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Powers of literature 

Limits of imagination



Today and tomorrow

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The images on this column are based on   Michelangelo's ancient sibyls, depicted in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. By reading their magical books, the sibyls could cast nativities or prophecies of the fates of infant children. Life stories were told before the lives were lived... Those were books with power!



















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































             Lesson 1: Genesis

What are the powers of literature? The short answer was given in about 13 BCE by the Roman poet Horace: poetry delights or instructs, or it combines delight and instruction.

Hi, I'm Michelangelo. When I was commissioned to paint this page, I chose the theme "seeing is believing." Keep your eyes open! Ciao!Literature is fantasy, but it has powers. It is nothing more than representation, and yet it can absorb us so that we forget all that is true. This hypnotic power of entertainment exists in all attractive art. The spell can outlast the first impression and become addictive. This power produces a wakeful child's demand before bedtime to hear a well-known story repeated, again and again, or a stressed-out teen's mania to replay the same favorite songs, over and over into the darkest hours of the night. 

What use is entertainment? It helps to regulate our bodies by unwinding our autonomic nervous system (ANS), a peculiarly human neural network that both increases and decreases stress. The stress-increasing half of the ANS (the sympathetic nervous system) starts our emergency pumps in a fight or other dangerous situation, or whenever we need increased blood pressure for immediate muscle power. However, this basic animal machinery can be harmful to creatures who think. Our pumps tend to stick in the "on" position due to imagined dangers, even though there's no present emergency or immediate need for heightened blood flow. Excess stress leads to sleeplessness and irritability, and it can cause heart attack and a variety of dangerous conditions, including inability to digest food and other problems of the gastrointestinal tract, such as ulcers. We switch the stress "off" only by stimulating the stress-reducing half of the ANS (the parasympathetic nervous system). Our conscious minds can flip this switch. All we have to do is stop worrying. 

Like sleeping pills, narcotics, Zen, yoga, bathing, massage, prayer and meditation, literature and other fine arts are tools for shifting into the relaxed parasympathetic state, temporarily. It's no accident that literature tends to flourish in high-stress settings, such as the seats of empires (imperial Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Castile, Versailles, London, etc.), often when the military or economic forecast looks threatening. It's well known that recession, depression and war are good for Hollywood movie ticket sales--and especially when the film makers produce light-hearted, upbeat or fantasy films.  

This medicinal use of literature was known to the so-called father of English literature Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 - 1400 AD), a serious diplomat in his day job who cheered himself and others in off-duty hours as a teller of dreams and collector of charming tales. Chaucer had learned from Dante Alighieri and Dante's disciple Giovanni Boccaccio that the right arrangement of words can change a focused reader's mood from misery to bliss. [Dante is reviewed in Lessons 18-21 of this web.] But even in Dante's time (1265-1321 AD) the soothing entertainment power already had been tapped for thousands of years. Ancient Greek literature, in the earliest form that we know, was a popular custom of after-dinner story-telling that absorbed the mind in surreal myths, legends and pseudo-histories. Through monotonous rhythms, and artful manipulation of tensions and emotions, this wonderful fiction helped distraught banqueters physiologically to digest dinner and to relax into pleasing drowsiness. As the archaic Greek poet Hesiod wrote in perhaps 700 BCE:

Happy is the one whom the Muses love. Sweet flows the speech from that mouth. For though we have sorrow and grief in freshly-troubled spirits, and though we live in dread because our hearts are distressed, yet, when a singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once we forget all of our heaviness and sorrows. The gifts of the goddesses soon turn us away from these cares.   Theogony 90-103

How did the ancients know this power of literature millennia before the discovery of the autonomic nervous system? Just as young parents today know that a few stories at bedtime are good for their children, even though no physician has prescribed this literature or explained its medical benefit. (Much more on after-dinner stories in Lesson 2.) 

So the first practical lesson about literature is: enjoy and relax! Let a somewhat interesting book, video or recording unwind your nerves tonight. If you are hopelessly addicted to late night television, then be sure to choose a non-stressful movie or sitcom rather than some update on terrorism or political shouting match. You don't want to watch all night. That's what the TV producers want from you, to gape at ads forever.

The separate interests of consumers and producers lead us to the second practical lesson about literature: be careful. The entertainment that brings us "delight" also gives us "instruction," whether we want it or not. When we are under the hypnotic power of entertainment, our guard is down, and we are suggestible. Art goes not only to our hearts and stomachs but to our foolish heads, which naturally are biased to believe whatever they see or hear. Literature's instructional power implants thoughts, attitudes and opinions in us, scripts our fashions and beliefs, and often manages our behavior by the book. 

The power of instruction, like the power of entertainment,   is rooted in human biology. Even the least sophisticated art constructs and reinforces neural networks in human brains. Advertising "informs" its audience neurologically, and so does all propaganda, no matter how preposterous or harmful its message. All artists exploit our physiological need for mental diversion, but not all of them care about our health and welfare. Some just want to sell cigarettes or dictatorship, for example, and many of them in fact succeed. 

So there are serious side-effects to literature, as there are side-effects to narcotics, sleeping pills and other cures for sleeplessness. The consequences are not only personal. When their art influences substantial numbers of people, artists concoct culture, or like-mindedness among the individuals who have received the instruction. The so-called religions of the book are all examples. This physical brain-building, memory-making power to addict individuals and to infect large audiences gives literature its academic standing as a subject worthy of study. 

Not all literature is equally impressive, of course. At the low end of the literary scale there's the temporary Hollywood craze that quickly passes out of living memory after a few weeks of talk show and tee shirt promotions. At the high end, however, there are revered scriptures that countless generations have taken for reality and handed down as definitive spiritual guides. The general evaluation of literature, in terms of its instructional power, isn't a complicated or subjective task. Great literature has great influence. It wires the brains of great numbers of people into networks of significant culture.

So it is that the powers of great literature can be seen in history, for better or worse. One famous example is the influence of the poet Homer on Alexander the Great.  Alexander was so infatuated with Homer's tale of the Trojan War that, sources say, he slept at night with a copy of the text under his pillow.  (Right next to his dagger, probably: his stress indeed must have been great!) That's how, they say, the young king received the idea to improve on Achilles' performance by conquering Troy and the rest  of Asia! So, world history was changed completely by Homer--or at least Homer's Alexandrian cult claimed so. (Much more of Alexander and Homer in Lesson 9.)

Hey, kid, read the Lord's book! Read it often every day!For literature to inspire  wars, or at least to explain them, is not unusual. The deadliest war in American history began, according to Mr. Lincoln, when a little lady sat down at her writing desk to compose Uncle Tom's Cabin. It seems absurd that storybooks can have such political significance--and yet supporting evidence can be amassed. Consider today's on-going battles in the Promised Land (or is it Palestine?) where, after so many centuries, the cult wars of rival prophets are still playing out in everyday life, more or less faithfully to the scriptures.

CONSUMER Warning: Wars and many other literary eruptions in history make us wonder how culture can remain stable when there is so much literature in circulation. Many people indeed believe that the powers of literature are evil or subversive, and that literature therefore should be banned or censored. Some even claim that literature is lethal, so please use caution at all times while studying for this course--and afterwards, too, if you ever happen to read any literature again! 

Listen, you can't put me down here!  I'm only an art critic!Censorship is evidence that literature has powers. Apart from censorship, there are also secure libraries, enormous piles of impractical criticism, more or less useless courses of literary study, various forms of poetic malpractice, and many other ingenious devices for keeping literature out of our so-called real world. Yet, in spite of all of this systematic containment and suppression, literature somehow sometimes works. That's its magic.

Creative creatures 
a reading of Genesis 

Hey, look, it's another famished artist!In spite of instruction by Genesis, all the multitude of Abraham's children have not yet been able to complete the conquest of Palestine. Nor have Crusaders or Muslims, Egyptians or Babylonians, Romans or Greeks, British or Americans been more successful.  Anything can happen in writing or talk, anything can be promised or prophesied, but even when the words are sincerely intended and zealously obeyed, human creativity is nonetheless constrained. To the extent that we are not creators, we are creatures or created beings, products of powers that are not our own. Those opposing powers are nature and culture:

  • Nature is stubborn physical reality. Nature's laws canít be broken or re-written by human magic. We can turn water into steam or ice, but not by saying the right words. We can tell any metal to change into gold, but it pays no attention. Saint Francis preached to the birds, and reputedly attracted them with his song, but they no more took his advice to repent than did Francis' brethren. Nature obeys rules of transcendent, beyond-human  power.  Understanding those unbending rules and harnessing that awesome power is the business of science and technology, not literature or other arts.

  • Culture is the realm of arts. Hocus-pocus works here, sometimes. Words get results, sometimes. Language must possess compelling or persuading power at least some of the time in order for cooperative, civilized order to exist among groups of us. Yet, our everyday social interactions are full of relativism, prejudice, deception, skepticism, inattention, forgetfulness and every other basis for ignoring, rejecting, changing, distorting and corrupting words. Almost all audiences, apart from innocent children, are armed with strong defenses against magic, defenses formed by preexisting culture. 

The successes and failures of our creativity make our species the most glorious and foolish of all known beings in the universe. This paradox has been well understood for a very long time. It's our birthright according to Genesis.

Nothing is or can be without creation.According to Genesis, in the beginning God creates nature, and it works. What God says comes into being in perfect harmony with Godís commands: "Let there be light," God says, and there is light, and light behaves itself precisely as God wishes. Light is good. So is the rest of nature, reflecting God's words. The book of nature is God's magical creation.

So everything is or must be created.The complicating problem in this creation comes later toward the weekend when God makes something in Godís own image, another creator. This clone is "very good" in God's opinion, too, but it's a much more problematic invention than light. The new creature, both male and female, can conceive ideas that are independent of Godís ideas, even ideas that contradict Godís. Like God, they have original things to say about how the world should be created.

They reach to know both good and evil.Paradoxically, Adam and Eve exercise their god-given creativity when they disobey God's instruction by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They seek knowledge to be like gods, but the knowledge that they gain brings them only fear of God.

So what's wrong with creation? 

All creation looks good to a solo creator, but evil arises when alien creations appear. As soon as there are multiple gods or God-like creators, universal order begins to depend on restraint of creativity. The solution in Genesis is the establishment of limits: both natural restraints that are associated with Adam, and cultural restraints that are associated with Eve. 

"I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception."God restricts Adam's creativity by cursing the ground. This curse strictly limits Adam's power over nature, and Adam doesn't like it, but it's a protective intervention. Think of it as the earliest recorded act of environmentalism. Because we can't resist temptation, nature must be shielded from our power to destroy it. So the field resists Adam's cultivation, and the man ultimately belongs to the soil, not vice versa.

Magic's other limitation, culture, springs from Eve. Her curse relates to the labors of motherhood. Like God, woman makes humankind, and the result is further multiplication of creativity. Eve holds no more power over these created beings of hers than Adam has control over weeds. Ungovernable children soon rebel and fight one another. As Genesis unfolds in further episodes, the growing family splits apart into separate clans, then tribes, then confederations, then nations full of people who deal unkindly with one another, as if unrelated.

Rising populations increase divisions, blame and enmity until the plural cultures ultimately cannot understand each other. The Genesis story reaches this point of confusion at the Tower of Babel where universal language is demolished. Here God makes sure that words in general  don't work any more:

Behold, the people . . . have all one language. . . and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.  [Now] let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech (Genesis 11: 6-7).

And so, after Babel, we have language barriers--but why? Shouldn't God want all of us to communicate freely so that we can build the tower together as one big, happy family? Why should God want language to alienate us from one another? (Ask the same question another way, by leaving God out of it if you prefer: it's obvious from human history that language does break down and divide us from one another, but why should this be so?)

Tower of Babel, painting by Pieter Bruegel, cir. 1560 AD.The destruction of Babel originates another wise idea that has become a popular movement in recent years: multiculturalism. Worldwide monoculture is prevented through language diversity. Language varieties multiply around the world, as exclusive codes, to prevent communication with enemies, adversaries, competitors and strangers.

The barriers of nature and culture to our creative desires are strong, but they are not of the same strength. They are male and female, if you will. You won't ever convince God to change the operation of the universe so that it exactly fits with your latest theory of physics. However, you might be able to persuade Joe Blow that you are a god (or goddess, as the case may be) and that he should serve you with total devotion forever. Joe could buy the idea, at least for a while, if you are artful enough in selling it. . . So it's in this area of culture, where Eve can charm Adam at least sometimes, that creativity exercises its instructional power and cultures sometimes can be transformed.

Genesis takes us from the point where language is magical, in the first six days of creation, to the destruction of Babel, where language is gibberish outside of its small, local spheres of social influence. The story says why we must work, experience sorrow and conflict, and then die, alienated and misunderstood, even though we are god-like beings full of powerful imagination. Creativity itself contains the contradiction.

"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil" (Genesis 3:22).

Genesis summary: There are two general reasons for magic to fail. They are the Adam and Eve principles. Adam: to maintain a stable environment, nature must be protected from human creativity. Eve: because we multiply, we must be defended against the creativity of other people.

Daemonology 101
a very brief history of literature and the spirits

How can the universe have created itself? Do you know of anything in nature that creates itself?Because literature is cultural, not surprisingly a frequent subject of early literature is conflict for cult control between rival daemons, or opposing spirits. A classic example is the contest between God and the serpent in Genesis. God and the serpent offer contradictory instructions to Adam and Eve. Only one of the advisors is worthy to be taken seriously; only one of the spirits has real power. Choosing the powerful spirit is a key instruction of the Genesis story for its cult believers: to live happily ever after, accept God's words and don't fall for contradictions.

In Genesis Adam and Eve are naive figures, easily influenced by the much more experienced and knowledgeable spirits that they encounter. This paranormal view of humankind, as seen from a superior and manipulative spirit world, is typical in early literature throughout the world. Primal story-telling usually describes human actions in terms of controlling gods, devils and spirit-beings of all kinds. The human characters, if any, are not individuated. They simply represent the cult, readily possessed and re-directed by the good and evil spirits that come and go.

In most of the ancient Mediterranean world, conventionally inexplicable kinds of human behavior were diagnosed as the workings of common gods and goddesses. For the Greeks and Romans in classical times, anyone who fell madly in love was possessed by the love goddess Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus); anyone who became crazily oblivious to personal danger in battle was possessed by the war god Ares (Mars); anyone who drank to the point of intoxication became possessed by the wine god Dionysus (Bacchus). Popular poetry of love and war and drinking celebrated and stimulated these spiritual encounters. The cultural magic of this poetry helped to sustain ancient societies by producing babies, bravery and happy hour. 

Some Greeks, and even a few Romans, wanted more from life, however. Not everybody acted as the orthodox pantheon of gods and goddesses predicted that possessed people should act. These unconventional behaviors often were believed to be the works of daemons, unnamed spirits that had not yet attained a popular cult status or official recognition as gods or goddesses. Sometimes a daemon might be associated with the spirit of a haunting dead ancestor or ghost, a local hero.

In life I was only Socrates. Now I'm a hero.Nonconformist Socrates, for example, thought that he was possessed by a nameless daemon that warned him against taking wrong actions. We might call it, in modern lingo, conscience or reasoning, a spirit that troubled few citizens of Athens in Socrates' day. They didn't know what it was! Many were convinced that Socrates was guilty of witchcraft for summoning up this bothersome new daemon, and for introducing it to impressionable young people. To be safe, they decided to put him to death. The execution, however, was ineffective. Socrates' soul promptly joined the immortals; it was elevated to hero status. It possessed Plato and other Socratic disciples to undertake further unconventional quests for conscience and reasoning. We will investigate this daemon Socrates, which still appears to a few of us today as the spirit of philosophy, when we study some of Plato's great dialogues (Lessons 11-14).

In the ancient days of polytheism, daemons could gain marginal or local followings, such as schools of philosophers, but they fell short of becoming designated as gods because they never acquired broad popular cults. They, and their minority followers, were demonized when Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam, reconfigured the classical spirit world by installing various monotheisms.

Not rowing fast enough! Who says I'm not rowing fast enough!Under monotheism, human behavior continued to be described as the work of spirits, but only one God (with a big "G") was regarded as the true God. The old daemons didn't fit the new theology, but a few daemons nonetheless were retained, demoted to the status of God's adversaries, since the almighty God of monotheism doesn't need helpers, theoretically, but does need some way to avoid blame for human misbehavior and other evils of the world. 

In this theological restructuring process the classical, morally-neutral figure of the daemon (or daimon, pronounced DAY-MUN) was downgraded to the status of demon (DEE-MUN), the inspiration of immorality and wrong-doing, the enemy or evil spirit that haunts monotheism. (Per Paul, the Christian missionary writing about the Greeks that he failed to convert: "The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God." 1 Corinthians 10:20.) The rise of monotheism, and suppression of the daemons, had obvious consequences for cultural development in general (it was arrested insofar as possible; new forms of worship were persecuted as vigorously as possible) and for the practice of literature in particular. What wasn't codified as the work of God was censored as the work of demons.

Typically in both European and non-European cultures,Matthew with the author of Matthew's gospel, painting by Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, cir. 1598 AD. spiritual possession of the cult begins with spiritual possession of the artist or shaman or medicine man or prophet, the special medium who hears and then spreads the spirit's word to others.  The inspiration for this activity does not come from a lover or family or friends, or from the contemplation of nature, or from other artists or from personal brilliance, madness, or the desire to entertain, to become famous or to make money. It comes, like other kinds of seemingly irrational behavior in traditional society, directly from gods (such as Apollo, the Muse, or the Lord or God of monotheism) or else from daemons of lesser power. Of course, rival artists and followers of rival cults may say that the inspiration comes from demons.

In any event, unlike modern celebrity fan clubs, traditional cults do not worship the artist or the art itself. That mistake would be idolatry, in a traditional point of view. The true object of veneration is the spirit that inspires the art. The job of the artist is simply to impersonate or express the spirit, to make it known to others. In literary art that's a more or less mechanical matter of repeating what the spirit says.

So, for example, it's not Homer who invents the songs of Achilles and Odysseus; it's the goddess Muse who sings. Homer (whoever he was--he doesn't matter) is only her mouthpiece, a medium in a trance, repeating her words. In much the same possessed way, Plato composes dialogues in which he personally never speaks; he is always "in character" of the dead hero-spirit Socrates.

Shakespeare and the show biz concept of art as theater or fiction did not arise until the time of fully secular society, when audiences lost faith in artists and came to believe that impersonation is only an act or imitation, not the real thing itself. Nonetheless, even this secular or make-believe art continues today to impress some people deeply, in life-changing ways. We call its converts "fanatics," and they often vie with one another to show which one of them is the most under the influence. The music may be a twentieth century invention, but the contemporary rock band cult phenomenon is not new.

The magical cultivation of followers or true-believers raises the central social problem of literature: its frequent conflicts with older, established cults. To the cultural establishment, which is under the spell of past literature, almost any new literature may represent blasphemy, sacrilege or the challenge of unwelcome competition, cutting in on sacred turf. 

And fears of the old guard about new literature may be justified in some cases, too. Consider the anti-Jewish  elements in the Christian Bible, for example. Jesus had been a Jewish prophet, but after his death Christian cults proclaimed that he was God--a profoundly blasphemous idea to most Jews--and so Christians and Jews parted company. The schism produced plenty of fighting words, including anti-Semitic slurs in the New Testament that have been used to incite centuries of atrocities against Jewish people. This is not to say that the Hebrew Bible, or any other cult scriptures, are unblemished by hate speech. Says the militant God of Islam: "slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush" (Koran 9:5). Part of literature's instruction often is the destruction of prior culture.

Although they have been perpetrated by monotheisms of all types, holy wars, censorship of artists, and persecutions for witchcraft also existed in polytheism from the earliest recorded times. We have already noted the conviction of Socrates as a heretic. Socrates' daemon marked him out to the prosecutors as a misfit, one who angered the gods (the true gods officially recognized by the state, that is) by listening to an unauthorized spirit (the unnamed inner voice of his conscience or reasoning). 

Poor old Socrates was not the first victim of cult persecution in human history, and he might be disappointed to learn how the violence of cults has continued unabated. The attack of Osama bin Laden's heroes on thousands of innocent people at New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is only one recent link in the chains of cult atrocity that wind back through a long history of Muslim Jihads, paralleled in other cults by such incidents as the Bosnian genocides, the Nazi holocaust, the obliteration of native American cultures, the Inquisition, the medieval  crusades, the passion of the early Christian martyrs, the destruction of the priests of Baal, and countless other appalling crimes undertaken in the name of the Creator. Perhaps this should be identified as the third power of literature: the power of destruction!

When culture wars turn bloody, artists can join the fray or else seek safety. Young Plato apparently learned the nonconfrontational approach by watching Socrates' trial and sentencing. In Plato's dialogues there is plenty of talk about God, the gods, heroes and other spirits, but these are only points of discussion among debaters who are trying to understand the truth. None of these characters is presented as infallible, and Plato never, never, never speaks in his own person. (When forced to write philosophy papers about Plato's thought, students must lie because Plato never says a word it.)

Plato imitates the voices of other people, not gods. Secular humanism of this sort gradually caught on. After brief experiments in democratic Athens and Augustan Rome, this direction in western literature and fine arts took hold in the Renaissance, the time of the Protestant schism within Christianity and its attendant ungodly wars of religion--and literal book burnings and author roasts! Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden and many commonsense poets of this era found new, down-to-earth names for the spirits. They still claimed inspiration, but the source of inspiration began to be ascribed to a lover, another poet or story teller, a monarch or wealthy patron, a house, a horse, a river, a mountain or almost anything profane.

Later, by the nineteenth century, the ultimate source of poetry had been internalized. Under the aesthetic movement known as Romanticism, the inspiration for literature and other arts was ascribed to the "imagination," a supposed faculty of the mind, especially of unusually gifted creative geniuses. This self-absorbed or inward direction has been pursued further by artists and literary critics in the last 100 years or so, during the Age of Psychology since Freud. Commonly now, inspiration is said to come simply from compulsions within the brain of the artist (in the "unconscious" or "personality" or "mind" or some other theoretical body part that no autopsy or other physical exam ever has revealed). Always throughout history, art is said to be inspired, and yet more and more the inspiration is explained as some kind of individual mental quirk.

So nobody believes?Although the secularized and personalized approaches of humanism and romanticism have been life savers for artists, there's a major tradeoff. With its gods and spirits silenced, literature nowadays is understood to originate in the personal mental activity and creative skill of the artist. Since literature is thought to be subjective, made up, fictitious, illusory, no longer an authoritative revelation of higher reality, few people past the age of ten or twelve really believe that it is true. (And they are mostly professors!) Obviously the private fantasy of an artist can be entertaining, and memorable too, but why should anyone take it seriously? Why should it influence culture? 

Literature today and tomorrow:
why it is unlikely to go away until our species does

Genesis contains the vital biological truth that human beings differ from other creatures on earth in knowledge, and knowledge brings us unique misery and death. Other  creatures on this planet appear to worry only when there is an immediate cause for worry, such as the sudden appearance of a hungry predator. Once it has escaped from a pack of lions, a zebra seems to forget the whole matter, and the grass tastes as sweet as ever. Humans, however, imagine the lions long before they arrive, and then are traumatized by memories of the attack long after the lions are asleep. Our more or less constant anxieties explain, among other things, why our autonomic nervous systems, unlike similar systems in zebras or even apes, tend to get stuck in the sympathetic or stressed mode (Sapolsky).

Stress releases glucocorticoids and other aggravating chemicals whose long term harmful effects on the human body and mind include:

  • cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure and heart disease; 

  • gastro-intestinal problems like peptic ulcers; 

  • sexual dysfunction problems like lack of arousal and lack of ovulation; 

  • cortical problems like chronic depression;

  • sleeplessness problems like fatigue, disorientation, loss of alertness, and immune system deficiencies. 

The good news is that we can know good as well as evil.  Since worrisome knowledge is the cause of our excessive stress, the cure lies in mind alteration--whether it be by drugs, insanity, play, meditation, or the arts. The diversions of the arts, when potent enough, trick our minds into a sense of security and thereby help to produce the relaxation and parasympathetic tone that our bodies require for digestion, procreation, sleep and general conservation. 

Now watch carefully...For centuries scholars have insisted  that literature is worthwhile because it is true, literally or figuratively. If this were the case, literature should  have been superseded by science long ago. The fact is that literature has no need to be true and much need to be false. To work biologically, it needs only to be interesting enough to capture and hold our attention. In most cases, it isn't taken seriously, and it doesn't ask to be. Like other acknowledged forms of modern magic (magician shows, fortune telling and the like), literature typically appears in our world only as a diversion, a pleasant trick or deception, a leader branch of the entertainment industry. Its power of entertainment is as strong today as ever, despite all advances in medicine and other recreational opportunity.

Literature's power of instruction, its social cult-building aspect, also remains strong. Ancient scriptures still are followed by multitudes of people (a clear majority of people in most parts of the literate world), and the old counter-cultural instincts of artists are still alive, if not always well. The rebellion of Adam and Eve from God is still a prototype for plenty of new stories in our time. Our typical literary hero (of either sex) today still breaks the rules, and tries to form a separate identity, outside of the existing cultural norms--and still summons enthusiasts, fans and groupies to leave their old ways behind to follow the new story. Contemporary literature that gets taken as personal model in this way is still about alienation from others, flouting the conventional roles that mainstream cultures have to offer, and withdrawal into an off-beat or alternative way of life--psychedelic, beat, punk, Marxist, Freudian, feminist, gay, utopian, mystical, neo-fascist, neo-conservative, whatever.  

Illustration by Frank Wiles for Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Valley of Fear" (1914).The underlying heroic pattern of non-conformism in literature is much the same in all periods of history, from the angry and aloof prophet Moses in Exodus, the sulking mercenary Achilles in the Iliad, and the provocative Socrates in Platoís dialogues to modern cult fiction figures like the lonely misfit Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salingerís Catcher in the Rye, the radical free spirit McMurphy in Ken Keseyís One Flew over the Cuckooís Nest, the repressed neurotic Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, the disenchanted idealist Steven Dedalus in James Joyceís Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the original hippie Harry Haller in Hermann Hesseís Steppenwolf  and many, many more. 

Literature continues to appeal to nonconformists, social outsiders, young adults in identity crises, and others in search of a new group to which to belong.  A rational state of detachment from literary cultures is no guarantee of  happiness or safety. As long as social conformity is adaptive for human beings, as long as herds offer protection to individuals, there probably will be a biological payoff for professing belief in stories that many others believe, no matter how irrational those stories really are. 

Peer socializing originates in the play of young children, pretending, creating and sharing imaginative experience. And this make-believe matures into the serious acting of adults. As Napoleon once said (and nearly demonstrated in his career): imagination rules the world. If human kind lacked creative vision, and the courage to act on it as a belief, we might still be spending most of our time picking nuts and berries, or scavenging carcasses left partly uneaten by more powerful animals. Even in the Garden of Eden, we think that we can see a better world, one that isn't there. 

Literature, unlike any of the sciences, tries to see how things could be, ideally or theoretically, and that's vital because of how things really are. Life in time requires creativity. Future and past comprise almost all of the vastness of time, and yet they are not here. We cannot perceive them with our senses, and yet we must envision them to know where we are going and how we have come to be here.

Lesson Summary: Literature has a power of entertainment, that relieves human bodies of stress, but it also has a power of in-formation that builds cults by shaping common neural networks. In ancient times, artists bonded receptive audiences into spiritual and heroic cultures. From the Renaissance through modern times art increasingly has been viewed as the self-expression of individual entertainers who should not be taken seriously. However, there continues to be plenty of proof in popular fiction, rock music, advertising and other sources that literature holds as much mind-shaping power as ever.

Learning Advice: For maximum benefit from this web, read the literature carefully and at least scan the lessons to pick up their key points (typically shown in bold italic print), in order to stimulate your own thinking. Then, try one or more of the "suggested journal topics" listed at the end of each lesson. Also, at the end of each section of the course, try a "final exam" topic. These journal and exam writing projects (or similar exercises that you may think of) are extremely important for your learning and memory retention.  In the end, we remember much more of what we write and say than what we read and hear. 

Suggested journal topics
and additional readings

1. Expectations: What are your expectations for this web course? How do you think that it might help you? If your expectations about the course are uncertain, what do you believe that you need to learn about literature? Why?

2. Culture: The basis of culture is the cult, the group of common believers. Ultimately, what you believe, in common with your group, is your culture. It may be institutionalized as formally as a church or as informally as a club.

Describe your cult and culture. Here are some sample questions to help you with your description:

Who belongs to the group? What are the shared beliefs that hold this group together? Who are the cult's heroes? How does the cult's language differ from language used outside of the cult? How do outsiders or non-members view your group? What do they say about it? 

Hint: Try to narrow the group to the smallest possible unit. "I belong to human species" or "I am an American" might not take you very far in the time available. "I belong to the Bill and Linda Smith family on North Adams Street," or "I belong to my true love Danny Rose," or "I belong to the Michelangelo College lacrosse team," if that's the case, probably will take you very much farther.

3. Magic:  Magic is the most frequently disavowed tool in all of human history. For example, notice that in the history of conquests, where people of one culture conquer people of another culture, magic characteristically is said to belong to the side that is conquered, never to the side that is victorious. (Think of the Roman conquest of the Celts, the European conquest of the native civilizations of the Americas and Africa, the Israelite conquest of Canaan, or any others.) Usually this defeated magic is presented as superstition or false belief. The winners, however, never see themselves as magic-users, and they often take their beliefs for facts. Consider this phenomenon in a conquest, war or other conflict that has personal interest to you.

We often blind ourselves and others to our use of magic. Some of these self-deceptions may become apparent to you through your study in this course. 

George Steiner (British, born 1929)4. Babel and the languages: George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press 1975), chapter 2, estimates that there are about 4,000 - 5,000 living languages on earth, with another 5,000 - 15,000 having become extinct. The root of the "Babel problem" of multiple languages, according to Steiner, lies in the deep human desire for privacy and territory. New languages are not designed to improve communication, or to express things better, but to allow secrecy and maintain cultural isolation. The cult protects its membership rolls by making the members' language intelligible only to fellow cult members. This will prevent an exchange of ideas with outsiders who might have dangerous (i.e., superior or conflicting) insights. 

Another popular theory about language is that it evolved to charm and to control others. This magic theory of language goes a long way toward explaining literature scientifically. For example, if language evolved to attract mates, the great popularity of love songs in all cultures is no mystery. If it evolved as a tool to be used against rivals, the popularity of not only cursing and satire but also of inspiring war stories has a solid biological basis. 

The Babel theory of language and the magic theory of language are not incompatible at all. If I develop a new language and teach it to my spouse, my spouse and I will have a secret means of communicating with each other, and it should help to protect the intimacy in our relationship. Since I make the rules in the language--the vocabulary and the grammar--I also can manipulate how and what my spouse thinks. (Well, I can try!) If we then pass this new way of thinking and speaking along to our children, and they learn no other languages except the one that I have invented, I have assured that they always will remain with me and will think much as I do. These are distinct practical advantages, as opposed to living my life within a culture that somebody else has designed in order to control me and restrict the thoughts that I can think.

If you have ever wondered why language is so complex, why it is so hard to become multilingual, you may now have a few clues.

Marjorie Perloff, emeritus professor of English, Stanford University.5. On the deplorable state of literary studies in higher education today: for a detailed view, or if you are thinking about majoring in English, or teaching English, read Marjorie Perloff.  

If you want to study literature in post-secondary education what course(s) should you take? Course offerings in literature vary tremendously in quality, design and purpose, as well as content. Many colleges and universities do an extremely poor job in communicating what the courses are about, how they are organized and why they are important. There are no buyers' guides or rating services to help students to make good choices among literature courses.

For better or worse, student opinion remains the best source of information about courses to take and to avoid. If a literature course is popular with students, and if it is popular even though the professor doesn't give everybody an "A," it could be worth taking. Students who really have benefited from a course should be able to tell you rather clearly how they have benefited. It can't hurt to ask: "What did you get out of it?"

In general, when selecting courses in literature or any other field, give far more consideration to the teacher than to the subject-matter. A good teacher makes all the difference.

Goethe6. Literature is lethal: A famous example of deadly story-telling is The Sorrows of Young Werther  (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In this short novel, a young man is led by the intensity of his emotions to despair and suicide. On its first publication, the book led to a rash of copy-cat suicides among its sentimental readers all over Europe and even as far away as China. When the second printing came out a few years later, Goethe warned the public not to succumb to the fatal mood of the book. "Be a man," Werther's ghost advises (I guess, male) readers in the preface, "don't try to follow me." Yet Goethe claimed in later life that he could not bring himself to re-read the book for fear that its terrible power would disturb his tranquility. 

The copy cat syndrome, where life follows art, seems to be a hold over from archaic magic. In performance, the magician enacts a desired action (such as the driving away of a disease) in order to influence his real world subject (the sickness). Rituals of this kind have been observed in cultures almost everywhere around the world. An interesting collection of them is described in anthropologist Sir James Frazier's famous book, The Golden Bough, of which more will be said later..

The unhappy imitative effect of books on readers is frequently the subject of literature. Madame Bovary destroys her marriage and life, largely as a result of having read unhealthy novels of sexual adventure. Don Quixote becomes a noble laughing stock by reading too many old romances of knightly chivalry. Ergo:

Please be careful what you read and how you copy it!

7. Child's play: see Paul L. Harris, The Work of the Imagination (Blackwell Publishers, 2000). Harris conducts psychological experiments with young children to show how they use imagination in role play to simulate and explore possibilities of interaction. He compares child's play with psychological studies of reading that show how readers participate imaginatively with the protagonists of stories. 

In child's play and in reading stories, or in performing them on stage, we imaginatively slip out of ourselves and take on the identity of a hypothetical character. Vicarious experience of this sort can be observed in the history of literature all the way back to the ancient prophets and bards who received and spoke the words of gods.

Playing grown-up helps children become grown-ups. Similarly, what happens in spiritual possession, according to recent studies, is that imagination becomes real. The process sometimes is called "self-induction." That is, spiritual possession is induced by faking or acting spirit-possessed. Faking turns into belief as the actor becomes absorbed in performing the act. During the performance less and less of the act seems to be performed self-consciously, while more and more of it seems to be performed automatically, without conscious intension by the self. The sense of possession is achieved when self-awareness slips away altogether, and the pretender who started the process is no longer remembered. See Daniel M. Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) 252.  More on this subject in Lesson 15: Acts of God.

Venerable Bede (modern image)8. Genesis, spiritual possession & poetry. Consider Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known to us. Caedmon's story is told by Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, book 4, chapter 25  (composed in Latin, 731 CE):

THERE was in this abbess's monastery a certain brother, particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of Scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility, in English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven. Others after him attempted, in the English nation, to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, but from God; for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem, but only those which relate to religion suited his religious tongue; for having lived in a secular habit till he was well advanced in years, he had never learned anything of versifying; for which reason being sometimes at entertainments, when it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turns, when he saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from table and returned home.

Having done so at a certain time, and gone out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the horses that night, he there composed himself to rest at the proper time; a person appeared to him in his sleep, and saluting him by his name, said, "Caedmon, sing some song to me." He answered, "I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place because I could not sing." The other who talked to him, replied, "However, you shall sing." "What shall I sing?" rejoined he. "Sing the beginning of created beings," said the other. Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus :

We are now to praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory. How He, being the eternal God, became the author of all miracles, who first, as almighty preserver of the human race, created heaven for the sons of men as the roof of the house, and next the earth. 

This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness. Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added much more to the same effect in verse worthy of the Deity.

In the morning he came to the steward, his superior, and having acquainted him with the gift he had received, was conducted to the abbess, by whom he was ordered, in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream, and repeat the verses, that they might all give their judgment what it was, and whence his verse proceeded. They all concluded, that heavenly grace had been conferred on him by our Lord. They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical, or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away, and returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse; whereupon the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him the monastic life; which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery, and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history. Thus Caedmon, keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse; and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers. He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis : and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavored to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions; for he was a very religious man, humbly submissive to regular discipline, but full of zeal against those who behaved themselves otherwise; for which reason he ended his life happily.

For when the time of his departure drew near, he labored for the space of fourteen days under a bodily infirmity which seemed to prepare the way, yet so moderate that he could talk and walk the whole time. In his neighborhood was the house to which those that were sick, and like shortly to die, were carried. He desired the person that attended him, in the evening, as the night came on in which he was to depart this life, to make ready a place there for him to take his rest. This person, wondering why he should desire it, because there was as yet no sign of his dying soon, did what he had ordered. He accordingly went there, and conversing pleasantly in a joyful manner with the rest that were in the house before, when it was past midnight, he asked them, whether they had the Eucharist there? They answered, "What need of the Eucharist? for you are not likely to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in perfect health." "However," said he, "bring me the Eucharist." Having received the same into his hand, he asked, whether they were all in charity with him, and without any enmity or rancor? They answered, that they were all in perfect charity, and free from anger; and in their turn asked him, whether he was in the same mind towards them? He answered, "I am in charity, my children, with all the servants of God." Then strengthening himself with the heavenly viaticum, he prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked, how near the time was when the brothers were to be awakened to sing the nocturnal praises of our Lord? They answered, "It is not far off." Then he said, "Well, let us wait that hour; " and signing himself with the sign of the cross, he laid his head on the pillow, and falling into a slumber, ended his life so in silence.

Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to his presence, leaving the world by a quiet death; and that tongue, which had composed so many holy words in praise of the Creator, uttered its last words whilst he was in the act of signing himself with the cross, and recommending himself into his hands, and by what has been here said, he seems to have had foreknowledge of his death.


skylark9. Secular literature & spiritual inspiration. The search for a spiritual source of inspiration in secular literature is a frequent subject of modern poetry and art. Do you know any examples? One of the most famous is Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Sky-Lark" (1820), a poem that invokes the Muse, when there is no Muse to be invoked, through an elaborate set of natural but unsatisfying metaphors and comparisons.

And speaking of Shelley's poem, today we know that most song birds learn their songs. The notes generally don't arise spontaneously or without training from adult birds. Birds raised in one nest doesn't sing exactly like birds raised in another.

Where do your words come from? Are you quite sure that they are your own? Aren't you imitating someone? Who are you pretending to be? 

Powers of Literature

Copyright © 2001, 2002



We read about creativity from The Book of Genesis:
   The Creation 

Tower of Babel

























Image left: from an ancient Greek vase, Penelope dreams that her husband Odysseus is coming home. She's been grieving for ten years since the war ended and he failed to return. Their son Telemakhos doesn't know what to do about his mother's grief. Homer's story makes her dream appear to be real by bringing Odysseus home. 





  Aliens from outer space may be no more likely than dogs or cats or refrigerators to enjoy literature, though they might be more capable of perceiving why humans use it. Literature is a distinctly human device, responding to the requirements of our peculiar physiology. Arts often are criticized as escapist, but one inescapable fact of life is that our bodies regularly need diversion from stress.





























Figure left: Michelangelo's statue of Moses, the central figure from the tomb of Pope Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (1513-1515). Moses is an easily recognized  master of literary power, a "law-giver" who succeeds in organizing society on the models of his text. Some other masters in this class include the scribes of Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and Confucius.  







Figure left: Michelangelo's censor Biago is led away into hell. (Biago didn't approve of nudity in Michelangelo's art, so as you see Michaelangelo did not portray him completely in the nude.) Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, 1534-1541 AD.


Figure left: another detail from The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City: Michelangelo's self-portrait, flayed...





















Figure left:
the Creator, with Eve and creatures to be, image based on Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City (1512 AD)...


and of course Michelangelo's
Adam. The artist's inspiration is in the hands, directed by the eyes; life is given to images through touch.




Figure left: another detail of Michelangelo's Genesis from the Sistine Chapel. Note the artists' creative touch again. When Adam and Eve touch nature, their art brings to life an unnatural, half-human serpent at odds with God's nature and also at odds with them.



Figure left: yet another detail of Genesis from the Sistine Chapel. Adam and Eve now separate from God. They don't see Eden or God's creations any more, and they raise their hands only to shield themselves from the touch of spirits. This is a dark image of art, opposite to the original creation.
















Image left: skyscraper imagined by artist Peter Bruegel in cir. 1560 AD. Babel becomes "balel" (the Hebrew word for "confused in language"). Most puns, among other things, are lost in translation. Can any speakers of modern languages ever hope to fully understand Genesis or any other ancient literature?





















Figure left: Michelangelo's image of the face of God creating stars on the ceiling of  the Sistine Chapel.






















Image left: in ancient art Socrates was presented as aged, short, pudgy, balding, with a pug nose, a cheerful expression and other features at odds with traditional Greek ideals of beauty.







Figure left: the damned led away in Charon's boat, image from The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The god Charon in classical mythology was the gentle and helpful ferryman of the departed dead on the journey to the afterlife. But he  becomes one of the unfriendly devils of monotheism in Michelangelo's painting. Compare Dante's Inferno 3.105: "Charon  the demon, with eyes of burning coal, beckoning, gathers them all: and strikes with his oar whoever lingers."






Image left: Christian artist Caravaggio depicts inspiration coming to St.
Matthew for his gospel story of Jesus. The spirit must have told Matthew to configure Jesus' story so that it would convert Jews. Matthew's Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecies and parallels Exodus 1-20, the story of Moses as accepted by most Jews. (Compare Deuteronomy 18:15-19 where Moses predicts the coming of another prophet like himself). 










Image left (colorized): Will Shakespeare, imagination freed by play, never claimed to speak for supernatural spirits. He avoided the wars of the Reformation by meaning only to please.





















Image left: World Trade Center under attack by Islamist zealots. What possessed them? And what about the Anglo-American military response?















Image left:
Geoffrey Chaucer
cleverly posed as a collector of other people's stories in The Canterbury Tales (Middle English, cir. 1400 AD) and other poems. But perhaps he was not careful enough with his satires. He disappeared under mysterious circumstances, cir. 1400, his great book still unfinished.











The modern magician is admired, if at all, for deceiving us with tricks.















See Robert M. Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping. 2nd ed. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1998.










Image left: This brilliant fellow seems to know everything! What's a genius like him doing in a circus?

















Image left: Sherlock Holmes awakens unsuspecting Dr. Watson to the dark underworld of crime.














Image left: Young Napoleon keeps his finger on his reading while posing for this clip art. He went on to an imaginative career.