Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

5.27.2015

Circles & Speeches: Fiction Is Flowing Water


A couple of years ago I heard a speech that worked with the motif of circles,* and ever since I've wanted to find the transcript and revisit it.  Recently I came across another speech (also from a few years ago) that also begins with the idea of circles.**  It has motivated me to finally find the other one, and, though they both use the idea of circles in different ways, they have some interesting things in common.  Specifically, some interesting things in common about the power of reading fictional stories.



*I thought for a long time about what to say today, and I came to the conclusion that I wanted to talk about circles.

**Please allow me to share with you glimpses of my personal story. I will do so with the help of words, of course, but also a geometrical shape, the circle, so throughout my talk, you will come across several circles.


The older (2010) speech that is more recent to me is a TED Talk by Elif Shafak called The Politics of Fiction.  She is an author.  Some of her talk is about her life and personal story.  And some of it is about how fictional stories can help take us beyond the limited bounds of our personal stories, about how we can broaden our awareness and understanding and empathy by experiencing stories of those whose experiences are different than our own.
If you want to destroy something in this life, be it an acne, a blemish or the human soul, all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls. It will dry up inside. Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We're born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family -- if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Now one other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey is to cover mirrors with velvet or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out. It's an old Eastern tradition based on the knowledge that it's not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at his own reflection. Ironically, [living in] communities of the like-minded is one of the greatest dangers of today's globalized world. And it's happening everywhere, among liberals and conservatives, agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor, East and West alike. We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people. In my opinion, one way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see. . . .

When we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against. . . .

Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects. One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water. . . .

When Palestinian and Israeli politicians talk, they usually don't listen to each other, but a Palestinian reader still reads a novel by a Jewish author, and vice versa, connecting and empathizing with the narrator. Literature has to take us beyond. If it cannot take us there, it is not good literature. . . .

When the poet and mystic, Rumi, met his spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz, one of the first things the latter did was to toss Rumi's books into water and watch the letters dissolve. The Sufis say, "Knowledge that takes you not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance." The problem with today's cultural ghettos is not lack of knowledge -- we know a lot about each other, or so we think -- but knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves: it makes us elitist, distant and disconnected. There's a metaphor which I love: living like a drawing compass. As you know, one leg of the compass is static, rooted in a place. Meanwhile, the other leg draws a wide circle, constantly moving. Like that, my fiction as well. One part of it is rooted in Istanbul, with strong Turkish roots, but the other part travels the world, connecting to different cultures. In that sense, I like to think of my fiction as both local and universal, both from here and everywhere. . . .
Shafak's view of the power of stories is obviously not unique, though that hardly makes it any less important.  It's one I've explored a number of times on this blog.  In fact, it's an idea I shared in a couple of posts that come as close to anything as stating my personal mission as a professional librarian.  In the first post, What Is Your Perspective? (Part I), I wrote about filters and "filter bubbles," the circles that necessarily surround and define our particular places and identities.  Like Shafak, I was concerned about how they can limit us and cut us off from each other.  In the second post, What Is Your Perspective? (Part II), I wrote about my calling to help address that problem through the power of stories.  How consuming fictional stories isn't just an emotional experience, that it can literally change our brains at a physical level and make us more empathetic.  I've followed that up with additional sources and thoughts in: More Evidence Supporting the Importance of Storypushing, I Am My Stories, and Spin and Empathy: Know Your Story, Dwell in Others' Stories.

So, anyway, that's Shafak's TED Talk and my similar thoughts.  Circling back now to that speech I heard that I mentioned in the first sentence of this post.  It was Nick Lake's acceptance speech for winning the Printz Award at the American Library Association annual conference in Chicago in 2013.  He won the award for his book In Darkness, about two people at two different times in Haiti.  The book is quite good, obviously, and if you want to know more about it I encourage you to check out my review.  While Lake's speech referenced the book in many ways, it was about much more than that--as he put it: I really only have one mode for speeches I’m afraid, which is kind of weird fanatical mystical philosophy.  If you take the time to read the entire thing, you'll see why I needed to read the transcript myself to properly digest and engage all of the ideas he considers.  There is more there than I'll share here.

As to what I want to share, the ideas I feel most relevant to circles and the importance of fiction, here's my attempt to abridge:
If there’s a message to In Darkness, and I don’t know that I consciously intended there to be one, I think it’s that: it’s this notion that nothing and no one is ever lost, that even in darkness, there is always the possibility of light coming again, of hope. . . . to me the entire story is about goodness, about love, compassion, hope, and infinity, about the impossibility of anything being lost or destroyed, and the inevitability of things coming full circle. . . .

The next circle I want to talk about relates to the interface between psychology and myth, and it speaks to the incredible work you all do, every day of your lives; and it speaks to the magical power of the book. . . .

Recent research has shown that children who read regularly perform better in life even then those with educated parents. But I’ve come to think that reading, for young adults, is actually also an incredibly valuable part of growing up – of becoming a functioning adult. . . .

This is a room full of librarians so I imagine many people here are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with the Thousand Faces. In it, he develops the idea of the ‘monomyth’, a structure underlying much of the world’s mythological stories, often referred to as the Heroic Journey. Campbell illustrates it with a circle. The hero starts off in his own community. Then he is taken, usually by a guide character in what is called the Call to Adventure, to a place where he is prepared for a quest, given special clothes, perhaps magical objects. Frodo’s cloak and the ring itself. Then he is sent out into a dangerous, liminal other world, where he must fulfill a quest. He’s sent to Mordor. And finally, he comes back, having defeated the monster, or found the thing that needed to be found, having made sacrifices and faced the abyss, and he returns – full circle – to the community, to his world, only it is a world subtly changed by his journey, and so is he.

Mostly, this idea now gets discussed in creative writing manuals. It’s used as a template for writing stories. But the aspect that gets forgotten is the anthropological roots of the theory. Campbell was inheriting the tradition of the Cambridge Ritualists. And these thinkers were in turn inspired by Arnold van Gennep, the anthropologist who identified a formal common structure to Initiation Rites, or Rite of Passage, rituals throughout the world. That structure? Also a circle.

The initiate is first prepared. Given special clothes, made to sweat in a lodge for a day, their head shaved, and so on. Then they are sent out into some sort of sacred landscape, some sort of liminal zone, to undertake their spirit journey. Perhaps they don’t return until they have found their spirit animal, or perhaps they have some other task, some other quest, or perhaps they just have to endure unpleasant tattooing or drugs or some such. Then they return to the fold, to the community. Lest this sound very tribal, think of a wedding ceremony. The bride and groom being separated for a night. Made to wear special clothes. Given magical objects – the rings. And then coming back together in front of the community. . . .

[In Darkness] is a spirit journey. . . .

But then I thought: it’s true of almost all young adult literature. There are, of course, books that don’t follow the Heroic Journey monomyth. Much of adult literary fiction doesn’t, because it’s a feature of storytelling and myth more than it’s a feature of literature. But it is overwhelmingly predominant in YA and also in middle grade. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Coraline, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Seraphina, even Code Name Verity. The list goes on and on. Again and again, characters enter a liminal world, an adventure, that changes them. The Hunger Games is perhaps the purest example: the journey to the Capitol, the dressing by Cinna, the ritual preparation, then the adventure in an actual, physically separate arena that represents the other world of adventure. Followed by return to District 12, Katniss now the same but different.

The question is: why? Why do we find this structure so much in fiction for kids of around 10 and older? . . .

Becoming an adult is HARD. I certainly sucked at it. I’m sure some of you sucked at it too. . . . It sounds simple. But as Nietzche knew, and every fourteen year old knows, it really, really isn’t. . . .

We live in a world where the boundaries between childhood and adulthood are constantly being eroded. . . . Where more and more there is a continuum rather than a formal divide between being a child and being grown up. Where rites of passage, these things that help you let go of childhood, are increasingly being lost. . . .

And my theory is, therefore, that books are offering adolescents the initiation rituals of the past in virtual form – offering a vicarious experience that helps with what psychologists and philosophers agree is the hardest task of all for the psyche – becoming an adult.

So that’s my second message, I guess, and here the long circle that has been this section of the speech hopefully comes back in on itself, in a way that possibly even makes some kind of sense. Teachers, authors, librarians, publishers – we’re none of us well paid. And especially when it comes to teachers and librarians, there are regulatory hoops to jump through, there are budget cuts to contend with. It can all be incredibly dispiriting. And yes, there’s the consolation, much talked about, that books can help people to achieve more in their lives, that literacy feeds success. But I think it’s much, much more than that. I think on dark days when the budget has just been cut again, you can say to yourselves that these books for young adults are doing something vastly more important than increasing earning potential: they’re helping those same young adults to navigate the difficult path to maturity. Helping them to deal with the adult world by putting them in the head of a character going through an ancient journey, an ancient ritual, and coming out the other side. Giving them, if only in their minds, the tools to take that rite of passage.

Helping kids to grow up – and crucially, to grow up well.
Of course Lake wanted to say something nice about the people giving him an award to express gratitude and reciprocity, but I don't think it was an exercise in flattery.  (He worked his philosophical mysticism way too hard, if it was.)  What he describes is why I do what I do; it's why many of us do what we do.  Maybe we haven't put it in those terms before, but we know that people become better people when they are exposed to stories.

I'm left wondering, now that I've had time to properly revisit and engage Lake's speech, what his theory might mean in light of the rapid growth in popularity of young adult books, particularly among adults.  Is the mythic power and utility of the rite of passage story helpful even for older readers in their ongoing quests toward ever greater spiraling maturity?  Or have so many adults failed to reach adult maturity due to the lack of initiation rites in our modern world that they still need these stories to become what they already should be?  Or is it something else?  Something to ponder . . .


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