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Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Value of Literature

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Fiction begins with empathy, as a writer imagines what it would be like to be another individual. He or she puts him- or herself into another person’s shoes, except that, of course, the person is a literary character, rather than a flesh-and-blood man, woman, or child, whom the writer creates. The process works in reverse, too--or is claimed to do so: readers, identifying with literary characters, experience and understand life from these figures’ points of view. For this reason, literature is said to broaden and to deepen human experience.

Since the behavior of fictional characters models that of actual human beings, fiction provides the potential for making ethical decisions and statements about human behavior in general; it allows readers to assess, evaluate, and judge whether a character’s conduct is moral and beneficial or immoral and disadvantageous to him or her and to others, including society in general. Indeed, fiction can be--or has been, at least--a means of transmitting values to present and future generations and societies, as, for example, Beowulf did and as the Bible continues to do for many.

In previous posts, we have considered the types of values that horror fiction conveys. It shows what writers consider to be wrong, or evil, and it demonstrates, through the behavior of the protagonist, how such wickedness can be resisted or overcome, indicating, in the process, that terrible and horrific experiences, including the loss of life and limb, can be endured and that the truly important things in life have nothing to do with such petty pursuits as power, fame, and fortune.

Can the assertions that literature makes--the themes of stories--be proven to be true or false, as a scientist, for example, can demonstrate the truth of the theory that some microorganisms cause disease or that the bonding of oxygen and hydrogen molecules results in the substance we call “water”? No. Are such claims without value, then?

Sigmund Freud

Until relatively recently, Sigmund Freud’s theory of human personality and behavior, psychoanalysis, was not only the predominant school of thought in this domain, but it was the domain, or, to use a different metaphor, it was the only game in town. Carl Jung’s psychology, like that of Alfred Adler’s, Erik Ericson’s, Ernest Jones’, Karen Horney’s, Jacques Lacan’s, Otto Rank’s, Erich Fromm’s, and others in the fold, were mere variations of Freud’s thought. Psychoanalysis was psychology.

Karl Popper

It was not until Karl Popper and other critics asked Freud, as it were, to set his theory’s superego, ego, and id upon the examination table, the better to see and feel, taste and touch, smell and measure them, that psychoanalysis lost its devotees. It was considered unscientific because it consisted of ideas which, by definition, cannot be measured or quantified and, therefore, cannot be empirically verified. In other words, it was a myth, not a science.

Besides the triune composition of personality that Freud posited, other of his ideas were also found to be unscientific and suspect, such as his theory of psychosexual development as being comprised of discreet stages (oral, anal, Oedipal, and genital) and his view of the existence of an “unconscious mind.” His much-vaunted “talking cure” and his attributing all behavioral disorders to unresolved sexual problems related to childhood also came under serious attack, chiefly by feminists, who regard Freudian thought and, in particular, his references to “penis envy” and to women as wannabe men, as highly sexist and offensive. Once the end-all and the be-all of psychology, psychoanalysis took on the appearance of being little more than a modern version of ancient shamanism, with its practitioners considered more witchdoctors than scientists.

How is this related to the value of literature? The themes that literature expresses are of the same type as those which psychoanalysis makes--that is, they are speculative, not scientific; they cannot be quantified or verified. They cannot be scientifically proven or disproved. If, therefore, psychoanalysis is without value, literature would also seem to be without value, for the same reasons.

Martin Heidegger

Those who believe that literature, including, for example, philosophical and religious texts, does have some kind of value have had to reevaluate the matter. Many, in doing so, adopt a position akin to that of the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argues that literature is not about the objective, measurable world of nature, but is, rather, about the inner man or woman.

In short, literary texts are about human experience, as it is understood consciously, by the person him- or herself, and, since people do not exist in a vacuum, but are products of their cultures and societies, literature also provides insights into the nature of such traditions and social groups. Moreover, literature is a means by which authors and readers may share such experiences and it is, as such, a sort of glue that helps to cement individuals and societies together and to suggest personal and social meanings for them that science, by nature, cannot suggest.

Since most other disciplines, scientific and otherwise, impinge upon literature (or literature impinges upon them), it creates a complex network of interrelated ideas which enriches the discussion of the artistic, moral, social, legal, philosophical, political, religious, and theological questions that literature often raises. Although many of these other domains are as unscientific as literature itself, they have value for the same reason that literature does: they unite human beings through shared experience. Men and women are more than natural objects among a world of other things. They are conscious. They think and feel, believe and desire, hope and strive. Science’s importance, notwithstanding, science has little to do with any of these subjective expressions and functions of the human soul.

Soren Kierkegaard

Science may tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what should be, any more than it can tell us how what is feels or how we should think or feel about reality. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that, although, in principle, through science, the universe is known, he himself is left over, as “an unscientific postscript.” The domain of philosophy, religion, and literature in general, including horror fiction, is that of the “leftover” self, and these domains are about sharing the self with the other selves of the world. As long as people believe that they themselves and others have value and that their experience matters, literature and its themes will continue to have value as well.

Besides, literature can be pretty entertaining.

1 comment:

Prayerpost said...

Wow! That was superbly written. I don't think this kind of comparison has been made before between literature and psychology. And yet, they are both about the inner workings of mankind. Thanks. keb

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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