Tuesday, November 28, 2006

You Want Me to WHAT?: Adventures in Blogging

Because prior to this class I actually declared that I would never ever have a blog (after all, how can you respect anything with such a ridiculous name?), I should probably be analyzing my blogging experience more than anyone. In the same semester, I have both taken a writing class that demands my essays in blog format, and also worked for an online journal that required me to compose a weekly blog (AngeBlogo).

My first blog essay included three posts in A Word or Two each concerning current literary events: the first on the passing of Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, the second describing a reading on campus involving Dante’s Inferno, and the third including posts I made on other blogs regarding reports that President Bush was reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I had to acquiesce myself to the blog format in each, particularly in my use of links and images, while still addressing an overall theme regarding the necessity of creative literature. My second blog essay evaluated a Webby Award winner, Can I Have a Word. I had difficulty presenting evidence for my claims, particularly as much of my argument was about what was not on the site rather than what was. Can I Have a Word was also in Flash format, and I was unable to link to specific areas within the website. I presented an argument that the site failed to address general concepts about Creative Writing, which teachers first introducing young students to literature should probably explore before actually conducting literary exercises. Finally, I responded to a prompt requesting nominees for the USC Honorary Degree. I argued that J.K. Rowling through her Harry Potter novels has surpassed many by not only crafting immensely popular works, but also by encouraging students to develop passion for literature that extends beyond her own books.

While I was content with my focus on the value of Rowling as a writer rather than her role as an USC Honorary Degree recipient, I felt that my prose in both the third and second (Can I Have a Word) essays could have been trimmer and more concise. Through these experiences I have realized that blogging requires a unique approach to analytical writing. Where readers indulging in hard-copy essays or articles are somewhat committed to the work they are reading, online users may simply click the browser button to stop reading an online piece. The blogging format, therefore, requires less focus on incorporating sources, and more on the brevity and creativity in which a subject is presented. Although the process does not negate the presentation of factual detail, it does demand that a writer provide readers with the information that is most pertinent and engaging, rather than what might merely structure another academic essay. This experience certainly presented me with its challenges, but also proved that the online arena can offer readers an improved connection to facts and concepts (through hyperlinks). Hopefully, blogging and online composition in general will continue to expand and cultivate knowledge, rather than (as many have feared) obliterate other, more tangible forums for writing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Literary Portkey: J.K. Rowling and the Generation That Read

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold more copies in its first twenty-four hours on bookstore shelves than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code sold in an entire year. The Harry Potter series has been credited with instigating an international reading frenzy, especially within though not limited to the world’s technology-fluent youth. But unlike The Da Vinci Code, numerous critics and readers recognize the series as compelling, character-driven literature. Rowling’s literary creation has furthered "development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit,” thus personally achieving the University of Southern California mission statement, and warranting serious consideration for the USC Honorary Degree. This is not to argue that Rowling determined to specifically address or cultivate young readers. Instead, through her devotion to writing quality literature that explores nature of courage, friendship, love, and life choices, Rowling captures and enriches an audience usually dominated by multimedia with the power of her words.

In 2005, the National Center for Educational Statistics released a report stating that the amount of 17-year olds who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun rose from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004 and the percentage of 17-year-olds who read daily dropped from 31 to 22. Though new technologies (Ipods, youTube, MySpace, online games, and TiVo) have some benefits, their abundance and complex nature emphasizes the simplicity of typed words on a page. The number of individuals who browse bookstores or libraries for a new novel to read before they sleep at night has decreased with the development of these new sources of entertainment. In 1998, Scholastic bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from Rowling for a six-figure amount, unprecedented for a children’s book. Harry Potter quickly became a pop culture symbol throughout many countries. The first five Harry Potter books sold 270 million copies in 62 languages and 200 territories, and more than 103 million copies in the United States alone.

Many teachers have credited Rowling's series with encouraging students to read, broadening their vocabulary and literary skills, and even turning young readers onto other books. A Wall Street Journal article, "Hip Hip for Harry," writes that a recent British survey of educators and students found that 84% of teachers felt that Harry had helped improve child literacy, while two-thirds claimed that the series had turned non-readers into readers. US News and World Report explores these claims further, in “The Power of Harry Potter: Can the teenage wizard turn a generation of halfhearted readers into lifelong bookworms?” Writer Vicky Hallett opens her article with the story of a young dyslexic teenager who asserts that the series activated his passion for reading. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first "real book” that he ever read. The article also states that 59% of students think that the books have improved their reading skills and 48% say the books are why they read more. Hallett includes stories about student-organized Harry Potter clubs, raised English grades, and class field trips to obtain the sixth book because the school’s low-income neighborhood had no bookstore nearby. She also describes a study by Professor Diane Barone who explored the Harry Potter books as a literary status symbol. She followed 16 low-income kids from kindergarten to sixth grade, concluding "in second or third grade, they all started carrying around the books even though they couldn’t read them...by fifth and sixth grade, they’d all read them. It was a status thing. They wanted to be part of the club." The article describes an instance at a low-income elementary school where a principal brought the book for a student, who finished it, and then circulated it around the whole fifth grade.

At Linda Verde Elementary School in Lancaster, California, a fifth grade teacher plays a similar role with her own students. Pamela Zietlow says that her school’s library does not yet have the most recent, sixth book in the series. Last summer, after both she and her daughter read a purchased copy, Zietlow took it to school for her students. Each year, she introduces new fifth graders to the series, as many of them cannot afford to buy the books on their own. Zietlow holds copies of each novel in her classroom library. For several weeks, she had been missing the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Most children in her class are still catching up on the fourth and fifth in the series. Finally, a former student brought in The Half Blood Prince, apologizing profusely for keeping it so long. Zietlow’s current students eyed the book hungrily, and started reading even more to finish their current novel so that they could begin the most recent of Rowling’s works.

Once her students finish reading the books that Rowling has published so far, they ask Mrs. Zietlow for more books that they might also like. She recommends The Chronicles of Narnia, Islands of the Blue Dolphins, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Cay, and many new science fiction/fantasy novels. Although the Harry Potter series may have instigated the students’ passion, once they start reading, they don’t stop. Zietlow is a regular at Lancaster’s Barnes and Nobles, often buying new books for students that have done well on their literary comprehension tests. The statistics mentioned by both the Hallett and Wall Street Journal articles are exemplified daily in her classroom when during reading time, students silence and open their books, eager to enter a new world for the hour.

Rowling has met the demands of such claims with kindness and professional determination. While many might simply ride the popularity of the series to the end, without taking the remaining books as seriously as the first that brought her fame and wealth, each of Rowling’s books receive more critical acclaim than the last. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince received accolades from numerous critics. Publishers Weekly wrote that “[Rowling] accomplishes a great deal in [the] book, pulling together threads from all the previous books and expertly poising readers for the planned finale.” The Chicago Sun Times said, "Rowling's latest has lost none of the charm, intelligence and hilarity that have catapulted her series into publishing history. But this book also has a poignancy, complexity and sadness. There's an emotional punch you won't believe." The New York Times Book Review writes that "to read Rowling's novels as an adult is to sink into a half-remembered state of childhood rapture, the trance produced when you gobbled up fantasies for the first time." Yet not all individuals praise the Harry Potter series.

As Harry Potter’s popularity has expanded, Rowling has simultaneously become one of the most banned authors in the world. Strict religious groups, specifically Christian sects in the United States, insist that the novels promote the occult and Satanism because of their magical elements. On her website, Rowling addresses this saying, "once again, the Harry Potter books feature on this year’s list of most-banned books. As this puts me in the company of Harper Lee, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, William Golding, John Steinbeck, and every other writer I revere, I have always taken my annual inclusion on the list as a great honour." Rowling then cites Ralph Waldo Emerson as stating, "every burned book enlightens the world." Similarly, the censorship attempts on Rowling’s novels only establish the books’ popularity and the literary power. Rowling (and other critics) refutes that there are Satanistic aspects in the series, especially as the books function on the simple premise of good verses evil, and their magical aspects exist as part of the fantasy world Rowling has created, and not as attempts to recruit children to Wicca or the Occult.

Those selecting the USC Honorary Degree might not directly assault Rowling as a poor choice because of the claims that she promotes witchcraft. Particularly because USC resides in a diverse location at the heart of Los Angeles, some might not expect this controversy to even arise, as it stems from conservative values. However, USC's choice for honorary degree must represent and honor the university's many graduating students, some of whom may object to Rowling's writing. Despite this controversy though, one would hope that USC evaluates both the compelling and poignant content of the novels, and acknowledge how her work has transformed America's reading habits.

Rowling also exerts much energy on the behalf of her devoted fans. Her interactive and visually compelling website includes an area devoted to the numerous fan sites that report about all things Potter such as The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet. She also answers frequently asked questions about her life and the books, debunking numerous rumors circulating about plot secrets. Her website includes links to several charity organizations that she works closely with, including One Parent Families, the MS Society of Scotland, and Children's Voice Campaign. In her article about fan culture, Mary Kooy describes Rowling’s reading at the Toronto Skydome, which drew 20,000 Harry Potter readers. It set a record in the Guinness Book of World Records for the live reading of a novel (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Kooy says that "when [Rowling] finished, the lights came up to reveal the entire audience on its feet cheering again...[She] bid them farewell and urged them to 'read, read, read.'" According to Kooy, Rowling herself suggested moving the reading to a larger venue so that fans would not get turned away. Kooy’s article also cites instances in which entire classrooms received free tickets to the event.

Rowling, like the institution of USC, serves a global community, and "help[s] [students] to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and re-spect and appreciation for others" through not only her writing, but also her philanthropic work. Rowling does not function within her profession with moral caring motives (in other words, she serves her creative aspirations and not her reading 'clients' first), but with integrity motives: a "[desire] to meet ethical standards governing a profession and in other ways to seek moral aims by working as a professional" (Martin 14). Though Rowling created Harry Potter because of the prompting of her imagination and not to alter a generation’s reading habits, she is also aware of the power of her writing. On her website Rowling demonstrates care and understanding for her audience and offers a great deal of connection for them to experience (through frankness about her work and creative process, as well as with interactive, and sometimes hidden, elements that may delight Harry Potter fans). Rowling's philanthropic work insinuates that she comprehends her role to the younger generation, and that she fulfills this role by putting her energy and resources towards serving that population (for example, fighting to protect children’s rights).

It would be petty to simply compare Rowling’s style to another writer’s to prove its worth, as an author’s work equates different things to various readers. Yet her writing has clearly developed an intensely important meaning for millions. While all ages appreciate Rowling’s novels, the Harry Potter series has proven invaluable to the younger population, stimulating their literary passion. Choosing Rowling for a USC honorary degree would not argue that she is the world’s greatest author, but instead that she has surpassed others by first drawing so many to her own works, and then turning her readers towards books by other authors and thus inserting literature as an essential process in the everyday lives of many. The Harry Potter reading frenzy should not be celebrated merely because Rowling has large numbers reading her own literature, but also because she has helped readers realize a passion for the idea of books, and indirectly increased the reading audience for many other writers.

As a keynote speaker for USC commencement ceremonies, Rowling could impart numerous wisdoms to her audience. Though touched with fame and wealth, she has maintained passion for the creative process, and seems to indulge in the limelight only when it is particularly beneficial to her fans (i.e. her intricate website and reading at the Skydome). If the awarding of the degree is indeed, as James O. Freedman writes, "an opportunity to emphasize an institution’s values," (Freedman 1) then Rowling exemplifies many of USC’s goals with her own life. She has personally fulfilled USC's mission, enriching and cultivating "the human mind and spirit,” and has empowered millions to continue that process on their own, through a lifetime of reading. In her novels, a portkey exists as an inanimate object, which upon contact, immediately transfers characters to a completely different place, no matter how distant. Through her artistic creation, Rowling has fashioned a literary portkey that has transported millions of the world's younger generation into the limitless and powerful world of literature.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Lost at Sea: Barbican's Failure to Write about Writing

On Barbican's Can I Have a Word? website, click the link to Michael Rosen’'s essay entitled “The Wonder of Words,” and a digitally constructed notepad page unfolds his introduction. In simple block letters Rosen states, "We live in a sea of words. Everything we do is colored by language." ” This exemplifies the website's general function and failure: amazing graphics illustrate a broad, unqualified and unclarified statement about creative writing. Can I Have a Word? won a 2006 Webby Award for Best Education Website. Barbican is the third largest funder of arts in the UK, and to develop their education e-resources, the organization constructed Can I Have a Word? to help teachers cultivate creative writing skills in elementary school students. Though originating in the UK, the general resources that the website provides may be received by an international audience of education systems. For this analysis, the website will be assessed by how well it operates, its significance, and the manner in which it illuminates creative writing concepts. While Can I Have a Word? may have an elevated and laudable goal which it partially achieves through an interactive and visually pleasing design, the site’s content fails to fully explore essential creative writing concepts and offers limited literary content, leaving teachers that are inexperienced with creative writing instruction with incomplete curriculum to bring to the classroom.

The site integrates stunning images and technology with its proposed curriculum, and involves site users by including video and audio presentations, downloads, and areas for feedback. But
while Can I Have a Word aligns with Webby Awards judging criteria in that "it communicates a visual experience," the visual design is not "relevant for the audience and the message," since the site does not ever specify its own significance. It also fails to adequately meet the Webby Awards navigation criteria, for users must employ the navigational tools provided within the site. Any browser back button leads them away from Can I Have a Word? altogether. The site'’s homepage offers four categories of curriculum designed to stimulate creative writing. A sidebar on the right includes the Rosen essay, an insufficient and small statement of the site's goal, and a brief content overview. The page does not, however, indicate whether or not the curriculum evolves, nor does it explain why the site was developed. Nothing explores the necessity of creative writing education, or indicates that literature plays a quintessential and historically significant role in human civilization.

Instead, the site presents four areas of concentration for teachers to choose from, each illustrated by stunning visual designs that invite participation by animating when the cursor floats above them. The four categories (“the elements,” “the human body“the odyssey,” and “changing voices”) try to stimulate creative writing, yet certainly do not encompass all aspects of life that prompt expression. As nothing indicates that they are progressive categories, one can assume that the site does not provide an adequate assortment of options for teachers and their students. The site contains no authoritative statements conveying the intentions behind each category, and nothing states that more curriculum options will soon be available. If teachers desire to appropriate the site's ideas, then there are only four groups, and one additional link including ten “top tips” from poets. The site does not present teachers with broad concepts about creative writing instruction, or analyze any ideas about literature. The site either assumes that teachers already possess necessary knowledge about creative writing, or asserts its four classes of directed expression as sufficient prompts. While the site’s front door could introduce teachers to a wide range of creative writing instruction ideas, it instead forces them to choose between four options, indirectly leading students to only discuss the elements, the human body, The Odyssey, or changing voices in their writing. Teachers unfamiliar with creative writing and its process may find the site confusing because it lacks essential general instruction, and confining because it truncates the infinite subject choices available to writers, and offers only four, albeit broad sections.

Within each interactive section, teachers are offered visual and audio poetry presentations, an area to provide site feedback, and a variety of downloadable resources for the classroom. One of these resources includes backgrounds and borders for teachers to display that highlight certain words, aiming to stimulate student reflection. The next resources feature worksheets and poems to help teachers build curricula. In changing voices, the worksheets include information about the 1992 Children’s Charter of Human Rights in South Africa and photographs that prompt students to imagine themselves as African children. Later in the worksheet, students are instructed to “write [their] story in a poem.” The curriculum leads students to employ empathy, and then develop a story by both mentally and emotionally walking in the shoes of another, and then conveying that story through poetry.

This worksheet insinuates several concepts about creative writing, none of which Can I Have a Word? actually explores. First it connotes that creative writing is a process grounded in empathy, and second that fictionalized verse or prose must have a foundation in reality. It is widely accepted that literature, whether creative fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, must draw from some emotion, individual, group, place, concept, law, or experience that the audience will recognize from their own personal universe. This is not only a necessary tool for engrossing the reader in the text, but also the process that gives literature its overall significance in society. It is an author’s empathy that explores any and every feature of life and death and the human experience, and thus that defines literature as a necessary form of expression, which both endures and resonates throughout various cultures and time periods. Yet despite these insinuations, Can I Have a Word? does not evaluate or even mention these ideas. It fails to analyze the creative writing process at all, merely providing an assortment of tools for instruction, but never investigating the tools that writers actually use to write. The site miscarries its goals, neglecting to question the meaning of empathy or the writing that transpires from it.

The worksheets also include poems authored by the website's poets. Similarly, the “teacher tips” (which are simplistic and overwhelmingly general, like "read poetry yourself," and "devise activities to focus on reading") within the resources area focus only on teaching poetry, lacking any tools for teaching prose. While one form is not more valuable than the other, the site claims to provide resources for
teaching creative writing as a whole. Similarly, the audio presentations feature authors reading their poetry, and the entire site displays only poetry (excluding Rosen's brief essay). One may assume several reasons for this (since the site does not afford us any): first, that it believes verse to be a more age appropriate form for elementary school children; second, that verse is a simpler form for teachers to instruct. If the former, then one must affront the assignment of verse to a younger audience, as stories often inspire future authors at a young age, prompting them to develop the passion and ability to write their own stories. If the latter, then the site must be faulted for its lofty aim to provide general creative writing opportunities, and then resorting to a "simpler" form (an assertion which, following the outcry of the world's poets, would possess no merit).

Finally, the site does not contain an adequate amount of literature. Though Can I Have a Word? in “teacher tips” recommends several poetry books by outside authors, the website itself presents only contemporary poems by its commissioned poets. There is no argument over the quality of the poetry on the site, but instead a question regarding the exclusion of outside literature, that holds historical and cultural relevance, as well as the limit to verse and exclusion of prose.
While the section the odyssey, includes audio clips from Homer’'s The Odyssey and a visual presentation paraphrasing the story of Odysseus, again the site is bereft of an explanation describing their selection of The Odyssey or an evaluation of the work and the desired connection between students and the epic poem. Within the downloadable worksheets for this section, teachers are again asked to prompt their students to employ empathy and imagine themselves in Odysseus’ situation. The worksheets contain a transcript of the visual presentation of the story, and letters mostly constructed in verse, authored by the site’s commissioned poets. At the conclusion of the visual presentation, all that is said of the work is that it is “one of the best books ever written,” (even though it is an epic poem, not a novel). This is a highly simplistic and broad conclusion from a site claiming to possess enough authority and knowledge to actually provide instruction for others to teach creative writing.

Though these criticisms do not deny the value of the existing curriculum and poems, or debunk the site's aim, they do question the lack of overall conceptual explanation on the site. The tone remains consistently basic, perhaps equating the elementary teachers with their young students, never entrusting them with thoughtful analysis of literary texts or evaluation of the creative writing process as a whole. Visual and audio presentations dominate the site, preventing discussion about literature’s weight in society, the value of teaching creative writing, or universal writing methods.

As one raised with absolutely no creative writing instruction in the public elementary school setting, I must question how advanced this site expects teachers to be in teaching creative writing. If it believes teachers have already been instructing creative writing in the classroom,
then perhaps it knows little of the education system, and if it remains assured that its own resources will provide teachers with adequate understanding of creative writing, then it has failed to properly analyze itself. If, as Rosen writes, “we live in a sea of words,” then this website throws teachers into the ocean without properly describing the characteristics of the environment or the properties of the water, never addressing the importance of creative expression, or stating why writing serves as an excellent medium.

Whether students aspire to be artists or not, arts education activites prompt critical thinking, pushing students to evaluate the world around them (sometimes, by creating other worlds). Numerous
creative processes, including filmmaking, the visual arts, musical composition, and writing allow students to present their ideas. Such a process has proved integral to human development throughout time, and warrants an unthreatened presence in the education system. Though Can I Have a Word? must have recognized this need by asserting its existence as a creative writing education resource, the site never assesses its own importance, thus abandoning the teachers (and students) that it tries to benefit.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Reading Right: Exploring Bush's Book Fetish

Jon Stewart, on President Bush reading Camus.

Journalists, bloggers, and other writers have all circulated a variety of reactions to accounts about President George Bush’s reading habits, each eager to give their evaluation of his latest book report on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. Some media figures, including Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, consider Bush’s choice to read a novel about the murderer of an Arab, quite ironic (See also, Neva Chonin’s “Stranger than Fiction,” and John Dickerson’s “Stranger and Stranger”). Others have noted that Bush’s reading epidemic hardly seems to align with his common grammatical blunders and disinterest in reading daily newspapers. Writer Julian Sanchez has even created a “summer reading journal,” written from the President’s perspective, imagining his revelations about L’Etranger. Yet, this post will focus on the content from two blogs that present contrary views about the topic. The Anchoress*, in “It’s really petty to resent what a man reads,” offers a defense of Bush and an attack on media response about the event. My Left Wing, in “Bush Goes Existential” parallels Bush’s own political storyline with plot points from L’Etranger. To communicate my own analysis, I have composed a comment on each post (under user name, IndyEm30), relating my opinions concerning this topic and the assortment of interpretations that have been made about it.

*For an unknown reason, The Anchoress has not yet posted my comment. I've copied and pasted it below to temporarily rectify the situation:

Perhaps instead of challenging the value of L’Etranger as a literary work, or calculating the legitimacy of Bush’s reading claims, one might consider why this president, or any other, has concluded that he must market his own intelligence in order to maintain his dignity as an elected leader. The media has certainly raised many questions about President Bush's literacy, prompted by anthologies of his fumbled remarks, and even by his own statements divulging that he does not read newspapers. While some may argue that his choice in literature (L'Etranger) is ironic, or even fabricated, I want to instead discuss Bush’s attempt to create this intelligent image and therein appease the American public. We can assume that the release of Bush's book lists, as well as his publicized reading contest with Karl Rove are both ploys to insert a more scholarly Bush-figure into the media. This maneuver reflects a desperate endeavor to combat the popular, but negative media opinions that dispute Bush’s intelligence. Regardless of their veracity, these reports indicate that our current president feels that he must offer the public a constructed (whether authentic or not) intellectual persona in order to remain convincing as an intelligent and capable world leader.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Life in Hell: What a Little Collaboration, Evaluation and Artistic Vision Can Do for Sin

On September 7, USC's Visions and Voices, along with the USC Fisher Gallery featured a lecture between artist Michael Mazur and Poet-Laureate Robert Pinsky. The two men reinterpreted Dante's Inferno in 1997, with Pinksy retranslating the text into English, and Mazur illustrating. Their collaboration is currently featured in the USC Fisher Gallery exhibition, The Inferno of Dante by Michael Mazur.

While much of the lecture focused on their work, both artists also expressed their ideas about Dante's Inferno. Pinsky remarked that the Inferno, though laced with imagery of hell, focuses most on the nature of sin, attributing each vice with a specific punishment, insinuating that the sin itself is the punishment. Instead of simply offering a descriptive vision of hell, Dante analyzes the soul's relationship to its own failures. In The Divine Comedy, hell is divided into sections that are defined by the sinners dwelling within them. Dante envisions hell as a funnel, the severity of each sin increasing with the descent of his protagonist, the poet.

As the poet comes to the seventh circle of hell, the order of sins and their degree of brutality progresses in a surprising way. The first ring features those who have done injury to others, while the second (and more severe) ring includes those who have harmed themselves. Pinksy commented upon this, saying that one could argue that the most heinous crimes humans commit are often against themselves.

Khaled Hosseini presents a contrary view of sin in a bestselling book about friendship and betrayal, The Kite Runner. In the book, the protagonist's father insists that "theft" is the only sin. He explains saying, "when you kill a man, you steal a life...You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.” However, as the novel progresses, the main character (Amir, a boy of about ten) betrays his closest childhood friend, the consequences of which devastate not only the friend, but also Amir. Though his betrayal directly harms his childhood friend, it brings Amir painful consequences as well. Ultimately, the novel indicates that Amir's actions bring him more suffering than anyone else, as his guilt begins to define his life, and he can only identify himself in terms of his unatoned remorse.

It is interesting to note that the absolute bottom of Dante's hell houses three betrayers: Cassius, Brutus and Judas Iscariot. While their sin of betrayal exists as a direct offense towards another, it also led them to destruction. Dante places the three betrayers in Lucifer's three mouths, where they are gnawed for eternity. Yet aside from Dante's fictional description of their fates, each of the men were conquered by their own guilt, all three committing suicide (Brutus and Cassius after murdering Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot after betraying Jesus Christ).

Therefore, Dante's Inferno does not only envision sin's role in hell, but also explores the relationship that each individual has with their own trespasses. In doing this, The Divine Comedy substantiates literature's relevance as a tool to pursue ideas and even conclusions about the human relationship to others and to self. Dante's verse contains information and ideas with historical, literary, and current relevance that allows it to be compared to recent literary works, such as The Kite Runner. This, along with the Mazur/Pinsky lecture makes important insinuations about the lifespan of art.

By retranslating and illustrating Dante’s verses, the two artists insist upon the work’s enduring life. Through the lecture, and even this blog, readers of Dante's Inferno decipher, engage, and evaluate the work, denying its death, and verifying that the work's ideas retain pertinence, which in the case of the Inferno has lasted over 700 years. Each time an individual stirs about the ideas represented or suggested through a work of art (whether a poem, sketch, movie, or song), the art is roused again, refusing nullification by societal changes, censorship, or time.

"........we climbed-
he first, I following- until I saw,
through a round opening, some of those things
of beauty Heaven bears.
It was from there
that we emerged, to see- once more- the stars."

Canto XXXIV, Lines 136-139, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Words of Peace and Strife: Mahfouz and His Universal Resonance

Several days ago, I was asked why a Nobel Prize for Literature existed. Drowning my gut reaction of belligerence in reflection instead, I began to evaluate the individual's question.. Why would a foundation that recognizes humanitarian aid and scientific research directly benefiting mankind, also honor works of literature? How can literature be a catalyst for peace?

Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz died on August 30 at the age of 94. Never mentioned in my American education, I had to do some research, though even a small glance at Mahfouz's legacy implicates that his literary importance endures across all societies. Concentrating on urban society in Cairo and Egyptian culture, Mahfouz became the first Arab novelist to win the Nobel Prize in 1988. According to an article in the Washington Post, "his writing and public views made him both beloved and reviled in his homeland. He was seen as a voice of moderation, denouncing both Islamic fundamentalism and recent American incursions in the Middle East." Because the views expressed in his writing, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside of his Cairo home in 1994. Though his life was spared, the attack damaged nerves in his right arm, forcing him to undergo physical therapy before he was able to write again. Towards his last few years, he could still only hold a pen for thirty minutes at a time.

To continue the pondering, one might ask: How could the lies of a fictional work cause such an extreme succession of events?

Perhaps one should begin with a more elementary question, though, such as, why does anyone read fiction at all? Nick Gillespie, a writer for Reason Daily, analyzes Lisa Zunshine's book, Why We Read Fiction: A Theory of Mind and the Novel, writing, "in a recent email exchange with me, she explains.... We have an 'evolved cognitive predisposition to attribute states of mind to ourselves and others.'" Gillespie concludes that we "figure out the world by figuring out, or at least trying to figure out, what other people are thinking and feeling." Reading affords us this ability, according to this article, and serves not necessarily as pure escapism or entertainment, but also as our search tool for understanding the world, our environment, and ourselves.

If literature offers readers such insights, though they may be objective and at varying levels of intensity and value, then books indeed possess power and pertinence. They are utilized for human understanding, and whether subconscious or not, exist as a choice we make to investigate, embody, and analyze one another. The mental transference that occurs when one picks up a book provides information on not only other identities, but also other situations, cultures, backgrounds, and even other worlds. Fictional literature is not then, used to escape into another's subconscious, but to relate to another's subconscious, and in Zunshine's words, "engage" the "cluster of cognitive adaptations that allow us to navigate our social world."

It only follows, then, that once engaged with a fictional work, individuals may become outraged, disappointed, perplexed, or pleasantly enlightened at the understanding and insight that that work has afforded them. Considering Mahfouz's widespread international readership, it can be assumed that his readers experienced each of these states upon reading his work. Clearly, the power of his words sparked praise enough to leave him as a Nobel Prize recipient as well as anger, which propelled by fear, attempted to destroy the source of trepidation.

The reasons for which Mahfouz was presented the Nobel prize, were described in the award presentation speech: Mahfouz's work "invites us to reconsider the fundamental things in life. Themes like the nature of time and love, society and norms, knowledge and faith recur in a variety of situations and are presented in thought-provoking, evocative, and clearly daring ways."

Why literature? Fictional works are powerful not only because the world and human imagination leave writers with so much to say, but also because the reading publics' reaction to what has been written indicates a great deal about the readers themselves. Readers' reactions to fiction inform society about society. By the degree to which people react to the fiction in delight or anger, conclusions can be made about what the people want to hear and ultimately, what they want to understand about one another and themselves.

“...We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Kafka to Oskar Pollack, 1904 as quoted in an article for Spike Magazine.