November 7th, 2010 09:48 EST
Government Should Be a Place of Learning, Not Politics as Usual
The seats of government should be learning places
Fiction is not a good name for what we call fiction, and that`s just the beginning of the problem. We live in a Gordian Knot of labels. It discourages us from thinking outside the knot. In fact, it discourages us from thinking.
We have the silly notion that if we know the name of something we know all there is to know, whereas in fact we have groped our way down a blind alley. The phenomenon was hard at work in the recent elections. We elected people who haven`t got a clue what to do because we liked their anger.
Names unfortunately stick to people and to nostrums. For example, some people believe we can lower taxes and the national debt at the same time "a received idea that is as leaky as a sieve, a holey idea made holy.
The stickiness of labels is closely related to the lies we believe. Once we settle into a name, a category, a label, a lie, we get comfortable, we nestle into its familiarity, we build a circle of acquaintances who share it, and we defend its parameters.
Once memorable characters are brought to life in a book "Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, the Karamazov brothers, and so many more "they`re alive, in some ways more alive than we ourselves are because they have a global society of which they are the center. They influence us, they influence events, and the chances are they will be remembered long after we`re forgotten.
It`s the same way with historical figures and even loved ones. In death they acquire a veneer.
It`s not just that thoughts become things. The young narrator of The Red Badge of Courage and Don Quixote live exponential lives. Every time someone encounters them they are reborn, and often someone is reborn in them. They reverberate down through time, whispering in our ears, suggesting this and cautioning that. We quote them.
Even the nameless ones like William Butler Yeats`s horseman to whom the poet says, Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by. The line has stuck in million of minds. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry wrote a novel called Horseman, Pass By.
For some of us Yeats` nameless horseman is an ineffable proxy: We encounter a daunting problem and we imagine the horseman following the poet`s command, Pass by.
How can this be said to be a fiction? It has a life of its own, It has intellectual and emotional heft and loft. It has something like immortality. It has speech. What about it is a fiction? The label misleads us. The label diminishes and dismisses something that looms larger than the poet himself. It is a smart-ass label, a category concocted in fear by a culture that turns its back on the unknown in order to pretend to know much more than it knows.
We say that fiction is not about real-life people. What are we talking about? What is real life? Do we mean people who can be proven to have existed? Is that our narrow definition? How many Greeks saw Zeus or Athena, but the presence of those gods in the lives of the Greeks was incalculable. Hercules is more memorable to us than thousands of people whose tombs we can visit. Our view is human-centric, allowing for no other life forms.
And yet our minds are peopled with imaginary characters, the people we would like to be, the people we imagine ourselves to be, the people we imagine others to be, and many other creatures that influence our daily interactions. My imaginary personage does not greet yours, but he certainly shapes the way I interact with you. Is he fictive? I don`t think so. He has a life of his own, but it isn`t verifiable or quantifiable in the usual ways. We build cyclotrons and other mechanisms so that we can verify and quantify things we don`t understand, but if our scientists were content with their array of labels and indexes they wouldn`t bother. And we wouldn`t know as much as we do, and we wouldn`t know how little we know.
And there`s the problem. Labels get in the way of knowing what we don`t know. They`re like television journalism, pretending to know much more than is known or can be known at the moment. All smart-ass journalism, criticism and punditry is rooted in this smug satisfaction with having stuck a label on something or someone. That is the origin of the mindless flip-flop issue with which the press has regaled us in which we breathtakingly accuse one another of changing our minds without any recognition of the obvious fact that not changing one`s mind is the nature of ignorance.
Labels and categories are part of our cultural quandary. Our pharmacists no longer concoct, they dispense, they farm out pills. Our doctors no longer puzzle through our ailments, they prescribe what Big Pharma has instructed them to prescribe. Our voters no longer think, they chuck incendiary slogans at each other. Our media pretend to know more than we do, but they know less and trivialize what they do know.This is the Gordian Knot in which we live, fondling its many strands.
The idea of fiction is a handy misconception. The author lets a genie out of the bottle and the genie says to us, Make three wishes. But all we wish to do is put him back in the bottle, the bottle with a label on it. And yet we say that such and such a character is memorable or such and such a character comes to life. Do we mean he or she briefly came to life but then we put the book down and crushed that life?
We just observed Halloween. Each year the day seems to become more important to us. If we don`t believe in ghosts, we certainly like the idea of believing in them. We are as haunted by the people who left some evidence of their existence as the people who left only a story we can`t forget because it`s too compelling to abandon. What we have invented is as real as what emerged from a womb, perhaps even more real. I will die and be forgotten, but Hercules and Odysseus will live on. They will live on because we need them to. The fables that created them are not unlike Apple`s marketing machine. We didn`t know we needed an iPhone. Now we know.
We think the dead are memories, if that. But they are hard at work shaping the world around us. We call them ghosts. It`s like pinning butterflies to boards. Aha, we`ve got it, because we pin a name on it. Well, our parents pinned names on us, but did they get us? They thought so, didn`t they? But we know they didn`t, and yet we go on emulating them, pretending we know our children and know what is good for them when in fact all we know is the name we have pinned on them. How many of us have had parents who insisted they knew us when in our hearts we knew damned well they didn`t?
We should cast a cold eye on names, labels, nostrums, slogans, hand-me-down ideas, punditry (including my own), criticism, journalism. We don`t know as much as we think we do, and that`s a good thing. If we knew as much as we pretend to know the world would suffocate us. It would be more boring than the Sunday pundit shows. Glory exists in what we have yet to learn. Instead of sending people to state capitals, county seats and Washington to represent us, to act on their ideas, we should be sending them to learn something, to go to school, because obviously their schools failed to teach them the one thing schools exists to teach "how to learn. The seats of our government should be learning places, not pulpits.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com