Writing Serious Books During an Age of Illiteracy

Back in the year of our Lord 2000, Jacques Barzun published “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present” which tells the story of those centuries in terms of a steady drop in literacy levels over these past 500 years. True it is that some regions of the world have seen increases in the percentage of human beings able to read and somewhat understand advertising and political slogans. This is not literacy. This sort of low-level reading-skill exists for the convenience of corporate advertisers, politicians as dumbed-down as the electorate, and — of course — that portion of the electorate which values the illusions of security which sometimes come to those who give up their freedom.

Ultimately, those exploiting and those exploited have been one in the United States though there are signs that we are splitting into more rigidly defined classes though the membership is not yet settled. In a word, we are becoming the sort of rich vs. poor society we imagined we could never become. For now, those classes are defined by the growing divide between wealthy and poor families, which divide is ordinarily masked by the use of individualistic statistics. High-earning women tend to marry men who earn still higher incomes.

Unlike the situation in European societies before the great drive for equality, the wealthy and powerful classes of this end-times for liberal democracy and corporate capitalism are as illiterate as the slum-dwellers. Equality meant first that the lower classes stopped aspiring to middle-class virtues and middle classes no longer work so that their children or grand-children can be artists or writers or scholars — as was true of that lawyer named John Adams.

According to Barzun, French peasants in the early modern period read novels which are too difficult for modern readers who are considered to have high skills of literacy. The educated and wealthy classes in the West chose not to proselytize higher culture and then they chose to drop down to trash culture, not the healthy and vulgar culture of peasant peoples but trash culture. The literati of Western Civilization at the beginning of the third millenium of the Christian Era are incapable of reading any book which requires a serious amount of discipline or knowledge. Despite the airs they put on, they are ignorant of literature and lack the skills of reading difficult books just as much as they are ignorant of science and mathematics and philosophy and lack the skills of reading any of the more substantial works of science and mathematics and philosophy.

Our literary people delude themselves with their calls to straightforward writing as if Hemingway were the only competent writer in history — actually, it’s doubtful if Hemingway were the straightforward, simple writer he sometimes seems to be but that’s beyond the scope of this entry. We modern people call for plain writing, at the sixth-grade reading level or less, because we’re not capable of reading Melville or Cervantes or Sterne, Plato or Augustine or Nietzsche. Our calls for plain prose are the calls of people with minds inadequately formed to read any richer prose, any prose which allows for deeper thought.

In the modern world where all men are equal, all men are equally ignorant and equally illiterate. We have a right to sit passively in front of electronic boxes and to be entertained by various products of corporations which wish to reach the greatest number of consumers, a goal inherently in conflict with any possibility of reaching the richer layers of human mind and soul of particularized human beings. We have a right to scan prose with little in the way of content, using even books to keep our monkey-eyes busy that our brains not begin to form in particular ways. There are no generic human beings, though a flexible and open-minded human being can admire many things which are human but not his in particular. But those who allow themselves to be degraded into pretenses of generic human beings make better targets for both centralized political powers and corporate economic powers. In terms of my discussion in “To See a World in a Grain of Sand”, they fail to become true human persons.

As Michael Polanyi tried to teach us, knowledge is personal — possessed in a true form only by persons. Even technical knowledge becomes true knowledge only when it is personal. One of his examples, one he knew well, is the training of a surgeon. As I recall, he noted that the first look inside a human body after years of seeing color-coded organs in text-book pictures is shocking. He said that the medical student observing an operation or participating in an autopsy sees a jumble of similar colored organs just flopping over each other. Today, that situation might be different with all the computerized imagery which is available to anyone on the Internet and which is certainly used in high school and college courses touching upon anatomy. But it’s still ultimately the same.

A more important example, which is common to all of us — if we were to simply think what we do in daily life — is:

When a student finds himself becoming a true surgeon, he no longer acts of thinks — during the operation — as if the scalpel were a tool he is holding. The scalpel has become an extension of his hand.

A book is an extension of the mind of an attentive reader — one reason to be careful of what you read. Your thinking processes are not tools of a supernatural mind which exists independently of those thoughts. Your mind is its thoughts. Moreover, you are your mind, including its thoughts, and you are your body including all that is labeled `appendage’ or `peripheral’. This includes, in a qualified way, the physical tools you are accustomed to use, the clothes you wear, the furniture you sit in, and the recreational devices you use.

Though I have no intentions of drawing a detailed road-map in this context, this entire way of thinking leads to the realization that most modern people — certainly our self-proclaimed literary elite — are a people who are prisoners of their own minds. I imagine they think themselves amogst the great souls who escape Plato’s cave with all its illusion, if only for a short while. In fact, they are imprisoned in that cave which is one constructed by human beings unwilling to deal with objective reality because it lies beyond their complete control. I’m not sure that’s how Plato viewed matters but I’m not worried by that since I’m not — to my knowledge — in complete agreement with any human thinker. In any case, the cheap and trashy forms of imaginative fiction of our age — science fiction and elvish fantasy and especially the sex- and species-bending forms of those genres — are truly ours. That is, they are magic — works appropriate for people who are bored or frustrated by the struggle to understand reality and to shape it in appropriately human ways; they rebel and retreat into magical attitudes. As I noted in “To See a World in a Grain of Sand”, scientists of recent decades have joined in this retreat into magical attitudes. Another description for this magical view held by modern people is: adolescent power fanstasies.

And this provides an over-simplistic but indicative description for the worldview of many modern people, including the overwhelming majority of our cultural, political, social, and religious leaders: the world can be shaped by man, for human interests, and, in fact, we are duty-bound to do so. In this view, laws are truly made by men and are not given to us by God — directly or through His Creation.

The more traditional view, amongst Christians and Jews and pagans alike, is that man shapes the world in powerful but limited ways and most of those limitations are those imposed by the objective laws of God (or the gods) and nature. A healthy imagination is formed within those laws. This doesn’t mean that a healthy imagination is formed rigidly, but it does mean that it is formed according to those moral purposes that virtuous pagans as well as Christians and Jews can see in the workings of nature, those purposes which run with the grain of the universe as the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder put it. We Christians have faith that Christ’s life and death tell us otherwise inaccessible truths about that grain of the universe. In any case, a healthy imagination must conform itself to what can be known of the laws of nature and nature’s Creator.

A false imagination can violate even the rules of its proper playground — what-could-be, but it is part and parcel of the modern imagination to violate what-actually-is. And the line is not always clearly drawn. For example, I would classify the sometimes silly fantasy of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) as a legitimate, in fact — great, exercise of the human imagination. On the other hand, the sex-bending and species-blurring fantasies of the science fiction vein and also the dungeons-and-dragons fantasies and nearly all Christian fantasies are exercises of unhealthy, non-humane imaginations.

And then there are the more typical books on the best-seller lists. They are simply barren of thought and imagination. The appropriate description would be: “Boring!”. Banal. Mindless. The sorts of books written by people who think the essence of reading is to pass eyes over a page of text offering no challenges or obstacles. Oh how wonderful to confirm our prejudices. Published American fiction books are ephemeral, lacking in meat or even hearty vegetables.

So, what will happen to someone who strives for better than that, for an author who prefers Melville and Cervantes and Sterne, Austen and Hawthorne and O’Connor, to the stuff which fills the new book shelves of our modern barns of books? I’ve read as much as two pages of some of the books by modern best-selling American authors — some best-selling authors from Europe and South America are still worth reading. For the most part, I’ve not found a reason to continue reading any of those books by American authors, including those who receive rave reviews from critics who claim to be inclined to literature. Any history of American literature will tell you ephemeral trash has always sold better than good books.

I confess that I’ve over-simplified a bit. The historical novels of Gore Vidal are well worth a read, as are the novels of Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry, but those men are not of the current generation. Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” was a powerful work of the human moral imagination and most certainly the most recent truly creative and profound work of fiction I have read by an American, but that book seems to have faded into the dimness of history, or even some pre-historical Golden Age. Going back a little, there were a number of worthwhile mystery writers (though not my favorite read) and historical novelists. Some writers I would classify as middle-brow, such as Lloyd C. Douglas, produced some interesting books — “Magnificent Obsession” veers at times towards the status of an experimental novel and one far more interesting than those of Coover or Updike or Cheever. Rabbi Chaim Potok may yet be recognized as a major novelist.

Few American authors have made a living by writing works of fiction which have proven to be of interest to anyone more than a few years after publication of their last book. There are certainly no American authors publishing worthwhile books in the mainstream of the American publishing industry — unless you consider as mainstream those smaller publishers who put out the works of Wendell Berry and perhaps one or two others.

Yet, after fifteen years of failing to publish a novel — with honest agents and editors telling me Americans can’t read demanding books — I still refuse to give up. And the situation is still worse than that. One older agent wrote me that he could remember when there were people in the American publishing industry with minds that were developed well-enough to read books of the sort I write, but he claimed to know not a single person at that time (mid-1990s) in the publishing industry who had a well-developed mind. And I did read one literary biography of Melville which claimed that middle-class magazines appreciated the greatness of “Moby Dick”, giving it good reviews. Melville’s career was — arguably — destroyed by the Manhattan literary elite and also by his publisher’s decision to stick to an expensive edition of his works. A sturdy but cheaper edition might well have sold well since insurance agents, retailers, undertakers, and metal-workers were apparently more willing, and better able, to deal with the ambiguities and complexities of “Moby Dick” than the literary elite were. They were probably already chasing around to find the nicest restaurant in the City.

Finally, with the help of Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School and the open-minded generosity of the folks at the publishing firm of Wipf & Stock, I was in print with a book on theology and empirical knowledge titled: “To See a World in a Grain of Sand”. I fear that book will prove too difficult for most modern theologians, philosophers, and scientists to read because of the decay of the imagination in modern man. When modern minds are seemingly well-formed at all, it is usually a rigid formation to the limited and defective structures of text-books — secondary works and not primary works of the human mind and imagination. Creative thinkers, such as Nietzsche, can be appreciated after a generation or more of plodding scholarly study. I fear that such efforts will tend to distort any true creativity, deforming it so that it becomes amenable to the mental exercises of those who think reality is constructed the way a toy-truck might be constructed from an erector set.

As might be guessed by those who struggled through to this point, I have no intention of cheapening or distorting what I wish to say in order to make it possible for the small minds of our literary elite and academics to handle. This is a matter of principle, but also a practical matter of politics and economics and life-style. For all the self-righteousness of the literary left about our current political situation, they are amongst the criminals who put us in this situation which they claim to despise at times, and they are also their own victims. I’ll give merely a hint of what I mean:

Anyone who seriously thinks of either George Bush or Rush Limbaugh as a conservative knows little of deep-politics, of political philosophy if you will. They are a people adapted to an age and country where the average reading level of the newspapers is said to be fourth-grade and I would propose that the literary and popular novels of our age and country are no better. They are a people adapted to a utilitarian politics of looting by way of legal government programs and not to a politics of freedom or a politics of principle.

If you dumb people down by teaching them to read adolescent literature, don’t be surprised if they think at that same level when it comes to political and moral issues. Don’t be surprised if the authors and editors and publishers of those dumbed-down books settle in at that same level of thought.

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One Comment on “Writing Serious Books During an Age of Illiteracy”

  1. unitedcats Says:

    Well put, I have been saying for years that despite all of our gew-gaws and gadgets, we are not living in a particularly enlightened or civilized age. In more than a figureative sense, we live in a world where the barbarians won. And it may get worse before it gets better, glad to see some are still manning the ramparts of civilization. My hat is off to you.

    Regards
    Doug


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