Tag Archives: George Orwell

The Enemies of Self-Creation & Human Solidarity

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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.

On the Reading and Writing of Essays

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There are those today for whom the genre known as the literary and cultural essay is their favorite kind of reading…and writing. In his brief introduction to the 2012 edition of The Best American Essays, David Brooks provides an excellent introduction to the essay as a literary form. Brooks concludes his remarks on the essay by noting that it seems to reflect the human impulse toward self-improvement through a wider understanding and appreciation of life in its rich intellectual and cultural diversity. He  writes: “That self-improving ethos was something that was taken for granted in the mid-twentieth century, and now we are fortified by the knowledge that the things that re most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.”

Brooks does a fine job of identifying many of the great essayists in the history of the genre. These include the usual suspects: Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Emerson, Thoreau, Walter Lippmann, Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, George Orwell, Irving Howe, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, Alfred Kazin, and many others.

He also mentions some of his favorite literary-cultural journals and related websites. These include The Partisan Review, Arts & Letters Daily, the Browser, Longform, and  Tyler Cowen, who blogs for Marginal Revolution. Brooks points out that Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, “but he blogs knowledgeably about ethnic foods, chess, the culture of northern Europe (and everywhere else), novels, politics, cognition, and on and on.”

And isn’t that the point about all literary and cultural essayists, many of whom are also blogging today? Nowhere is the word “polymath” evoked in considering the vocation of the essayist, but in a society of increasingly narrow specialists the essayist stands out as a liberally educated humanist with wide and diverse intellectual and cultural interests. Of course some essays choose to specialize in their “day job,” whether as travel writers, nature writers, science writers, book reviewers, film reviewers, and so forth. But if you scratch a little beneath the surface in most cases these specialized writers have much wider interests that they get to explore in their “free time” or through blogging.

While some essayists have are  partisan polemicists, others by temperament prefer to “weigh and consider” many points of view without “voting” upon them. Each approach has its own value and merit. Some essayists prefer to explore the human condition in its complex diversity without choosing sides or becoming identified with any particular ideology, while others think the whole point of writing essays is to exposite and defend a particular idea or  ideology while critiquing others. Some essayists remain neutral and detached on some issues but partisan and parochial on others. I confess that my own pre-disposition is to be a passionate moderate and radical centrist in the Pragmatist tradition, who nevertheless has some sympathies with the partisan polemicists who are out correct the ignorant, explose the frauds, denounce the wicked, protect the weak, and save the world. Some one has quipped, “I can’t decide whether I want to save the world or savor the world, and that makes it hard for me to plan my day.”

I can’t think of a better education for today’s bloggers than to make it a daily habit not only to follow other bloggers who have something to say and who say it well, but also to read the great essayists of the past and present. Reading the yearly editions of The Best American Essays is a good place to start, along with such websites as Arts & Letters Daily, the Browser, and others.

The best essayists are able to write about many things at once without imposing an oppressive order or falling into total chaos. They are friendly rather than hostile toward the experience of the mysterious, ambiguous, paradoxical,  dialectical, ironic, incommensurable, perplexing,  oblique, oxymoronic and “chaordic.” They care about “the great questions of life” and at the same time notice the small and idiosyncratic things that add charm and color. They are able to weave a interlacing patchwork of widely varied experiences, memories, stories, ideas, metaphors, analogies, creations, discoveries, theories and practices into a broadly reflective and  imaginative “gestalt”, and to do this without any “reductionism” that would minimize or over-simplify the rich diversity and vast complexity of life.

Before there were bloggers there were essayists. Blogging itself represents a global revolution in the sharing of the varieties of human consciousness. It has greatly “democratized” the writing life. The down-side of this phenomena is that it can simply degenerate into  a vast pooling of ignorance. The great essayists provide us with standards and guidelines for intelligent blogging. We need to be reading and learning from them. These are our natural mentors and master teachers.