Why Fantasy is not just for Young Adults

When I came to literature as a profession I did so because I fell in love with words at a young age.  Not necessarily the big words, not the dictionary or the thesaurus.  I fell in love, really, with how the simple words could cause so much pain or intense pleasure.

This, I saw all around me and not just in the books that I read.  Language seemed like the backbone of communication and that made a lot of sense to me.  It seemed to shape cultures and ways of thinking.  Before I came to university I was, without knowing it, a structuralist in a way.

Then, I went to college where I learned that many “academics” question the nature of language: that all words are really meaningless to a certain extent — they are all at least problematic. Questioning the very essence of how humans understand themselves became my preoccupation.

Does the color “orange” mean the same thing in the Zulu language as it does in American English (a topic of an undergraduate conference paper I presented)?  Then, when Lacan uses the word “women” does he really use it differently than Kristeva or Irigaray (a topic of a paper I wrote for my MA degree)?  Then, are all words really centerless,empty things, especially “self,” as Derrida or Hegel, Carlyle or even Descartes would have me believe (I undertake this in my introduction to my dissertation)?

Through the years, this is a summary of my thinking about language in very simple terms.

Beyond academia, language has frustrated me.

Once I went out for a walk with this really brilliant and sweet woman.  I wanted so much to make a connection with her: to be her friend.  She seemed curious about me and excited to be near. I got carried away and told her my life story, mostly because she seemed so open and even interested.  It started raining on our walk but we (I) pushed on.  We even did laps.  I felt so enlivened and relieved to use so many words to articulate my experiences.  Then, we went home and I realized that I was talking the entire time about myself because she made herself so open to it.  I worried.  Had I said too much?  Come to find out, all the four times that I contacted her after this walk (for dinner, for dancing, for tea, for chatting) she never returned any of my calls or emails.  And we have never spoken since.

I had used my words completely wrong, despite having good intentions.

Then, before this, I had a good friend at university.  I really admired her because she was outspoken, strong, and a real advocate of women’s issues.  We went out for lunch once and we were talking about the complexities of sexuality.  I said something like “I wish that people wouldn’t be so scared to say that they feel attraction for both — or all — genders.  I mean, how does someone come to question her sexuality at all?  Don’t we all innately know what attracts us?  If we open ourselves bravely to feelings then we shouldn’t feel ashamed of what arises.  How does a person not know, for example, that he is gay?”  What I meant to say was something positive.  I meant to open a conversation about shame and how to combat it.  I wanted to let my friend, who was bisexual, know that I was understanding and interested to learn about her background.  What ensued was a horrible silence and we didn’t speak again until she moved to another state, about two years later.

In both cases, the friend never told me that I had offended her and I was left guessing for a long time what happened.

Then, a couple days ago I posted on a friend’s facebook a comment in response to her confession that she had been sexually abused as a child.  I responded with something like “I am so sorry to hear about your abuse.  This nation, like nations before it, is founded on the abuse of children.” Currently, I am writing a book about the female pedophile in the history of Western culture and I just taught a class that integrated the issue a child abuse in the Victorian period as a way to define nationality.  So, it was on the tip of my tongue.  And I think it’s true.  So, one of my friend’s friends got into a debate with me about making such a seemingly unfounded, broad, generalizing comment.  She wanted to throw into question words like “nation.”  How can you use the word “nation?”  Haven’t you read Benedict Anderson?  And so, the debate between us went on and I ended up putting most words in scare quotes. Well, if you’re going to question the word “nation” then you’ve got to question the word “child,” “abuse,” “word,” “food,” “self,” etc.  There is really, then, nothing that anyone can say that is real.  So, we “friended” each other and now I have actually made a friend — rather than lost one — by being over-the-top and hyperbolic with my language.  That would be a first.

I consider myself a good communicator — because I say what I want and what I mean — yet words have always gotten me into trouble.  They are really dangerous and not everyone likes words that are frank, to the point, simple, and close to what I feel.

So, when I picked up Ursula K. Le Guin’s young adult novel The Wizard of Earthsea, I was intrigued immediately by the plot.  This first book in the Earthsea chronicle centers on a young and egotistical boy, Sparrowhawk, with wizardly powers of a mage, who learns that in order to unlock the secrets of the world, one must learn the true name of a thing. 

Le Guin’s novel posits that every being has a true name and if one can learn it then one can understand the true nature of life and death.

Of all the interesting aspects of the novel, this appealed to me the most.  Sparrowhawk’s true name is actually Ged and he unleashes a shadow of himself who stalks him, while performing a deathly spell prematurely.  The power of the spell almost kills him and scars his body: it also humbles him.  The shadow hunts Ged until Ged becomes desperate and turns around to hunt the shadow (I was reminded very much of George MacDonald’s Phantastes).  He ultimately defeats the shadow by giving it its true name: Ged.

A true word.  A true language.  That seemed so beautiful to me.

But then, I understood the moral of the story.  As Ged matures and acquires more true words, he becomes increasingly silent.  The owner of the true speech rarely speaks.

And so I ponder: what is communication?  Is silence a token of wisdom?

This is the first fantasy novel that I have read since I was a child (that isn’t Victorian) and I was surprised to find it labeled “young adult.”  I wondered: what does “young adult” mean?  Why is all fantasy fiction labeled as young adult?  As a grown woman, I feel like I have a lot to learn from fiction for children.

Children’s Literature Offers Something

Earlier today I wrote a post called “Danger: No Children.” It offered an overview and critique of Doris Lessing’s novel The Four-Gated City.  While the meat of the blog may have been drab (you know, a review of sorts), the title was damn sexy.  Danger: No Children.

Driving to Londonderry today I had time to think about that title.  Particularly, I had to come back to an earlier piece of writing that I did about children’s literature and the importance of children as revolutionary actors in the national framework.

Like children, children’s literature has a lot to offer. Both are vital to understanding the culture of literacy, the relationship between aesthetics and language, and the pursuit of imagination in the modern world. Like children, too, children’s literature has been considered inferior in numerous academic circles despite the fact that some of the most celebrated authors have contributed, not only to the literary canon of great works, but also to the large body of children’s literature. “Speaking to the child” is something that, perhaps, adults feel they must do with force or intention. Adults tend to approach children’s literature the way that they approach children: looking for heuristic value, searching for signs of moral decomposition, and hoping that they might find a key to imagination. Adults think they are different from children, and so require a different literature. This fantasy of difference is dangerous because children, in some ways more than adults, have the potential to challenge the rationalistic, empirical thought-processes that threaten to stagnate cultural progression.

Children’s literary theory gives adults the rare opportunity to reassess formative literatures that work silently in the underbelly of modern politics; children’s literature threatens to deconstruct “realistic” perceptions of the materialistic world through a celebration of fantasy, dreams, and possibilities. What would our government, our school systems, our families, look like if the law which governs children’s literature were the law of the adult world? We tend to fear the open-endedness of this world.

My interest in children’s literature and theory comes from my lost faith the governing body of philosophical thinking that rules our academic institutions. As an educator, I want to open doors and challenge social and cultural constructs. To do this well, I believe we need to approach these constructs as outsiders – and who are bigger outsiders in this world than children?

Peter Hunt claims that “it is clear that adult readers can never share the same background as children.” He identifies three primary ways that adults read children’s books: as if they were peer-texts, on behalf of the child, and with an eye to discussing them with other adults. But these ways of reading feed into the exact constructs that children’s literature has the potential to deconstruct. In order to dismantle the politics that restrict our modes of creative thought most, adult readers need to approach children’s texts as children would: with a willingness to disjoint the ego, displace the rational mind, and embrace the possibilities that lurk in the obscure distance for human evolution.

Danger: Children.

Eating Books

Is there anything more delicious than sitting down with a book?

A few days ago I attended a talk about publishing and one of the hot topics was e-publishing and the technological possibilities for the future of the book.  Audience members wanted to know when academic texts in the humanities, particularly, would find acceptance among peers in digital form.

In many ways this approach to literature dissemination makes sense.  It’s ostensibly cheaper for publishers (once it takes flight), has the potential to reach a wider and even unlikely readership, and can even invite revision and reader interaction if that is its aim.  These are all very sweet sounding things.

On the other hand, when I see my neighbor on the bus reading texts from Kindle or some other electronic interface, I can’t help but to think — in my old-fashioned way — that she’s missing out on the loveliness of the book.

How lovely is the book?

Well, first there is the excitement of finding a book.  Finding a book is not as easy as locating an e-text.  For example, if I want a first edition Marie Corelli I will have to search to the ends of the earth to find it.  But how rewarding when I possess it!  It’s like finding your soul mate after years of dragging the oceans.   Then, when one is prompted to get up and physically locate a text, she merges — feels — the electricity that is so useful in connecting human experience to language (maybe I’m over-reaching.  But no).

Next, a book smells.  It has been handled by flesh — much flesh — and it evidences this.  How glorious!  What a connection to the human!  (Excuse my excitement, if you would.) I stick my nose to its broken binding and rejoice.

People write in books, they spill food and drink on them.  I love to read what others have said, to see what they have underlined.  The book becomes alive.  There are “alive” e-texts as well.  Shelly Jackson’s “My Body” comes to mind.   Then again, the permanence of the ink has a different feel than that of the typed word, for me.

E-texts are reliant upon electricity.  Books are reliant upon human electricity.  One may vanish.  The other, never!

I like the grime of literature.

I like to stick my face into pages.

I like to eat books.

Then, a book can eat me back.

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The Politics of Pleasure and Sickness in Academia

Despite the scathing criticism with which the literary community addresses the issue of pleasure, at the end of the day, the reason why Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure is my favorite work of fiction is because it brings me pleasure.  When I read it long ago, I knew for sure that I wanted to work with literature as a career choice.

Imagine that…what kind of person bases her career on pleasure?

Today, I chatted with a student of mine who wanted to express her excitement about my approach to our literature class.  She said something wonderful like “You are my favorite instructor.  I never thought that reading for pleasure could be meaningful.”  I had, according to this student, ignited a passion with my own.  I felt like a firecracker.

Then, I also have been reflecting on just how political the process of valuing pleasure as a critical lens has been — and continues to be — in academic discourse.

When talking about the politics of the pleasure of reading, Roland Barthes’s short work The Pleasure of the Text is a good place to wet the tongue, as a friend reminded me last night.  For Barthes, there is pleasure and jouissance that come from the act of reading.  He wants to distinguish between “writerly” and “readerly” texts, however, as he feels that “readerly” texts are more politically charged because they challenge the reader’s position as a subject, while “writerly” texts merley cause pleasure.

For Barthes, reading in this way is mostly a private and personal endeavor and not necessarily the public celebration of pleasure/jouissance that I think is most useful in the classroom.  On the other hand, it does give offer a foundational example of such classroom politics because it begins with the individual, as all action does.

Other theorists have chimed in to the debate of pleasurable/sexual reading.  For example, Kathleen McCormick, in her essay “Closer than Close Reading: Historical Analysis, Cultural Analysis, and Symptomatic Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom,” acknowledges the necessity for advancing critical reading abilities in the classroom, and insists that we as instructors should “provide opportunities for [students] to take pleasure in their acts of reading.”  By observing that many students enter college as “poor readers,” McCormick postulates that these students have not learned how to read texts symptomatically. While championing strong analytical and critical reading skills in students, she situates the act of reading as an integral part of writing, since it can help foster historical and cultural perspectives which “give [students] some agency.” Agency in writing, as Susan Miller hints, may aide students in the “practice of manipulating genres” which, in turn, privileges the “dose of vulgar composition” which she finds so critical to viewing and using language as action. Helping students to read in both or either of the ways that McCormick and Miller advocate would enable students to act through reading.

But is “symptomatic” reading similar to “pleasurable” reading?

A relationship between the two, at first, seems counter-intuitive.  “Symptomatic” is a concept just as complex as “pleasurable.”  What is symptomatic, for McCormick, is clearly reading practices driven by behaviors that are characteristic of individual interests.

Yet, the word also carries an affinity with disease and the rhetoric of sickness, especially in the sense that a “symptom” often leads to other symptoms that eventually add up to a kind of problem — at least in the colloquial and current usage of the term.

In the first definition, a relationship between symptomatic reading and pleasurable reading makes sense.  But it also makes sense in the second definition, doesn’t it?

As a catalyst for disease, a “symptom” has a repellent nature.  So does pleasure.  Pleasure is widely associated with wrongdoing in contemporary American society, particularly in the education system in which education about the body (physical education, health, etc.) has taken a back seat to rigorous memorization of various topics that are seemingly far-removed from pleasure principals.  In many ways, pleasure is symptomatic in such discourse.

As a result, the sensuality of reading — as a public act — has been undervalued in much academic discourse. As Barthes insists, there is a kind of jouissance inherent in the act of reading that can and should be used, at least, to frame theoretical lenses.

Public pleasure is undeniably powerful.  When, for example, a leper walks down the street wearing her “symptomatic” signs of “disease” on her body, people stop and stare.  They’re scared.  Curious.  Maybe disgusted.  When symptoms become public, the general population whip out their trite cotton medical masks.  To protect themselves.

Public, pleasurable reading has a similar effect.

The pleasure of deriving knowledge of specific kinds from texts and then to publicly wear the “symptoms” of this pleasure is contagious!  When readers can connect to texts they are pushed to find relevant avenues of inquiry that lead them, eventually, to an intertextual approach to knowledge which I think ought to be a foundational principal of education.  Through sharing the pleasures of knowledge, students may find ways to not only connect themselves to the world but also to consider how others  are connected to them by developing a heightened, sensual relationship with the act of reading. Moreover, public pleasure like this fosters a hunger for more, related knowledge, like a lover who fiends for more sensual interaction and no longer cares how public her desire has become.   

Pleasure creates communities of pure-pleasure-seekers.  

That’s a dangerous enterprise in a world that is driven by standardized thinking.

Resistance to pleasure in the classroom is a taught behavior.

When I started teaching Jude the Obscure I noticed from watching my videos of the instruction that I spoke with a hand over my heart.  My cheeks were rosy and my eyes lit up like a tiger tracking prey.  I was practically salivating when I brought up the context of the “New Woman.”  Watching my videos, I asked myself if maybe I have gone too far in displaying my excitement for the text.

But why should I be ashamed?

Students have been coming to office hours smelling like vibrancy.  I meet almost every day with students who just can’t  get enough of reading texts.  Working intimately with them.  Pushing their faces into the pages.  Lapping the meaning there like dogs.

Pleasure is a weapon.  It is a political act because it ignites passion.  I imagine a world in which this kind of human electricity is law.

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The Pleasure of Hating

William Hazlitt is notorious for writing criticism that doesn’t hold back.  A kind of rogue who received a large number of threats for his blatant opinions concerning authorship and culture, Hazlitt ruminated about the darker aspects of human experience.

In his best-known work, The Spirit of the Age, he appears more tame than in other essays, such as “Reason and Imagination.”  Although he does frequently praise his contemporaries for certain noble attributes, Hazlitt is much more in the habit of ripping them to shreds.

Yet, he rarely elevates himself above these decapitated philosophers.

In “The Pleasure of Hating,” I find Hazlitt at his best.  I also ponder about the function of hating in Victorian society, and its use today.

Hazlitt values a marriage between reason and imagination, viewing neither as superior yet both absolutely necessary to happiness — if happiness can be had.  When reading “The Pleasure of Hating,” I wonder if he thought such a complicated enterprise — of striking the balance between reason and imagination — was worthwhile at all.  If happiness was possible.

He argues that we — humans — “cannot part with the essence or principal of hostility:” the “brute violence.”  The “cure” has been sought through “fine” writing, yet somehow it continues to fail or evade writers.  The natural world is against us: it is made up of “antipathies.”  He posits that “without something to hate,we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.”  Hazlitt believes that we “hanker” after hatred because “hatred alone is immortal.”

What strikes me first about Hazlitt’s philosophy is, of course, how it reflects the Victorian Age.  Most critical essays and books written by Victorians about their own period tend to praise it as the center of civilization and progress.  So Hazlitt — and essayists like him — offers some refreshment that breaks up the common flat-liner response to such a changing world.  On the other hand, he also conforms to Victorian norms, calling humans “wild beasts” that have truths that “no Jermemy Bentham Panopticons” can survey.  He finds that “the pleasure of hating […] eats into the heart of religion.”  At last, we “come to hate ourselves.”  Hatred does, indeed, seem to be just as integral of component of civilization and progress as, say, the train.  Hazlitt contextualizes it through evolution, religion, and law.

Despite his stalwart call-to arms in support of hatred, he ends his essay sounding like a wounded child: “It is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn, after a little idle dalliance, from what we love to what we hate!”

I can almost feel Hazlitt sobbing into his cuffs.

He bawls: “What chance is there of the success of real passion?  […] Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed, I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.”

Phew!

I mean, Hazlitt degenerates in this essay from soldier-like philosopher to scared and disappointed child hiding under the bed crying until he chokes himself.

He is disappointed.  Frustrated for harboring hope.

He, tellingly, never admits that he DOES harbor hope.  This is partially what makes it so apparent.

He is mad at himself for being too trusting, too hopeful, too loving.  And he wants to kill these feelings through rationalizing that they do not do him good.

I think about the way that hatred functions today.  Don’t you?

Of the Uncanny

Schelling wrote in 1835, in his book Philosophie der Mythologie, that “all things are called uncanny which should have remained secret, hidden, latent, but which have come to light.”

The “uncanny” pervades human experience, accumulating a variety of definitions — some of them contradictory — through time.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche, for example, observed that “Uncanny is human existence and still without meaning: a buffoon can be fatal to it.”

In a word, the uncanny is anthropomorphic because it is a signal of human vulnerability.  Just that.

As the uncanny has its roots in German idealism (or does it?), a look at its German word may be more revealing of this vulnerability: unheimlichUnheimlich means, loosely, a stew of these concepts: not-at-home, dislodged, and unhomely.

Sure.  To be without a home suggests vulnerability.  But of what kind?

The root word of unheimlich is, of course, heimlichHeimlich is much more definitive of the uncanny.  In its various definitions, it can be described as some combination of these: familiar, native, belonging to the home, intimate, comfortable, surrounded by close walls, concealed, esoteric, hidden, behind someone’s back.  

This list gets more juicy as it progresses, doesn’t it?  It begins with the “familiar” and ends with a series of concepts that seem quite contradictory to homeliness.  The “canny” is, in many ways, more uncanny than the uncanny.

It certainly reveals human vulnerability more clearly.

Heimlich suggests that the most familiar aspects of human experience are the hidden ones.What goes on behind closed doors is always exposed to the public somehow, though — through gossip.  Confabulation.  Sharing with some — only pieces, maybe.  Embellishing our lives for others.  Keeping yet others in the dark.

The uncanny is gossip.

A fantasy of the inner space.

Is there anything more terrifying?

Internal Panopticism

First year TA graduate students are obsessed with teaching Michel Foucault’s theory of Panopticism from his book Discipline and Punish for reasons that I’ve never fully understood: even when I taught it myself, as a first year instructor.  There’s just something about this chapter that seems really intellectual but still accessible.  Or, there is a dimension to Foucault’s panopticon that seems inherently faulty and, because he is such a big deal in academic circles, instructors are drawn to its faults without knowing why.

Foucault didn’t birth the panopticon: Jeremy Bentham did.  It is an incredibly Victorian concoction, like most creations of the (post post-)modern world. True, Foucault critiques it as a way of problematizing society, but his critique needs a critique. (I am not going to summarize his theory, but you can access a very clear description of it here.)

He overlooks what I think is the most important aspect of the spectacle: that the biggest fantasy of all (maybe ever) that humans harbor is the fantasy that someone is watching them.

Scopophila suggests that someone — a stranger — cares about what we’re doing, who we are.  It is our ultimate fantasy.  We take great pains to protect our “identities” because we believe that only an ass-hair lays between us and absolute identity theft.  Because someone is always watching us.  Maybe “Big Brother.”

Regardless, we want it.  Even if we say we don’t.

The problem of the spectacle (of the gaze, of watching, of looking), is that no one is really looking.  That’s the ultimate problem.  It’s the underlying warrant that undoes Bentham’s and Foucault’s fantasy.

But, we want to be watched, don’t we?  And then, we want to protect ourselves from our desire.  Hide it.  Deny it.

The stranger-gazer has the ability to gain knowledge about ourselves that we don’t know or won’t admit, or won’t readily expose.

And we despise these strangers.

I speak, of course, from experience.

Last time I was at acupuncture I laughingly told my acupuncturist that she had insight into my interior that I myself didn’t have — as a stranger.  With acupuncture, she listens to the 12 pulses of my organs and is able to decipher my health, my blockages, my inhibitions, my fears.

She looks at my most personal spaces through a keyhole that only an outsider can access.

But, she will never tell me what she sees, what she knows.

Acupuncture is a realization of the human fantasy of internal panopticism.

It also suggests that such surveillance is potentially  healthy.  But Foucault wouldn’t want to hear that.  And Bentham…forget it.

What about you?