thinking and openness, wisdom and empathy.



Poetics of Grief

September 23, 2011

Today, Palestine seeks recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

Two days ago, President Obama told Palestinians, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

Last week, I was reading a book I found on clearance at a Borders going-out-of-business sale. The author, Mahmoud Darwish, was a celebrated Palestinian poet who died in 2008. His lyrical essay collection Journal of an Ordinary Grief (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi) deals with home, exile, belonging, borders, and injustice, but also with the role — and impotence — of the poet in navigating these difficult and politically charged concepts.

Rather than attempt to dissect and analyze the relationship between Darwish’s writing and the current political situation, I want to set out one passage that drew my attention and made me pause before I had even begun the book proper.

The battles do not end, and the language remains on edge. These pages do not tell the whole story. They only set down the beginnings of a small voice that shook the rock a little. The homeland is distant and near, and in this everyday grief and everyday death the writing gets written, or tries to get written, so that this ordinary grief may stop accepting being acceptable.

There is something safe and unsatisfying about reading a poem instead of dealing with media representations, historical grievances, and political maneuvering. As Darwish writes, “Justice is a hope that resembles an illusion if it is not supported by power.”

However, it seems to me that the narratives spoken at the U.N. this week and the stories written in history books and newspapers and passed from parent to child all represent attempts to give voice to everyday griefs like those Darwish extrapolates in his poetry. To me, the exchange of stories through poetry and literature — even if it is a safe, low-stakes medium for me as an American reader — does matter.

What does it mean for an ordinary grief to “stop accepting being acceptable”? The language is poetic and muted, but its use of repetition and degrees of removal resembles the long, convoluted search for peace. In this context, making statements may not bring immediate change, but it creates the possibility of an encounter with another human who is struggling to write his or her story, despite the limitations of language, vulnerability, and an imperfect world. That kind of encounter is most deeply felt when it takes place face-to-face, but writing it is, at the very least, a beginning.

Honesty, Debate, and Literature

July 21, 2011

I was driving to a coffee shop this morning, listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Diane’s guest was Juan Williams, the author of Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. The book goes on sale next week (July 26) from Random House. Here’s a piece of the description from the publisher’s website:

In today’s partisan world, where media provocateurs rule the airwaves and political correctness dictates what can and cannot be said with impunity, Williams shows how the honest exchange of ideas and the search for solutions and reasonable compromise is deliberately muzzled. Only those toeing the party’s line—the screaming voices of the extremist—get airtime and dominate the discussion in politics and the media. Each side, liberal and conservative, preaches to a choir that revels in expressions of anger, ideology, conspiracies, and demonized opponents. The result is an absence of truth-telling and honest debate about the facts.

While I have mixed feelings about Williams’s statement and dismissal and the resulting NPR funding debate, I think he raises a worthwhile question: how important are the words with which we engage in open conversation? When “diplomacy” and “political correctness” meet “honest” and “unflinching” conversation, at what point does each side need to compromise?

The same concern seems to underlie the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks. Diplomats speak more freely if they are not afraid of hearing their words in a sound byte on the nightly news; however, they also discard some of the tact and consideration associated with their posts.

Although legal concerns are certainly important, if the only angle discussed is the legal protection of free speech, I think we risk missing the personal. The promotional copy writer for Williams’ book concludes that “Only by bringing such hot button issues into the light of day can we hope to grapple with them, and exercise our cherished, hard-won right of free speech.” In my mind, it’s not quite that simple. In our media-saturated world, thousands of issues see the light of day and yet are not seen. The glare of competing messages, preconceptions, buzzwords, and mistranslation still gets in the way.

What is (often) lacking is a decompressing of the “hot button issues” into information that admits complexity and contradiction. What is (often) lacking is the idea that free speech can be used to build up, not just to tear down. What is (often) lacking is a face-to-face encounter that is not about “winning” an argument but about building a relationship.

To me, some of these missing pieces are cultivated by the study and practice of literary thinking. What I mean by “literary thinking” is a model of reading the world that places you in the perspective of others, admits and works within contradiction, and pays attention to the limitations of language and human understanding, while seeking to recognize its beauty and potential.

The idea is still half-formed, and of course, this blog is also a mediated platform subject to the same weaknesses I just identified. Perhaps my musings have no practical value at all. Nonetheless (pointless whimsy or not, impractical idealism or not, lexical gap or not), I cannot help wishing that the mode and tone — not necessarily the subject — of conversations about literature could translate more often to the political realm.

Imagination and the Impossible

April 26, 2011

A few weeks ago, international bestselling author Salman Rushdie spoke at Duke University on “Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World.” Read a review here. Here’s a snippet:

Human beings are unique among the world’s creatures in telling stories, he said, and writers willing to tell those stories can change their world just as the works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe prompted reform in their worlds.

“That’s what all great literature tries to do,” [Rushdie] said. “It tries to open the universe a little more. In order to push out the boundaries of the universe … you have to go to the frontiers and push … when writers do that, they find very powerful forces pushing back and the consequences can be significant … but you can bet that art will outlast tyranny.” (Read More…)

Pushing out the boundaries of the universe is akin to what Czech former president and playwright Václav Havel calls “the art of the impossible“: recognizing that ideals like freedom, democracy, and human rights can be realized only imperfectly, yet in the face of that knowledge, continuing to seek better ways to approach those ideals.

To do so is to combine pragmatism and idealism.

What is more, to do so demands an act of imagination.

(See also Rushdie speaks on role of the novelist).

Holiday Poems, Holiday Joy?

December 16, 2009

This year, the first female British poet laureate wrote a Christmas poem for the Radio Times. It’s called “The Twelve Days of Christmas 2009,” but many of the people reading it are not chiming in with “Five go-old rings.”

That’s because Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is not your typical peace on earth, good will toward men Christmas jingle. Stanza nine (“nine ladies dancing”) includes the lines:

But the lady in the Detention Centre
does not dance.
But the honour killing lady does not dance.
But the drowned policeman’s lady
does not dance.
But the lady in the filthy hospital ward
does not dance.

…and so on. The poem is an indictment of contemporary world issues ranging from global warming to the financial crisis.

Duffy’s lack of Christmas cheer has drawn comments from many directions. The National in the UAE suggests that Duffy is following her predecessor, Andrew Motion, who veered away from the feel-good, laudatory poems of previous poet laureates. A writer for the U.K. Daily Mail says that, besides being depressing, it’s just bad poetry.

When Duffy was appointed, The Guardian called the post “poetry’s most prestigious job,” and Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised her ability to place “the whole range of human experiences into lines that capture the emotions perfectly.” Duffy herself said she wanted to see the role become “more people’s poet than monarch’s bard.”

If that is the foundation of “Twelve Days,” I think there is certainly validity in stepping away from role of poet-as-sycophant.

On the other hand, although poetry may be uniquely situated to call attention to social problems otherwise ignored or made commonplace, I wonder, in a world of newspapers only too ready to emphasize the tragic, is there not another role that poetry might play?

Perhaps I am biased, but while I value honest poetry that does not sugarcoat the world, I also value the ability of a poet to cast glimpses of what could be, as well as what, lamentably, is.

During the holiday season, when depression is already high, it seems there are two extremes it would be desirable to avoid: 1) creating unreal expectations and false happiness that only disappoint; but also, 2) refusing the possibility of real joy and hope by dwelling on only the ugly and the joyless.

A Civic Crisis in Education

August 28, 2009

Science and math are the keys to global competitiveness.

Science and math are where the jobs are.

Science and math are…

Now you finish the sentence. I’m sure you’ve heard this line of thought before. As an avowed humanities scholar, I sometimes find it frustrating that my field of choice is ignored beyond its connotations for literacy and national standards of reading among young children. Once they can read, start them in science, where they can be useful.

That’s one (albeit selfish) reason I’ve chosen “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school” from Judy Rabin, based on an article by Mark Souka, for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

[Mark Slouka] argues the emphasis on mathscience and the devaluing of the humanities by those who control education and write and talk about education in the general media have framed the discussion within the context of economic success and competition.

He asks the question, Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one?

Take a look at any publication coming out of the department of education or from political pundits debating national standards, or pre-K education, or community colleges. You’ll see a theme: education recovery = economic recovery. Better schools = better economy.

This theme underscores what is, to me, a bigger problem in our way of thinking about education. From the original article by Souka:

It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production. […] only by studying this world can we hope to shape how it shapes us; that only by attempting to understand what used to be called, in a less embarrassed age, “the human condition” can we hope to make our condition more human, not less.

Foremost in concerns about education are not the familiarity of individuals with the U.S. constitution, understanding of the  judicial system, or intelligent dialogue about foreign policy, scientific ethics, or personal responsibility.

Science and math are important, certainly. But such a single-minded focus comes with the risk of ignoring the civic, as well as economic, value of education.

Don’t forget: what made the United States different (or has set it apart) from its inception was the way its civic society, not its economic system, was established.

Thanks, Judy, for a thought-provoking post.

“The very spring and root of virtue and honesty lie in good education”
– Plutarch

We the People…and Literati

July 4, 2009

One of the original American documents, a piece of literature all Americans should keep in mind, especially today.

Have a wonderful Independence Day!

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

Column 1
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Column 3
John Hancock
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
Matthew Thornton

View the original document from the National Archives here.