Friday, June 20, 2014

Response to the Downgrading of Literature

[My] assertion [is] that there is no Rennaissance for the modern reader. There is instead a curriculum, a forced burden, from which a few students might find a few things that they like. Students, save for a few, walk away from this cuirriculum with spite and a vow never to return.

I once heard the Renaissance defined as a love of the Classical World. There was a time when the educated would look back at the great thinkers (Aristotle) and Poets (Homer) with admiration and a desire to emulate. Today there seems to be no looking back (ie, Renaissance). Instead there is a looking forward, mainly to audience appeal and profits. Literature is deemed to suffer because of that. The place of Industry and Capitalism seems to be the best place to blame, if blame is the objective. A commoditization? Industrialization? An assembly line, for books? At least in part, and perhaps in totality. Let us push further into this historical tangent: The scientific revolution propounded new methods of thought which made the previously mysitcal place of art and literature quantifiable. We can look at Psychology as the more obvious example, but Historicism and Formalism are active as well. Art was to be classified, not worshipped.

From Lukacs The Theory of the Novel

"Truly a folly to the Greeks! Kant’s starry firmament now shines only in the dark night of pure cognition, it no longer lights any solitary wanderer’s path (for to be a man in the new world is to be solitary). And the inner light affords evidence of security, or its illusion, only to the wanderer’s next step. No light radiates any longer from within into the world of events, into its vast complexity to which the soul is a stranger. And who can tell whether the fitness of the action to the essential nature of the subject — the only guide that still remains — really touches upon the essence, when the subject his become a an object unto itself; when his innermost and most particular essential nature appears to him only as a never-ceasing demand written upon the imaginary sky of that which ‘should be'; when this innermost nature must emerge from an unfathomable chasm which lies within the subject himself, when only what comes up from the furthermost depths is his essential nature, and no one can ever sound or even glimpse the bottom of those depths? Art, the visionary reality of the world made to our measure, has thus become independent: it is no longer a copy, for all the models have gone; it is a created totality, for the natural unity of the metaphysical spheres has been destroyed forever."

What are we getting at? This commoditization is realized by the modern audience as born consumers, and as such, the modern audience places literature on the same plain as cell phones and shampoo. Like those commodities, they pick the book they like best, for whatever reason (advertising, social pressure, personal relatability, etc). Thus the reader is defined.

For a writer in a saturated market (the saturation is debatable, but that argument is for another day), he/she has to cut through the great noise with the most obvious emotional appeals onto a very narrow audience, in order to make sales. Thus the writer is defined. The economic needs and desires of the struggling author lead to a soppy, cliched product for the reader.

Commoditization and a lack of Renaissance compound into eachother until the thought of Literature as Art is a matter only for lifelong academics sitting in their offices. Though I add this is not unique to this span of history (for instance, the late 1800s in America). It seems to take a historical event (World War I) to smack western literature out of its funk, and back into producing art that is historically significant. I would like to respond to more of your post, especially the bit about an English education (which I largeley agree with), but the rambling needs to stop.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Something on the Meaning of Literature

Presented with the question, "What is the meaning of Literature?"

Such a broad question deserves a broad response. I take by the framing of the question and responses that we are proposing "meaning" as the objective purpose, and not the subjective "meaning" of personal relations. For fun, let us take a soft Marxist point of view. So I half-heartedly assert: Literature is in part an attempt to rectify language into an imitation of nature (where painting or sculture actually imitated nature). Though after the Industrial Revolution and subsequent onset of nationalism, all literature is destined to become a mode of propoganda.

Therefore, the meaning (as objective purpose) can be said to be twofold:

1. an imitation of nature (beauty)
2. propoganda (politics)

I might go so far as to assert the primary and perhaps defining dialectic of literature is in these factors. The Imitation of nature (beauty) is the demeanor of the work, i.e., the outward appearance and means of appeal to the reader. But the nature of the work is, in one way or another, propoganda; it either promotes the status-quo (decadence, bourgeois) or calls for change (revolution).

See: Kant; Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno, et al.

In addition, we must be careful to not confuse the meaning of "writing" with the meaning of "literature."

Excerpts from The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Regarding the Discussion on Professions

All higher education seems to encounter the same problem in different ways, that the degree is not itself a preparation for the profession. Medical students have a residency which gives them a pre-defined way to turn their medical knowledge gleaned from years of medical school into practical experience. In that they have a luxury (though any current resident would beg to differ with their 80+ hour work weeks). Other professions have no built-in way of turning academic education into everyday practicality. Frankly, I don't see how they could without some kind of unprecedented employment/training pipeline, a la residency.

That does not nullify the purpose of formal education. There instead needs to be a social correction on college and beyond, noting first of all that a degree does not guarantee gainful employment. It is up to the student to recognize the need for practical experience (internships, part-time jobs), connections within their industry, referrals, etc. These requirements are perhaps more important than the academic substance of the education, depending on the field of study. The need to "juggle" is omnipresent in the business world, and should be in the schools that seek to educate future professionals.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Longinus, a Respite

Though not without consideration in the annals of the Humanities graduate student (I’m sure), Longinus goes often overlooks among the great Greek and Roman philosophers and orators. The shadow of Aristotle is long and broad, broader still with Plato beside him. This may be due to a lack of works, the survivor being On The Sublime. Or it may be due to a lack of reflection on the work. I suspect the latter. Unfortunately, this article is not the place to delve into a detailed historical speculation.

Yet, it is noteworthy to consider the historical ambiguity surrounding the author of On the Sublime. Spurning any definitive claim to his own work, the author has enchanted the words with a kind of mysiticism. The image brought into one’s mind is that of a learned roman nobleman, perhaps adorned with olive branches, representing the ideal of ancient scholastic idealism.

Whatever the case may be, it is no doubt a shame that there is not more credit given to the person collectively known as Longinus. Regarding the tone and ideas of the text itself, there is a certain idealism that shines through. Aristotle remains popular perhaps due to his more scientific approach, which is certainly held in favor in the mechanical science-driven modern world.

Indeed, the past century has seen the discrediting of literary idealism in all its forms, moving towards a certain definition of realism. Has realism become the new “Sublime?” But this is getting too large an undertaking to continue . Suffice it to say that the author Longinus deserves a second look in light of the many developments in literary theory in the past century.

On the Sublime

"It is proper to observe that in human life nothing is truly great which is despised by all elevated minds. For example, no man of sense can regard wealth, honour, glory, and power, or any of those things which are surrounded by a great external parade of pomp and circumstance, as the highest blessings, seeing that merely to despise such things is a blessing of no common order: certainly those who possess them are admired much less than those who, having the opportunity to acquire them, through greatness of soul neglect it." (section VII)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bloom's Shakespeare assertion

Relating to the (out-of-context) opinion of Harold Bloom placing Shakespeare as the greatest writer. Presented with the questions:

1. Are authors such as Homer and Shakespeare the absolute best writers?
2. If we take it that the answer to 1 is yes than why is it that Dante has never been equalled in Italian, Homer in Greek or Chaucer in English

I struggle to cast a definite opinion of whether Bloom is correct or not. His opinion is certainly justifiable and in line with great literary minds before and after him.

Having delved into serious criticism over the past several months (though not yet Bloom), I can safely say that a theme prevails over much of 18th and 19th century English criticism in regards to what is "best." So, it wasn't just Bloom who emerged with these ideas. To greatly simplify: Each sphere or epoch of admiration is a time of great innovation and of great culture. Most famous among these are Pericles' Athens, Renaissance Italy, and Elizabethan England.

Homer represents the best of the Greek world, and the Athenian Greek world is what Arnold calls (summarizing) a perfect culmination of culture and religion. Dante could be said to fulfill the same role for Renaissance Italy. Shakespeare may not have so much religious influence, but one could say that his idolation of historical figures at least helps in that regard. In any case, by breadth of influence does Shakespeare fit the bill, and as the only among the three who wrote native English, it's little surprize that he is often considered the "best" by English-speaking critics. Though some, notably Thomas Love Peacock, have asserted that Milton is the superior. Certainly Milton better culminates the prevailing Religious influence. see: Four Ages

Having summarized this in relation exclusively to the narrow path above mentioned, let me attempt to answer the questions just as narrowly:

1. Homer, yes. Shakespeare, debatable. (I personally put Milton in the lead)

2. Homer has no equal in Greek and perhaps any language - see above. Dante has no equal in Italian as his work represents the literary culmination of a great epoch in human history. Chaucer well represents his age but does not repesent the best of English literature.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Reply to Science vs. Religion

In the forums

Lacking the training to get too specific, I would like to contribute my personal experience to the general conversation.

Like many of us, I suspect, I was born a Christian and rebelled against it later in life. I searched for answers to the many questions that would arise during such a rebellion, but no answer was quite so easy or satisfying as "God." Nonetheless, knowing the inherent contradictions of the established religions and encouraged by the obvious abuses of the religious, I never went back. This because the only reason to go back is that it was easy.

It is easy to believe in Heaven, and angels, and everlasting life. It is much more difficult, tragically so, to know that death brings the infinite, timeless darkness. In the deepest corner of our minds, we all suspect this is true - but most cannot and will not accept it. This because such a thought imbues a great responsibility: You only have one life. Religion has spent innumerable years and efforts to escape this responsibility. As a tool of rationalization, it is fundamentally wrong.

Knowing that religion is wrong, does that make science right? No, not necessarily. That is a grand example of a false dilemma (apologies if this was said before). I suspect the answer is somewhere in between, as is usually the case.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Europe’s Weakness Highlights Putin’s Strength

The European Union is a financial amalgamation of states and currencies, bound together in order to counter the financial power of the United States, and more recently, China. This has been generally good for the whole of the continent. But as a cohesive self-defense unit, they are totally unreliable and cannot be depended on to counter the aggression of Russia. NATO is also suspect.

As Putin presses his advantage, and America and her allies stumble over their “diplomatic” options, one has to wonder what realistic options are available to stop Putin from pressing all the way to the doorstep of Europe. Bold talk seems to be the order of the day. Russia presents a united effort to press and hold their own interests while the rest of the world pauses, considers, and hesitates.

America and Europe have made a terrible mistake by assuming that Putin and the Russian army have neither the gumption nor the expertise to actually seize and occupy territory. But they have done that – much more effectively than in any of the wars fought by America in the past decade. By taking and holding Crimea without warning or resistance, Russia has shown the capability to wage modern war more effectively than its most visible competitor.

And so sits Europe, dangling like a fat fruit, ripened by decades of peace and prosperity. If the tanks begin to roll over the countryside, what power could stop them? Could any country in Europe muster a successful defense, or even slow down the modern jets and highly trained troops as they wreak havoc and assume control? Was the whole of the continent so satisfied with the treaties and the protection of America, that they are all but powerless in a conventional war? And what of America? Would war-weary America put itself forward as the shield of Eastern Europe? Would America jeopardize its entire military and economic well-being for Latvia, Romania, or Poland?

In times of stress, the faults will begin to show. As pressure continues to build, individual countries will inevitably look to their own interests. Germany may roll up its good will in favor of more self-protective measures. The same could be said for the United Kingdom. Spain and Italy may not survive in such an environment, with their own governments and economies so fragile. Greece, Macedonia, and other Baltic states may welcome the opportunity to support Russia, and vis-à-vis gain their own economic and industrial advantages. What side might Libya and Northern Africa take?

There must not be a second underestimate. Russia and Putin are working masterfully on the diplomatic and warfare stages, leaving America and her allies struggling to catch up to the moment. America and Europe must assume that this is but the first in a series of well-planned and prepared actions, carried out by experts with decades of experience. Even now, there may be agents turning the wheels on the next phase, sowing discontent and weakening resistance in new theatres. There must not be a second underestimate.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Trip to California

From a letter to my brother.

The California trip. The first flight was a 6+ hour excursion, due to what the pilot called “strong headwinds.” I didn’t think it was too bad, because the plane was pretty comfortable and the accommodations were very nice (we basically had a fully functional TV for each seat, and also soft drinks on demand. I like Virgin America). However, Mom and Dad were not having such a great time. Though Mom handled the trip very well overall, she did admit that she was feeling claustrophobic for the duration of the flight. Dad was also mentally sore by the end of that trip, later saying it was “pretty much his limit” for length of flight. None of us slept very much. The lousy travel, mixed with the jet lag, meant that Mom and Dad had very limited energy for the next three days. But they were good soldiers, and kept a good attitude throughout. I am very thankful to them for that. Farda and I plan to get them something special for their anniversary, as a thank you. I guess I should find out when their anniversary is.

Farda picked us up at LAX – an adventure in itself. Fortunately she knew what she was doing, because we were like logs in the river. I looked out across 3 or 4 parallel roads, all with different functions, and wonder how anyone ever gets where they are supposed to be.

We did breakfast the first morning, with Farda’s immediate family. That’s when we “made it official.” Mom asked Farda’s Mom for permission to join our families. Everyone was happy, and that put me at ease. Mom and Dad also tried some new food, and liked it. The whole thing was about as good as I could ask for.

Then we went to see the Pacific. They took us to all the local beaches, and some of them were simply breathtaking. Makes Jersey look like even more of a dump. Huntington Beach was massive – long and extremely well maintained. You could fit hundreds of thousands of people there, comfortably. Newport was another experience. It felt like a private beach, but it wasn’t. They built those fancy houses almost to the edge of high-tide. It was beautiful, and I envied the people living in that place, with the ideal weather, with their roof-top lounges and sweeping balconies. What a life that must be. Then, we went further south, towards Laguna, and stopped at a cliff face overlooking the ocean. We didn’t know what the beach was named, but it was stunning. There were a line of rocky hills, and between them were white-sand beaches. They built condos and houses into the cliffs like the elves of Rivendell. Quite a display. I even took a few pictures with my phone. Finally, we made our last stop at Laguna Beach. It was a very nice town, swollen with shops but not too touristy. We ate an early dinner there, outside (in January), at a nice little Inn overlooking the beach. That alone was worth the 6-hour flight, in my opinion.

By the time we got back to the hotel, which was about 6:00, Mom and Dad were struggling to stay awake. I was also struggling, but I wasn’t afraid to use coffee. Coffee definitely saved me that night.

Farda took me to a Sushi place, to meet her friends. That was pretty great – they were very nice, and the Sushi was beyond excellent. West Coast Sushi is simply better. Like New York Pizza, there’s no comparison. I also tried Jamba Juice. Overrated.

And that’s about the end of the end of the excitement. We went to meet some extended members of Farda’s family the next day, for an engagement party. Farda was dressed up to the teeth, looking very pretty. The party at first was a bit unsettling, because everyone there was treating me like I was the man. Like, the man in charge. Everywhere I looked, people wanted to get me things – tea, food, a seat, gifts, etc. They were asking me for permission to do things, like start eating, or to introduce themselves, or to leave the house. I was the center of attention. It’s a cultural thing. And, by the end of the party, I was enjoying it. I might feel like a real King at the wedding.

The plane ride home was much better. 4.5 hours, smooth flying, plane only half-full, and in the sunlight so it felt less like a prison. We landed tired but happy, and drove back to our normal lives.