Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Does Great Literature make us better?

This post is going to in a bunch of different directions, but I'm trying not to make it TLDR.

Over at the New York Times, Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham asks, "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?" It reads to me a bit of a straw man argument that will elicit knee-jerk reactions. Anyone who'd actually read an essay like this is almost invariably going to argue "Yes," unless they are psychotically contrarian.

I suppose I've been keeping myself busy enough these days that it's hard for me to determine who this sort of essay is intended for. I wonder what kind of friends such people are associating with who have that kind of debate seriously. What would they do, ultimately, if they lost the argument. "Great literature doesn't make us better at all. Flood the channels with books by Snooki!" "Commission Baz Luhrmann to take on War & Peace, stat!" Egad.

I find the more interesting question, one that we've seen demonstrated in the 20th Century, to be: What happens when Great Literature brings out the worst in us? There has been frequent discussion of the Nazi connections  to the work of Wagner, particularly his Ring cycle. Pol Pot was exposed to the art of Angkor and inspired to call for Year Zero and the horrors of the Killing Fields.

Certainly, there are few scenarios imaginable where someone would say: "The risk of a 21st Century Holocaust or Killing Fields is too great with this exceptional book. We must burn it and all that come even a fraction close to its wondrous character...." but are we obliged to keep our work safe and riskless? To do so, to defang art and make it a tame pet defies the very purpose of some of our greatest art to date.

I don't think most people take the threat of Great Art seriously enough to call for a training course like Drivers Ed or Gun Safety. But on the continuum of art education, I think we should abhor instructors who teach us ways to appreciate art only in the most mundane, pedestrian interpretation. This would create a safe society, but also one so wholly unimaginative that we might as well never have made art at all.

So, how do we create an interesting and worthwhile practice of art education ethically? An ethical human artist should probably not want people to literally die because of their creation. That's typically considered bad form. But how do we present art and tech it so that people understand: It can be viewed in a way that empowers, and in a way that destroys. How do we teach respect, but not superstitious fear?

I also consider: The arts have long played a role in social construction and validation, but I would hope to never see my work or the work of my friends used to reinforce, or worse, innovate disparity. How do you use it responsibly while still giving it that power that makes it so wondrous in the first place, the power to create unanticipated response, to surprise, to remind and to inspire?

As longtime readers of mine know, I hate neutered engagement with the arts. I particularly hate a number of programs that exist right now ostensibly teaching the arts and the craft of writing, but which have defanged and smothered many of the emerging writers in the Lao American community. It's not the only thing, but as I've mentioned previously, in 40 years we still have less than 40 books in America on the Lao American experience, in our own words, on our own terms. And that matters to me.

Barbara Jane Reyes has a wonderfully conversational follow-up to her earlier post, Broken Record Stylee: MFAs and Writers of Color. I'd love to share her guarded optimism that an MFA -could- be a place where we learn how to 'create and grow a manuscript'and I'll definitely allow that "a writer of color can be neutered anywhere in the world, if s/he allows it." But the issue is not an abstraction to Lao writers. It may be different for others communities, but with almost half-a-century under our belt and so little to functionally show for it, I have to be concerned.

I'm fast coming up on the fourth anniversary since I became the first Lao American to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature for poetry in 2009. And this year, the SatJaDham Lao Literary project celebrates 18 years. Enough time for it to have learned to drive a car and go to college, although I'm informed many people involved think the network functionally died around 2002 or 2003, ten years ago. Life happens.

But I also see, for better or worse, many in the Lao community are merely giving lip-service to the idea of a love of literature. As I wrote earlier, in the old days, Lao believed writing down stories was one way of making merit. They saw it as a holy responsibility. Perhaps, arguably, too holy, since it seems now that few will personally empower themselves to write and create presently. Historically, we are a people who once believed poets were the eyes of the city.

Lately, I think we've been stabbed in the eyes a lot.

I'm brought to mind an anecdote Linh Dinh was telling us all in New York during the release of Jessica Hagedorn's follow-up to her anthology Charlie Chan Is Dead, entitled Charlie Chan is Dead 2: At Home In The World.  He was telling us how, growing up, he had a cohort of friends who were all certain they were going to be the next great artists and voices of their generation, and make a space for themselves among the Vietnamese classics. But then, time took its toll and less than a handful of them still were in the arts. I've seen that in many other communities, too. Naturally, I'm most acutely aware of this among the Lao.

It's not as bad as the case of the last two living speakers of a language who won't talk to each other, but I don't want us to slide even an inch in that direction.

I'm not going to give into a half-assed fear that my words could get misinterpreted and lead to World War L. I'm not going to up and stop writing, considering that writing, even more than being Lao American, is my intrinsic being. But I also know there's a joy in this process that many Lao Americans are being cut out of, even by programs supposedly designed for Asian Americans.

Having watched Star Trek recently, I admit, I see both sides to the argument that there are times to say "Fuck the Prime Directive." This isn't abstract, this is concrete. The majority of Lao writers of my generation and older are largely known to us. A handful will sprout up here and there, but what we have is who we have. We can't pretend we're not there. It doesn't mean we all become uncritical BFFs swapping spit in the shower. But it does mean we have do our best to grow readerships for one another, and a useful corps of literary critics who can give us food for thought to take it to the next level, without crippling some of our emerging writers' self-confidence that they forever set down the pen.

But I'll have more thoughts on this later.

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