One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.
I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living
Damn it man all I wanted was an exact explanation of the hierarchy of value boiled down into a sentence or two. What good are you?
I’d like to sully your thinking by forcing it into categories. Here’s what I have. It seems like there are four reasons to explain why a work has currency now. Firstly, what’s said and/or what’s interpreted has Continue reading #52 On reasons for selection
Most nonfiction book reviews suffer from the same problems. If they’re critical they generally go one of two ways.
- The author misses out topic X, I know about X and here are some other books on X that should have been addressed.
- The author is seemingly a part of Intellectual Trend Y and I don’t like Y, here are its antecedents, whom I also dislike.
It won’t have escaped your notice that neither review assesses whether or not the author’s argument was valid. Continue reading Reviewing reviews
In order of rough appearance in history, here are four types of myth. All of them, it should be obvious, are meaningful: they provide their users with what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living”. They only survive if they do some good… or at least minimal harm. Continue reading Four types of myth?
Could there be a cult based on Hamlet? Sure, cults (short lived belief systems) spring up all over the place all the time. But I’m pretty sure it would never become a religion (long-lived belief system) because there is way too much uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence in Hamlet.
“To be or not to be?” — that is not the question for inspiring devotion. Continue reading #51 On quality
That was my favourite letter in some time. Thank you. I also love irony, at least when I’m aware of it.
The progression of agency in the history of literature was something I never really appreciated until you said it. It makes sense given your snapshots; a deus ex machina-heavy ancient Greek play through conscious fate-addled Shakespearean contemplator up to the unrelenting conscious agency of the agent James Bond. OK the last one’s a joke, and it’s because an invincible agency is as boring as a completely yielding one, which suggests to me this Continue reading #50 On depth
Thinking The Bible perfectly good or perfectly bad is wrong. Reading my criticism of it as saying it is perfectly wrong is, ironically, the same kind of wrong. Here’s my imperfect heuristic: what was written by a bunch of uneducated dudes who were trying to lay claim to the ultimate truth, between 1900 and 2900 years ago, is probably quite wrong. And where it happens to be right, we will have better equivalents now anyway. So we can safely junk it.
Were I to apply this only to holy texts, you could accuse me of being ideologically anti-religious. But of course I apply this to all texts pre-1500. Doesn’t matter if it’s Socrates, Seneca or Saint Paul, they don’t know shit from Shinola about a lot of things. Continue reading #49 On irony
I realised after I sent the letter that I might have been wrong to say you dismissed it because it was Jesus. What I meant to say is that you dismiss it because it comes from a religion. Ex Schola would have been the better phrase to use, but because it’s less pretentious it’s less fun to say in a letter.
It’s absolute madness that fundamentalists think The Bible is perfect. And the exact opposite to this, which is to think it’s perfectly and absolutely flawed, is also madness. If you had never heard Continue reading #48 On Groups