Literary Unitarianism:


A Liberal Arts Student Ponders a Turning Point in His Quest for Enlightenment

This essay comes from a personal need to set down my own thoughts on writing and reading. This is something I've been meaning to do for some time, as thoughts and opinions float around my head over the years creating nebulous clouds of "maybe" and "perhaps" and "what if?" This is an attempt to clarify my own stance, as it exists now. There is no assumption that this is the way I will think two years from now, or even two days from now.

Reading, and writing, and thinking about both is an adventure and a journey. I remember in high school, when I was becoming more involved in my church, filling out an application for some youth leadership position. On the application was a question, "Describe where you are on your faith journey." There was a significant amount of white space under the question, and I assumed they wanted an essay of some sort. At this point in my life, I was still terrified of writing, especially when it was something that would be graded. When I finished, there was still a significant amount of white space under the question.

For the longest time I thought that this was a stupid question for a child to have to think about it. The question is one of those floating demons in my head, that I can't get rid of, and thinking about it has profoundly influenced my thinking about other, non-church related aspects of my life. I see many things now as a journey of thought, and never expect any opinion to be held for overly long, as I travel to new places and make stops along the way to talk to people, or look at things.

Education is like this, and so is reading. There is always a synthesis being performed between existing thought and new information or experience. I tend to take a more phenomenological approach to everything now. Almost everything in a person's life can be described as experience, and I think this points at an intrinsic feature of humanity, rather than experience being a loose word.

Change the Way You Think

I strongly believe that a liberal arts education is a valuable thing, and that its importance is being marginalized. A technical education, one studying the hard sciences, challenges its students with new ideas. These ideas tend to be in the form of problems that can be solved. As a former engineering student, I never lacked for problems, but these problems almost always had an answer, which would be revealed if enough brain power was applied. The liberal arts student is presented with problems too, but these challenge the mind in different ways. In that they have no answer, floating in the ether like a Platonic ideal, they challenge the student to change not only what he thinks, but also the way he thinks. In order for the student to arrive at an 'answer,' she must arrive at a position of thought that is comfortable to her. This requires a synthesis of what is known, and what is presented. At some basic level, regardless of the conclusion made, there is a dialog with the self, and this discourse changes something, even if basic opinions remain constant. For example, every freshman-writing student is required to write an argumentative essay of some kind. The course instructor probably reads the same four or five essays semester after semester. It is no wonder that these classes are fostered on grad students. Some student always seems to pick abortion as a topic to argue, even though it is unlikely that anyone will add anything to that debate in the next hundred years. Everyone has an opinion that is unlikely to change. But still, if the student writing about this does his job, he will have to question the reasons why he thinks what he thinks, and his thinking will be changed by this action; this action that caused him to question belief. The student probably won't ever realize that his belief has just become stronger under scrutiny. True pedagogy is about forcing people to rethink their assumptions.

A similar synthesis occurs when reading. I think I need to shine some light on my use of the word 'reading.' I use this as a word describing, not an action, but an experience. The reader is an active participant with a text, not a passive recipient of knowledge. When we read a story, we bring our own stories to the new one. There is no passive reader. We constantly look at these texts and think about what we know. These are almost conditioned responses. There is a relationship between the reader and the text that is created by the experience of reading. We could say that the reader is a collection of stories, and the text is yet one more to add to the collection. In this, the experience of reading a story becomes a story in itself, and each text becomes unique in the mind of each of its readers.

I turn now to a book that I recommend to everyone, and cannot possibly praise as much as it deserves. The book is Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, and any student of philosophy or literature is certain to find something wonderful in it. I will speak later of the relationship between myths and stories, but for now a quotation from Carse:

Once I hear a story I enter into its own dimensionality. I inhabit its space at its time. I do not therefore understand the story in terms of my experience, but my experience in terms of the story. Stories that have the enduring strength of myths reach through experience to touch the genius in each of us. But experience is the result of this generative touch, not its cause. So far is this the case that we can even say that if we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us. (Carse 167)

Readers and Writers

Where the writer fits into the relationship with a text is unclear to me still. If a reader has a relationship with a story, then the creator of that story must have an equally important one. It is my belief that stories are the creations of the people who write them; they do not exist in a Platonic realm of ideals, waiting to be plucked from some literary tree. Writing and storytelling are work, and these texts we love do not simply spring to life unaided. As a writer of more than academic writing, I know at times the story and the words flow out of you with an ease that creates an almost religious experience. But the experience of writing is the imposition of form on something already in the writer's head. It is the revealing of the synthesis that has occurred in her own mind, which she shares with us in a way that allows us to look at our own collection of stories in a new way.

At some point there may be a relationship with the reader and the writer, but this is shallow compared to the relationship each of them has with the text. The text acts as a bridge between them, but it is narrow and filled with potholes and landmines. It is therefore inadvisable for a reader to make assumptions about the writer based on the text. This is one New Critical idea that I find useful, but I don't believe it is true because there is a meaning in the text that is there a priori to be discovered. Rather, I see this from an existential position: I, the reader, cannot possibly know what lies in the head of the writer. Making assumptions about a person I know nothing about is dangerous. Likewise, a writer can make assumptions about his audience, but cannot know what interpretations of meaning each reader will bring to the story.

The Story as Myth

My thoughts about stories as myths come from my examination and study of religion, and my attempts to create a harmonious personal balance between the visible and invisible. I was, more or less, raised with a strong religious influence. The church was always an important part of my life growing up. Plagued with the common adolescent theme of being a pariah in my school, I found friends in youth activities in the church. I was able to be an influence there, being the executive of a large bureaucratic segment of the United Methodist Church. This was great; I had a wonderful time, but had difficulty combining what I knew and saw about the world with what I was being told about things I could not see. All these people around me spoke of "experiencing God" and "letting God into your life." Well, I tried to experience God, talk to God, let Him into my life, and found that He in His Infinite Wisdom doesn't answer His phone.

Most of my involvement in the church felt like a sham to me, since I was being so dishonest. I had, at this point, come to think of myself as agnostic, after traveling the scary highways of both devotion and atheism. I still saw myself as a pariah, even in the group that accepted me, because I didn't think the same things they did. I didn't feel I should be leading these people (which, like it or not, I was) if I didn't subscribe to the party line. I got frustrated.

Then in college I began to study other religious traditions, and began looking critically at my own. What I found was a world of people throughout history that have questioned the nature of the unknown as long as they've been here. I began to see connections between Christianity and Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism, and wondered why the Christian church spends so much energy glossing over their Jewish roots.

I came to understand and believe that every religious tradition was simply an attempt by humans to explain things that are possibly felt or known at some level, but can't be proven or disproved. Agnostic thought began to look like a cop-out. The agnostic simply refuses to think about these things because it gives him a headache. The believer has faith in the existence of something she can't see. The atheist has faith in nihilism. "Believe what you want," I told myself, "but believe something!"

As I began to consolidate these thoughts into a belief system that works for me, I came across Joseph Campbell. His thought was introduced to me by way of John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop who writes about the dangers of reading scripture as if they were literal history. I am only now beginning to study Campbell, but my cursory forays into his thinking have already influenced the way I think about literature and reading.

Campbell was an anthropologist who studied the stories and beliefs of a dizzying array of cultures. He began to see connections, and spent his adult life examining them and looking for new ones. If I, young and relatively unwise, could find some of these connections with only minimal knowledge, what would I find if I spent years doing nothing but look for them?

In the video series The Power of Myth Bill Moyers asks Mr. Campbell, "Where are our modern myths? What stories do we tell that have this power." {paraphrased} Campbell thinks about this and replies, "We don't have any. Things are changing too fast to create them, and we won't get any until change slows down. We don't have any, and it's getting us into trouble." {likewise paraphrased from imperfect memory}

A story attains the status of myth when it is retold, and persistently retold, solely for its own sake.

If I tell a story as a way of bracing up an argument or amusing an audience, I am not telling it for its own sake. To tell a story for its own sake is to tell it for no other reason than that it is a story. Great stories have this feature: To listen to them and learn them is to become their narrators. (Carse 166)

If I go to the bookstore and buy a book of my own choosing, and then read it just because I feel like reading, I am participating in a kind of microcosmic myth construction. The form and nature of the book imposes a speed bump in the creation of myths. In that the teller must write down the story, solicit publication, have it printed, etc. In that I must find just this book, buy it, find time to read it. All of these factors contribute to the fact that there are no modern myths. There are simply too many stories being told all at once, and the noise is deafening.

It was not Freud's theory of the unconscious that led him to Oedipus, but the myth of Oedipus that shaped the way he listened to his patients. "The theory of instincts," he wrote, "is to say our mythology." (Carse 167)

Myths differ from simple stories in that they have a universality that simple stories lack. If I retell a story that has achieved mythic status, in all likelihood the person listening to me has heard this story before, but wishes to hear it again. In the same video series Campbell suggests that Star Wars is as close to modern myth as we get, being a story of the struggle between the individual and the power of the State. He suggested this before the re-release of the films, and the upsurge in their popularity. A whole new generation of storytellers now knows this story.

If I start to talk about, oh say, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, or Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, I can be fairly certain that my listener will have never heard of either of them. But still, I think at some point any simple story, without mythic status, reflects the myths that we do have. In saying that we are without modern myths, that is not to say we are without myths at all. We simply haven't invented any new ones recently.

Myth provokes explanation but accepts none of it. Where explanation absorbs the unspeakable into the speakable, myth reintroduces the silence that makes original discourse possible.

Explanations establish islands, even continents, of order and predictability. But these regions were first charted by adventurers whose lives are narratives of exploration and risk. They found them only by mythic journeys into the wayless open. When the less adventuresome settlers arrive later to work out the details and domesticate these spaces, they easily lose the sense that all this firm knowledge does not expunge myth, but floats in it.
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A culture can be no stronger than its strongest myths. (Carse 165)

As reflections of mythic stories, simple stories point to an understanding of something that cannot be explained. All stories participate in a dialog with the world. The myth points to a truth that exists outside rational understanding. Who living has not had an experience that defies explanation? There is a popular conception that just because we don't understand something right now doesn't mean we can't understand it or won't understand it some day. This is true; we are unable to look into the future. This does not change the fact that something did happen to you and you do not know how or why. Ignoring this puts a blind on our sense of wonder, and I feel sorry for those people that deny the unknown with a "wait and see" attitude.

We should, rather, rejoice in those things we can only look at through the lens of storytelling. Religion and myth and storytelling are intertwined in a wonderful web. To participate in a story or poem is to participate in something that is inherently human.

The story is the only way to experience the divine. I choose to define the divine now, and thereby establish an explanation of God. In doing so I draw lines and circles around God, and tell God not to get out. I'll put God in a box, and attach a strong padlock, but God will still get out. God is genderless, without sentience, and escapes all explanation. God is a metaphor.

We humans have a temporal existence. We know much about the world, but our entire lives are characterized by loss. Every moment that passes is something lost. Our memories and our literature are ways of containing small pieces of those things that pass by in our lives. The only thing we have that allows us to interact is our stories, those things held in our memory as a buffer against inevitable death. The way we participate with the divine, the unknown-but-felt, is through each other. And we interact through stories.

I could be accused of promoting something akin to universal semiosis, the Hermetic idea that all texts are in some way reflections of sacred texts. If you follow enough symbolic connections, you can eventually find something in a text that is related to God. This is not the case. I see all writing and storytelling as relating to the divine in that it relates to human activity. A Charles Bukowski poem is not going to universally find its source in the Book of Exodus or the Koran. We experience the divine limited by Dasein (A term used by Heidegger to mean "being in the world." We live in Dasein in that we are each an embodied consciousness in a physical world). We interact and experience the divine by interacting with the world and each other.

Power and Its Objects

Power, its use, abuse, and form is of great interest to me. For some time I have been concerned with the way power is used in literature. How is it portrayed? How is it applied? At whom is it directed? In this type of examination both Marxist and Feminist criticism aid me. Both schools are concerned with the way society deals with power: sexual power and economic power. I tend to focus more on the work of Michel Foucault, whose Discipline and Punish with its conception of the Panopticon, is of great use in examining the way society interacts with power.

The Panopticon was a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham. This was a circular prison, rigged with mirrors and blinds that allowed every cell to be observed by one guard from a central tower, while the prisoners could not see the guard. Foucault took this idea and built several theories about power, using the Panopticon as a central theme. Foucault believed that power is most effective when it mimics the function of the Panopticon, meaning that this power is invisible. The ones who are watched never know when they are watched. They know only that they could be watched, and therefore normalize their behavior. The watchers need not be watching all the time, because the possibility of being watched is enough to serve the watchers purposes.

This is especially relevant in modern society. The Panopticon was never built, but we can see examples of its children every day of our lives. Foucault wrote of the Panoptic Gaze, the invisible eye that watches us and causes us to normalize our behavior. You can see this in action when you go to a video store. The first thing you see next to the counter is a pair of beams that you know are theft reduction devices. You know that the beams contain a sensor that will trip an alarm if you attempt to carry a video through them. The beams do not need to be turned on to be effective. People know they are being watched, and are less likely to attempt stealing that copy of Home Alone II.

I worked at a video store for three months (it wasn't an upward career move for me), and the entire time our theft sensors never worked. We had a roll of adhesive metal strips, which we attached to the inside of video tapes. The metal strips were supposed to activate the alarm. I once held an entire roll of those metal strips and walked back and forth through the sensors, with no effect. It didn't matter, because the customers had to assume they worked in case they did.

It is possible to look at literature through the lens of Foucault, particularly stories set in post-industrial revolution times, and find interpretations that might not be possible with other forms of criticism.

The Reader as Critic

The role of the honest critic is to be a reader first, and a critic second. Honest criticism comes from a love and passion for stories, the way they are told and retold. The goal of criticism, for me, is to joyously examine a text through the experience of reading it. Finding hidden meaning in a story or poem is part of the experience of reading, and many people find joy in this. The irresponsible critic views the text as an object to be dissected, not in the joy of discovery but as a way of exerting power over it.

I find some of the best criticism to be that which is pragmatic. The pragmatic critic has an experience, and then asks the question "What tools do I have at my disposal to talk about this story? What do I know about other opinions of stories like this, that will allow me to have a dialog with others who have experienced it?" This critic then creates a new pattern in response to the text, that is done out of joy.

Conclusions of a Sort

My intent here was not to set forth any kind of definitive system of performing literary criticism. I've tried to deny that you even can. Everything about examining a text comes back to the reader at some point. The New Critics can strive for objectivity, but they leave out an entire world of discourse that is both interesting and exciting. It is also possible to take reader oriented criticism to extremes, and deny that any other method of looking at a text is valid. I read a paper that contained nothing but anecdotal ruminations by the writer about how Jude the Obscure reminded him of his family dog. The goal of a reader-oriented criticism should not be "circle the wagons" against the derision of skeptics. I take a more utilitarian view. You could call me a Literary Unitarian.

Books that Helped

Carse, James P. Finite and Infinite Games. New York: Ballantine, 1986

Eco, Umberto The Limits of Interpretation. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990

Foucault, Michel Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979

Poundstone, William Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday, 1988

Spong, John Shelby Resurrection: Myth or Reality? San Francisco: Harper, 1994

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