Still October, Still Earth

I believe in literature as a curative force in the world. I’ll even go out on a limb and say I consider fiction, poetry and drama as some of the best hopes for resolving the psychological and sociological afflictions that plague the dysfunctional family known as humankind.

I know that I’ll get shouted down if I speak the above paragraph in any kind of crowd. Literature is entertainment and escape, some will say. Others scoff at entertainment and escape but only want to speak of literature as refined aesthetic experience, or personal and private enlightenment. Still others will admit that literature could possibly help end wars and break racial, economic and social barriers in theory, but balk at trying to translate this theory into action.

I say our world is an awful mess, and any discussion of this mess will quickly founder upon the bedrock of ideology. From communism to capitalism to fascism to scientific racialism to anarchism to hippie utopianism to religious fundamentalism, our past century has been a loud pinball game of theories and beliefs. But ideology is a mercurial pursuit, and most attempts to debate these types of world views go nowhere. I’m thinking, for instance, of the chilling chapter in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in which an Islamic fundamentalist debates a secular bureaucrat in a pastry cafe before shooting him. The conversation reminds me of many I’ve had (though I haven’t been shot yet) because both are talking but neither are listening. It’s a defensive game — one character speaks a volley, and the other tries to intercept and return it. The argument is inevitably settled with a gun, a natural progression in a conversation that was all bullets and shields to begin with.

A year ago this month, we turned the entire LitKicks site into a special one-time-only project called October Earth. This was my attempt at an exploration of basic human principles through the discussion of literature. We asked one controversial question each day, illustrated with a selection from a relevant work of fiction or poetry or drama, and we required respondents to choose a definite “Yes” or “No” along with their answer.

The “Yes/No” thing got a lot of criticism. We were lambasted for requiring simple answers to tough questions. In fact, that was the whole scheme. Of course there were no simple answers to the questions we were asking, and by asking each person to commit to an “Agree” or “Disagree” with each response we were trying to make each participant feel the insufficiency of simple answers, the frustration of propaganda and institutionalized stupidity.

October Earth was my baby, my self-indulgence. I’m not sure if anybody in the world liked the project except for me, but it was something I had been dreaming of doing for years, and it was a thrill to finally see it in action. Jamelah and Caryn and I took turns selecting topics, and while we touched on everything from love to fear to money to religion, the focus was clearly on the state of our planet in an age dominated by intellectual extremism and massively distributed propaganda. In October 2004, my country was in the final stage of a virulently contested presidential election that also stood as a referendum on our war with Iraq. Opinions were abounding on all sides, and October Earth was my little shout in the midst of all the noise.

A year later, the world’s no better, so I guess the project failed. Still I enjoy looking back on the discussions we had that month, like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one. Today, in the spirit of October Earth, I’d like to ask you one more question: do you believe literature can help cure the world of its current plague of institutionalized violence, injustice and oppression? Please include a clear “Yes” or “No” along with your response.

19 Responses

  1. Yes/No?In my head, I’d like

    In my head, I’d like to imagine that what we write can help change the world. As long as the words get out there. I like to write about idealistic hippy peace stuff, but I don’t really think many will get to read it out there. October Earth was probably one of the few places more than one person saw my writing on such things, and yes and no answers are hard to choose, for they are so absolute. Being a politics major at university, sometimes I have gotten frustrated, writing all these papers about government and wars and trying to sneak in my ideas on solutions to them, yet only the teachers read what I write. I have wanted more people to read some of them, but I wouldn’t know what the general public would think of my ideas. Anyway, I tried to find ways to get some of my writing to the public. I tried to find “academic calls for papers” for some papers, but to no avail. I’ve entered writing contests and lost. But I think that’s not the point. I think when you get the opportunity to have even one other person read your stuff, maybe you can plant a seed and pass it on, or maybe they get inspired and have their own ideas, and then you have more than one person thinking they can change the earth. Hey, that would be a start.

  2. NoUnfortunately, literature

    Unfortunately, literature never has cured the world’s ills, though it has had ample time. And it never will.

    The problems are too deep and too complex — beyond the scope of man’s words — to be fixed via that avenue.

  3. yesThrough offering us the

    Through offering us the things that concern, move, bother, upset us within another setting, within fictional circumstance and conditions and with complications and solutions we may not even have thought of, literature can make us see more clearly, can open us up for greater insights and sudden realizations and understanding, and this way can show us new views to use, new paths to walk on, or can give back meaning to actions we had stopped to see hope and sense in.

    New views, new paths, new meaning.
    Literature can give us that.
    New hope.

  4. I’d love to change the
    I’d love to change the world…

    It has been suggested that the only way to change the world is one person at a time, beginning with oneself.

    I don’t think the question is, “Can literature make a difference?” but rather, “Can I make a difference?” I think every person has inclinations toward certain activities. A person who likes to build things may, for one obvious example, get involved in Habitat for Humanity. A person who likes to write can make a difference, too. It would be interesting to know if certain literature inspired Jimmy Carter to strive for peace in the Middle East.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, on one hand, we need writers who can pursuade the people who call the shots in different countire to be inspired to work together; one the other hand, we need writers who can teach people how to love themselves, forgive others, take responsibility for their actions, and find peace of mind.

    p.s.- I really enjoyed October Earth last year.

  5. The pen is the powerYes,
    The pen is the power

    Yes, that’s why I write. No, nobody reads what I write. But obviously there are a lot of good writers writing and always have been. I think of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, for example. And (I believe) re-Northrop Frye: we as a society of humans on a planet, are our literary heritage to a large extent as a result of that being a primary source of our knowledge, customs, morality, and et cetera. I’d just like people to be people, and not do this sham-dance of capitalism, nationality, better than, richer than, cooler than…

    Sartre felt that fiction was a method to coax the reader into reading and being able to understand philosophical concepts, as surely no one would actually read philosophy; and even if we did, we’d never understand it. Shakespeare changed his world. Yeats created his world. Homer and the writers of the Bible defined the world as we know it. Hitler and Goebbels did this too, in a rather negative way. It’s not that the pen is mightier…it’s that the pen is the power. Why do I get the feeling that no one believes this but me? (oh, and Northrop Frye, JP Sartre, Aeschylus, Marx, et al.)

  6. Yes…..In the right hands,

    In the right hands, literature can change the world. All it takes is one person reading one thing that sufficently inspires them to action and who knows what change that could lead to. Multiply that by the number of people reading literature and eventually enough people will be inspired to make change even if it’s just in their own little worlds.

    For myself, I was brought up in a strict religion. Reading literature was a form of “backsliding” in my former circles. However, I refused to give it up despite risking “eternal damnation”. Now, I have a much more open mind and open view of the world and have become much more tolerant. I am not sure yet if I’ve been sufficiently inspired to change my little world but I know that I myself have definitely been changed by my reading of literature.

  7. YesAt the expense of sounding

    At the expense of sounding redundant and simplistic, (and I will) I too believe that literature can be a spark to action. Perhaps only in one person like Bill said, but that’s all there needs to be. I have hope that someone, somewhere (maybe one of you) is crouched in a corner or huddled in a bed with their book and a fuse is lit. Maybe my son’s ten year old synapses will connect one thing to another from books he’s read and find a cure for cancer? Maybe my daughter will become an advocate for peace because of something she’s read? (Hey! They’re my kids!) You never know what can come from reading. I can’t be so callous as to say “no” and accept that. Call it naivete, but I prefer to believe it can help because for me it has to.

  8. YesYes I do believe

    Yes I do believe literature can HELP cure the world of injustice. It helps me every day, though it is becoming a limited (yet limitless to those with the key to unlock it) medium for the masses. Most people do not have access to foreign eras and locations. Through the written word, we can reflect on times when the holocaust occurred or slavery was the way of the world. We can read about other cultures that might as well be different worlds. That is the beauty I found in Pamuk’s novel SNOW (there were moments of brilliance, followed by chapters of doldrums). I generally find myself opposed to any sort of religious fundamentalism, yet some of the fanatics’ points made a lot of sense. You can read a book by an Israeli and be swayed entirely to their side and then read a book by a Palestinian and the pendulum swings right back. This phenomenon works in the news as well. There are sympathetic cases everywhere in the world, a lesson the U.S. government could stand to learn. Especially as the time when the U.S. was a sympathetic case is not so far gone that we cannot remember.

    But that’s why we write. No one has written the end-all perfect novel and no one will. Because if they did, world peace would exist and there would be no more reason to write. We would just sit back and bask in eternal glory.

    And I’m not sure we can call the project a failure just yet. After all, it is the discussion that literature provokes that will solve the problems, not the literature itself. So kudos to October Earth!

  9. You have a really good points
    You have a really good points here, about our literary heritage being a primary source of our knowledge. Great examples in the 2nd paragraph, too!

    I love a thought provoking message first thing in the morning.

  10. YesPlain yes/no answers are

    Plain yes/no answers are naturally excedidos in literature. but… some reception-production conditions are needed for literature.

    I wonder if most of humans in our actual world have them.


  11. It depends….This phrase,
    It depends….

    This phrase, “it depends…” is a very popular phrase with my Japanese English students here in Japan whenever I ask a debatable question.

    When I first came to this country, the phrase “it depends” kind of interested me, then, it irritated me… I thought, “but you’re only avoiding the issue! It’s a ‘get-out clause’ – give me and “yes” or “no”!”, I thought.

    But now, two years later, I’ve adopted it myself! I’ve realised through Japanese culture and my own Buddhist studies that often when a political or ethical question is asked the temptation to say “yes” or “no”, “right” or “wrong” is very, almost addictively, strong. One, because we seek security in answers, and how strong an answer is “yes” or “no”; two, we want to appear knowledgable, opinionated, clever — admitting we don’t know is too humble for most (we are often arrogant and insecure in equal measure); three, we want answers badly, because right now, we’re very confused.

    But, more and more these days I pause, and I imagine the concrete, experiential situation, and complexities abound, and as the actual reality of the ethical question flows over me, I realise, “wait a minute, there’s more than one angle here, there’s more than one person involved, there are real emotions involved here, and different backgrounds, different interests, and people are generally trying to do the right thing, and if I see is this way then…. and… and… and…” and often now, I turn to that person who has asked my opinion, and I start with “It depends….”. It depends on the situation, on the persons motivation, on the benefits… on the costs, on…. and on…. and on….”

    So, can literature change the world for the better? Well, it depends. It depends on the writer, and it depends on the reader. It depends on how literature is seen by the reader and writer. For myself, I always write with the view in mind of having a positive effect on myself and the world via the reader — I always write with a diagnostic/curative purpose in mind — so, for me, I believe that yes, literature can change the world, but that’s just me, and even then it depends… on my mood, on my degree of faith in the reader, the power of words, and myself at any given moment. I change… my faith changes… it depends!

  12. Not the way you mean, I don’t
    Not the way you mean, I don’t think

    Why is the project a failure? Because we’re not all holding hands and singing about how we’d like to buy each other a Coke? Ack. Can you IMAGINE?!?

    And what does it mean to change the world, anyway? Does it have to be this huge global thing, or can it be smaller? More individual? Perhaps you can change the world for another person. I believe in that and think it’s possible. Of course, I think it’s a two-fold process. Sure, it’s nice to talk and debate and question, and that stuff has its place and shouldn’t be looked down on. I like to talk and debate and question but the last time I checked, nobody who could actually do anything about it cared what I thought of something as huge as the war in Iraq. For example. It’s okay. I’m still going to have my opinions. But the other side of that coin — the most important side — is the action side. It’s great to talk about stuff, but what do we do about it? Literature would be much more likely to change the world if people got up, walked into their loacl volunteer centers, and said they wanted to read to kids who need mentors. Do something to make sure other people read and think and question and debate and have ideas. Or something. I think that could change the world, but probably still on an individual level. But everything starts on an individual level anyway, so that’s a good thing.

  13. That’s an interesting
    That’s an interesting perspective (the whole “it depends” thing). I don’t think I’d survive long in Japan. Thanks!

  14. Yes, I totally agree with
    Yes, I totally agree with you, Jamelah. Literature is written by those who want to change a reader, any reader. And ‘any reader’ might indeed feel a surging power of belief after having read the writer’s words.

    Yet, along comes a life event, a sudden hunger, thought or committment and there goes that possibility for change – flung into the To Do basket (sitting on the shelf heaped with brilliant and honourable ideas).

    Change comes with action. Action!
    When I read a writer and leap up to do something, it’s not because of the literature, but rather because that intention was already sizzling within me. The book reminds me of what I was planning to do.

    That’s a good thing, a fine thing and a necessary thing, but literature does not create desire where desire was not previously found.

    Or does it?
    Has anyone read a book that planted an idea in your mind and enraptured you to the extent that you jumped up and put it into action?

  15. Well, basically, when I talk
    Well, basically, when I talk about changing the world I’m talking about a few specific things — greater equality of opportunity, better communication and interchange between different cultures, less bombs. I’ve been re-reading Plato’s Republic lately, and Plato’s main theme was the improvement of the world through personal enlightenment. That’s basically what I think a great story or poem can bring about. So I think I mean something very specific, and if it comes included with Coca-Cola-style singing and holding hands, so be it …

  16. Personal enlightenment?
    Personal enlightenment? Okay, but that’s not very measurable. I mean, yes, that’s what good writing does — it brings about little epiphanies. So maybe everyone in the world (who can read and has read something over the past year) has experienced some sort of moment of clarity from reading something. How can we tell? We can’t, really. Unless they act on it.

    So, sure, I think literature can spark something within a person to make them act toward positive change. But I agree with Judih’s statement that “literature does not create desire where desire was not previously found.” I think that people who seek answers or inspiration will find them, whether in books or wherever else, but people who aren’t looking for those sorts of things will miss stuff, even if it’s right there in the books they read.

    Anyway, I believe change is possible, but I don’t really believe in huge, sweeping change, especially not in short spans of time. Cynical idealist that I am, and all.

  17. YesYes and I mean “yes”. I

    Yes and I mean “yes”. I know I said ‘no’ in response to what Jamelah said in her post, but I’ve been thinking about it today and today it’s Yes.

    The day began with a two time listen to Howl as Allen did it back 50 years ago. And as I sat glued to my place aching with the intensity of that genius poet, my soul changed. My intuitions grew finer along with my certainty that the audience in that room took his wild raw life observations and made them come true in their own lives, each according to ability.

    And then I come over to this truism: Litkicks. A dream of high input beat poetry put into active practice – an online realtime poetry jam that lasted for years.

    Now the format has transitioned from a site for the poets to a site for almost anyone interested in literature.

    A lone poet in the desert can jam with a high speed journalist in California in the context of poetry and spontaneity all in the safe confines of an elegant website.

    This is activization of the mind. And mind comes before all action.

    So, I say Yes, yes literature can change the world. The windows opened by literature can remain glued to the changing scenery, focusing on the highlights and marking them in action poetry.

  18. Yes to November Sky,
    Yes to November Sky, Trembling Earth

    Yes, people may be changed by literature. However, they have to be receptive to it. What is “the rage” in one age, may not even be considered a problem in the next age. So let’s look forward to November Sky and trembling earth for a while. Things are headed that way. No more still earth. October is almost over…Time to think about going to the Moon or to Mars. The space station is up there spinning. A new age is waiting to be born. We are no longer bound by earth or time.

    Humanity needs a literature that advertises to be received. This online stuff may fill part of the bill as will instant publishing. Otherwise,some writers will have to publish their own material independently and skip editors or the “middle men”.

    The instant “book i-pod” is about to be realized. Some already charge for their own websites. I like the freewheeling way it used to be when the web first started and there were no stock options.

    Once a business acumen is established, the on-line publishers start with the censorship and what you said does not turn out the way you really said it. One is influenced by the choices of the editors and so on.
    In order to be published by the big companies, a person has to have some kind of formula writing. A writer tries to give the public and the editors what they want.

    However, unless the writer’s mindset coincides with the above perceived audience, the poor writer is up the creek without a paddle. That is why guilds are formed and people gather to share their squibs. Online, there is no real sense of community until you receive an answer back in form of publication. A person is sending a message in a bottle. However, kind folks and gentle people, that is what writing is really all about: Sending and Receiving messages about existence and confronting the unknown factors of everyday life.

    Lately, I have been sending in experimental writing and it is hit and/or miss from one day to the next.

    However, those “in the know” seem to get one piece published after another because they have tapped into the mindset of the editorial staff. Some of these same folks have been communicating with their editorial staff for many years and have the life experience to know what sells.

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