Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (with apologies to David Bowie)

I recently started reading Verlyn Flieger’s A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie and it got me thinking.  Flieger discusses the changes that were occurring in the world during Tolkien’s life, particularly during his late-teens and early-20s.  In many ways, this begins as a New Historicist read, noting the major movements and such that were part of Tolkien’s socio-historical context, beyond the old references to WWI.  Flieger examines the movements and countermovements that occurred in the early-20th century in science, art, and philosophy, thoughts and knowledge that changed worldviews.  The work of Freud, Jung, Einstein, Planck, Pound, Joyce, and Picasso.  Each of whom essentially changed how we view the world, or responded to such changes.

 This got me thinking about my grandparents’ lives.  They went from radios and public phones to four channel black & white TV and rotary dial to cable, smartphones, and streaming TV.  Even in my own, relatively short, life, the technological changes from VHS to Blu-ray, landlines to pocket size cell phones, green screen dial-up computers to tablets.  Not to mention all the scientific advances, medical advances, changes in psychology, and philosophies of the last three decades.

 Unlike Tolkien, I grew up with theories of uncertainty regarding the world and continual change, from Einstein to Schroedinger, Jung to Freud, and others.  I grew up with the idea that change is the only constant in the universe.  I grew up in a household with science and mythology, both of which essentially teach the same thing via different methods and languages.  I love the “uncertainty” theories, multiverse theory, and all the possibilities that come from them.

 But, I can also understand why some people desire the comfort of perceived solidity often found in conservative religion and revisionist history (the idea that history never changes, therefore our knowledge of history never changes).  The very things that I enjoy, the uncertainty they engender, can be frightening.  The perception of something going on, unchanged, for 1700+ years (as false as that belief is) can be a comfort, I suppose.  Personally, I think that way lies stasis, which is in many ways equivalent to death.  But, that’s me.

 The fear is then fed by our changing technology.  For instance, dissemination of news.  In my grandparents’ day, there was only an hour or so of news a day (on the radio and at the movies) and newspapers came out twice daily.  Reporters had to be good at what they did.  They had to condense the entire day’s news into an hour block.  Even in my lifetime, I recall only having news on TV at 5, 6, and 11, or about three hours of news a day.  Even then, reporters had to keep things condensed and focused.

 Today’s 24 hour broadcasts let reporters get lazy, with ten, twelve hours covering the same story.  The coverage starts with Geraldo, then Van Susteren, then O’Reilly, then Hannity, for instance, all talking about the exact same event.  It is easy to see why fear develops and gets out of hand.  It is easy to see how 10+ hours of coverage of the same event turns into the belief that multiple events occurred, thereby amplifying the reaction.

 While our technological advances have unleashed at era of unprecedented access to information, I’m not sure that it is good for society or the individual psyche, especially when the internet news and mobile update elements are added.

 Thinking about these things, I think it is easy to see why we appear to have increases in mental disorders, people (a shrinking number) clinging to conservative religion (theoretically stable and unchanging), and an inordinate growth of fear among the general public in developed nations, particularly the U.S.

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Defining Literature

I was thinking about “literature” again today, in reference to a discussion elsewhere.  Obviously, after 17 years studying the subject, I think about it a fair amount.  To date, I’ve found “literature” is a term that becomes more difficult to define the more I study it.  Every definition I’ve tried out to date has had significant exceptions.  In some ways, I guess, defining literature is like defining art or pornography (“I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it”).

So far, the best I’ve come up with is: literature has layers of meaning and the potential for longevity (or already has longevity).

To rephrase in Jungian terms:
Literature draws on the collective unconscious (the source of myths and legends; e.g. the things that affect us on a very deep level regardless of culture, era, etc.).

Non-Literature draws on the collective conscious (the source of fads and cults; e.g. the passing fancies that die out after a short life).

I tend to reject the idea that “literature” must be boring or pretentious.  For example, I consider Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Harper Lee, Terry Pratchett, and C.S. Lewis to be literary (and certainly not boring or pretentious).  I defy anyone to call Shakespeare or Chaucer pretentious (the former filling his plays with bodily functions and innuendo for humor, the latter making judicious use of fart jokes), the same for E.A. Poe.

On the other hand, Stephanie Meyer, Danielle Steele, William Shatner . . . none will be remembered for their fiction 30-40 years from now, I think.

On another hand, it’s been my experience that many who set out out be “literary” come off as pretentious.

But, then again, I just don’t see why some “literary” authors out there are considered “great” (ex. Fitzgerald, Melville, Faulkner).

Why Great Books? (Recycle)

 Two major questions come to mind with the phrase “great books” (beyond asking what “great books” means): 1) Why should we defend/preserve the literary canon?; and 2) Why should we care about “great books”?

 

Obviously, speaking as a medieval history/lit nut, my personal answer is easy: they’re fun and cool.

 

But, this answer is certainly not even quasi-scientific and probably won’t work for the larger audience that is western society.

 

First, a little history. For the last few decades, the traditional literary canon has been under attack, and with good reason. I definitely agree that we need to include certain “minority” authors who have been overlooked (though not all, Elizabeth Keckley, for instance, couldn’t write to save her life) and we need to make room for modern authors (hey, I’m also a sci-fi/fantasy geek). However, this inclusion doesn’t mean we should completely ignore canonical authors such as Chaucer, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Spenser, Malory, and the rest.

 

Unfortunately, I got through four years as an undergrad English major with no opportunity to read Beowulf, Spenser, Malory, Dante, or Milton in a literature class. My experience with Beroul and Langland came in a history class. On the other hand, I read Ann Petry and Ed McBain for classes.

 

This still begs the question: why should we support/preserve the canon? My relatively simple answer is that the canon is the basis of much of western society’s modern literature and culture. For instance, Tolkien couldn’t have written Lord of the Rings without Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Celtic mythology, and the Arthurian romances; Lucas couldn’t have written Star Wars without knowledge of Roman legend, Malory, and Shakespeare; many of Pratchett’s best scenes would be nonsense without his (and the reader’s) knowledge of Shakespeare, John Webster, and Arthurian romances. Without at least a passing knowledge of “canonical” works, we as readers and viewers miss many layers of the texts we read/view every day.

 

This influence is not the only reason to preserve knowledge of the canon (nor is it the only influence on western literature/film). At a really simple level, canonical texts such as Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, Malory, Marie de France, Homer, Virgil, and Aristophanes are just fun to read. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Aristophanes, for instance, still make modern audiences laugh uproarously (see: “The Reeve’s Tale”, Much Ado About Nothing, and Lysistrata respectively as examples).

 

Additionally, these works tell us something about the periods in which they were written. Sometimes they show us that humanity hasn’t really changed all that much. Case in point, Aristophanes shows us that similar social issues were present in his day and the modern world, and that people laughed at similar events, even if we don’t get all his jokes. In this way, these pieces also tell us something about humanity/ourselves in psychological terms, or at least psychoanalytic terms. When we apply Jung, for instance, we find (through Joseph Campbell) that ancient heroes such as Aeneas and Odysseus go through the same cycle of growth and challenge as modern heroes like Conan, the Skywalkers, and Neo (even if modern heroes have worse actors playing them). This tells us something about humanity as a whole. The same goes for the other archetypal figures and events we see throughout early western literature in the canon.

 

Admittedly, I’m a bit biased on this, being a medievalist and focusing my research along Jungian lines, but I think the theory holds up pretty well. Constructive challenges are, as always, certainly welcome, though.