Tag Archives: Aldous Huxley

The Enemies of Self-Creation & Human Solidarity

culture_and_the_arts_democracy-now-215

I agree with Richard Rorty in his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that “Self-Creation” and “Human Solidarity” are different enterprises and that some theoretical thinkers have concentrated exclusively on one but not the other. Rorty is not saying that they are mutually exclusive but only “incommensurable” in the sense that they have nothing to do with each other. I’m not convinced that this is entirely true. I view Self-Creation and Human Solidarity focusing on the life of the individual and the life of the community. They appear as microcosm is related to macrocosm. It is only our society’s “specialization syndrome” that has divided the primary concerns of life in this matter.

What interests me is the question, “Who are the enemies of Self-Creation and Human Solidarity.” Let’s begin with definitions:

Self-Creation designates the capacity to develop one’s creative human potential, to exercise a degree of freedom and autonomy in creating one’s life rather than living in unconscious conformity to the dictates of the collective mass-consumer culture.

Human Solidarity designates the courage to speak out and act courageously on behalf of the “inalienable human rights” of others, especially the most vulnerable and least fortunate, against domination, oppression, cruelty and exploitation of those in power.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopia that champions the importance of “Self-Creation” rather than becoming the willing slave of empty pleasure and escapist addictions.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is also a dystopia that explores some similar themes. Self-Creation involves turning off the wall-to-wall TV with its shallow sit-coms and game-shows, and finding others who have chosen to cultivate their minds through critical thinking and the reading of the great books.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four portrays a ruthless and cruel totalitarian society that terrifies and dehumanizes its citizens through the methods of propaganda, lies, interrogation and torture.

Today we are all too familiar with both kinds of oppression and exploitation.  Militant oligarchies and dictatorships like Syria simply crush and destroy their own people, keeping them subjected by ruthless military strikes on cities that indiscriminately torture and murder men, women and children. It is a reign of terror.

Some democratic societies (guess which ones) have been seduced  into  becoming crony capitalistic plutocracies that keep up the appearance of human solidarity while perpetuating a widening gap between the rich (who get richer) and the poor (who get poorer.) As the shrinking educated middle-class declines in influence and it is neutralized by becoming narrow technological specialists, the super-rich power-elites can have their way with a populace that has become more discount consumers than informed citizens. Reforms come, but it is often one step forward and two steps backwards.

One of the best ways to subject the populace of a “liberal democracy” to the authority of concentrated corporate, economic, military and political power is to medicate, distract, entertain and amuse them to death through”bread and circuses,” spectacles and games. In such a society the populace know more about the latest gossip surrounding their favorite celebrities than they know about what is going on that matters in their society and world.

Those who are committed to Self-Creation rather than passive consumerism may or may not make the connection with the need for Human Solidarity, but one hopes that they would. In the best scenario the cultivation of the whole person and the cause of progressive democracy would find each other to be kindred spirits. One cannot help but admire such remarkable journalists as Bill Moyers who has been a champion of both Self-Creation and Human Solidarity for many years, combining a love of poetic sensibility and a passion for social justice. May his tribe increase!

In Praise of Creative Nonfiction & the Lyrical Reflective Essay

I love (heart) creative nonfiction

I enjoy all kinds of writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, but recently I’ve become enamored and enthralled by the genre known as creative nonfiction, or more precisely what John D’Agata calls the lyrical essay.

Let me lay the groundwork for a few comments wish to make by including the following extended quote from the Wikipedia article on “creative nonfiction.”

Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.

 “For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”[1] Forms within this genre include biography, food writing, literary journalism, memoirs, personal essays, travel writing, and other hybridized essays. Critic Chris Anderson claims that the genre can be understood best by splitting it into two subcategories—the personal essay and the journalistic essay—but the genre is currently defined by its lack of established conventions.[2]

Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry — in her book The Art of Fact — suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.”[3] By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,”[3] which she claims allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.”[4] The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is “The scene”. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage.[5] The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.”[6]

Aldous Huxley suggested that there are three different types of essays. The first is the personal or autobiographical essay. The second is the objective, factual, concrete and particular essay about about given topic. The third is the abstract, universal, philosophical essay. Huxley himself saw no necessary contradiction in writing essays that combine all three elements.

The essay is a literary form of creative nonfiction. Some literary historians trace the birth of the essay to Montaigne, but Montaigne himself was influenced by reading the classical Greek and Roman essayists and by reading Plutarch‘s “Oeuvres Morales” (Moral Works” about exemplary men of antiquity. Influential historical exemplars of the best writing of creative (or literary) nonfiction include Matthew Arnold, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas de Quincey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and in the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, Charles du Bos, Lionel Trilling, E.B. White, George Orwell, and many others. Other literary essayists who have influenced my sensibility and perspective include Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, Morris Berman, Edward Abbey and Lewis Lapham. There are literally hundreds of brilliant contemporary writers of creative nonfiction to choose from. One can easily find on the Web selected lists of the best living exemplars of the lyrical essay and creative nonfiction.

My recommendations for introductions to the art of the literary essay and creative nonfiction include “The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,” by Phillip Lopate, and “The Lost Origins of the Essay,” and “The Next American Essay,” by John D’Agata.

“Creative nonfiction” in general and the “literary reflective essay” in particular serve as a “personal lingual playground” that encompasses and illumines the rich diversity of human experience –whether of nature or culture, myth or history, spirituality or sexuality, art or science. The lyrical essay educates the mind, delights the senses, enchants the  imagination, and expands new horizons. Quite simply, it makes some beautiful music.

You Are What You Read

you are what you read

Some people say you are what you eat. They may be right. But I stand with those who say “you are what you read.” For those of us who belong to “The Republic of Letters,” reading is not merely an idle pastimes, a way to occupy ourselves while waiting for something to do. Rather, it is one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives, a “positive addiction” that correlates with “optimal human experience,” a cognitive state known to psychologists as “flow.” For some people writing is like that too. When we are reading…and writing, we go to a spacious and open place where consciousness and intelligence are free to move about like the Queen on the chess board in all directions. Indeed, it is as if we are playing three-dimensional chess where the Queen is free to move about on multiple levels of chess boards rather than play on only one.

“You are what you read!” Yesterday I was roaming about at Barnes and Noble, wandering among the many colorful stacks of books and periodicals on a wide range of subjects. It occurred to me that I enjoy reading books and periodicals that are drawn from just about every section of the bookstore, some more than others. My stack of books at home marked “to be read” include an eclectic mix on such topics as heath and nutrition; the intellectual history of western civilization; the language of metaphor; the role of culture in shaping human nature; imagination, creativity and the arts; the lives of the great composers and poets; ecumenical theology and global spirituality; and of course novels, short stories,  poems and essays and literary criticism. The truth is that none of us has enough time to read more than a fraction of those books that would reward our time and attention. And there are so many other worthwhile things that we want to do with our lives beside read.

Again I say “you are what you read!” If you read narrowly in one field, whether philosophy or fly-fishing, literature or sports trivia, art of auto mechanics, science or business administration, “you are what you read.”

If you read widely in all directions, following your instincts for what  fascinates you, that habit of broad reading will influence your intelligence and sensibility. Those of us who are “literacy omnivores” enjoy sampling the cuisine of many genre, even while we find that we come back again and again to certain cuisines that never lose interest for us. Part of the fun of conversing with other persons who belong to the Republic of Letters is discovering what delectible foods on the literacy menu have given them greatest sustenance and delight.

But what about those who do not read substantial books, either because they have never learned to read, or because their busy lives give them no time or energy to read, or because reading has never become a source of knowledge, inspiration, enchantment and delight for them? Of course those of us who experience reading as “a way of life” think they are missing out on something vitally important. But in a way we understand how this decline in serious reading has happened in our technological digital age. Before the advent of radio, TV, movies, DVDs, video games, Facebook and Twitter, people read books.  Even many of those with little or no formal education read books. Possessing a good library of well-worn books was considered a sign of culture and civility. All that has been swept away today. I dare say that for most Americans today watching TV, renting videos, seeing movies on Netflix, and playing video games have largely replaced the reading of books, especially books of literary quality and intellectual substance.

So if “you are what you read,” and millions of Americans are no longer reading, or reading only at a very rudimentary level and as a superficial pastime rather than as a source of enlightenment, what does that mean? What does it mean that millions of Americans are starving their minds of the nutrition that comes through the reading of good books, or are feeding their minds only on junk-food? What does it mean that millions are allowing the mass-media news and entertainment society to dish up its version of “reality” for them, and to shut down the higher faculties of critical thinking and cultural discernment that comes with reading? How is this not a “leveling of the masses?” Perhaps dystopias like Ray Bradbury‘s Farenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are not that far off in the future. For some that future has already arrived. “The book people” are still out there, but many have ditched their wall-to-wall flat screen interactive “smart TVs” (an oxymoron). They are venturing out on their own into the wilderness to find others who have discovered that “you are what you read.”

Matthew Arnold was a brilliant English literary critic and social reformer.  Believed that modern societies have a choice between Culture and Anarchy. He was surely right. But perhaps he did not see, as Huxley and Bradbury did so keenly, that it is possible to use advertising and retail, technology and entertainment as “soma” — a powerful drug that stupefies the masses so that they “love their servitude.” The new Digital Age has great potential for good among those who know how to use it for personal growth and cultural enrichment, and it has great potential for harm among those who have lost the ability to read books, think independently, explore widely, express themselves clearly, and discern the dark times in which they live.