Sunday, March 02, 2008

Chapter 8: The Game of Art and Literature: I. The Universe Is A Child Playing

Play as a metaphor for understanding the world is as ancient as philosophy. Heraclitus likens the world (world-time) to a playing child. Schiller attempts to negotiate between Kant’s noumenal and phenomenal worlds through play – specifically, the play of art and literature. Nietzsche, too, evokes play as a metaphor for how the universe acts. Huizinga wrote a book titled Homo ludens, wherein he discusses the level to which human activities as a whole are play. And more recently, Mihai Spariosu has proposed in Wreath of Wild Olive to move beyond the West’s (and, especially, postmodernism’s direct emphasis on the) mentality of power with what he calls the “irenic mentality,” which he sees as achievable through literature and its role in proposing “what if” scenarios.

I have dealt and will continue to deal with both Nietzsche and Huizinga, but for the moment I would like to briefly discuss Spariosu’s ideas on the role of play – it can help us better understand some of the issues I have been dealing with, particularly in response to postmodern views on art, literature, and culture. Spariosu sees literature as acting in what he calls a “ludic-liminal” manner – play – and on the threshold of perception. He sees literature (I would include all of the arts) as a form of play that challenges our perceptions, and can result in our changing the very world we live in. It does not attempt to do this through the exercise of power (as the postmodernists would have us believe), but through presenting us with “what if” scenarios we can either accept or reject.

From an irenic-ludic perspective . . . [the] ideal readers will not attempt to master the text or enter into a competitive relation with it. On the contrary, they will approach it in a spirit of responsive understanding, opening themselves to it and allowing themselves to experience, through it, that liminal time-space which can produce alternative realities and new historical worlds. (Spariosu, 228)

Spariosu similarly sees this as the work of the critic. The critic should analyze a work because the critic loves it and not because they love themselves and want to show off (as, he suggests, and I am sympathetic, the postmodernists do and see the role of their work as critics – thus their claim that their work as critics is on the same level, too-written, and as important as the work they are critiquing). The critic’s role is to open the text up, to help other readers to more easily enter the play-space of the work – the critic’s role is to try to uncover and explain the rules underlying a work of art or literature.

Spariosu sees three basic approaches to achieving his irenic (peaceful) world, where the Other is not seen as Other, but is truly understood: Bahktin’s dialogics, the philosophy of Levinas, and Zen Buddhism – though he sides more with Zen, seeing the first two as still able to revert to a power mentality. With dialogics, the novel portrays each character as having equal worth with the other characters in the novel, regardless of sex, religion, etc. Spariosu quotes Bahktin in regards to monologism, saying it “denies that there exists outside of it another consciousness with the same rights, and capable of responding on an equal footing, another and equal I (thou)” (101). Both monologism and dialogism are styles of knowing. Any work that deals with an issue from but one perspective – whether that perspective be history, science, economics, or any one of the “-isms” – is a monologic work, thus a work of knowledge only. Dialogics is the style of wisdom, in that it takes many perspectives (ways of knowing) into account at the same time. This is undoubtedly why Spariosu privileges literature as the way to achieve the irenic mentality, since it is more capable of (and more likely to try) achieving dialogics than philosophy (since, he argues, Plato’s “dialogues” are really ways for Socrates to win). Bakhtin’s dialogics “carefully and lovingly preserves the integrity of the other” (101), which makes it an irenic and not a power-mentality approach. He then argues that with Levinas, we get a direct philosophy of peace. Levinas wants an “originary relation between peace and being,” and sees that what the West calls peace is “simply an instrument of war” (Spariosu, 106). As such, the West does not truly understand peace. Also with Levinas, “pluralism is an inherent unity” (105) in a way, I would argue, that chaos theory suggests. By saying that pluralism is an inherent unity Levinas is arguing that beauty is inherent in the world. Spariosu then argues that with Zen, we again see unity in plurality, but in a somewhat different way, since “the Buddha-nature is both mind and matter, permanence and impermanence, unity and multiplicity, as well as neither” (110). Zen says that the Buddha-nature is beauty. Spariosu further says that Zen has a different view of the Nothing than does Nietzsche (and here I think he misunderstands Nietzsche) and the postmodernists, since with Zen the Nothing is really a liminal-irenic space where creation can occur.

Spariosu suggests that the play of literature can and should take a very specific direction in the “what if” role of literature. In discussing Crime and Punishment, Lafcadio’s Adventure, and 1984, he shows how works that are seen as embedded in the power mentality also show various irenic alternatives. He further suggests that the reason these works work is that they are in a liminal region where irenic possibilities can be investigated from a place wherein people already find themselves (the mentality of power). What Spariosu argues is that a world of love and peace are possible – through literature. Perhaps this is a bit on the idealistic side, but I do think this extreme view is on to something. As a violent species that requires rituals such as art and literature to stave off our expressions of violence toward each other, not to mention the inner conflicts we feel, it appears unlikely any sort of utopian world of love and peace among everyone will ever be achieved – even through art and literature. I would go so far as to say that if we were to ever get rid of conflict (or at least the threat of conflict, which is itself conflict) entirely, we could not have art, literature, culture, or religion. But what art and literature can do, as well as culture and religion and other rituals, is allow us to become more loving and peaceful. They will do so by helping us to integrate ourselves more fully into the very play-nature of the universe.

While Spariosu appears more interested in pursuing the irenic mentality through spiritual means, I am going to look instead to dialogics, as it deals most directly with the issues of art and, especially, literature. I have been teaching Freshman Rhetoric, so this idea of dialogic writing made me think about using this "irenic" writing method as a way to teach writing. I discovered while teaching Freshmen rhetoric that most of the arguments my students made were either from a political or a religious perspective – it seemed students could think in no other ways, and they rarely gave anyone else’s perspective fair consideration. Spariosu sees dialogics as a way of creating more irenic writing by showing how much the writer values various Others. It occurred to me that one could teach dialogics by having students write a series of monological Argue to Inquire papers, wherein the students summarized the information they found on a given topic, and then used the information they gathered to write an Argue to Negotiate paper, wherein they would have to come up with a creative solution that irenically negotiates between two sides of an issue without giving in to either side or playing a simple give-and-take, making neither side happy. I assigned the series of monologic Inquiry papers from various perspectives: psychology, sociology, philosophy, biology and the other sciences, art, literature, economics, politics, and religion – using evidence that both supports and goes against their positions from each of these perspectives. This taught my students to deal honestly and respectfully with several perspectives and with those who oppose their views, teaching them to value various perspectives. One could also encourage them to investigate their topics along the entire spectrum from logic/reason to emotions (not that they are separable). In this way not only would we be teaching them to value various perspectives, but also how to best investigate a given topic. Further, I have also taught some level of poetics (I made them write a sonnet, and I had them analyze several poems) to draw their attention to the rhythms and word choices in their writing. The end product of all of this was a dialogic paper that made use of the information from all the investigations they undertook. If there were any students who still felt strongly about one side or the other, they could do a Convince or Persuade paper, while those who found their ideas changed considerably could do a Negotiation paper.

Along these lines, in thinking about introducing more play into the teaching of writing (though the students have no idea at first that what they are doing is play), I have also used a method I developed from an idea I discovered in an essay by Paul Harris, "Scaling Mortality to the Letter: Geroges Perec's Stylistics of Death" in Time, Order, Chaos. Harris discusses writing using self-imposed constraints, since doing so serves "two functions: they create a syntactic frame, thereby marking off the "potential" play-space of the artistic production, and then inscribe the generative code of a text into its very texture" (53). The

conception of writing as a truly creative act exemplifies what could be termed a stylistic mechanics: if style pertains to syntax, structure, and other formal interrelations in the verbal medium, and mechanics is the study of interactions between matter and forces acting on it, then a "stylistic mechanics" investigates style from a microscopic level on up, looking for specific ways that syntactic components combine into meaning and form. (54)

Setting up arbitrary constraints forces you to really pay attention to your writing, which, I would argue, can only help make you a better writer – as the more good rules there are in a game, the better and more complex the game. Harris points out that Perec, in one novel, did not have a single appearance of the letter "e" – while in another, the only vowel he allowed into his novel was the letter "e." What kinds of writing would one expect from one's students if such arbitrary rules were imposed on a given paper, say, not allowing the letter "e" to make an appearance in one paper, banning "to be" verbs (or perhaps some other commonly-used word) in another, an insistence on the use of certain words in a work, or a complete restriction on the number of words used: say, exactly 753, no more, no less? I suspected that once the students began to understand what they were doing as play-rules to the game of writing, we would see improved writing (we would perhaps see it even in those who did not get it, though I suspect one would get more complaints from those who did not understand what they were doing and why). Curious as to how this approach to writing would work, I gave one of my classes the assignment in class of writing a paragraph that did not have the letter “e” in it. They did it in the Learning Record Online, where they have to post 2-3 observations a week. So I had examples of their most recent writing. While most of the paragraphs the students wrote were, not surprisingly, terrible (though there was one student who managed to create a most beautiful piece of poetic prose – better than anything she had written before), what happened after they wrote that paragraph was notable. After they wrote their paragraphs, I had them write me a paragraph telling me what they thought about the assignment. Most of the students said they found the assignment fun, even if they did not understand why they were doing it, but that is not the most important part, though it was an added bonus. The most important part was that every one of the students wrote a better observation after the assignment without the letter “e” than they had written in the observation before it. What the elimination of the letter “e” forced them to do was slow down and think about each and every word they chose. Once they did that, they began thinking more about their word choices, and their writing improved. Since then I have included this exercise, and others like it, including paragraphs without the letter “s”, without “to be” verbs, without commas, without simple sentences, with only one-syllable words, and descriptive paragraphs without any adjectives or adverbs. They do the ones without “to be” verbs, commas, and simple sentences to learn how to use these elements of writing better; the one with one-syllable words forces them to simplify their writing; the one without adjectives and adverbs makes them strengthen their nouns and verbs. And I make them write a sonnet, as the strict rules really force them to think about the language. While they are playing these games with the language, using these arbitrary (or not-so-arbitrary) rules, they are also learning how to write. I have noticed significant improvements in writing in the classes where I introduced this method over those classes where I had not. The lesson of this is not that one should necessarily make up these kinds of rules to be a good writer – but that if one wants to be a good, or a great, writer, one should have some kind of rules one is working by. Especially if one wants to create literature. That is why the rules of poetry are so important. It is the rules we create for ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, that make us great writers and artists.

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