“In college I was in love with literature. I mean wild about it. I typed poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins over and over again so I could memorize them. I read John Milton, Shelley, Keats aloud and then swooned on my narrow bed in the dormitory. In college in the late sixties, I read almost exclusively male writers, usually dead, from England and the rest of Europe. They were very far removed from my daily life, and though I loved them, none of them reflected my experience. I must have subconsciously surmised that writing was not within my ken. It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet.”
Informed by long experience as a writing teacher and a mindful Zen philosophy, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is one of those classic treatises on writing: It’s essentially a collection of insights and advice on how to discover one’s own writing practice. I was particularly struck by the passage above, from her introduction, that resonates with my own thoughts on writing and literature: the concept of not seeing oneself as part of a community because one does not fit its apparent demographics. (In this case, writers are old, dead, white men.) As for myself, I owe my ability to articulate said thoughts to Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” My own experience is more concerned with interest and subject matter than identity–at the least, perhaps that is so, though I could certainly explore the latter as well–yet the same general theme emerges. Thus, I find myself drawn to the work.
“As I begin writing I think of a stained-glass window submitted as a student project for a course in fantasy literature. […] I think of Tolkien’s fantasy world, fabricated out of shattered myths which we, as ‘postmoderns,’ ought no longer to believe in. Like the window, The Lord of the Rings is essentially a re-creation, a synthesis of rejected myths and images into a fragile new composition. Humpty-Dumpty miraculously reassembled, with all the cracks showing. In both the window and the trilogy: art built out of a heap of cultural trash, something new from something used, a sense of wholeness barely removed from absurdity. In both cases the shards held together with borrowed materials and makeshift ingenuity: a crude frame and Elmer’s glue, the worn structure of romance and ponderous philological apparatus. These two artifacts have come to seem to me suggestive emblems of the appeal of fantasy in our time.”
In this 1975 College English article, Robert Crossley sets out to explore the power and value of the fantasy genre, and he begins by criticizing the “hedging” and “avoidance of definition and rational discourse” that he believes characterize many discussions of the genre (even referencing directly Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” for instance). Crossley addresses the presumed childishness of fantasy, citing examples such as Alice in Wonderland, and concludes that adult readers may be afraid of what this represents, leading them to silence or scorn on the subject. He writes:
“Analytical language impedes the adult’s response to fantasy because it threatens to reopen the gap between childhood and adulthood which his imagination has tried to close. The adult fears his language will give him away, that he will not be able to pose a child’s questions without betraying the accents and vocabulary of adult rational consciousness. To achieve the vision he has had to put on a new self; and silence becomes the instrument which allows him to keep his old and new selves in tenuous balance” (Crossley 284).
“Tolkien’s great essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ is the best and deepest consideration I have encountered of the nature, origin, and value of myth and fantasy, as well as the most cogent commentary on his own work. Here, among the many nuggets of pure gold, is the clearest statement of his working theory of fantasy. ‘For creative fantasy,’ he writes, ‘is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.'”
In Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (original edition 1983), she offers a discussion of the relevance of Tolkien’s work, particularly his less popular collection of lore, The Silmarillion. She also addresses Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” as referenced in the quote above, which I have long regarded as the best succinct discussion of the fantasy genre that I’ve yet encountered. (Gratifying, I note, to find support for this perception.) As the book unfolds, it attempts to reconcile Tolkien’s lived experiences with aspects of his writings–of interest to me is the way (and perhaps the reasons?) Tolkien used fantasy.
“So maybe that’s where the power in writing comes from that I want to call magic: context.”
Peter Elbow’s 1981 book, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, has long presented me a conundrum. On the one hand, everything Elbow says in the book feels right–I want to cheer for it, applaud the accommodation he makes for magic and abstracted power over mechanical hyper-scrutiny and slogs through agonizing attempts to tame one’s “authentic voice” as a writer into something more acceptable and conventional. And yet, I do not know that I am even comfortable with the concept of “authentic voice” anymore. I do not believe that I can readily accept Elbow’s magical thinking–but I do not know that I cannot, either.
“The middle ground, roughly halfway between poetry and mathematics, is where philosophers can make their best contributions, I believe, yielding genuine clarifications of deeply puzzling problems . There are no feasible algorithms for doing this kind of work. Since everything is up for grabs, one chooses one’s fixed points with due caution.”
–Daniel C. Dennett
Key Terms: Intuition pump, Boom crutch, Reductio ad absurdum, et al.
Daniel C. Dennett describes Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking as “a book of celebrating the power of non-mathematical tools, informal tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate” (10). In it, he advocates for many of the principles of philosophy, as he presents them, being used in the service of other fields. Much of his advice is easily taken at face value, such as the claim that “I have always figured that if I can’t explain something I’m doing to a group of bright undergraduates, I don’t really understand it myself, and that challenge has shaped everything I have written” (12). Venturing slightly farther afield, he draws connections between his own field and those of the “hard” sciences: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions” (20). While his work does not directly relate to composition, I do believe it offers an interesting and creative approach to rhetoric that might easily be adaptable to classroom use.
“Radical phantasy begins with the great and uncompromising refusal of conventional wisdom, a refusal that has always identified the countercultural magician, even when (as Agrippa demonstrates) the world believed in magic.”
–William A. Covino
Key Terms: Generative magic, Arresting magic, Phantasy
William Covino’s 1994 work, Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination, offers up a sketch of rhetorical history with an eye toward demonstrating the presence of “magic” as, alternately, either an element of rhetoric or its equivalent. In defining his concept of magic, Covino writes that “magic is and always has been symbolic action (that is to say, magic never occurs apart from language), in the service of individual or social transformation” (12). He borrows much of his initial definition of magic from another work, Daniel Lawrence O’Keefe’s Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. Covino makes the case that even science borrows from ritual and magic: “In a nonmagical society, our classification systems are presumed to be scientific and logical, so that their origins in social rituals within a magical epistemology are forgotten” (13). So, if magic is a symbolic performance–even, perhaps, that of the scientific method that invokes trust and credibility–it follows fairly reasonably when Covino raises the idea of “magic rhetoric,” which prefers “a fertile, dynamic, and fluctuant imagination to its opposite” (16).
“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, may be the greatest treatise on mythical archetype ever written. I hesitate to even bother describing the work, as it is known so well. I include this entry only for the sake of completeness, but I will be brief. Campbell’s work is chiefly concerned with symbols and their recurring power over the human experience. To that end, he documents the Monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, in some seventeen steps, ranging from the Call to Adventure at the start to the Freedom to Live at the end. For Campbell, these patterns resonates with metaphysical truths, but more importantly (at least for my own purposes) he establishes the importance of fluency in the language of symbolism.
“Truth in art is not the discovery of facts, not an addition to human knowledge in the scientific sense of the word. It is, rather, the exercise of human propriety, the formulation of symbols which rigidify our sense of poise and rhythm. Artistic truth is the externalization of taste.”
Key Terms: Syllogistic progression, Qualitative progression, Repetitive form, Conventional forms, Minor/incidental forms
In his 1968 work, Counter-Statement, Kenneth Burke offers up an extensive discussion of artistic form, striking key distinctions between information and the form in which that information is produced. In defining form, Burke writes, “Form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (31). He further argues that form orients to the experience of the audience, not the subject (32). Thus, he defines “artistic felicity” as the correct use of form upon the audience, and eloquence is when the form used elevates the information conveyed (37).
“As [an author] writes, he creates not simply an ideal, impersonal ‘man in general,’ but an implied version of ‘himself’ that is different from the implied authors we meet in other men’s works. To some novelists it has seemed, indeed, that they were discovering or creating themselves as they wrote.”
–Wayne C. Booth
Key Terms: Implied author, Intellectual/cognitive interest, Qualitative interest, Practical interest
Wayne C. Booth takes on a variety of projects in his 1961 text, The Rhetoric of Fiction. Largely, he counters literary myths of the time, such as the notions that objective, impersonal, dramatic narratives are superior. Making the point that despite whatever is currently in vogue there may be many different methods to presenting a story, Booth challenges “rules” of storytelling, from “show, don’t tell” to “novels must be realistic.” He also introduces key concepts that inform my own research, such as the idea of the “implied author” and a discussion of the various “interests” that fiction serves.
“There is a degree of acceptance among us all, no matter how critical we might be, of traditions and national-cultural norms, an acceptance that not only must be considered but can be exploited in promoting changes in the systems that sort us in particular ways. Yet mine will not be a radical view, in an orthodox Marxist sense, though it will be a view that aims at something more than relativism or pluralism.”
Key Terms: Problematic (Althusser), hegemony, subaltern (Gramsci)
In this excepted chapter, “Considerations for American Freireistas,” Victor Villanueva sets out to “mediate between the two prevalent trends among American Freireistas today: 1) the trend to reduce politics to discussions of the different cultures and histories found in the classroom, and 2) the trend to convert the classroom into a political arena that aims at pointing out injustices and instigating change” (623).