Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Power of Literature?

Shaping Reality?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Richard Stern -- the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus in English Languages and Literature (University of Chicago), a writer of fiction (e.g., Almonds to Zhoof, 2005) and recipient of the Medal of Merit for the Novel (American Academy of Arts and Letters) -- comments in an entry "Alternate Realities" (5/13/2007) at The New Republic's sort-of blog, Open University, on the power of literature to shape reality.

Stern opens with a quote from John McWhorter's post on the last play by August Wilson, Radio Golf, a play that Stern says treats "the theme of personal authenticity through acceptance of one's blackness." McWhorter -- Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former Associate Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley -- had dreaded to see this final play because he suspected that it would be about how much of a mess someone like him was. McWhorter writes:
As much as I have loved so many of Wilson's plays, I do not accept that the life I lead is unreal, inauthentic, or broken. Our vegetable garden is authentic, and I do not water my cucumbers because I wish I was white. My life is authentic. It is authentic to me ... the racial identity [Wilson] is suggesting is based on feeling ever conflicted, deeply different, with roots in a far off land in another time. That might float some people's boats, but I am more interested in feeling whole right here and now. History is important -- but not so much that, as Faulkner had it, the past isn't even past. August Wilson was, no questions asked, real. I wish that in his parting message to the world, he could have allowed that I and millions of other black people leading lives like mine are real too.
Stern agrees that "[t]hese words alone do much to vouch for McWhorter's reality, authenticity, and wholeness." Wilson's drama would thus seem to lack power over McWhorter's life.

Stern, however, turns from this point to emphasize literature's power:

Those elements of the past which form parts of what we call our identity -- family, religion, ethnic background, class, biological being including gender, strength, and health, our place in the communities of which we're a part -- almost surely lead to internal as well as external conflicts in the course of our life. Perhaps only those who never feel such conflicts can be called inauthentic and unreal. One talent of the dramatist and prose fiction writer is to stage the conflicts, that is, to so isolate or exaggerate one or more of the conflicting elements that it upsets the status quo of the drama's beginning and begins its drive toward another status, tragic, comic, or some rich combination of them. The bliss of the audience or readers is to get swept up in this two- or thirty-hour transfiguration[, e.g., in the case of Wilson's 10-play cycle,] in such a way that our own reality is enriched with what we've seen, heard, or read. The work of very powerful dramatists and novelists will in time alter, indeed, become the culture, that is, the very "reality on the ground."
This is a very strong affirmation of literature's power to shape reality. On that basis, Stern moves far abroad:

How wonderful it would be if there were in Iraq today a few dramatists with August Wilson-like gifts whose plays could enchant great numbers of Shia and Sunni with the dramatization of their complex identities in such a way as to get their fingers off gun triggers and their minds into the reflectiveness of Wilson's audiences or, for that matter, McWhorter's fine [comments].
I wonder if this could work in the way that Stern would wish. McWhorter's point -- one of them, anyway -- is that Wilson's formulation of the African-American experience doesn't fully speak to his own personal reality. If it speaks to a reality at all, then it fits more what McWhorter suggests:

I think I understand where Wilson was coming from. He grew up in the days of Jim Crow, when a black identity was not something to be chosen, nurtured and custom-fitted the way it is now.
McWhorter's point is that Wilson's dramas reinforce an already given black identity. That is their power.

By analogy, an Iraqi dramatist embodying the same sort of power would likely belong either to a Shia or Sunni community and demonstrate literary power by emphasizing an already given sectarian identity.

Thus, the power to shape reality and "in time alter, indeed, become the culture," would -- ironically -- depend upon an already given "reality on the ground," which it would reinforce, and that is not quite what we're looking for.

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At 9:06 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

The sectarian violence is as powerful as the jihad. Glory and magnificence in killing and dying. If the play were about the mundane, I feel it could shape the reality. it shouldn't be about the identity of the Shia or Sunni, but an identity struggling to live in Iraq.

McWhorter can only own his identity.

At 9:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, that would be the ideal, and perhaps such a play would work if it could appeal to a shared experience of life in a violent, dangerous Iraq ... but what would it then build on to bring the necessary trust?

I really need to buy Wilson's plays and read them. I've been outside of the country ever since first finding out about them and have had no chance to see them performed. Maybe they're on DVD?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:47 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Try PBS, I think they have broadcast a few.

I have not seen them either.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

One thing about McWhorter, I wish younger people would realize that older people exist and there are many. If the play was more in tune with my generation, so what.

You have a few more years before you begin to experience the feeling of invisibility.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Does PBS produce DVDs?

Me, invisible? Not if I stay here in Korea.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:18 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Only found this DVD

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Looks interesting even if it's not the dramas.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking for a place to tuck this because I didn't want to go through the trouble of looking up an email and then logging into email and writing it there....

Anyway, have you (Gypsy Scholar & any generic you that is into literature) checked out the Google Book Search?

I know I've linked a few things here. I just noticed that section of google a month or two ago. I don't know how long it has been around....but it gives me a feeling like back when I was a young teen first using Q-Link on my Commadore 64 and dreaming about the potential of what I'd later learn would be called cyber space...

There is an old Twilight Zone episode where an old man with mega thick glasses gets ragged on for reading everything, and in the end, the Cold War destroys everything but this man was saved by being in the right place at the right time, and he is tickled pink he will not be pressed by society anymore and can go to the NY city library and read to his hearts content...

Google book search is taking me there....

I was just searching around for books that have illustrations from William Blake's work.....wonderful...

If you (the generic you) haven't looked around google book search and you are into pre-contemporary literature and history, it is a (virtual) gold mine....

At 5:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

USinK, thanks. I had noticed it ... I think. I haven't yet made use of it (if I recall).

I'm hazy on this because I spend most of my searching looking for articles. But I'll give it another look.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been looking at some of William Blake's designs today. Awhile back, here when talking about Kubla Khan, I found the reference to Pearl in a book about native English poetry written in the middle 1700s. I've been reading travel and history books on Korea (and Corea) from the mid to late 1800s and up to the early 1920s. I've downloaded probably 20 books from that time period. I was reading some of John Wesley's sermons. I also downloaded a number of books on Buddhism, Hinduism, and history for Japan and China...

It seems to be a wonderful source for material published before the 1930s....

I just did a quick check, and it seems to have a lot of the translations and works of James Legge - who a fairly well-known scholar of Confucianism I got to take classes from said had made still the best translations of the Confucian classics to date.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

USinK, I've just tried out a websearch for books on celibacy and salvation with respect to "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," and I'm quite pleased with the result.

Thanks for the heads up on this one.

Jeffery Hodges

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