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.