Powers of Literature
Literature may be fantasy, but it can charm us into belief that it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Into itself it absorbs many more admirers than Don Quixote, Madam Bovary, and your English teacher. It is pleasing, wonderful -- and often dangerous.
People say that literature is powerful when it absorbs them so that they forget themselves temporarily. A hypnotic power of entertainment exists in all attractive art. The spell often outlasts the first impression, and it grows with repetition. It produces a wakeful child's demand before bedtime to hear a well-known story, again and again, or a stressed-out teen's mania to replay the same favorite songs, over and over, far into the night's otherwise quiet hours.
What use is entertainment? It helps to regulate our bodies by unwinding our autonomic nervous system (ANS), a peculiarly human neural network that both increases and decreases stress. The stress-increasing half of the ANS (the sympathetic nervous system) starts our emergency pumps in a fight or other dangerous situation, or whenever we need increased blood pressure for immediate muscle power. However, this basic animal machinery can be harmful to creatures who think. Our pumps tend to stick in the "on" position when there's no present emergency or immediate need for heightened blood flow. Excess stress leads to sleeplessness and irritability, and it can cause heart attack and a variety of dangerous conditions, including inability to digest food and other problems of the gastrointestinal tract, such as ulcers. We switch the stress "off" only by stimulating the stress-reducing half of the ANS (the parasympathetic nervous system). Our conscious minds can flip this switch. All we have to do is stop worrying.
Aliens from outer space may be no more likely than dogs or cats or refrigerators to enjoy literature, though they might be more capable of perceiving why humans use it. Literature is a distinctly human behavior, responding to the requirements of our peculiar physiology. Like sleeping pills, narcotics, Zen, yoga, bathing, massage, prayer and meditation, literature and other fine arts are tools for shifting into the relaxed parasympathetic state, temporarily. It's no accident that literature tends to flourish in high-stress settings, such as the seats of empires (imperial Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome, Castile, Versailles, London, etc.), often when the forecast looks threatening. It's well known that recession, depression and war are good for Hollywood movie ticket sales--and especially when the film makers produce light-hearted, upbeat or fantasy films.
This medicinal use of literature was known to the so-called father of English literature Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 - 1400 AD), a serious diplomat in his day job who cheered himself and others in off-duty hours as a teller of dreams and collector of charming tales. Chaucer had learned from Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 AD) that the right arrangement of words can change a focused reader's mood from misery to bliss. But even in Dante's time the soothing entertainment power already had been tapped for thousands of years. Ancient Greek literature, in the earliest form that we know, was a popular custom of after-dinner story-telling that absorbed the mind in surreal myths, legends and pseudo-histories. Through monotonous rhythms, and artful manipulation of tensions and emotions, this wonderful fiction helped distraught banqueters physiologically to digest dinner and to relax into pleasing drowsiness. As Hesiod wrote:
How did the ancients know this power of literature millennia before the discovery of the autonomic nervous system? Just as young parents today know that a few stories at bedtime are good for their children, even though no physician has prescribed this literature or explained its medical benefit.
So the first practical lesson about literature is simple: enjoy and relax! Let a somewhat interesting book, video or sound recording unwind your nerves tonight. If you are hopelessly addicted to late night television, then be sure to choose a non-stressful movie or sitcom rather than some update on terrorism or political shouting match. You don't want to watch all night. That's what the TV producers want from you, to gape at ads forever.
Power to Instruct
The separate interests of consumers and producers lead us to the second practical lesson about literature: be careful. The entertainment that brings us "delight" also gives us "instruction," whether or not we want instruction. When we are under the hypnotic power of entertainment, our guard is down, and we are suggestible. Art goes not only to our hearts and stomachs but to our foolish heads, which are built to believe whatever we see or hear. Literature's instructional power implants thoughts, attitudes and opinions in us, scripts our fashions and beliefs, and often manages our behavior by the book.
The power of instruction, like the power of entertainment, is rooted in human biology. Even the least sophisticated art constructs and reinforces neural networks in human brains. Advertising "informs" its audience neurologically, and so does all propaganda, no matter how preposterous or harmful its message. All artists exploit our physiological need for mental diversion, but not all of them care about our health and welfare. Some just want to sell cigarettes or dictatorship, for example, and many of them in fact succeed.
So there are serious side-effects to literature, as there are side-effects to narcotics, sleeping pills and other cures for sleeplessness, but the side-effects of literature are not only personal. When their art influences substantial numbers of people, artists concoct culture, or like-mindedness among the individuals who have received the instruction. This physical brain-building, memory-making power to infect audiences gives literature its academic standing as a subject worthy of study.
So strong is the instructional power that its real world consequences can be unintended. One famous example is the influence of Homer, at least four centuries after his death, on Alexander the Great. Alexander was so infatuated with Homer's old tale of the Trojan War that, sources say, he slept at night with a copy of the text under his pillow. (Right next to his dagger, probably: Alexander's stress indeed must have been great!) That's how, they say, the young king came up with the idea to improve on Achilles' performance by conquering Troy and the rest of Asia!
For literature to inspire wars, or for politicians to make this assertion, is not unusual. The deadliest war in American history began, according to Mr. Lincoln, when a little lady sat down at her writing desk to compose Uncle Tom's Cabin. It seems absurd that storybooks can have such consequences--and yet supporting evidence can be amassed. Consider today's on-going battles in the Promised Land (or is it Palestine?) where, after so many centuries, the cult wars of rival prophets are still playing out in everyday life, more or less faithfully to the scriptures.
Censorship is evidence that literature has powers. Apart from censorship, there are also secure libraries, enormous piles of impractical criticism, more or less useless courses of literary study, various forms of poetic malpractice, and many other ingenious devices for keeping literature out of our so-called real world. Yet, in spite of all of this systematic containment and suppression, literature somehow sometimes works. That's its magic.
We read about creativity from the Book of Genesis
Arts often are criticized as escapist, but one inescapable fact of life is that our bodies regularly need diversion from stress.
Image left: from an ancient Greek vase, Penelope dreams that her husband Odysseus is coming home. She's been grieving for ten years since the war ended and he failed to return. Their son Telemakhos doesn't know what to do about his mother's grief. Homer's story makes her dream appear to be real by bringing Odysseus home.
Figure left: Michelangelo's statue of Moses, the central figure from the tomb of Pope Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (1513-1515). Moses is an easily recognized master of literary power, a "law-giver" who succeeds in organizing society on the models of his text.
Figure left: Michelangelo's censor Biago is led away into hell. (Biago didn't approve of nudity in Michelangelo's art, so as you see Michaelangelo did not portray him completely in the nude.) Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, 1534-1541 AD.
To the extent that we are not creators, we are creatures or created beings, products of powers that are not our own. To put it in simple terms, our magic is limited objectively by nature and subjectively by culture:
The successes and failures of our creativity make our species the most glorious and foolish of all known beings in the universe. This paradox has been well understood for a very long time. It's our birthright according to Genesis.
According to Genesis, in the beginning God creates nature, and it works. What God says comes into being in perfect harmony with God’s commands: "Let there be light," God says, and there is light, and light behaves itself precisely as God wishes. Light is good. So is the rest of nature, reflecting God's words. The book of nature is God's magical creation.
The complicating problem in this creation comes later toward the weekend when God makes something in God’s own image, another creator. This clone is "very good" in God's opinion, too, but it's a much more problematic invention than light. The new creature, both male and female, can conceive ideas that are independent of God’s ideas, even ideas that contradict God’s. Like God, they have original things to say about how the world should be created.
Paradoxically, Adam and Eve exercise their god-given creativity when they disobey God's instruction by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They seek knowledge to be like gods, but the knowledge that they gain brings them only fear of God.
So what's wrong with creation?
All creation looks "good" to a solo creator, but "evil" arises when alien creations appear. As soon as there are multiple gods or God-like creators, universal order begins to depend on restraint of creativity. The solution in Genesis is the establishment of limits: both natural restraints that are associated with Adam, and cultural restraints that are associated with Eve.
God restricts Adam's creativity by cursing the ground. This curse strictly limits Adam's power over nature, and Adam doesn't like it, but it's a protective intervention. Think of it as the earliest recorded act of environmentalism. Because we can't resist temptation, nature must be shielded from our power to destroy it. So the field resists Adam's cultivation, and the human ultimately belongs to the soil, not vice versa.
Magic's other limitation, culture, springs from Eve. Her curse relates to the labors of motherhood. Like God, woman makes humankind, and the result is further multiplication of creativity. Eve holds no more power over these created beings of hers than Adam has control over weeds. Ungovernable children soon rebel and fight one another. As Genesis unfolds in further episodes, the growing family splits apart into separate clans, then tribes, then confederations, then nations full of people who deal unkindly with one another, as if unrelated.
Rising populations increase divisions, blame and enmity until the plural cultures ultimately cannot understand each other. The Genesis story reaches this point of confusion at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) where universal language is demolished. Here the same God who used words to create the universe now makes sure that words in general don't work any more:
Behold, the people . . . have all one language. . . and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. [Now] let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech (Genesis 11: 6-7).
And so, after Babel, we have language barriers--but why? Shouldn't God want all of us to communicate freely so that we can build the tower together as one big, happy family? Why should God want language to alienate us from one another? (Ask the same question another way, by leaving God out of it if you prefer: it's obvious from human history that language does break down and divide us, but why should this be so? Not all language is effective in creating culture, but why?)
The destruction of Babel originates another wise idea that has become a popular movement in recent years: multiculturalism. Worldwide monoculture is prevented through language diversity. Language varieties multiply around the world, as exclusive codes, to prevent communication with enemies, adversaries, competitors and strangers (Steiner).
The barriers of nature and culture to our creative desires are strong, but they are not of the same strength. They are male and female, if you will. You won't ever convince God to change the operation of the universe so that it exactly fits with your latest theory of physics. However, you might be able to persuade Joe Blow that you are a god (or goddess, as the case may be) and that he should serve you with total devotion forever. Joe could buy the idea, at least for a while, if you are artful enough in selling it. . . So it's in this area of culture, where Eve can charm Adam at least sometimes, that creativity exercises its instructional power and cultures sometimes can be transformed.
Genesis takes us from the point where language is magical, in the first six days of creation, to the destruction of Babel, where language is gibberish outside of its small, local spheres of social influence. The story says why we must work, experience sorrow and conflict, and then die, alienated and misunderstood, even though we are god-like beings full of powerful imagination. Creativity itself contains the contradiction.
"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil" (Genesis 3:22).
Figure left: another detail from The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City: Michelangelo's self-portrait, flayed...
Figure left: the Creator, with Eve and creatures to be, image based on Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City (1512 AD)...
Figure left: another detail of Michelangelo's Genesis from the Sistine Chapel. Note the artists' creative touch again. When Adam and Eve touch nature, their art brings to life an unnatural, half-human serpent at odds with God's nature and also at odds with them.
Figure left: yet another detail of Genesis from the Sistine Chapel. Adam and Eve now separate from God. They don't see Eden or God's creations any more, and they raise their hands only to shield themselves from the touch of spirits. This is a dark image of art, opposite to the original creation.
Image left: skyscraper imagined by artist Peter Bruegel in cir. 1560 AD. Babel becomes "balel" (the Hebrew word for "confused in language"). Most puns, among other things, are lost in translation. Can any speakers of modern languages ever hope to fully understand Genesis or any other ancient literature?
Because literature is cultural, not surprisingly a frequent subject of early literature is conflict for cult control between rival daemons, or opposing spirits. A classic example is the contest between God and the serpent in Genesis. God and the serpent offer contradictory instructions to Adam and Eve. Only one of the advisors is worthy to be taken seriously; only one of the spirits has real power. Choosing the powerful spirit is a key instruction of the Genesis story for its cult believers: to live happily ever after, accept God's words and don't fall for contradictions.
In Genesis Adam and Eve are naive figures, easily influenced by the much more experienced and knowledgeable spirits that they encounter. This paranormal view of humankind, as seen from a superior and manipulative spirit world, is typical in early literature throughout the world. Primal story-telling frequently describes human actions in terms of controlling gods, devils and spirit-beings of all kinds. The human characters, if any, are not individuated. They simply represent the cult, readily possessed and re-directed by the good and evil spirits that come and go.
In most of the ancient Mediterranean world, conventionally inexplicable kinds of human behavior were diagnosed as the workings of gods and goddesses. For the Greeks and Romans in classical times, anyone who fell madly in love was possessed by the love goddess Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus); anyone who became crazily oblivious to personal danger in battle was possessed by the war god Ares (Mars); anyone who drank to the point of intoxication became possessed by the wine god Dionysus (Bacchus). Popular poetry of love and war and drinking celebrated and stimulated these spiritual encounters. The cultural magic of this poetry helped to sustain ancient societies by producing babies, bravery and happy hour.
Some Greeks, and even a few Romans, wanted more from life, however. Some behaved unconventionally. Not everybody acted as the orthodox pantheon of gods and goddesses predicted that possessed people should act. These extraordinary behaviors often were believed to be the works of daemons, unnamed spirits that had not yet attained a popular cult status or official recognition as gods or goddesses. Sometimes a daemon might be associated with the spirit of a haunting dead ancestor or ghost, a local hero.
Nonconformist Socrates, for example, thought that he was possessed by a nameless daemon that warned him against taking wrong actions. We might call it, in modern lingo, conscience or reasoning, a spirit that troubled few citizens of Athens in Socrates' day. They didn't know what it was! Many were convinced that Socrates was guilty of witchcraft for summoning up this bothersome new daemon, and for introducing it to impressionable young people. To be safe, they decided to put him to death. The execution, however, was ineffective. Socrates' soul promptly joined the immortals; it was elevated to hero status. It possessed Plato and other Socratic disciples to undertake further unconventional quests for conscience and reasoning.
In the ancient days of polytheism, daemons could gain marginal or local followings, such as schools of philosophers, but they fell short of becoming designated as gods because they never acquired broad popular cults. They, and their minority followers, were demonized when Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam, reconfigured the classical spirit world by installing various monotheisms.
Under monotheism, human behavior continued to be described as the work of spirits, but only one God (with a big "G") was regarded as the true God. The old daemons didn't fit the new theology, but a few daemons nonetheless were retained, demoted to the status of God's adversaries, since the almighty God of monotheism doesn't need helpers, theoretically, but does need some way to avoid blame for human misbehavior and other evils of the world.
In this theological restructuring process the classical, morally-neutral figure of the daemon (or daimon, pronounced DAY-MUN) was downgraded to the status of demon (DEE-MUN), the inspiration of immorality and wrong-doing, the enemy or evil spirit that haunts monotheism. (Per Paul, the Christian missionary writing about the Greeks that he failed to convert: "The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God." 1 Corinthians 10:20.) The rise of monotheism, and suppression of the daemons, had obvious consequences for cultural development in general (it was arrested insofar as possible; new forms of worship were persecuted as vigorously as possible) and for the practice of literature in particular. In general, what wasn't codified as the work of God was censored as the work of demons.
Typically in both European and non-European cultures, spiritual possession of the cult begins with spiritual possession of the artist or shaman or medicine man or prophet, the special medium who hears and then spreads the spirit's word to others. The inspiration for this activity does not come from a lover or family or friends, or from the contemplation of nature, or from other artists or from personal brilliance, madness, or the desire to entertain, to become famous or to make money. It comes, like other kinds of seemingly irrational behavior in traditional society, directly from gods (such as Apollo, the Muse, or the Lord or God of monotheism) or else from daemons of lesser power. Of course, rival artists and followers of rival cults may say that the inspiration comes from demons.
In any event, unlike modern celebrity fan clubs, traditional cults do not worship the artist or the art itself. That mistake would be idolatry, in a traditional point of view. The true object of veneration is the spirit that inspires the art. The job of the artist is simply to impersonate or express the spirit, to make it known to others. In literary art, that's a more or less mechanical process of hearing and repeating what the spirit says.
So, for example, Hesiod does not invent stories of the gods; the Muses "teach" him the songs. Similarly, it's not Homer who invents the songs of Achilles and Odysseus; it's the goddess Muse who sings. Homer (whoever he was--he doesn't matter) is only her mouthpiece, a medium in a trance, a kind of radio broadcasting her words. In much the same possessed way, Plato composes dialogues in which he personally never speaks; he is always "in character" of the dead hero-spirit Socrates.
Shakespeare and the show biz concept of art as theater or fiction did not arise until the time of fully secular society, when audiences lost faith in artists and came to believe that impersonation is only an act or imitation, not the real thing itself. Nonetheless, even this secular or make-believe art continues today to impress some people deeply, in life-changing ways. We call its converts "fanatics," and they often vie with one another to show which one of them is the most under the influence. The music may have been composed in the last year or two, but the contemporary rock band cult phenomenon is not new.
The magical cultivation of followers or true-believers raises the central social problem of literature: its frequent conflicts with older, established cults. To the cultural establishment, which is under the spell of past literature, almost any new literature may represent blasphemy, sacrilege or the challenge of unwelcome competition, cutting in on turf.
And fears of the old guard about new literature may be justified in some cases, too. Consider the anti-Jewish elements in the Christian Bible, for example. Jesus had been a Jewish prophet, but after his death Christian cults proclaimed that he was God--a profoundly blasphemous idea to most Jews--and so Christians and Jews parted company. The schism produced plenty of fighting words, including anti-Semitic slurs in the New Testament that have been used for centuries to incite Christian atrocities against Jews. This is not to say that the Hebrew Bible, or any other cult scripture, is unblemished by hate speech. Says the militant God of Islam: "slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush" (Quran 9:5). Part of literature's instruction often is the destruction of prior culture.
Although they have been perpetrated by monotheisms of all types, holy wars, censorship of artists, and persecutions for witchcraft also existed in polytheism from the earliest recorded times. We have already noted the conviction of Socrates as a heretic. Socrates' daemon marked him out to the prosecutors as a misfit, one who angered the gods (the true gods officially recognized by the state, that is) by listening to an unauthorized spirit (the unnamed inner voice of his conscience or reasoning).
Poor old Socrates was not the first victim of cult persecution in human history, and he might be disappointed to learn how the violence of cults has continued unabated. The attack of Osama bin Laden's heroes on thousands of unarmed civilians at New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is only one recent link in the chains of cult atrocity that wind back through a long history of Muslim Jihads, paralleled in other cults by such incidents as the Bosnian genocides, the Nazi holocaust, the Christian obliteration of native American cultures, the Inquisition, the medieval crusades, the passion of the early Christian martyrs, the destruction of the priests of Baal, and countless other appalling crimes undertaken in the name of the Creator.
When culture wars turn bloody, artists can join the fray or else seek safety. Young Plato apparently learned the non-confrontational approach by watching Socrates' trial and sentencing. In Plato's dialogues there is plenty of talk about God, the gods, heroes and other spirits, but these are only points of discussion among debaters who are trying to understand the truth. None of these characters is presented as infallible, and Plato never, never, never speaks in his own person. (When forced to write philosophy papers about Plato's thought, students must lie because Plato never says a word.)
Plato imitates the voices of other people, not gods. Secular humanism of this sort gradually caught on. After brief experiments in democratic Athens and Augustan Rome, this direction in western literature and fine arts took hold in the Renaissance, the time of the Protestant schism within Christianity and its attendant ungodly wars of religion--and literal book burnings and author roasts! Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden and many commonsense poets of this era found new, down-to-earth names for the spirits. They still claimed inspiration, but the source of inspiration began to be ascribed to a lover, another poet or story teller, a monarch or wealthy patron, a house, a horse, a river, a mountain or almost anything profane.
Figure left: Michelangelo's image of the face of God creating stars on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Image left: in ancient art Socrates was presented as aged, short, pudgy, balding, with a pug nose, a cheerful expression and other features at odds with traditional Greek ideals of beauty.
Image left: Christian artist Caravaggio depicts inspiration coming to St. Matthew for his gospel story of Jesus. The spirit must have told Matthew to configure Jesus' story so that it would convert Jews. Matthew's Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecies and parallels Exodus 1-20, the story of Moses as accepted by most Jews. (Compare Deuteronomy 18:15-19 where Moses predicts the coming of another prophet like himself).
Image left (colorized): Will Shakespeare, imagination freed by play, never claimed to speak for supernatural spirits. He avoided the wars of the Reformation by meaning only to please.
Image left: World Trade Center under attack by Islamist zealots. What possessed them? And what about the Anglo-American military response?
today and tomorrow:
Genesis contains the vital biological truth that human beings differ from other creatures on earth in knowledge, and knowledge brings unique misery and death. Other creatures on this planet appear to worry only when there is an immediate external cause, such as the sudden appearance of a hungry predator. Once it has escaped from a pack of lions, a zebra seems to forget the whole matter, and the grass tastes as sweet as ever. Humans, however, imagine the lions long before they arrive, and then are traumatized by memories of the attack long after the lions are snoring in their dens. Our more or less constant anxieties explain, among other things, why our autonomic nervous systems, unlike similar systems in zebras or even apes, tend to get stuck in the sympathetic or stressed mode (Sapolsky).
Stress releases glucocorticoids and other aggravating chemicals whose long term harmful effects on the human body and mind include:
The good news is that we can know good as well as evil. Since worrisome knowledge is the cause of our excessive stress, the cure lies in mind alteration--whether it be by drugs, insanity, play, meditation, or the arts. The diversions of the arts, when potent enough, trick our minds into a sense of security and thereby help to produce the relaxation and parasympathetic tone that our bodies require for digestion, procreation, sleep and general conservation.
For centuries so-called experts have insisted that literature is worthwhile because it is true, literally or figuratively. If this were the case, fictional literature should have been superseded by science long ago. The fact is that literature has no need to be true; on the contrary, the entertainment power depends on falseness. To work biologically, its illusion needs only to be interesting enough to capture and hold audience attention. Like other acknowledged forms of modern magic (magician shows, fortune telling and the like), popular literature typically appears in our world only as a diversion, a pleasant trick or deception. Literature's power of entertainment is as strong today as ever, despite all advances in medicine and other recreational opportunity.
Literature's power of instruction, its social cult-building aspect, also remains strong today. Ancient scriptures still are followed by multitudes of people (a clear majority of people in most parts of the literate world), and the old counter-cultural instincts of artists are still alive, if not always well. The rebellion of Adam and Eve from God is still a prototype for plenty of new stories in our time. Our typical literary hero (of either sex) today still breaks the rules, and tries to form a separate identity, outside of the existing cultural norms--and still summons enthusiasts, fans and groupies to leave their old ways behind to follow the new story. Contemporary literature that gets taken as personal model in this way is still about alienation from others, flouting the conventional roles that mainstream cultures have to offer, and withdrawal into an off-beat or alternative way of life--psychedelic, beat, punk, Marxist, Freudian, feminist, gay, utopian, mystical, neo-fascist, neo-conservative, new age, whatever.
The underlying heroic pattern of non-conformism in literature is much the same in all periods of history, from the angry and aloof prophet Moses in Exodus, the sulking mercenary Achilles in the Iliad, and the provocative Socrates in Plato’s dialogues to modern cult fiction figures like the lonely misfit Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the radical free spirit McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the repressed neurotic Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, the disenchanted idealist Steven Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the original hippie Harry Haller in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and many, many more.
Literature continues to appeal to nonconformists, social outsiders, young adults in identity crises, and others in search of a new group to which to belong. A rational state of detachment from literary cultures is no guarantee of happiness or safety. As long as social conformity is adaptive for human beings, as long as herds offer protection to individuals, there probably will be a biological payoff for professing belief in stories that many others believe, no matter how irrational those stories may appear to non-believers.
Peer socializing originates in the play of young children, pretending, creating and sharing imaginative experience. And this make-believe matures into the serious acting of adults. As Napoleon once said (and nearly demonstrated in his career): imagination rules the world. If human kind lacked creative vision, and the courage to act on it as a belief, we might still be spending most of our time picking nuts and berries, or scavenging carcasses left partly uneaten by more powerful animals. Even in the Garden of Eden, we think that we can see a better world, one that isn't there.
Literature, unlike any of the sciences, tries to see how things could be, ideally or theoretically, and that's vital because of how things really are. Life in time requires creativity. Future and past comprise almost all of the vastness of time, and yet they are not here. We cannot perceive them with our senses, and yet we must envision them to know where we are going and how we have come to be here.
Lesson Summary: Literature has a power of entertainment, that relieves human bodies of stress, but it also has a power of in-formation that builds cults by shaping common neural networks in readers and audiences. In ancient times, artists bonded receptive audiences into spiritual and heroic cultures. From the Renaissance through modern times art increasingly has been viewed as the self-expression of individual entertainers who should not be taken as prophetic. However, there continues to be plenty of proof in popular fiction, rock music, advertising and other sources that literature holds as much mind-shaping power as ever.
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee.
Image left: Sherlock Holmes awakens unsuspecting Dr. Watson to the dark underworld of crime.
Image left: Young Napoleon keeps his finger on his reading while posing for this clip art.
1. Powers of literature: How have you been instructed by literature? Whom has it told you to be? What has it asked you to do? With what fellow readers do you share a culture?
2. Compare/contrast: How do the accounts of creation in Genesis, in Enuma Elish, and in Hesiod's Generations of the Gods compare and contrast? How do they compare and contrast with other accounts of creation which you have read?
3. Ptah’s Creation from The Shabaka Stone. Magical creations of the world through the words of a creator god are found in other ancient writings outside of Genesis. It appears in, for example, the Shabaka Stone now in the British Museum, a small basalt slab named after Egyptian King Shabaka (Pharaoh name Neferkare), a black Nubian (Ethiopian) who ruled from Memphis (Cairo) in about 712-698 BCE. Unfortunately, this artifact was used for some years in medieval or modern times as a millstone, so a large circular area in the center of the stone has been ground away, but ancient inscriptions on other parts of the stone still can be read. One remaining fragment describes how Shabaka found in the house of his father Ptah a rotting document (presumably papyrus) that he thought should be copied into stone to preserve for all eternity to the glory of Ptah.
If Shabaka believed that the stone carving would help Ptah to live forever, he may have been right. Part of the surviving inscription is a splendid hymn to Ptah, god of speech or the tongue. It is thought by some scholars to date back to the 13th century BCE:
By "heart," the ancient Egyptians
meant roughly what we mean by mind. Do words create the mind? Or does
the mind create words? Or do both creations exist? (To state this
in a more cosmological way, does the word create the world, or does the
world create the word, or are word and world separate realities?).
4. Babel and the languages: George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press 1975), chapter 2, estimates that there are about 4,000 - 5,000 living languages on earth, with another 5,000 - 15,000 having become extinct. The root of the "Babel problem" of multiple languages, according to Steiner, lies in the deep human desire for privacy and territory. New languages are not designed to improve communication, or to express things better, but to allow secrecy and maintain cultural isolation. The cult protects its membership rolls by making the members' language intelligible only to fellow cult members. This will prevent an exchange of ideas with outsiders who might have dangerous (i.e., superior or conflicting) insights.
Another popular theory about language is that it evolved to charm and to control others. This magic theory of language goes a long way toward explaining literature scientifically. For example, if language evolved to attract mates, the great popularity of love songs in all cultures is no mystery. If it evolved as a tool to be used against rivals, the popularity of not only cursing and satire but also of inspiring war stories has a solid biological basis.
The Babel theory of language and the magic theory of language are not incompatible at all. If I develop a new language and teach it to my spouse, my spouse and I will have a secret means of communicating with each other, and it should help to protect the intimacy in our relationship. Since I make the rules in the language--the vocabulary and the grammar--I also can manipulate how and what my spouse thinks. (Well, I can try!) If we then pass this new way of thinking and speaking along to our children, and they learn no other languages except the one that I have invented, I have assured that they always will remain with me and will think much as I do. These are distinct practical advantages, as opposed to living my life within a culture that somebody else has designed in order to control me and restrict the thoughts that I can think.
If you have ever wondered why language is so complex, why it is so hard to become multilingual, you may now have a few clues.
5. Literature is lethal: A famous example of deadly story-telling is The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by my kinsman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In this short novel, a young man is led by the intensity of his emotions to despair and suicide. On its first publication, the book led to a rash of copy-cat suicides among its sentimental readers all over Europe and even as far away as China. When the second printing came out a few years later, Goethe warned the public not to succumb to the fatal mood of the book. "Be a man," Werther's ghost advises (I guess, male) readers in the preface, "don't try to follow me." Yet Goethe claimed in later life that he could not bring himself to re-read the book for fear that its terrible power would disturb his tranquility.
The copy cat syndrome, where life follows art, seems to be a hold over from archaic magic. In performance, the magician enacts a desired action (such as the driving away of a disease) in order to influence his real world subject (the sickness). Rituals of this kind have been observed in cultures almost everywhere around the world. An interesting collection of them is described in anthropologist Sir James Frazier's famous book, The Golden Bough, of which more will be said later..
The unhappy imitative effect of books on readers is frequently the subject of literature. Madame Bovary destroys her marriage and life, largely as a result of having read unhealthy novels of sexual adventure. Don Quixote becomes a noble laughing stock by reading too many old romances of knightly chivalry. Ergo:
From "Goethe 1982, Portfolio of 4" by Andy Warhol.