My Brief Flirtation with Lyndon LaRouche

Lyndon LaRouche


Here’s a story that most people missed but that registered with me: Lyndon LaRouche died last week at 97. I was never a “LaRouchie,” but for a few months as a graduate student I took his ideas seriously. That’s until I discovered he was a fanatic.

I learned about LaRouche from a friend who had friends who were followers. Intellectuals who operated at a higher level than I did—one a scholar and poet, one a scholar and a musical composer—they liked the weight he gave to art and ideas. As LaRouche saw it, intellectual forces either advanced or retarded history.

I still have the issue of Campaigner, LaRouche’s publication, where he sets forth his view of intellectual influence. Entitled “The Secrets Known Only to the Inner Elites,” the article argues that all of Western history can be seen as a battle between two groups, one originating in Socrates and Plato, the other in Aristotle. As LaRouche puts it,

Through three millenia of recorded history to date, centered around the Mediterranean, the civilized world has been run by two bitterly opposed elites, the one associated with the faction of Socrates and Plato, the other with the faction of Aristotle. During these thousands of years, until the developments of approximately 1784-1818 in Europe, both factions’ inner elites maintained in some fashion an unbroken continuity of organization and knowledge through all of the political catastrophes which afflicted each of them in various times and locales.

In LaRouche’s mind, Plato the idealist is good because he has an expansive utopian vision while Aristotle the empiricist is bad because he chops everything into pieces. Every intellectual and artist is either an idealist or an empiricist and is to be judged accordingly.

I won’t go into detail about how all this works because it becomes a bit of a bore. LaRouche may be widely read—he cites philosophy, intellectual history, literature, the arts, political science, economics, mathematics and other disciplines—but he reductively fits everyone into one of the two camps. It’s a bit like choosing up sides, putting those you like on one side and those you don’t on the other. I include just a smattering of LaRouche’s likes and dislikes below:

Likes: Homer, Aeschylus, Socrates, Plato, Euclid, Alexander the Great, Paul of Tarsus, St. Augustine of Hippo, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, John Milton, Rembrandt, Oliver Cromwell, John Winthrop, William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington.

Dislikes: Aristotle, Ptolemy, Emperor Justinian, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Ignatius Loyola, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Woodrow Wilson.

I wanted so badly to think that philosophy and the arts could have a tangible impact on history that I read LaRouche’s journal and also his book Dialectical Economics. No one else I had encountered talked this way. Here’s a sampling from the “Inner Elites” article, which pulls no punches:

It is relevant to all these points [Bruno’s support amongst such British figures as Sidney, Shakespeare and others] that Christopher Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus in behalf of an effort to rescue Bruno from the Guelph Inquisition, and that English Tudor poetry, drama and music were based on the Platonic dialogue as a method, a matter in which Bruno’s influence was direct and potent.

Bruno of the late sixteeth century is the key, common link for all humanist networks of the seventeenth century. As such, he is the dominant figure of that period…

In England, more broadly, than just among those figures cited, his orbit was known as the “Italians,” a circle to which William Shakespeare was junior…

Directly opposite to Bruno and his allies in England was the evil Cecil, and Cecil’s appendage, the evil Francis Bacon. Elizabeth I vacillated…After the wretched Essex affair, the balance was tilted badly. With the accession of the wretched Stuart, James I, and James’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Francis Bacon, an inquisition was launched against the humanists, the English economy was set back, and the circumstances leading to the belated beheading of Charles I set into motion.

For LaRouche, it’s not just that people are influenced by ideas. There are actual cabals at work, both for good and for bad. Once I realized LaRouche thought this way, I started to pull back. He sounded too much like a whacko conspiracy believer.

My misgivings were confirmed when I met a LaRouchie at a book fair. After I expressed interest, I was greeted with a three-hour monologue that was free of any self-doubt. At that point I had had enough.

Yet I paid attention when LaRouche and his followers showed up in the news, as they occasionally did. Initially Marxist, LaRouche became increasingly associated with conservatives as he embraced unfettered development. His followers in airports would display such signs as “nuclear reactors are better built than Jane Fonda.” They proclaimed nuclear fusion as the energy source that would save the world.

Then a LaRouchie won a Democratic primary somewhere in Illinois, prompting the Democratic Party to disavow him (the opposite of what happened with David Duke in Louisiana). Then LaRouche and some of his followers were jailed for credit card fraud, and he slipped from my mind. Until last week’s news, I hadn’t thought about him for years.

How can I excuse my brief flirtation other than to say that I was young and desperate for proof that intellectual ideas can have a tangible impact on world events?

I’m still looking for evidence. I’m more cautious about my fellow travelers, however.  

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Merlin’s Pagan Roots

Gustave Dore, Merlin


Continuing my thoughts about my “Wizards and Enchantresses” course, here’s a look at Merlin, who has had remarkable staying power in British literary history, both as Arthur’s counselor and in the various figures he’s inspired. Before tracking his progress through the ages, however, let’s look at his archetypal significance, as least according to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.

In Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales, Jung describes the archetype of the wise old man:

The old man thus represents knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition on the one hand, and on the other, moral qualities such as good will and readiness to help, which make his “spiritual” character sufficiently plain.

In Campbell’s journey of the hero, this figure often appears at the start of the hero’s quest, providing the necessary early guidance that the inexperienced hero requires. Merlin counsels the young Arthur when, after pulling the sword from the stone, he confronts a rebellion of British nobles, and we know well the role that Gandalf plays in Bilbo and Frodo’s individuation journeys and that Dumbledore plays in Harry’s.

But if one is to grow, one cannot continue to be dependent on the wise old man, who must drop out of the story. Merlin is imprisoned by an apprentice enchantress (in some versions), Gandalf is presumed to have died, and Dumbledore actually dies. When the mentor leaves, the hero must find inner resources to respond to the challenges. Yet the values affirmed by the old man don’t entirely disappear and appear again in what Campbell calls the moment of atonement, which is when the hero proves him or herself and receives parental validation.

We see Merlin performing versions of the wise old man from at least as far back as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in the 12th century, and his roots go even further back. Tolstoy speculated that the figure was based on a 6th century Scottish druid, and while the history is dubious, Merlins association with druidic magic is worth exploring in depth.

There has been a lot of interest in recent years in Celtic paganism, but I have it from Sewanee’s medievalist Matt Irvin that such accounts must be treated with skepticism. After all, by the time of Geoffrey’s stories, Christianity had been firmly ensconced in England for close to a thousand years. That there would have been pagan holdouts is very dubious.

That being said, however, Christianity was a far more varied affair that we think of it today, with the religion in places merging with local pagan beliefs. This is indeed how religion works, which explains why one finds figures of the Celtic green man carved into medieval cathedrals all over England.

Merlin having druidic origins is also how fantasy works, which imagines realities outside conventional beliefs. Thus, some of Merlin’s power was seen as arising from his miraculous birth. Here’s Merlin’s mother in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account testifying to how she conceived him:

When they were introduced into the king’s presence, he received the mother in a very respectful manner, on account of her noble birth; and began to inquire of her by what man she had conceived. “My sovereign lord,” said she, “by the life of your soul and mine, I know nobody that begot him of me. Only this I know, that as I was once with my companions in our chambers, there appreared to me a person in the shape of a beautiful young man, who often embraced me eagerly in his arms, and kissed me; and when he had stayed a little time, he suddenly vanished out of my sight. But many times after this he would talk with me when I sat alone, without making any visible appearance. When he had a long time haunted me in this manner, he at last laid with me several times in the shape of a man, and left me with child. And I do affirm to you, my sovereign lord, that excepting that young man, I know no body that begot him of me, ordered Maugantius to be called, that he might satisfy him as to the possibility of what the woman had related. Maugantius, being introduced, and having the whole matter repeated to him, said to Vortigern: “In the books of our philosophers, and in a great many histories, I have found that several men have had the like original. For, as Apuleius informs us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates, between the moon and the earth inhabit those spirits, which we will call incubuses.These are of the nature partly of men, and partly of angels, and whenever they please assume human shapes, and lie with women. Perhaps one of them appeared to this woman, and begot that young man of her.”

France’s Robert de Boron a few years later provides an even wilder account. Wikipedia has a convenient summation:

Merlin is begotten by a demon on a virgin as the intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor Blaise of her predicament; they immediately baptize the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan and his intended destiny. The demonic legacy invests Merlin with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives the boy a prophetic knowledge of the future.

One of Merlin’s accomplishments definitely links him with England’s pagan past. According to Geoffrey, he instructs Arthur father to steal magic stones from Ireland and set them up in England, thereby constructing Stonehenge. His magic makes the transportation possible.

In each period, one can see the Arthurian stories playing an important social role. For Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Norman conquerors were looking for validation of their victory over Saxon Britain 70 years earlier and so reveled in Arthur’s battles against the invading Saxons in the 5th century. (In other words, the roles have been reversed.) It’s important that Merlin shifts from working for the Saxons to working for Arthur and the Britons and that he prophesies Saxon defeat.

And then there’s Sir Thomas Malory, writing 340 years later during the War of the Roses, in which Merlin becomes a voice of reason, seeking to guide Arthur through civil strife.

Between Sir Malory writing in the 15th century and Tennyson writing Idylls of the King, good Arthur stories cease to be written. I’m not clear about the reasons. Milton considers but then rejects the idea of writing an epic about Arthur (he writes Paradise Lost instead), and there are some feeble attempts in the 18th century.

In Tennyson’s epic about imperial Britain, however, the Arthurian tales came back full force and they’ve pretty much remained with us ever since. A particularly excruciating story, given its misogyny, is Tennyson’s account of Vivian entrapping Merlin. T. H. White, meanwhile, taps into the shapeshifting Merlin in Sword and the Stone. But I’ll have to save those for a future blog post.

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The Uses of Fantasy

Gustave Doré, illus. from Don Quixote


This coming week I will be teaching a four-session lifelong learning course at Sewanee entitled “Literary Wizards and Enchantresses, from Merlin and Morgan Le Fay to Gandalf and Galadriel.” I’m using today’s blog post to sort out my ideas for the first class, which will focus on Merlin and his successors.

Before turning to Merlin, however, I will set the stage by exploring what fantasy is, how it works, and what role it plays in human lives. As I see it, fantasy is an oppositional genre, always pushing against reality as people of the time saw it. To understand fantasy, see it as operating in counterpoint to the culture that produced it.

We are drawn to fantasy because our conventional understanding of the world seems too limited. We feel hemmed in by the real and turn to fantasy to explore new possibilities for ourselves. Tales of magic introduce the marvelous into our lives.

In saying this, I distinguish between shallow escapist fantasies and transcendent fantasies. The former, while certainly oppositional since they arise out of dissatisfaction with the way things are, go no further than shallow wish fulfillments and revenge dreams. They are simply mirror opposites of the world as it is.

The world’s great fantasies, however, understand that we are limited by our conventional understanding of the here and now and open up new horizons. While I don’t mind discussing escapist fantasy, I prefer talking about the classic works. I attribute their staying power to the way they change the parameters of what we previously though was fixed and solid.

I’ll be talking about fantasy’s reality-expanding dimensions on two levels: fantasy works on us psychologically as individuals, and fantasy plays a critical role in the life of societies and cultures. Regarding the second, I will show how the original medieval Arthur tales, the Arthurian revival in Victorian England, and the Tolkien phenomenon each spoke to deeply felt historical needs and offered alternative ways of being.

For psychological understanding, I rely heavily on Carl Jung and his student Joseph Campbell. Fantasy, Jung noted, has a lot in common with dreams. As the Swiss psychologist saw it, both dreams and fantasy point to a full realization of the Self, a process Jung called individuation. If we disregard or otherwise repress the messages from this Self, it will send us increasingly dire warnings, sometimes in the form of nightmares (say, devouring monsters). We can even become sick, but at any rate we will not find contentment so long as we ignore these warnings. Think of this as an inner alarm system.

We move from individual to society when we look at folk tales, which Jung regards as collective dreaming. The storyteller, functioning as a kind of shaman, senses the needs of the society and shapes them into narrative. All great authors do this, but fantasy is more overtly associated with dreams than realist fiction.

Campbell gave Jung’s theory a memorable image in “the journey of the hero.” Examining thousands of folk tales from around the world and throughout history, Campbell found versions of the hero’s journey everywhere he looked. In this journey, there is always a moment when the protagonist must decide whether to heed a received call or refuse it. Heeding the call is necessary if one is to grow into one’s potential while refusing it leaves one stagnant. Arthur must pull the sword from the stone if he is to become England’s king.

It’s easier to refuse the call than to embark on a growth quest. Heroes, however, step out of their comfort zone, overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, and in the end share what they have gained with the rest of society so that all benefit.

While I will be drawing on Jung’s and Campbell’s framework in the works we will study, I hasten to say that one doesn’t need them to talk about the transformative potential of fantasy. Applying my oppositional theory, one can simply ask in what ways a work reflects the concerns of the society that produced it and what counter vision it offers us. For example, Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy reflects the cataclysmic events that shook the United Kingdom in the first half of the 20th century, and our urgent task is to figure out what life-affirming perspectives he offers up in response.

In tomorrow’s post, I will turn my attention to Merlin and his successors, looking at whether or not he was originally a Celtic druid and how he conforms to the Jungian archetype of the wise old man.

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Along the Flower Trail We Shall Go

Wild flowers in the Sierra Nevada

Spiritual Sunday

My mother lost her favorite cousin on Friday, a woman who somehow managed to remain upbeat for years despite a brain tumor. I’ve been reading Music of the Sky: An Anthology of Spiritual Poetry and found five short poems, all of them heartrendingly beautiful short poems, that I hope will bring comfort to those who knew and loved Cornelia Montgomery—or who are grieving for their own loved ones.

The power in all the poems lies as much in what is not said as in what is said. For instance, in a meditation by Chief Isapwo Muksika Crowfoot of the Siksika First Nation,  what it means to be swallowed by a glorious sunset is left up to the reader.

A little while and I will be gone from among you. 
Whither I cannot tell.
From nowhere we come, into nowhere we go.
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night;
It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time;
It is the little shadow that runs across the grass
And loses itself in the sunset.

A poem by Japanese Buddhist poet Kabayashi Issa sounds like it may have been composed for a child, although neither child nor death is explicitly mentioned:

The pure morning dew
Has no use for this world.

Another Japanese Buddhist poem also focuses on a dewdrop, although the timeline here is different. Dogen Kigen regards with amazement someone who died at 71:

How did
a dewdrop last?

Japanese Zen Master Kozan Ichikyo boils life and death down to their essentials:

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going--
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

My favorite of the five, an old Wintu poem (from the Sierra Nevada region),  imagines companionship even after death. The scene may be occurring at a deathbed but it’s not clear who is doing the consoling. The poem moves seamlessly between heaven and earth, imagining stars as flowers that the two will pick together:

It is above that you and I shall go;
Along the Milky Way you and I shall go;
Along the flower trail you and I shall go;
Picking flowers on our way you and I shall go.
Posted in Crowfoot (Chief Isapwo Muksika), Ichikyo (Kozan), Issa (Kabayashi), Kigen (Dogen), Uncategorized, Wintu poet | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Bezos Loves “Remains of the Day”

Hopkins and Thompson in Remains of the Day


Since Jeff Bezos has grabbed headlines for turning the tables on the National Inquirer, it seems a good day to blog about his favorite novel. Why would the richest man in the world fall in love with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day?

Unfortunately, there’s not much to go on so this will involve some speculation. Here’s what Bezos has to say about the 1989 Mann Booker Prize–winning novel:

If you read The Remains of the Day, which is my favorite book of all time, you can’t help but come away and think, I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life and I learned something about life and about regret.

Ishiguro’s novel is about a top-of-the-line English butler who believes he owes unquestioning allegiance to his master. Unfortunately, Lord Darlington has Nazi sympathies—most of the novel is set in pre-World War II Britain—and at one point he sends two of his maids back to Germany when he discovers they are Jewish. As he explains to the unhappy head housekeeper, Stevens overrides his doubts, refusing to second-guess his master:

Miss Kenton, let me suggest to you that you are hardly well placed to be passing judgments of such a high and mighty nature. The fact is, the world today is a very complicated and treacherous place. There are many things you and I are simply not in a position to understand concerning, say, the nature of Jewry. Whereas his lordship, I might venture, is somewhat better placed to judge what is for the best.”

In Stevens, Ishiguro appears to have melded Jeeves or Bunter with a humorless Samurai bodyguard.

Stevens doesn’t only override doubts about his master’s politics. He also quashes a budding affection for Kenton, who admires his commitment to excellence. Refusing to think or act for himself, he lets his devotion to his master define him, and he lives the rest of his life conscious that he could have supported the maids and could have had love.

I know very little about Bezos and am not interested enough to do much probing. Whatever his faults, however, he has done two admirable things that the novel may have assisted with. Although, like Stevens, his self-discipline puts him at the top of his field, unlike the butler he has accepted soul-expanding opportunities.

First, he has used his wealth to support one of the world’s great newspapers without attempting to turn it into a reflection of himself. (Contrast this with Rupert Murdoch and the Wall Street Journal.) Second, in his clash with the National Inquirer, he has endured public humiliation in order to call out a bully.

If you haven’t been following, the Inquirer threatened to release humiliating sex photos unless Bezos got the Post to back off its relentless investigation into the Saudi murder of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Such extortion attempts are apparently the way the Inquirer does business.

If Bezos is anything like Stevens, nothing would be as painful as having private secrets revealed. Ishiguro had little difficult merging a British butler with a Japanese bodyguard because many Brits and Japanese share a fierce reserve, and Bezos may identify with Stevens because he does as well. (To cite another literary example, Haruki Murakami gives us a horrifying image of a man skinned alive to capture the pain of self-revelation.) Like many before him, Bezos could have surrendered to keep this part of his life private.

Instead, he described to the world the material the Inquirer had obtained and shared their threatening e-mails. Now it’s the Inquirer that is facing accountability for its dodgy work on behalf of Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia.

Rather than live with regret, Bezos appears determined to face his fears straight on and take action. Maybe Remains of the Day showed him the cost of remaining in one’s comfort zone.

Further thought: Since I penned this, Bezos has grabbed headlines in a less positive way, having decided to pull out of a planned Queens expansion after facing popular opposition. His sweetheart deal with the city, which was going to overpay him $3B in tax incentives, puts him in the category of rich guys who throw their weight around, not tormented little people grieving over lost opportunities. Literature can do only so much.

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Open the Love Window and Kiss the Moon

Laura Wilson Barker, Dame Ellen Terry as Juliet

Thursday – Valentine’s Day

Kathy Hamman, a dear family friend, alerted my mother and me to this wonderful Rumi poem for Valentine’s Day. (My mother ran it in her Sewanee Messenger poetry column.) I have used other poems suggested by Kathy in the past, but this is particularly meaningful because Kathy is currently fighting late stage cancer. That her heart should be open at such a time is testimony to the power of love when death threatens.

“Some Kiss We Want” informs us that, while we have a pearl within us, some part of us resists the seawater that offers to release it. Instead of stepping out of our shell, we retreat, even though deep down we desire immersion in Love’s boundless ocean. We are a lily that wants to join the wild lillies of the field.

Part of the problem, Rumi suggests, arises from how we use language and reason as our primary doorway to the world. We cordon off the intuitive parts of ourselves rather than respond with our whole life.

There’s nothing wrong with either language or reason, of course—Rumi himself uses language—but they can be used to build up defenses. Rumi says we need to open ourselves to the non-rational. We must let the moon press its face against us through the windows of the soul rather than focus only on what enters through the doors of the thinking mind.

If we open up our love window and breathe our longing into the night air, spirit will touch the body.

Some Kiss We Want
By Rumi
Translated by Coleman Barks
is some kiss we want with 
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the
body. Seawater 
begs the pearl to break its shell.
And the lily, how
it needs some wild darling! At
night, I open the window and
the moon to come and press its
face against mine. Breathe
. Close the language-door and
open the love-window. The
won’t use the door, only the window.
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Are You in Business? Read Fiction

Magritte, The Son of Man


Yesterday I wrote about how literature lovers, going back to the Greeks and the Romans, have felt the need to defend literature on practical grounds. To follow up, I report today on an article by one Stephanie Vozza of Fast Company that lists “Five Ways Reading Fiction Makes You Better at Your Job.”

The first three are related and have to do with the complexities of dealing with people:

1. Enhanced Reasoning Skills

Vozza quotes University of Puget Sound’s Michael Benveniste, an English Professor, pointing out how “reading fiction can give you insights that help you work beyond logic.” Beneveniste explains that fiction “offers a space for speculating about the constitutive role that ‘fuzzy’ values like beliefs, norms, and experiences play in social contexts.”

The problems we encounter often have a bewildering number of complexities, including people’s emotions and past histories. A familiarity with literature can help us wend our way through this labyrinth.

2. Understanding of Complex Problems

Vozza quotes a New York Times article quoting psychology professor Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto that reading fiction is like using a computer simulation for people issues, just as one uses simulations to learn how to fly a plane or forecast the weather. As with such simulations, in fiction one encounters “complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life.”

3. Empathy

Given the importance of empathy in business, fiction is  indispensable. Vozza quotes York University’s Raymond Mar:

Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world…and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us…Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships.

4. Stress Relief

This I knew instinctively but not scientifically: according to cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis of Sussex University, reading a novel relieves stress better than listening to music, taking a walk or having a cup of tea. Lewis found that “[j]ust six minutes of reading lowered participants’ heart rate and eased tension in the muscles.”

Lewis adds that reading isn’t “merely a distraction” but “an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

5. Strong Role Models

The power of channeling an exemplary literary character cannot be underestimated. My entrepreneur son Darien says that he has on occasion turned to the words of Henry V–“Once more into the breach, dear friends”–when he needs to muster up his courage to approach a client or undertake a new enterprise. I’m sure you have your own examples.

To be sure, there are other ways to develop these skills and find these resources. But in literature they all come wrapped up together. And you have fun at the same time. Or as Horace puts it,

The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life.

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Read to Increase Your Empathy

Eero Jarnefelt, “Portrait of Arvid Jarnefelt” (Finland, 1888)


My entrepreneur son alerted me to a Jessica Stillman article in The Cut about the latest scientific study proving that “Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathetic.” “We already knew this to be true, but here’s a business article to confirm it,” he remarked.

Darien certainly knows. This is a man who reads Moby Dick on his subway rides to work.

Unfortunately, all I know about the study is Stillman’s paragraph-long summation. Here’s what she has to say::

Led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Feder, this new research reviewed 14 previous studies on the relationship between reading fiction and empathy. The conclusion it came to will cheer book lovers everywhere: Compared to reading non-fiction or not reading at all, reading fiction produced a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance.”

In short, the sum total of science on the subject says reading fiction really will make you a little nicer and more empathetic.

I found Stillman’s article most useful for its links to articles critical of earlier studies. (I’ve reported on some of those studies here, here, and here.) Most of the critiques observe that interacting with literature is so complex that MRI brain imaging or Theory of Mind tests fail to do it justice. Atlantic’s Joseph Frankel, drawing on a takedown by Pace University’s Thalia Goldstein of one such study, observes that correlation between literary reading and increased empathy doesn’t prove causation:

A lifetime of reading might make people better at imagining other people’s thoughts and emotions, or those who are more in tune with other people’s states of minds might be drawn to reading fiction in the first place. Or, a completely unrelated variable might explain the correlation.

After reading the critiques she links to, I have only Stillman’s assertion that the recent Dodell-Feder study is convincing. This leads to another question, however, which is why we get so excited about these studies in the first place. After all, do readers need scientific research to convince them that a good book provides a rich and rewarding experience? The Atlantic article turns to Brown University’s Arnold Weinstein for an explanation:

It’s still an open question why psychologists, the media, and laypeople alike are so interested in the possible benefits of reading fiction. As Weinstein said, those both in and outside of the humanities have ascribed moral benefits to literature and art as “a rescue operation” for these disciplines at a time when their worth is under scrutiny. It’s hard not to see arguments that literature might make people more empathetic, more moral, or more socially adept as a corrective to the perceived lack of “return on investment” when it comes to the arts.

I very much agree with this but want to point out that there have been few times when literature’s worth wasn’t under scrutiny. From having done a deep dive into theories about literature’s moral benefits, I can report that the worth of literature has been challenged constantly over the centuries, going all the way back to Aristotle’s defense against Plato’s attacks. Since then, we see utilitarian defenses—“return on investment” arguments—from Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Johnson, Percy Shelley, Matthew Arnold, and on and on. Even during the heyday of the New Criticism, an apparent highwater mark of literary studies, scholars sometimes felt they had to ape the scientific method. The questions propelling these psychological studies have a long history.

I’ve concluded that our defensiveness arises from literature’s ability (I draw on Horace’s bifurcation here) to simultaneously entertain and instruct. There have always been those who decried the entertainment function as frivolous or even immoral, prompting literature lovers to emphasize the instructive aspects. Current defenders often seize on scientific studies the way one accepts reinforcements in a desperate battle. If this is what it takes to save a literature requirement or an English Department against the onslaught of STEM, then welcome aboard.

All that being said, I’m dubious about these psychological studies and ascribe more to Frankel’s conclusion:

Perhaps to really understand what happens in the messy, intimate process of reading, looking at individual relationships between readers and stories may be more worthwhile than examining literature as a generalizable stimulus. While psychological research may someday offer another enriching perspective on reading fiction—Goldstein mentioned the possibility of looking at how readers respond to texts over time—these relationships may be too nuanced, or have too many variables, to be fully described by studies like this, let alone the popular coverage that recasts them.

In this blog, I share stories of the messy, intimate relationships that I and other readers have with the works we encounter. Through sheer accumulation, I address an interaction that resists easy generalization.

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Do Endings Reveal Meaning of Life?


My wife Julia alerted me to an intriguing although somewhat frustrating article in Atlantic about the end of time. Drawing on Frank Kermode’s 1967 The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, Megan Garber wrestles with an issue recently raised by The Washington Post: how do we live with constant reminders that the earth is in trouble? Normally, we think of the apocalypse as being in the future, but what if it is going on now, only we aren’t facing up to it? If that’s the case, Garber says, we need a new kind of narrative to handle it.

At first glance, we would appear to have such a narrative in post-apocalyptic fiction, where everything from environmental devastation to zombies threatens our future. But what if the future is both less dramatic and already underway?

To make her point, Garber spends a fair amount of time talking about The Good Place and Forever, two shows about people living in the afterlife. They have already experienced their own personal apocalypses (death), and now are figuring out how to deal with it.

These television shows are taking on the task that Kermode assigns to fiction generally, which is to provide structure that will help us understand life, which has no structure. In this process, literary endings play a particularly important role. We look at how a work concludes to figure out the meaning of what comes before.

A happy ending might affirm that virtue is ultimately rewarded and justice will prevail. A tragic ending, on the other hand, might signal that, while society doesn’t understand the protagonist’s worth, higher values are legitimated because they can be seen by the reader. Ironic, absurd, and open endings each point to their own range of meanings.

 Whatever the case, endings provide us with a vantage point, sometimes after the worst has happened, to take reality’s measure. That explains Garber’s comment that there is an apocalyptic dimension to literary endings.

For his exploration, Kermode turns to Dante, Blake, and T S. Eliot (in The Wasteland), all of whom grapple with the meaning of end times. Yeats famously does as well in “The Second Coming,” which asserts that the world is falling apart (“the center cannot hold”) and predicts that some rough beast, “its hour come round at last,” will slouch toward Bethlehem to be born.

In all these literary formulations, however, the future is in the future. But what if the future is now?

Garber mentions one interchange between June and Oscar in Forever that shows that meaning might not be revealed by such an ending:

“So we just keep … going?” June wonders, incredulously. “I mean, how long does this go on for? I mean, what’s the point of all this?”

Oscar’s reply is both searing and blunt: “Well, what was the point of the thing before this?”

Garber asserts that, in Happy Place and Forever, narrative loses some of its tragic potential and becomes world-weary surrender. Or as she puts it, “The end is nigh, and also the end is … sigh.” She elaborates:

The contemporary sense of an ending takes its form not as the dramatic fulfillment of an ancient prophecy—“Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand”—but rather as a tangle of dull and daily inevitabilities. Warming waters. Whipping winds. Things falling apart. The leader, careless and cruel, refusing to see what is plain. If every age has its version of apocalypse, the soft tragedy of our own is that it can no longer be safely situated in the future. Our end-times, instead, lurk among us, furtive and fierce and all too present-tensed, waiting, watching, lingering, biding—understanding, far better than we allow ourselves to, how little it takes to turn the good place into the bad.

When Garber puts it this way, however, she makes a point not unlike the conclusion of T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” Thanks to climate change science, we may have more factual basis than Eliot and Yeats did to declare the end is nigh, but their sense of exhaustion and hopelessness is hardly new. Many great works throughout the ages have had this for a theme. Alexander Pope in the 18th century (The Dunciad), Matthew Arnold in the 19th (“Dover Beach”), and Samuel Beckett in the 20th (Waiting for Godot)  all immediately come to mind.

That’s because, no matter how bad things get, we’re still alive, which means the worst hasn’t happened yet. Shakespeare, as always, understood this, expressing it through Edgar when he encounters his blinded father in King Lear:

Edgar: O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’? 
I am worse than e’er I was.
[Aside] And worse I may be yet. The worst is not 
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

We put off the apocalypse because we can’t help but imagine being alive the following day. We don’t need new literary forms to show us that.

Posted in Shakespeare (William), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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