History and Hesse

History and Hesse

            My dearest coddled Millenial, if you weren’t aware, this is what Herman Hesse thinks of our generation:

[The Age of the Feuilleton] appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture… It was, according to Ziegenhalss, an era emphatically “bourgeois” and given to an almost untrammeled individualism. (10)

I forgot to mention, though, that Hesse is writing from the perspective of a twenty-third century scholar who’s taking his stock on the general development of intellectually history over the past 500 years. That said, I still think there are some grounds for offense here, or at least for some disagreement.

We have museums in every city, music in our streets and theaters. Art is free and open to all. Bob Dylan just won a Nobel Prize for Pete’s sake. Don’t try and tell me we can’t put culture in its proper place (dissenters hold your peace). As to the “bourgeois” claim, our neoliberal framework of stratified economics, expensive legislation (read: campaign financing and lobbying run amuck), and intellectualized technocracy appears to be anything but middle class. And last, as far as “untrammeled individualism” goes, well, Herman, I think you might have us there.

But why is it that we can have such opposing views on the status of our time? Are we not looking at the same thing? To ask a more general question, why is it that historians can hold defensible yet opposing views of historical issues? Is history a purely relative matter? Dare we say that history is in the eye of the beholder? Surely not. Stand up, Millenials. Prove him wrong. Show us that history has lessons yet to tell. Do it for our generation, my fellow spoiled brats.

A book that we’re going to find useful in answering this question is Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. And what makes this book so relevant to our question is its genre: fake historical fiction. Please suspend disbelief for a moment, there is a way out of this double negative. Historical fiction is a genre in which plot takes place in the past. That is, a work of historical fiction takes established history and fictionalizes it, allowing us to analyze historical figures more closely, to understand historical narratives more deeply, and to learn in ways we possibly couldn’t without fiction. The Glass Bead Game takes this genre one step further: it pretends to be written by historians of the future. That is, the history these characters write about doesn’t actually exist yet. In reality, it’s a possible future, while in the book, it’s already the past. This unconventional framework let’s us directly address the relationship between fact and fiction. Which is to say, the book itself is a question of history. It asks what we value more, facts or the stories we tell to relay those facts.

But before we jump into that let’s ask the fundamental question: why is history not simply a relaying of past events, why is their historical disagreement in the first place? Well, we have to acknowledge that whenever we write history we are bridging a gap – the gap between events that actually happened and language. Please sit down and welcome to Literary Theory 101. As much as we might hate to admit it, language cannot express things in themselves, it is only a way of describing our perception. And this goes for the past as well. So, let go of that ideal. It’s not out there. All we have is what we think we know and our best guess at expressing it.

But there’s still a bigger question at play because historians do more than just name events – they tie them together. And they can tie things together in whatever way they want. The Glass Bead Game is a great example of this. Early on in the book, our fictional historians state what they deem valuable in historical investigation:

We moderns are not interested in a hero’s pathology or family history, nor in his drives, his digestion, and how he sleeps… For us a man is a hero and deserves special interest only if his nature and his education have rendered him able to let his individuality be almost perfectly absorbed in its hierarchic function without at the same time forfeiting the vigorous, fresh, admirable impetus which makes for the savor and worth of the individual. (5)

What our fictional friends are saying is that they have a historical worldview to which they subscribe. To them, the individuals who matter most are the ones who can discover their purpose and submit to it. They are the heroes of our story. No time for rebels, no need to investigate the idiosyncrasies of our characters, we only need to understand how individuals successfully interact with hierarchies. The theme is individuality vs. unity and that’s the framework around which we build our story. The lesson is clear: when we make history we make narratives, and it is these narratives, not events themselves, that determine our conclusions. Let that sink in. It’s not that through history we make stories, but that through our predisposition for storytelling we make history. Literally make it. The historians in The Glass Bead Game know what story they’re going to tell before they’ve told it.

This point goes further. When we subscribe to a narrative, we shape events to fit our historical mold. We can see this again with our academic amici in the Kingdom of Castalia. The life of Joseph Knecht, the protagonist of their story, is defined by the dialectic between individuality and compliance. Take, for instance, his decision to step down from the position of Magister Ludi (the most renowned title and important role in Castalian society). Another set of fictional historians could easily view this as disastrous moment in the history of the kingdom and thus delimit it in terms of its political consequences. Yet, our fictitious fact finders understand the event as a personal struggle, and therefore define the moment in terms of its relation to Joseph, its impact upon his life, and its value as a symbol of individualism and growth. Yet, both sets of thinkers would be talking about the same event strictly speaking. Historians place markers on the continuous flow of time, they define the boundaries of causality, and shape real moments in the past to their fancy. Moreover, their pre-established beliefs provide not only the structure for the story they want to tell, but also the evidence.

Up until this point we’ve been thinking about history from the perspective of those who write it – the ways in which historians fashion narratives and why this makes history literary and even fictitious. But on the other side of this equation is a very important audience: you and me, the readers of history. And from this vantage we have to introduce a new question: as readers, how do we tell the difference between history and fiction?

The honest answer is we can’t tell the difference because we read both genres in the same way. History is based on real events but translates those facts into verbal propositions, and literature is nothing but verbal propositions. How on earth, then, are we the readers (and feeble, millennial readers at that) to be expected to tell the difference between a work that claims to be historical and one that claims to be fictional? The most common difference between the two genres is one of style, but there’s nothing stopping a piece of literature being written with a historical focus (as The Glass Bead Game shows) nor a work of history being written in a traditionally literary sense. The greatest difference to us, the readers, is that when we read history we put our faith in historians, even though historians have failed us before. We forget about the gap between language and the past, the deterministic power of narratives, and the moment morphing ability of discretion.

And The Glass Bead Game really does make this point clear. By acting as if the plot of the book is real historical material, Hesse’s novel teaches us real historical lessons. The book analyzes the rise and fall of a non-existent civilization, it evaluates the history of western intellectualism from its post-creative viewpoint, and it explores the relationship between individuals and hierarchical powers through fake institutions. Which is all to say that we don’t actually have to know any historical facts to learn historical lessons. Fake history can provide the same foundation to narrative as “real” history. The narrative trumps all. And so both history and literature, in this way, say the same thing: “if you’re willing to accept our terms here is what we have to offer.”

At this point does history really retain any merit? When history becomes like literature our concern is no longer with truth – we let go of the true historical object as soon as we put pen to paper, as soon as we spoke, as soon as we even considered speaking. Good history is now a matter of “consistency, coherence, and illuminative power” (4) as Hayden White put it. Our concern is less with the events that happened and more with how we present what happened to happen. That is, things could’ve happened differently and we could still present them according to our agenda.

The Glass Bead Game, though, offers an interesting escape to this historical problem. The book ends by telling the story of Joseph’s escape from Castalia in a highly literary style in a section called “The Legend.” This chapter is scattered with verse, poetic language, and surreal imagery. The idea being that the now mythical story of Joseph’s final flight from academic hierarchy was one so well know that there was no point telling the story any other way.

This unique approach offers a new perspective on the value of history because instead of demanding that the reader believe its verbal claim, the story panders to its audience. The history-as-myth approach submits to the power of narrative and in doing so reveals what an audience believes in and what they value. This style of history admits to its fictive nature and uses this to its advantage. We see history not as a deceiver but as a window into a culture’s ethics. And so, history, although dressed in new clothes, remains a valuable source of knowledge, if not so much in what it says but in what it reveals about its believers.



Hesse, Herman. The Glass Bead Game (London: Vintage 2000, 1970).

White, Hayden. Metahistory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

Philosophy For The Many

If I wrote a poem (or any typically short piece of literature) and a scholarly essay (or any generally long work), which of the two are you more likely to pick up and read? If you are like me, the answer would be “neither,” but in a situation in which you are forced to choose, my best guess is that you would pick up the piece of literature that requires the least amount of effort. I mean, honestly, the only people who genuinely pick up excessively long pieces of literature are professors and older people who actually have the time to read them. Everyone else is either forced to read them or kidding themselves; they believe they have a true desire and passion for the art, but do not yet understand literature and simply want to come across as intellectual.
Sure, in order to get better and understand literature people must read more and harder material, however poems, plays, short novels/stories, and other seemingly simple forms of literature can be and are just as hard to understand as philosophical and scholarly writing.
A poem is (to many) a basic way to express themselves in their own creative way. A poem, however also entails more than that. A poem can utilize metaphors, rhyme, heightened language, slang, sounds, and improper grammar. Although a few of these things seem to go against a claim that poems can be difficult to interpret, these characteristics allow poems to convey the true feelings of the writer and make the piece of literature that much harder to understand. Poems are so valuable and enlightening because they are open to multiple interpretations. You may look at a poem, read it, and gather something completely different than what I gather from the poem. The most radical part about this is that the poem in question can be of any length and with whatever level of language it wants. If I were to say something that would appear to have one meaning like, “I looked at him, and I rolled on Friday.” One may think I am plainly talking about the act of physically rolling on that day. Another person may be very keen and know that Friday may very well be the name of a given object or animal (or person). Someone else can very well believe that I am crazy and said something random and irrelevant. From just one nine-word sentence three hypothetical people interpreted the same line in three different ways, and I, the author, never said or confirmed any of the three as being “correct”. All three interpretations are valid, but none refer to what I originally meant when I said that line. The truth is that I was referring to “rolling my eyes.”
Now, in this case I partially cheated because I took advantage of the fact I was speaking and “eye” is identical in sound as “I,” but had I not used that “loophole” there was still more than one way to interpret that line. Plus, I never added what many poems have as well: deeper meanings. These “inside joke” type of things add an extra layer of complexity that places another hurdle for the audience to jump over after they take what they read for face-value, that is the literal meaning.
In case you still do not believe that poems and other brief forms of literature are not the philosophy for the many, but instead are equally and sometimes harder pieces of literature, ponder this question, “would you rather have a final that is ten words or ten pages?” Intuitively, you might jump to have a final that is only ten words, but after contemplation, you would realize that ten words in not so easy and no longer more appealing than that ten-page paper. I’m willing to bet that even if I raised the number of pages to twenty, you would still prefer the twenty-page final. In fact, many of you would continue to take the pages option over the word option until the word option reached a page. The realization with this comes from the understanding that with length, comes a much easier and more accepted way to babble, or to be frank, bullshit. With proper care, or even without care, people can bullshit their way through a paragraph or even a page of that ten-page paper without being caught or penalized. But, with ten-words, every single word better count; it better mean something. Otherwise, it will be seen as garbage and you will be made a fool of.

This is the thing many fail to realize early on: Brevity does not equal effortlessness, nor means that it is self-explanatory. Many individuals and even classes spend hours if not days trying to comprehend a poem. The words on the paper (or nowadays screen) may be simple, but the purpose can be just as profound as the words are simple. Take for example a poem and a poet that many people know or have at least heard of, Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The poem is eight lines, and yet several sources have pages full of analysis for the poem. this ranges from every word to the sentence to the poem itself. There are various levels to the complexity of this seemingly simple poem. In case you are unfamiliar with the poem or need a refresher here is a common version of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

As you can see, all of these words are intelligible. Some publications have different punctuation, and some say ‘June’ instead of ‘day’ and ‘ones’ instead of ‘your.’ Nonetheless, all the words are easy to pronounce and the vocabulary is fairly basic. However, the poem is not as easily digestible. Similar to the example i provided early on, there is a basic interpretation which takes the words for what they tend to mean on a day-to-day basis. This interpretation believes that she is talking about herself, either in the mirror or not, but talking about herself being a nobody nonetheless. And that keen person might say she is stating her name (nobody) and is incredibly glad she ran into another person with such a unique name. additionally, that last person can claim the same as before, the words are nonsense and inconsequential, and Dickinson may just be crazy. Now, going off of the more rational beliefs, Dickinson may very well have drawn inspiration for this poem from inflection and her insecurities, but the meaning drawn from the poem after examination is that Dickinson is glorifying anonymity. The most significant thing about these ”understandings” is that there is no way of confirming that these “understandings” are even true understandings or whether they are misinterpretations.
I know that when I first read this poem, I did not know what to think. I was not sure if I had the right idea, if I was all over the place, if she was all over the place, or if it was never meant to be understood. All of these thoughts still entered my head, even though I had just gone through a month of analyzing other poets and other short forms of literature. I spent weeks learning techniques and conditioning my brain to think a certain way (sometimes this meant not thinking a all), and yet, even after all the practice and note-taking, the comprehensibility of the poem was still challenging for myself and my peers. The poem is only eight lines. It rhymes. It expresses emotion. But still, the meaning is ambiguous. Now, imagine if she had decided to write a novel or a philosophical piece about the benefits of not being known and the dullness of being famous. I’m almost positive that more people would understand what she is discussing and in a shorter period of time. After-all, Dickinson would have an enormous range that she could take advantage of. Whether the work was one page or one hundred pages the concept would still be easier to grasp than that hidden within the forty-three words of the poem.

If you still do not accept the fact that poems and other short forms of literature are not philosophy for the many, think about one of the -if not the-most essential qualities necessary for understanding literature: being literate. In order to even read, let alone judge and try to process literature, you need to be literate. If you cannot understand any words visually, then poetry cannot be accessible to you for the same reasons many feel philosophical and scholarly writing is not accessible: it’s too hard and unreadable. Well, after reading through something I am sure you did not intend on reading through to the end, it is impossible to question if poetry can be just as inaccessible to the many as philosophical and scholarly writing.

In conclusion, there is no way to refute the claim that individuals can still reach a higher level of understanding through poetry and other pieces of literature, even though they are short and simple. Honestly, there is no reason as to why you waste time denying a truth and spent time reading this redundant essay proving how inaccessible poetry can be and at the same time showing how accessible scholarly writing can be. I mean you just read this and I am sure you understand well enough to provide the gist of it to a friend without worry of being wrong. So, stop thinking about where you can try to find holes in my argument: there are other questions to think about.


Philosophy: It is everyone’s buisness

In the 7th grade I became a philosopher. It is not that I had never read anything philosophical before, because by the 7th grade most Americans have, but the day my english teacher asked us to pull out our books to discuss a reading we had been doing the week before is one of my earliest memories of a truly intellectually engaging moment. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss reading The Kite Runner as reading just another somber novel that everyone’s uninspired english teacher loves to analyze the figurative language in. In part, that is what The Kite Runner and the hundreds of literary works required to be read in middle school, high school, and college, are rightfully used for. But those compositions are the very same compositions that have turned the American student body of English, yes, including you, into philosophers.
It is probably in my best interest to clarify what I mean by philosophy, as I am sure the above statement is going to make some heads turn. The idea of philosophy in the respect that I mean to use it is certainly not the exact same respect that comes to mind when someone says “Hey, how about the philosophy of that guy Aristotle”, nor is it the debatably useless major that so many colleges still love to offer (I can say this because I am a philosophy major myself.) The best way to characterize it would be to keep it to its less modern, and therefor less refined, primal components. Put in simplest terms, it is powerful writing conveying some serious thought or ideology, or “scholarly writing”, as some may call it. This writing is generally associated with only proportions of people that specialize in philosophy, the philosophy “scholars” if you will. Granting all this, it becomes a loose term as we realize that philosophical writing lays in a lot more than just a theory of ethics text book.

Source: http://khaledhosseini.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/TheKiteRunner-cvr-thumb.jpg

To understand the claim that Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel, The Kite Runner, is just as philosophical as, let’s say Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (a philosophical work that discusses guilt and punishment, amongst other aspects of morality), it would help to provide some context of where the novel is coming from. Hosseini, who was born and lived many of his formative years in Afghanistan, wrote the novel with his homeland, which at the time of writing had been devastated by changes made by the Taliban, reflecting heavily on some characteristics of his early life, but also basing much of the book purely of imaginative fiction. The Kite Runner is like most melodramas of the 21st century. The common themes, striving for a seemingly distant father’s affection, reminiscing of a time in a place that is no longer present as it used to be, and regret, are all present throughout the book.
The plot line is a a simple one really, with a man, Amir, recalling his childhood in Afghanistan, and his relationship with one of his best friends, Hassan. As he recalls his childhood, he battles with understanding his relationship with his father, and his innocent juvenile selfishness that ultimately results in years of uncertainty, regret, and most important for the purposes of this paper, guilt.
There is a reoccurring, as English teachers love to call it, “theme”, regarding guilt and the emotional revelations experienced upon growing up throughout the novel. From the very beginning of the book, literally the first words “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975…” (Hosseini 1), there is a suggestions of some traumatic event that haunted the protagonist for the rest of the novel. In the following paragraph, the ball is further dropped and a guilty conscious is confirmed with the line “It was my past of unatoned sins” (Hosseini 1).
But what does that mean to us, the reader, if there is a reoccurring theme of guilt? How does that have anything to do with revelations or philosophy. Well, those expository moments are the book’s way of leveling off with the reader and establishing a platform off which an argument is built. It would be strange to jump straight into whatever the book is trying to say of guilt and redemption without putting those two things in some context.
With a foundation set, Hosseini can, and does, spend the rest of the novel making some point of this marginally familiar feeling of guilt and desire of redemption. One of the most substantial points the book puts out, is the idea that guilt can make us act irrationally (no surprise there) and, in fact, lead us to undertake some business that we would not normally do. Hosseini demonstrates this theory using events that occurred in Amir’s youthful years leading up to his departure from Afghanistan. Amir, driven by biting feelings of guilt that are rooted in how he acted as a passive bystander to [spoiler alert!] Hassan’s rape, can not fathom how Hassan has no resentment towards him. Out of hopes to feel some release through punishment, Amir aims to drive Hassan into being angry at him by doing various despicable things. At one point, Amir pelts Hassan with pomegranates, later he frames Hassan for stealing a watch and some other birthday goods. Ultimately, Amir does not receive the release he is looking for, and his guilt manifests itself as anger toward Hassan for being so mild and not seeking revenge.
In addition to these irrational, and quite frankly ironic, actions that Amir takes in coping with his guilt, we also see into the primitive human mind. Amir is angry because he feels guilty and wants Hassan to punish him. By this, Amir is looking for his guilt to be relieved, and while it may seem that Amir is a morally conscious person who wants to be punished for his wrong doings, he really only wants to be punished so that he can move on with his life. Punishment would be a good thing for Amir, as he would be released from any “debts” he owes to Hassan.
The use of the word “debt” was not of pure chance. It is the gateway to the philosophy of all of what was discussed above. We can now turn to concept of the primitive human’s mind and the selfish desire to be relieved of any emotional debt owned, aka guilt. In Friedrich Nietzsche Genealogy of Morals, a fairly well-known work in the philosophy world, Nietzsche talks of the roots of guilt, and how it is strongly associated with the German word “Schuld” which means debt (Nietzsche 39). The very theme described by Nietzsche is paralleled Hosseini’s work, but put in a more personal setting.
Just as in The Kite Runner, In Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche also alludes to the idea of how being guilty limits the freedom people have in decision making. So like how Hosseini writes of Amir’s inability to make rational decisions when he is under the influence of guilt, Nietzsche argues that having an undisturbed conscience leads every individual to have the great responsibility of being liable for all their own actions. (Nietzsche 23)


Source: http://asiaportrayed.weebly.com/uploads/2/8/0/6/28061643/9861971_orig.png

Hosseini wrote The Kite Runner on and off for a little over three years, balancing out his morning writing sessions and his regular job practicing medicine, as we would expect of an entertainment writer. While many other popular novels had been published that same year, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and The Sisterhood Of the Traveling Pants, to name a few, The Kite Runner experienced some rather impressive successes. Its success as a novel is a great external factor as to why it can be seen as not just a plausible piece of philosophy, but a strong sample of philosophy for that matter. The parallels between the philosophy of Nietzsche and The Kite Runner should appear more than obvious at this point. What may not be as obvious, or at least not as much of a priority to think about when considering The Kite Runner as philosophy, is the idea that a work of literature just served an equally important lesson in the philosophy of ethics and guilt as Nietzsche, but in a more accessible and (a claim that I have only personal evidence to support but nonetheless is plausible) more entertaining fashion. When will you ever read the Genealogy of Morality on your own terms? How about The Kite Runner? It is safe to say that most of the young adults in America’s middle school, high school, and college systems now, would probably prefer to read a books like The Kite Runner as opposed to Nietzsche.
What does this say about literature as philosophy? For one thing, it certainly appears to be more accessible. That is a big claim to make considering that many have yet to see literature is philosophical (but if you read this paper and understood anything of it, I am sure you would at least reconsider taking a second look at the evidence supporting such a claim). Literature has undoubtedly historically been more accessible to general populations, as opposed to Philosophy, which requires a specific type of education and mindset. Literature makes philosophy more accessible, and because it is framed more attractively, it can spread ideas more conveniently. So, as we see that literature is more accessible than traditional forms of philosophy, we also begin to see that it is more effective at the job of spreading knowledge. It can be said that literature is like philosophy but more accessible and more effective. The effectiveness of literature to spread complex ideas comes partially from its natural accessibility, but also from its framing. The ideas are hidden in literature and cloaked in such a way that the reader almost has no chance to argue agains the philosophy. In order to enjoy and enjoy a novel in its rawest sense, there are philosophical ideas that are accepted as a baseline for understanding.
So what is the role of philosophy? In order to unpack the deep philosophical meanings within literary texts, experience in classical philosophy certainly will not hurt.
Any job that can be done by philosophy can most certainly be accomplished on a wider scale by literature. Literary philosophy, however, can be a two sided dagger. As suggested above, it will often require the acceptance of various philosophical ideas. Within literature, the acceptance of the ideas comes subconsciously. In other words, in books like The Kite Runner, philosophy gets served under the veil of entertainment. We can accept ideas without fully understanding them. The concern for lack of a deeper more holistic understanding, as opposed to a special case understanding, is likely to be the reason that regular philosophy is still around today. In other words, while philosophy in literature can be just as powerful and more accessible that traditional philosophy, we carry on with the study of regular philosophy because the philosophy scholars are afraid of losing their imagined “edge” over the rest of us philosophizing school kids.

The Magic Word

Plato is not often wrong. As perhaps the most well-known and respected philosopher of all time, Plato knew what he was talking about (the man died 2400 years ago and is still a household name – he certainly did something right). To claim that Plato is mistaken is to challenge a well-thought-out view held by one of the greatest thinkers in history, a view that was passed down over more than two millennia, each generation agreeing that it was interesting and valuable enough to be read by the next. To claim as a 19 year old undergraduate that Plato is wrong – Now that’s really daunting. Fortunately, I have support from another of history’s great thinkers in Martin Luther King, Jr. In his Gorgias, Plato claims that you only need to be a skilled writer if you don’t have truth and justice on your side. I don’t think that’s right, and King flat out rejects it. If you bear with me for a few pages, I’ll flesh out this flaw in Plato’s philosophizing about rhetoric, a flaw that has implications even today for how people communicate about the world’s most important issues.

We’ll start in 1963. On April 12th of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested after demonstrating against racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the nation’s most segregated cities. On that same day, eight white religious leaders published a letter criticizing King with the sort of faux-moderate ideas most corrosive to the civil rights movement: Those that claim to agree with racial justice on the whole but resist disruption of the status quo. In this case, the demonstrations in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely” (quoted in King, 1).  King spent his time in jail drafting a response, writing in longhand on scraps of paper and the margins of a newspaper. Completed in just four days and published under a modest title, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the response garnered national attention over the following months.

You already know how high the stakes of King’s movement were: The abhorrent institutions of segregation and racial oppression abused millions of Americans every day. As King sat in Birmingham Jail with pencil in hand, he sat with the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. You know the significance of the challenge he faced: King had to overturn the very foundation of society, to make one of the most important arguments ever made in the 20th century. You know, even if his audience in 1963 did not, that King stood on the side of truth and justice: Racial equality is unambiguously right, just, and good. So, when King began to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when he began to write on behalf of millions of oppressed Americans at a pivotal point for truth and justice, what did he write? And, perhaps more important for our disagreement with Plato, how did he write?

Before we answer that question, let’s see how Plato would expect King to write in this context, namely a situation in which one writes on the side of truth and justice. Plato’s expectations are explicit in Gorgias. Speaking through Socrates, Plato calls skilled writing “rhetoric,” which he defines as “persuasion which produces conviction” through “producing pleasure” (18, 27). Pleasure in Plato’s sense is unclean and harmful; a focus on pleasure distracts from the essential goodness and truth in an argument, waters down or sours justice with superficial appeal. Plato’s distaste for pleasure ruins all rhetoric for him: He says that rhetoric “boils down to sycophancy, sucking up to people,” and that it has “no concern for what is best” (28, 30). Pleasurable writing amounts to either regrettable entertainment or a tainted tool of the malicious. Plato argues that “for the person who is not planning to act unjustly I don’t think [rhetoric]’s use is very great – if indeed it is any use at all, which it hasn’t been shown to be” (55). Plato does, however, offer a way out, a way to argue on the side of justice without contaminating truth with rhetoric’s impurity. Plato imagines two kinds of writing: One would be “sycophancy, the worst kind of appeal to the public; the other would be admirable, … battling to say what is best, regardless of whether this makes it more pleasing or unpleasing to those listening” (84). The distinction here is solely the focus on pleasure. Sycophancy aims to please, and according to Plato is of no use to someone speaking on the side of truth and justice. Admirable writing absolutely disregards pleasure. It is this second, pragmatic style of writing unencumbered by attempts to please which Plato would implore King and others advocating truth and justice to use.

But, Plato continues, this second kind of writing, writing that spreads justice with no regard for pleasure, “is a rhetoric which you have never yet seen” (84). Although writing on the side of justice without regard for pleasure is an option, not a single skilled writer does it. Plato takes this lack of a perfectly just rhetorician to discount rhetoric as a whole. Here’s his logic: Appeals to pleasure sour truth and justice, and all skilled writing aims to please, so all skilled writing strays from truth and justice. This is where I think Plato is wrong: He takes the fact that nobody writes without regard for pleasure to mean that writers don’t have society’s best interests in mind. I think skilled writers aim to please only because they must in order to communicate effectively with their audience. Disregarding pleasure simply does not work. Even if you argue on the side of truth and justice, you still need to write pleasurably.

King understood this. But before we get to him, let’s first define what exactly it means to write pleasurably. In other words, what does Plato think King should avoid? One key characteristic of pleasurable writing, and the most troubling for Plato, is that it caters to the beliefs of its audience: It has an impulse towards “giving the citizens what they want” (83). Beyond conforming to its audience, pleasurable writing aims to produce enjoyment. Plato repeatedly uses the difference between cooking and medicine to illustrate his point. Pleasurable writing feeds you what feels good, what will keep you reading, even if, like a tasty but fatty desert, its value is only superficial. Plato believes writing should act like medicine, giving you only what is best and truly valuable regardless of how it feels. We can see that Plato condemns writing that includes any and all stylistic flare, that goes out of its way to demonstrate graceful command of language, that shapes concepts with sharp but perhaps extraneous literary devices. In short, Plato distrusts writing that detours even slightly from plain truth for the sake of eloquence. If arguing for truth and justice, King must not aim to please.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., does just what Plato abhors: He is clearly on the side of truth and justice, yet he focuses intensely on writing pleasurably. The claim that King aimed to please in the letter may seem counterintuitive and even troubling when considering the gravity of his situation. As previously explained, the consequences of failure were grim. But that is precisely the point: That even when truth and justice are most direly threatened, pleasure must be a focus of writers standing in opposition.

King invokes pleasure in several ways. First, King handles his audience carefully. Explicitly, the audience is the eight white clergy who publicly criticized the Birmingham demonstrations. However, King never actually sent his letter to those clergy and instead had it published for a wider audience of religious white moderates resistant to the civil rights movement. King establishes a friendly, respectful relationship from the start by mentioning that his detractors “are men of genuine good will and [their] criticisms are sincerely set forth” (1). This respectfulness, which Plato might deem sucking up, is continued throughout the piece. King refers to his audience as “my friends” and “my Christian and Jewish brothers,” and is eager to point out when they are correct (2, 3). For example, he says, “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation,” and agrees that their apprehension regarding lawlessness “is certainly a legitimate concern” (2, 3).

Further, King conforms to his audience’s beliefs in both religiosity and patriotism. King is clearly conscious of his Christian audience and appeals to religion incessantly. Two quick examples: At the start, King explains his presence in Birmingham in Biblical terms. “Just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ, … I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown” (1). Later, in response to accusations of being an extremist, King remarks, “Was not Jesus an extremist in Love? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?” (4). King also connects his movement to American values. He says his goal of freedom will be reached “because the goal of America is freedom,” and that his movement’s “destiny is tied up with the destiny of America” (5). King calls upon the Pilgrims, Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. At the close of his letter, King writes that his movement stands “for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage” (6). Christian values and the American dream: What more could the southern religious white moderate ask for? Plato rolls in his grave at every mention of God-given rights, every Biblical allusion, every time King deviates from his argument to remind the audience that he shares their Christianity and love for America. But there’s a reason King spends so much time comforting his audience: He has to. Without gaining the trust of the religious white moderate and demonstrating shared interests, King could not gain their support in his campaign for truth and justice.

A more conspicuous point of conformity is King’s attention to grammar, which is especially clear in how he frames a quote from Rosa Parks. King writes that Parks responded to an inquiry “about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested’” (6). King’s audience is educated. By conditioning Parks’ statement with such a highbrow phrase as “ungrammatical profundity,” King makes clear that he is aware, as his audience surely will be, of Parks’ grammatical mistake. This is small but important. If King were writing for a less educated audience, he would not need to exalt his own grammatical knowledge above Parks’. King goes out of his way to demonstrate sophistication to his educated audience. Plato would deem this unnecessary, but King knows he must gain the intellectual respect of his audience if they are to believe his message about truth and justice.

Beyond flexing his command of language to demonstrate shared sophistication, King writes eloquently to make his work pleasurable to read. He polishes his letter with spectacular aphorisms and lofty metaphors such as in these lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (1). King beautifies his ideas with sharp images such as “stinging darts of segregation,” “shattered dreams of the past,” and a “dark shadow of deep disappointment” (2, 5, 1). Although the subjects he speaks of are gloomy, the language used in describing them is extravagant. Stylish language is not at all pragmatically necessary, but it adds an element of pleasure that attracts and embraces readers.

By studying King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we can see that pleasure is not incongruous with arguing for truth and justice; in fact, pleasure advances King’s just argument by making it effective in reaching its target audience. If King had followed Plato’s commandment to write incognizant of pleasure, his letter would have been ineffectual in the campaign for civil rights. You need to be a skilled writer to stand purposefully on the side of truth and justice.




Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 212, No. 2; pages 78 – 88. 1963. Print.

Plato. Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. Translated by Tom Griffith, edited by Malcolm Schofield, Cambridge University Press. 2010. Print.

Watch Your Tongue

I think I should start by stating this plainly, because there is really no kind way to put it, and because at least then you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into: fiction is the most dangerous hell-spawn form of literature there is, and we should be scared of it. We would, were we half as wise or kind as we claim to be, board up the bookstores and liken “storytime” to a perverted pastime of the ignorant before, speaking of the days spent in novels with sighs and helpless lamentations, murmuring reassurances that at least, now we know. We would call for the heads of those great trespassers that stand before us now, tirelessly spinning a web of beautiful lies that we promptly ensnare ourselves within, writing and re-writing the world with the callous and careless letters that drip unheedingly from their fingertips; down with Dickens, out with Austen, and will someone please tell J.K. Rowling to shut up.

There. I’ve said it, and I’m not taking it back.

Before you slam the laptop shut in anger, before you roll your eyes in derision, before you scroll mindlessly past what seems to be another hackneyed, jaded, backwards blogger fighting Society and condemning conformism, allow me a moment of exoneration. I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t have fiction. I’m really not. Selling that horse would take a lot more time and patience than I’m sure either of us have, and, quite frankly, it’s not one I particularly want to sell. And I’m almost positive it’s not one you want to buy. It’s really not the point I’m trying to make here. What I’m saying is that literature that we classify as being false; more than that, literature that we fully and truly expect to be false, that we ardently desire to be false, harms us because we are so captivated by the eloquent designs carved onto a sheet of lies that we fail to see the torrent of truth rushing beneath.

Before we go further, I invite you to take a moment and fall backwards through the passage of time with me. Screw your eyes shut, if that helps, and recall fondly that favorite book from childhood. Specifically, find that first book you really fell in love with, when you were finally old and wise enough to understand the gravity of words placed delicately in a sentence, when rhymes and nonsense syllables gave way to the development of lovable characters and the fine points of plot structure. To read that first book again, to pore over the pages with unabashed excitement, to capture and hold in your mind and your heart the first story of your existence! Cue the sentimental music.

Out of curiosity, show of hands for anyone thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth?

For the unacquainted, The Phantom Tollbooth is widely considered a classic pick for that first love a la literature experience: you’ve got the all-too-relatable protagonist (a young boy named Milo), the whimsical sidekicks (a half clock-half dog named Tock and a likewise rhetorically relevant oversized beetle called the Humbug), an epic quest (to bring the princesses Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom), a formidable foe (in the form of various dastardly demons who attempt to thwart Milo’s mission), a whole cast of quirky side characters (we’ll get to them in a minute), and, of course, a moral at the end, delivered in a tidy bow, signed, Societal Expectations (being, in this case, to question, explore, and appreciate the glorious world around you). For added fun, the author, Norton Juster, packs the book to the brim with puns, word play, and logic problems by setting the novel in a made-up world, accessible only through a mysterious tollbooth, complete with the feuding cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and a literal take on all the whimsies of the English language. The book is thinking about thinking, playing with language, and seems, as Common Sense Media puts it, a perfect score in educational value, positive messages, and positive role models. A seasoned writer from The New York Review of Books insists that it remains, to this day, one of the best books of our time. It was selected as NPR’s November 2011 Kids’ Book Club Pick, for Christ’s sake, and if that’s not a stamp of squeaky clean liberal approval, then I don’t know what is. Good, clean, innocent fun for all. Right?

Right! That is, if you’re a White, educated, English-speaking male Westerner. Juster, born and raised in Brooklyn in 1929, loads the novel with so many clichés about “foreigners” projected onto the various side characters that it becomes hard to keep straight the hodgepodge of ethnicities. He certainly doesn’t ease us into them, either: the very first character we’re introduced to in this markedly foreign and visually exotic land is short, plump, and wearing a toga. He’s called “the whether man” and apparently spends his time asking pointless questions that lead him nowhere…Juster:1, Greek philosophers:0.

Before I continue, I want to take a minute to speak to the importance of illustrations in this book, because they arguably play just as big a role as the words themselves (if not bigger, in some regards). First, it needs to be noted that the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, was a long time friend of Juster, and the two of them collaborated heavily on the novel. That means that Juster directed, edited, and signed off on all the illustrations as being accurate representations of his original vision, and that’s really important. We can’t dismiss the pictures as a separate, afterthought-like apparatus, claiming independence from Juster’s true words, but instead are forced to accept them as a reflection of his narration. And this is crucial. Because on more than one occasion an illustration elaborates on physical details not enumerated in the text, but shapes our perception of the story all the same. An example: by the description of one character, we know he has big ears and a small mustache, but it’s not until we get a stylized illustration that pulls in previously unmentioned overbearing eyebrows and a skinny, hairy body that creates a full Middle Eastern type look (a look furthered by his tendency to create “unpleasant sounds” and keeping of an analogous genie in a lamp).

This matter plays an even bigger role when we consider the audience that this book is catered towards: young readers. New readers, coming straight off picture books, who drink in visual representations to quench the dry taste of words not fully understood, and pull in hungrily from their senses to feed the ever-gnawing questions surrounding their slow descent into the sea of knowledge.

And this all takes significance in the following manner: if a child reading this text misses the subtle jab at totalitarian government in the form of a single character acting as policeman, judge, and jailer, the same character who is constantly angry, bossy, self-centered, and irrational, whom Juster has the audacity to send into battle riding a dachshund (because the whole “German” thing wasn’t coming across enough), he or she can still identify the presented image of a short, stout, severe, bald, flat-headed man as someone who is overall unsavory. And now the association can (in fact, must) be drawn between those traits and actions outlined in the story, and the visual presentation of this character. Lo and behold, here we have it: the birth of a stereotype. Because even if a child doesn’t yet know to label this character, it is the tireless and unthinking repetition of these caricatures that allow them to infiltrate and perpetuate in the minds of an entire nation of individuals. And it begins here, in the minds of children who project themselves onto a protagonist, and therefore the world of the protagonist onto their own; here, by pairing the idea that if someone looks like x they will act like y; here, in the pages of a story so delightfully whimsical that we hardly think to look twice.

To be fair, it is not necessary to have illustrations for this mental molding to take place: it simply augments the process for young children, for whom the words might not always conjure up already formed images. And I’m not claiming that every character from every novel does this: rather, just that The Phantom Tollbooth does this particularly well with a large portion of its characters, mainly (and unfortunately) because it exemplifies these typecasts that we see again, and again, and again.

I can hear your counter argument; I can hear you telling me to lay off already. I’m reading too far into the subtext, seeing ghosts in the lines, and, after all, surely the author didn’t intend any of these things, so, no harm, no foul, goodnight.

Alright, so I think there’s some definite weight to the argument that Juster didn’t intend for all of the subtext. Take, for example, the character Faintly Macabre, a shriveled grandmotherly figure with an unfortunately sized hook-nose, seen sitting in a rocking chair, knitting, while she tells stories and offers hard candy to our protagonists, recalling how her own selfishness and greed landed the country in economic peril before she was stripped of her power and sent to jail. She so overwhelmingly embodies the typical Jewish babushka (the word macabre, after all, deriving from the Jewish name Maccabee), and yet Juster himself is Jewish. This becomes a tally in favor of the idea that perhaps all of us, even our author, have been inadvertently and unwittingly instilled with stereotypes so deeply rooted that we fail to recognize them if we forget to look. But the stereotype itself is still present, even if we don’t acknowledge it. In fact, it is exactly in not acknowledging it that it becomes all the more dangerous. It is easy to fight a demon standing plainly in front of you, but the task takes on an entirely new dimension when the demon is invisible; or worse, when we fail to realize that the demon even exists.

And this is where the danger of fiction truly lies. Let us return to the novel for a moment, because, besides typecasting his entire crew into what ultimately play out as long-embedded societal stereotypes, Juster is additionally guilty of incorporating a symphony of white supremacy ideals into the language and plot itself. He openly condones the imperialistic acts of the supposed “good guys,” who literally sailed into this imaginary land and “in the name of goodness and truth…laid claim to all the country”, driving out the savage, lazy, non-time keeping, uneducated (as in, non-English speaking; there’s one great scene where the characters literally eat the letters of the English language and talk about how exclusively delicious it is) natives. Really. And we’re all fine and dandy with this, in the same way we’re all on board with blatant stereotypes running rampant throughout the novel, because we remove the concept of reality from something we’ve already designated as being unreal.

What I mean is this: when we read non-fiction, we become critical because we know we are looking at an analysis of facts. You can disagree with a historical standpoint; you can think a philosopher got it wrong. But we seem to lose that inherent power of opinion when faced with fiction. You can like it, or you can dislike it, but you can’t exactly say that it’s wrong or right if it doesn’t truly exist in the first place. No one would take me seriously if I said that the dog’s name was supposed to be Tick instead of Tock, and that Juster was telling it all wrong, because we give authors license to lie to us in whatever manner they please, under the assumption that we will accept it as is. And thus is the saving grace of the author, of the poet, of the playwright: the farther they publically distance themselves from reality, the more they seemingly delve into a world of their own creation, the more remote such concepts of right and wrong become.

And this would all be fine and good, except for that fiction isn’t independent of reality: in fact, quite the opposite. All of our stories, even the ones where a boy and watchdog and beetle run rampant through a land of pure imagination, are grounded in true life, and they all carry elements of that throughout. But we are so quick to forget this that we fail to recognize the language of our own reality, even when it is staring us straight in the face. At one point, the novel uses direct anti-immigration rhetoric to decry the influx of new “sounds” (read as: foreign languages), but no one blinks an eye because we aren’t looking for a political ideology wrapped in a children’s tale. And it is this selective blindness that makes us so vulnerable to the power of suggestion in fiction, because we buy into real world concepts that have been so trussed up by decorative language and thrilling plot sequences that we forget that they pertain to our own lives. We forget how to see racism, sexism, anti-Semitism because we have been so desensitized to these concepts throughout our entire literary experience. We perpetuate and internalize them without thought, and thusly project them onto the world with an equal measure of carelessness. And in doing so, we move these stereotypes, these ideologies, from the world of fiction into our own lives, blithely unaware of the gravity of our own ignorance.

I would stop here, but there’s one more thing I cannot, in good conscience, ignore. There’s only one decidedly dark skinned character in the entire novel, and that character is the Humbug. He isn’t an overt antagonist, so at first this might seem like a step in the right direction, but the way he is instead cast is, arguably, more damaging. He is the foil to the pure, brave virtue of Tock; decidedly untrustworthy, incredibly lazy, incorrigibly cowardly and distinctly lacking in intellect. He makes it into the motley crew, but serves mainly as comic relief, the bumbling oaf who is constantly the cause of whatever rotten mess they’ve gotten themselves into this time. The kicker? Besides being the only black character, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to an African Hercules beetle, Juster makes a point to dwell on the fact that the Humbug is afraid of water, and can’t swim. And, in the same vein, the only two strong female characters in the novel, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, are without exception described and praised primarily for their beauty. Seriously, there’s not a single time that the book talks about them without talking about how they look, whereas we don’t get a single physical description of Milo, our male protagonist. And somehow, also, although these princesses are supposed to be wise and all knowing, it’s not until Milo shows up to save them that they can leave their Castle in the Sky? The one that literally has stairs leading up to it? So, what I’m really trying to say, or rather, what Juster is saying, is that if you’re an educated white boy in America, sure, the novel’s chock full of strong messages and stellar role models, and that’s all great and fine for them. But for everyone else? Well…I guess you were going to have to live out that constructed reality eventually.



The Power of Persuasion and Weakness of Truth

It is claimed “You only need to be a good writer if you don’t have truth and justice on your side.” As Socrates determines early in his debate with Gorgias, the truth is weak; in order for rhetoric to be persuasive, it is imperative that the argument is painted in the best light possible. Consistently throughout history, we have seen biased speeches portraying opinions in a perspective entirely different from our own. Oftentimes, these speeches rely on personal, and therefore relatable, experiences, making the account seem much more reliable. Now, whether or not these speeches are examples of “good writing” is ambiguous; sometimes, these speeches work, while other times, they fall short. Additionally, it is often the case that these speechmakers must have “good” speeches, because their reasons are unjust or ignoble. One of the most infamous combinations of an unjust, yet skillful rhetorician is Hitler; though Hitler’s cause was barbaric, he managed to win the support of the German nation. What made thousands of people blindly follow him, emulating him as the savior of Germany? It is evident that he had neither truth nor justice on his side, yet he was able to inspire millions of people and persuade them to support his cause. We must ask ourselves why people were so inspired by him; what did they see in him that would justify such a ruthless cause as the Holocaust? In addition to this, we must consider whether Hitler’s speeches were cases of “good writing;” was Hitler truly a “good” rhetorician, or were the German people simply ignorant and desperate for a leader? As a whole, what makes people “good” writers? When exploring the themes common to people deemed “good writers,” or “good orators,” these people tend to rely on similar strategies; hyperbole, personalization, eloquence, and charisma. When considering the prominence of exaggeration in writing, one must speculate whether any writing holds the truth, or whether good writing is reliant upon exaggeration and deceit. The best way to delve into these questions is to make a case study out of Hitler and figure out why he was able to inspire such a large mass of people in his attempt to kill off an entire race.

The answer lies with his charisma and his adeptness at persuasion; Hitler, just like many great politicians, disguised deceit and hyperbole within eloquent and moving speeches, both relating to and inspiring his citizens in the process. His speeches were compelling enough to justify decimating an entire race of people, while opposing the greatest powers in the world and threatening the destruction of the German nation. His passion and charisma were convincing enough to justify his extreme views.

In his “Fuhrer to the German People,” on June 22, 1941, he presents himself as the hero who attempted to maintain peace, despite the unwillingness of the enemies to compromise. Though Hitler’s cause was unjust, the strategies he employed in his speeches were compelling and eloquent, thus enabling him to convince millions of people to follow him. The accuracy of his speech did not matter nearly as much as did the delivery and the reassuring nature of it. Hitler begins his speech by bringing up Britain’s past aggressions, making it seem like they are the nation that is unwilling to compromise, painting Germany into a tranquil and stable state that Britain wishes to destroy: “…the British attempted once again to frustrate any attempt to begin a consolidation, and thus a strengthening, of Europe by fighting the then strongest power on the continent.”(Bytwerk, Randall). Portraying Britain as a menacing force that is seeking to weaken the continent of Europe as a whole is a brilliant strategy for creating a common enemy among the German people, as they rely on Hitler to offer solace and options to fight off this threat to the survival of their continent and country. Not only does Hitler depict Britain as the ultimate threat to the European continent, but he expands this idea by claiming that Britain was the catalyst for the start of World War I: “In summer 1939, England thought that the time had come to renew its attempts to destroy Germany by a policy of encirclement. Their method was to begin a campaign of lies. They declared that Germany threatened other peoples. They then provided an English guarantee of support and assistance, next, as in the World War, let them march against Germany” (Bytwerk, Randall). Hitler evades mentioning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at the hands of a Serbian nationalist, choosing instead to focus on portraying England as the main point of contention in the World War. Instilling fear within the people would encourage them to look for a powerful and reassuring figure to save them from a common enemy. And sure enough, Hitler is right there delivering a speech that offers a way to save Germany. Throughout his speech, Hitler relies upon certain untruths and deceptions to win the trust and confidence of his citizens, proving that the truth does not matter in cases of threat, since people only seek reassurance and promises of security. Hitler further depends on this strategy when he claims the Jews and Democrats are united in a conspiracy against the strengthening of the German government; “…we faced the plot we all know about between Jews and democrats…to prevent the establishment of a new people’s state, to plunge the Reich again into impotence and misery.” (Bytwerk, Randall). Here, Hitler characterizes democrats and Jews as the enemy, thus justifying his desire to annihilate them, as a mechanism of self-defense. When the threat of one’s own country is taken into consideration, people have a tendency to act impulsively as a means of self-preservation.

The diction Hitler uses throughout his speech results in an incredibly powerful outcome of simultaneously flattering Germany and its citizens, while denigrating the Soviet Union and Britain, representing them as ruthless and jealous enemies. Hitler claims England wishes to “destroy” Germany, as the Reich grows more powerful, for they fear the strength of the Germans. Hitler relies upon commending his own efforts and accomplishments in maintaining peace, stabilizing and strengthening Germany, and attempting to compromise with Germany’s enemies, as a strategy throughout his speech. In his speech, Hitler claims “I kept silent about all this, because I had to keep silent…” (Bytwerk, Randall) and “I behaved as the responsible leader of the German Reich, but also as a responsible representative of European culture and civilization” (Bytwerk, Randall). He is certainly not short of being sycophantic in his speech, which is a central method in his orations. Incorporating direct personal pronouns proves to the people that he is the only hero in this situation, the only way Germany can be victorious against the enemy. Hitler is certainly not shy about ensuring that he is given the credit he deserves in his efforts to preserve the German nation and make peace with its enemies. By personalizing his speech, Hitler makes it more relatable and thus more believable; he seems to be saying “we are all in this together;” “Germany is not being threatened, we are being threatened, and here is what I will do to save us.” When Hitler declares, “When the German government gives a guarantee, it will stand by it…we are neither English nor Jewish,” (Bytwerk, Randall) he directly confronts Jews and the English as being deceitful, while maintaining Germany’s noble illusion. Hitler’s genius rhetorical strategies rely on deception, diction, personalization and reassurance to win over his audience. He also has a tendency to organize his speech chronologically as if he is telling a story, thus making the entire speech more pleasurable to listen to. These strategies result in a powerful and convincing speech, despite the inclusion of falsehoods and exaggerations, thus proving that the truth is weak and the deciding factor in oration lies within the delivery of the speech, not the probity of it.

Analyzing Hitler’s speech makes one question whether the inclusion of truth within writing is ever the determinant factor in the convincing capacity of the speech. Furthermore, it is apparent that Hitler relies on personalizing his speech, thus strengthening his argument and making it more relatable. Does all good writing have to be personal? Are there cases of good writing that are entirely objective and impersonal? When taking Hitler’s speech into consideration, it is evident that personalization is essential to good writing, resulting in a more compelling and convincing oration as a whole. Socrates makes the argument in his debate with Gorgias that the truth is weak; this idea has been proven continuously throughout history. It is not the content of the writing that matters; rather, it is the delivery of the speech and the eloquence of the work that hides the inner deception within it.

Sycophancy is incorporated in every German aspect of Hitler’s speech; he flatters himself and Germany excessively, while denigrating England and the Soviet Union. In his dialogue, Socrates views rhetoric as “a subdivision of sycophancy,” (Plato 31), because it “…makes an intuitive guess at what is pleasant, with no interest in what is best” (Socrates 30). As a result, the sycophancy of rhetoric allows this rhetoric to be personalized, flattering the articulator and encouraging his interests. Hitler relies on sycophancy in his speech to make himself appear to be an expert, thus assuring his audience of his reliability as a leader, while also proving that Germany is ultimately the ideal state in regard to truth and justice.

In his dialogue with Gorgias, Socrates determines “that is how rhetoric should be employed-aiming always at the just-as should any other activity” (Plato 113). Despite this claim, rhetoric is often employed for more nefarious purposes, as is the case with Hitler’s speech; he utilizes his skill as a rhetorician for the unjust purpose of convincing ignorant citizens to support him in his quest to decimate an entire race of people. Hitler’s use of rhetoric spurs the question of the character and motivation of the rhetorician. In Socrates’ argument with Gorgias, Gorgias brings up the case of a doctor and a rhetorician in court; “Indeed, I maintain that a rhetoric expert and a doctor can go to a city, anywhere you like, and if they are set against one another, in an assembly of the people or any other gathering, to argue which of them should be chosen as doctor, then the doctor will make no showing, and the one with the ability to speak would be chosen, if that was what he wanted” (Plato 19). In this case, the rhetorician is acting unjustly, since he is convincing the ignorant masses to vote for him, even though he is well aware that he is less qualified than the doctor for the job. Socrates maintains that, since the rhetorician is less knowledgeable on the subject matter, the doctor will ultimately reign victorious over the rhetorician, for he is the true master of medicine:” If you make someone an expert in rhetoric, then he must necessarily know the things which are just and the things which are unjust-either beforehand, or by learning them from you later” (Plato 24). Here, Socrates distinguishes a true rhetorician as someone who is an expert on the subject matter he is discussing. Therefore, the deceptive rhetorician in Gorgias’ example is not a true rhetorician.

            Conclusively, it is apparent through Socrates’ dialogue, and through Hitler’s speech, that truth is negligible in comparison to the presentation of the argument; it is not the content of the speech that matters most, but the extravagance of the speech and the sycophancy of the orator. Proven through these examples, writing does not necessarily rely on truth; it relies on verbosity, skillful deception, and exaggeration to successfully convince an audience of the reliability of the rhetorician. After all, a lie that works to improve an individual’s life is always preferred over an unfavorable truth. As Socrates maintains, the truth is weak, and what matters most is the persuasion of the rhetorician, rather than the content of the speech.



Bytwerk, Randall. “Hitler’s Proclamation of 22 June 1941.” Hitler’s Proclamation of 22 June 1941. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.




Griffith, Tom, Plato, and Malcolm Schofield. Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

The Lie of Truth


The Lie of Truth

The idea that “truth” as we know it isn’t true is hard to swallow. It’s one of those mind-bending concepts that turns your world upside down if you think about it too hard. So, most of the time, you don’t. You accept what is called truth and leave it at that. You live your life based on the things Nietzsche calls “[lying] according to a fixed convention” (117) and call yourself honest while condemning those who lie differently from you. It’s convoluted, but it isn’t complex. Our truths are nothing more than metaphor, made-up concepts with a label stamped on top telling us they’re real, telling us: “This is poison. This is wine.” when both are simply water. But, unknowingly, we drink. And we drink. And we drink. And then, someday, we forget the labels are there at all, taking them as part of what we drink, and not questioning it once.

Of course, we’re all in this stage now of not seeing the labels. We are all in this stage of taking the truth for what it claims to be because it’s all we’ve ever known. So, apart from that hard-to-swallow aspect of this new view of reality, there is the challenge of considering something you have been trained your whole life not to see. In order to do this, to see the world as the mask of language it is, we must look to language itself: to literature, in all the ways it attempts to peel those labels from the glass.

Jack London’s White Fang provides a particularly useful lens through which to see the invention of truth. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is tasked with following the life not of a human but of a wolf. London uses language to get inside the beast’s head; in his attempt to show us reality from the wolf’s point of view, he must alter true and false—must create a new reality—by redefining the lies that are good and the lies that are bad. The fact he is able to do this, and successfully, insists there is no ultimate truth in the name of things, and the set of metaphors we use to define this world are in no way tied to it.

The third and fourth chapters in Part II of White Fang deal with the early life of the wolf by that name. Titled “The Gray Cub” and “The Wall of the World,” respectively, these chapters explore the development of the young wolf as he struggles from birth to make his entrance into the world. The character White Fang learns to understand his world by naming and classifying the things he encounters. Though, as the narrator explains, “the gray cub [is] not given to… the kind of thinking customary of men” (London 82), London and his readers are, and the only way he can unveil the perception of the growing cub to them is by laying it out according to “man-fashion” (86) reasoning. So White Fang creates his own syntax and, with it, a worldview. In doing so, he models how we, as humans, have created—have fabricated—ours.

The wolf cub spends the first weeks of his life in a small cave with his parents and the rest of the litter. The dangers of the wild are made immediately apparent to the cub, and, before long, White Fang and his mother are the only survivors of their clan. The world he inhabits is a cruel and unusual one. Life is subject to change—or disappear entirely—at any moment; the only constant for the cub is the cave around him. To White Fang, this cave is all there is of existence. As soon as he can open his eyes, White Fang begins “to learn his world quite well” (78). The narrator comments, “His world [is] gloomy; but he [does] not know that, for he [knows] no other world” (78). See, the wolf cannot know ‘gloomy’ without context. His is an isolated life, with no outside world to compare to and no inherited vocabulary to fill gaps in experience. All that is available to White Fang are four sides of stone, and stone, and stone, and light that encompass him. So London builds his reality with language—shows the reader how, as each thing gets a name, its truth becomes a part of the cub’s worldview.

So let’s start with something simple. Let’s start with the walls. The cave in which White Fang is born has walls in every direction. Take a moment. Let that sink in. The cave has walls in every direction. These walls are made of solid rock; they are hard, and gray, and hurt the tip of the little cub’s nose. All except one. This last wall he doesn’t come into contact with for quite some time, but he learns from his mother’s reproaches that this wall, like the others, is something he must not approach with his tender snout. Unlike every other wall of his world, this last is bright, white almost, but it still has those characteristics which define the quality of wall-ness in his mind: it exists as a landmark of the edge of his world. White Fang comes to know this particular boundary as “the wall of light,” but, as much as he is aware that this “one wall of his world [is] different from the rest,” he knows it—first and foremost—as a wall.

Of course, to those of us who were raised learning “wall”, “floor”, “ceiling”, “door” since before we could speak, this seems absurd. We can accept it, maybe, as a beast’s formulation, but never as a legitimate concept! A cave mouth is simply not a wall. A door, perhaps, or a window, but never a wall. If we take a step back, however, we should be able to understand. What is ‘wall,’ but something we’ve named the thing? Or ‘mur’, or ‘mauer’, or whatever else you like. It is beside the point. Through our many human languages, we have defined the concept of wall, but repetition doesn’t make it any less of a fabrication. Go ahead and bang on whatever is behind you. What you feel is not wall. It is plaster and paint, brick, concrete, drywall, wood, glass… but it is not wall. Nothing is, inherently. So when White Fang names the wall of light, a wall it becomes. ‘Entrance’, on the other hand, has no meaning in this walled-in cave world. White Fang “[does] not know anything about entrances—passages whereby one goes from one place to another place” (81). How could he, when he has never been to another place, and his mother has no way of telling him there is such a thing? He has no understanding of the concepts ‘passage’ and ‘place’, so he has no understanding of the concept ‘entrance’ either. Without a word naming it, without the language to define that concept, ‘entrance’ is not just beyond understanding to the wolf cub, it is out of existence. Just as with the wall-ness of the wall behind you, there is no inherent quality of entrance-ness in the mouth of the cave. So that entrance is a wall just as much as anything else is—not only in name, but in truth. The language White Fang applies to his “wall of light” is the only thing that can define it.

This conceptualization of things—this naming and, thereby, defining—carries into  this section of London’s novel beyond the moment of the gray cub and the wall. As White Fang grows and explores his world for the first time, he continues on this same path, classifying and giving meaning to things as he encounters them, and, simultaneously, embodying the idea that nothing exists until there is language to name it. When he first ventures out of the cave, first steps through that “wall of light,” White Fang understands his situation as “sprawling through solidity” (88). Once his eyes have readjusted to brightness around him, the cub does not write off his definition of the wall, does not discount that sensation of “sprawling through solidity.” How could he do that when, all along, those things had been his truths? Instead, he does what humans do constantly: he shifts his definitions to make the “truth” fit. When he looks out, he does not find the wall of light gone. No, it is only that “the wall, inside which he had thought himself… [had] leaped back before him to an immeasurable distance” (88). Everything he encounters after the expansion of the wall is new to White Fang, not just in the fact that he had never experienced these things, but in that they truly did not exist before in his world. He discovers ‘fall’, ‘distances’, ‘things alive and things not alive.’ Each of these he encounters for the first time, not as a an adventurer finding things he’d never known, but as a one who had “without any antecedent knowledge, without any warning whatever that such existed… found himself an explorer in a totally new world” (91). The word new is key here; this world had no meaning until White Fang began to classify it.

When White Fang first encounters something strange, he bristles at it. He does not know, precisely, what he is bristling at, only that it is “something unclassified, therefore unknown and terrible” (87). In this sense, humans aren’t all that different from wolves. We don’t like what we don’t know, and, moreover, we are afraid of it. We are comfortable with the distinctions we have made, comfortable with the difference between truth and lies, between right and wrong, between entrance and wall of light. The greatest difficulty in accepting the idea that nothing is true and all is metaphor lies in the simple fact that we don’t want to accept it. It is unsettling to realize there is no non-literary language. How are we supposed to keep our feet on the ground if there’s no such thing? It is important, though, that we try to accept this. Just as White Fang remodeled his truth upon leaving the cave, we are constantly remodeling our own. If we aren’t aware what an easy mutability this is, we are liable to get reckless. We must know we are defining our truths if we want to define them well.

This, of course, is easier said than done. After all, don’t we want to know the difference between poison and wine?



Works Cited

London, Jack. White Fang (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966)

Nietzsche, Friederich. “Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873)

The Emotional Power of Language


What I am about to attempt to do is going to seem like a complete contradiction. It may even seem like something out of Inception. The question of whether or not authors need to write about the “truth” has been in the background of literature throughout its history. To defend both sides of the claim, there are many arguments, which are my focus. One school of thought is that authors that write well enough can either make their readers look past the falsities of the writing or convince them of another truth altogether. For readers like us, people with a decent amount of experience with literature and language in general, this is a scary thought. No one wants to admit that they are gullible enough to fall for a false reality, but we have come to find that words have more power than we originally imagined. The contradiction that I want to argue, then, comes when I try to convince you that I am telling you the truth when I say that you have been forced to believe total lies through literature and other articles just like this one.

To start, it is important to realize just how gullible and impressionable the human race is. There have been countless examples of the blind leading the blind throughout history, but there are none better than those of Germany and Russia during World War II. In their respective countries, both Hitler and Stalin were able to rise to power through their mastery of rhetoric and oration. Despite their arguments being based on complete fabrications, they connected to the hungry, tired, and generally unhappy populations of their nations and promised to bring them out of their despair. The important point is that both leaders made their moves after revolution and war when life for the average citizen was at its worst. Times like these are when people just want to hear what someone else can do for them.

The exact same scenario can be seen in George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which a group of animals stage a revolution to take over their farm from the abusive owner, Mr. Jones. In the aftermath of the revolution, it is the pigs, the wisest of the animals, who assume the positions of leadership. As the story progresses, one of the pigs, Snowball, is forced out by another, Napoleon, leaving a power vacuum that Napoleon is more than happy to fill. As the sole leader of the group, Napoleon begins to lie about everything to make his life better and to keep the rest of the group under his control. He makes claims that Snowball was the enemy the entire time, that food rations were up, and that everyone was working less, but these were all lies to keep the others in check.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It should because every character in Animal Farm represents a person or group from Stalin’s Soviet Union. Napoleon is, of course, Stalin himself. Boxer, the faithful work horse, is the ignorant proletariat. The sheep that constantly chant whatever the pigs want represent the means by which the Stalinist government spread propaganda. If you kept going through the rest of the animals, you would find as equally accurate examples for each of the rest of them, so given the disastrous nature of this novel, it is clear what Orwell was trying to comment (Fadaee 23).

Just as Stalin did in Russia, Napoleon used his words to convince the rest of the group to follow him. Although he often worked through Squealer, the pig known for his talent with words, it is through language in general that he won the trust that he later took advantage of, as shown by Boxer’s mottos of “I will work harder” and “Napoleon is always right”. There were two aspects of farm life after the revolution that catalyzed his rise to power, the first being that the animals on the farm became just as desperate as the Soviets were after the Russian revolution. Even if it was just by giving the dogs an extra biscuit, once Napoleon proved that he could improve the quality of life in even the smallest ways, they were willing to listen to anything he had to say. It was from this point on that everything he said carried the same joyful tone as always but now contrasted the world around them. Rations were down but the statistic sheets said they were up; they worked harder but should now be “proud” of the work they were doing, and the good of the pigs began to come before everyone else for the most convoluted reasons. The common animals, though, were blinded by the excitement and accepted these lies as truth.

What you could probably notice is that I have used the word “truth” a number of times already, but what does that really mean? Truth is inherently a difficult idea for us to pin down because of the limitations that we have to explore and describe it. Other than through language, there is no way to describe truth, which could become something that goes far beyond the capacities of words and sentences. As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in his essay “On truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” it is entirely possible that there is no “truth” that humans could hope to achieve because humans try to impose themselves on the world to force it to make sense in their terms. This, he argues, cannot lead to anything even close to an overarching truth. As proof, Nietzsche writes, “The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages” (116). Should this hold true, I need to be willing to accept that the truth that I am going to talk about is confined to one that humans have created, one that is inherently human-based, and one that humans therefore can change at will. And that is perfectly fine, for if we do not accept it, everything that I am about to write and everything we have all ever said, read, or heard means nothing. I set this limit because the truth for our intents and purposes should be considered something not only as equally flawed as humans, but that can also be played with and molded by humans through words.

The second aspect of farm life that proved beneficial to Napoleon comes from this very idea; the pigs’ mastery of language gave them the greatest advantage. All of the animals could speak, some could read at a very modest level, and some could memorize and remember about as well as a two year old, but the pigs could do it all with adult human proficiency. Their grasp on language is what ultimately gave them their overwhelming control. It was said that, “The birds did not understand Snowball’s long words, but they accepted his explanation, and all of the animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart” (Orwell 25). Later in the novel Napoleon was able to alter the animal commandments because no one could read or remember them well enough to prove that they were changing, and when they caught Squealer fall off his ladder while painting them, no one wanted to. One of the most surprising parts of this story is that none of the other animals ever put a stop to any of this.

The real question, though, is whether they ever really could have stopped it. For one thing, they did not have the linguistic power to know what was being written or said most of the time. For another, they could not remember a time before the revolution, so no one knew if life was better or worse. But above all, they were too deeply involved in what Napoleon had been telling them to be willing to go against it. A similar phenomenon can been seen in our society right now with a certain political candidate running for president. This is in no way becoming a political discussion, but those of you who do not agree with Mr. Trump will easily agree with this argument. I also know that many of you who, like me, are moderately on Mr. Trump’s side will agree as well.

What Mr. Trump is saying, whether it be true or not, is fundamentally controversial, and to put it nicely, his delivery is rough. As worldly adults, we notice this, but it does not have the profound impact on us that it has on children. There is something called the “Trump Effect,” which is affecting the more impressionable and gullible younger generations, and it has been well documented in schools across the country. On one hand, “It’s producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported” (SPLC). On the other hand, the same source writes,

Other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.

The first part of the Trump Effect shows that when people hear something they like (in this case, scared and ignorant Americans hear that he is going to deport minorities), they repeat it to everyone, including their children, who go on to repeat it to others. Even though he almost never says anything with any style or grace, what he says proves to have a big enough impact to stick in people’s minds. The second part goes a bit deeper; these children wonder how anyone could support a man saying such horrible things about them and their families. But even the children could understand an argument that Socrates made in Plato’s Gorgias.

Imagine a court room where the judge is a chef, the jury is a group of kids, and the defendant is a doctor. The chef/judge wants to lock up the doctor because he hurts the children by poking and prodding them and making them ingest disgusting liquids while he, the chef, makes the children good food that is pleasurable to eat. The children do not understand that it is through the discomfort that the doctor causes that they are healthy enough to eat and enjoy the food the chef gives them, but of course, none of the children want to hear that. The children, in real life terms, represent how Socrates views human nature in general. (Gorgias)

The main point that we have to understand is that even though Mr. Trump may not be a good speaker, he is the judge in the metaphor. He speaks to people’s emotions, and that is what reels them in. They hear what they want to hear, and this is good enough for them, just like it is for the children that do not want to listen to the doctor. If we accept, therefore, that people are gullible to what they want to hear because it plays to their emotions, I want to examine more thoroughly how Napoleon does this. From the beginning the reader is told that Napoleon is the type of speaker that is very direct and to the point, contrasting his more outgoing enemy, Snowball, who speaks with a more colorful style. There are numerous examples of this style, such as the moment after the windmill falls when he simply says, “Comrades, do you know who is responsible for this? Do you know who has come in the night and overthrown our windmill? SNOWBALL!” (Orwell 50). So what is most impressive is that he garners the same type of emotional response from the animals from this short discourse that another, lesser leader, would hope to get from a prolonged speech. In some aspects, but certainly not all, he and Mr. Trump have this in common; they speak very directly to the ignorant hearts of their listeners because they know this will get a reaction. There is no need for fluffy decoration.

Then you might ask if that goes against everything I have been arguing this entire time, that you need to be a master of rhetoric to be persuasive against the truth, but the answer is no. In reality, it alters my argument to show that you do not always need “good” writing to convince someone of lies, something politicians prove every day. Plus, there are many different forms of “good language” shown by the contrast between Napoleon and Snowball. It is also, however, not enough to just tell the truth in many cases because the idea of truth is so ambivalent. We saw an example of this when the doctor could not speak his argument well enough to the children to convince them. Therefore, if truth is not good on its own and if you do not necessarily need good language to be convincing if you speak to affect emotions, the best way to write about something that is not the truth might be to use good language that plays to the emotions of those receiving the language because that takes the truth out of play. At that point, whether the author is writing truths or lies makes no difference to the reader because they are too captured by the literature to want to make the effort to find the difference. Emotions are powerful, and although they help us in many situations, they also cause us to make the wrong decision countless times in our daily lives in everything from the food we eat to the people we fall in love with. Emotions could not care less about the truth, so it makes perfect sense for literature to use them against you to bypass the truth.

Works Cited

Costello, Maureen B. Splcenter. Rep. Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Fadaee, Elaheh. “Symbols, Metaphors and Similes in Literature: A Case Study of “Animal Farm”” Journal of English and Literature 2.2 (2011): 19-27. Academic Journals. Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus, 2012. Print.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Plato, and Malcolm Schofield. Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. Trans. Tom Griffith. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

A Stone’s Throw from Reality


“Sticks and stones may break my bones…

but the words ‘stick’ and ‘stone’ are arbitrary stand-ins for physical entities, so ‘sticks’ and ‘stones’ really can’t hurt me,” may well have once been uttered on the playground by a young Friedrich Nietzsche.  As speakers, as writers, as readers, as people with the capacity for thought, we are conducted through life on the backs of words, and so it is imperative we know just what we’re treading on when we consume and produce language–when we so much as invoke the word “word.”  And if Nietzsche is right, then we’re treading on air.

A nineteenth-century philosopher, Nietzsche would rise to prominence as the curator of polarizing ideologies ranging from morality to epistemology, of which his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” is of interest to any user of language.  Briefly, his argument is such:  All things posses “essence[s]” (Nietzsche 117).  We are concerned primarily with the essences of things, and it is these essences that words attempt to name. Words are “metaphors”–arbitrary fabrications completely irrelevant to the essences of things–which cannot actually come any closer to describing the thing, yet are as close as we can get (Nietzsche 116).  We then attempt to unearth cosmic truths via the flawed words created by us, and so continually deceive ourselves with language that will forever circumscribe the truth.

That is, language categorically bars us from truth, and language’s most atomic unit–a word–can merely serve to offset meaning rather than define.

Perhaps the affront to tangible reality that Nietzsche’s theory puts forth is its trivialization of the senses: What good are they when our perception of the world necessitates a language which obscures and mutates it anyway?  A century after Nietzsche, Valentin Volosinovconceives a theory that similarly asserts the fundamental ambiguity of words, defining a word as that which is “multifarious” (“many-speaking,” from the literal Latin) (72).  A word by nature cannot be static, and must possess multiple meanings; a ‘word’ with one single meaning transcendent of context would indeed cease to be a word, instead acting as a “signal2” akin to the red light of a stoplight indicating a STOP! command, or hearing a particular register of animal cry and instinctually recognizing it as ‘pain.’  A word may only be a word if its very definition is in flux; to utter one is to grasp at water. 

While perhaps self-evident, it is critical to enunciate that reflection, critical thinking, premeditated action, or any sort of interpretation of stimuli is linguistic.  Our most basic and most proximate tool for accessing reality is words, though they be as blunt and imprecise as the rock which clobbers an oyster to get at its delicate flesh.  The very process by which words access reality distorts it indelibly.   

I will describe schematically the fundamental wedge language imposes.  Let A be an entity–something that exists–such as a tangible object or a concept. We can denominate the word assigned to it as A1, since it is not literally A, yet is its closest and most fundamental association. A implies A1 and vice versa. The problem is that, because we are conscious of language’s inherent multifariousness and fallibility as well as our own fallibility as its operators, we have learned through socialization that the linkage between A and A1 is not strict. For instance, suppose we were to predictably and concertedly meet for lunch every other day, and otherwise never run into each other due to distance.  If I were to part by saying, “See you tomorrow,” you would not show up expectantly the next day; that is to say you would not interpret “tomorrow” literally, because you can deduce what I meant, and substituted the correct and appropriate meaning to “tomorrow.”  Not only have you decoupled A (the concept of tomorrow) from A1 “tomorrow,” you have reassigned A1 to B (the day after tomorrow), based on your own assumption.

Not only do words lack inherent meaning or value, but also functional meaning by being so susceptible to alteration via misuse. As linguistic purists, we could obsess over the grammatical genocide of adverbs in colloquialisms (“man I did so bad on that test..”), or the loss of  “fewer” (“there are less pigs than sheep”) and “spat” (“ew, you just spit on me!”) from social vocabulary–but such pedantic anal-retentivity is hardly the point.  Extrapolate the above premise to a world cluttered by words, where we are constantly bombarded by a deluge of advertisements, news, electronic communications, face-to-face conversations, books, etc. where we prioritize efficiency over correctness, and are likely to be completely oblivious to the ramifications of certain linguistic choices, deliberate or not. Apart from the select scholar, who is yet still fallible, there is no language police. Invariably through careless use, words become diluted and adulterated, where A1 can come to mean essentially anything in different contexts. Any nonliteral interpretation can be seen as the degradation of language, and the mortal risk is that the original association between A and A1 can be completely lost (‘nice’ has lost all connotation of its Latin etymology, nescius, meaning “unknowing” or “ignorant”), words can sometimes mean their very antonyms (turn the light off, the alarm went off (on)), producing a nonsensical world. This is frightening, that we are all complicit in the confusion of our best tool to understand the world.

A precedent follows, then, for mistrusting language in an anxious and conspiratorial way, since we as its users have been denied, systemically, the very possibility of meeting the task we have employed language to perform.  One reaction to Nietzsche would be to militantly interpret language at face-value in narrow and strict fashion–to rigorously excise language from all contextual and ideological connotation and so strip it down to its naked germ to come closest to reality.  To do so would be to read apathetically, disengaging ourselves as readers from the equation.  Granted, apathy here is relative–since utter apathy is robotic and therefore inhuman–so apathy to the extent that we may not allow ourselves to be moved emotionally by any particular line, but may still react on the whole. We will take Nabokov’s Lolita to investigate what Nietzsche’s paradigm means in practice.

Under this rule, we can explain Lolita’s acclaim as follows: the text on a literal level follows the narrative of a sexual deviant as he serially preys on an underaged girl. This text appeals to us the readers because it depicts an identifiable real-world phenomenon of which we either partake or do not, where the former enjoys self-recognition (the same comfort of looking into a mirror and indeed seeing oneself), and the latter enjoys the self-aggrandizement of alienating depravity.  Both of these are narcissistic reactions in concord with Nietzsche’s assertion that man can only perceive the world in terms relative to himself, and fabricates the universe around himself at its core.

Nietsche’s claim about language should be troubling to the scientist or the historian whose fundamental purpose is to access truth. But literature for the most part is uniquely unbound in that it need not reconcile itself with truth in this way.  If the sum total virtue of word was its capacity to describe the literal, word-play would not exist. Different forms of utterance would not exist, meaning no singing, no slam poetry, not even variable intonation in speech.  If words meant only the things they intend to describe, we would need a cumbersome amount of them, or increasingly acrobatic ways to put them together, compounding the problem of the world-object gulf.

And we can show this to be untrue.  Words are complexes of associations, networks of glowing neurons that trigger memories, feelings, sights, sounds, tastes, sensory experiences and recollections. Here stems the emotive force of language that transcends the literal.

As opposed to static definitions, words are artistic and mutable renditions of reality.  Literature works to assemble fragments of disparate meanings, and, collectively, with all their various connotations and associations, form a homogenous picture (one big image made from smaller images).


What literary language–fine language–novelly introduces to words is aesthetic value, and in doing so obviates the need for words to have inherent value; their arbitrariness is then rendered no more bothersome than the arbitrariness of preference for chocolate or vanilla.

     Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip  of  the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

     She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four  feet  ten  in  one sock.  She  was  Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

These opening lines are beloved not for their word-for-word literality, but for their imagery and lyricism. Not only can what sounds good be good, but what sounds good is good because there are no dictums on aesthetic preference.

So why should we like Lolita, and regard it as exemplary?  Because of its beauty. Because of its tragedy. And because the coincidence of the two in their juxtaposition are evocative. Beauty is to be sought. Tragedy is to be avoided. We are presented with an immanent dilemma in the very election to read on. Our interest is feed by the desire to know which force succeeds in the end, the pursuit of omniscience, to predict our own fates. Literature combats language’s failure by flinging the failure back in our face: the real world can only be represented by illusion, so literature employ illusions to manifest dream-worlds that overlap real-life such that we can easily conflate the two, and cyclically repeat the process until a dream-world has replaced whatever real-world existed originally. Literature trains us to be indifferent towards reality by interchanging reality with fictions. And so, once we are liberated from preoccupation with ‘real’ reality, we can make peace with language’s failure to touch it.

Language is an incantation. A conjuring.  It is the summoning-spell of ideas and meanings, and like any good magic trick, it features the element of illusion.  And this isn’t a defect.

  1. Russian linguist distinguished for championing the diachronic study of language.
  2. Formal linguistic terminology bifurcating the linguistic sign into the phonetic/pictorial ‘signifier’ and conceptual ‘signified’.  For more, see Ferdinand de Sassure’s influential Course in General Linguistics, on which Volosinov’s work heavily piggybacks.


Works Consulted

“Eye Made of Headshots.” Digital image. Picture Mosaics. Chan Excela, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016. <https://picturemosaics.com/photo-mosaic- tool/hotlink.phpfile=storage/s1/M9994582/ p0/pmt-thumb&e=jpg&s=1>.

“Word.” Sarah Mennel. On Words. Digital image. Odyssey. N.p., 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016. <http://az616578.vo.msecnd.net/files/2016/02/29/635923654799611463-251196307_635921981639834124-997424637_word.jpg>.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus, 2012. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. N.p.: Random House, 1997. Print.

Voloshinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986. Print.

Conversations About Conversations

It’s the little blinking red light on the dashboard signaling a hiccup in the system. It’s the bridge that collapses under the weight of all the gears churning inside your head. More specifically, it’s the blank look on your face right now asking me what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose now would be more than appropriate — actually, necessary — to clarify what I am describing here, or better yet, what I have been meaning to say thus far. But the very question of what I mean necessitates more than just a response to what I am describing. It also requires communicating my description of something in a way to which others can relate. In other words, what does it mean to get everyone on the same page of something I am describing?

What we end up with are two questions: one, what does it mean when we describe something and what does it mean to translate that description to others? That is to say, what are we really doing when we describe, label, or categorize something as is? We might say we are making a judgment or taking a perspective on an object of interest. Thus, for some, an object of interest may appear a certain way, and for others, that same object may appear in a different way. But how are we to reconcile all the various descriptions, judgments, and perspectives? Is it still the object of interest with which we are really concerned? Or could our very descriptions, our language, and the words we use to somehow encapsulate the object of interest be the actual crux of the matter here?

What emerges from these questions is a divide between language and the objects that language supposedly represents via descriptions, labels, and categories, or simply put, words. And these words, of which we use an innumerable amount and in countless combinations, seem to jeopardize our grasp of the actual object in its essence, or the truth. It is like what Nietzsche says, “With words it is never a question of truth” (116). Our conversations end up being only conversations about our language. So that when one fails to follow the language of what the other is trying to say, it is not the object of the conversation that is obscure, but the colored, contextualized, presupposing, and goal-oriented words we use. And to get lost in the heavily assuming language we use might make us come to a full stop, flashing our little red lights, to show that the language we encounter problematically jars with our own. Or we might try to wrestle with that incongruity, pushing our minds to rebuild the broken bridge between the language we use to describe objects and the languages others use to describe the same object.

Hemingway makes so vivid this idea that every conversation is essentially just us conversing with language about language in his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The story stars two waiters who are preparing to close their cafe for the night but are stuck with their last customer — a deaf old man slightly drunk from all his orders of brandy. The waiters exchange many words about this old man as they wait for him to finally pay and leave. Much of the dialogue is written without the conventional “he said,” “she said” labels before or after every verbal piece, so it is often ambiguous as to which of the two waiters is actually speaking. But it turns out that those labels aren’t necessary given that the waiters are marked by their different languages. And by languages, I don’t mean Spanish versus Russian or Bostonian dialect versus Californian dialect. I mean the language that betrays the speaker’s underlying assumptions, motivations, and background, which all in turn shape the way they understand and describe objects.

Hemingway assigns each character a role in this conversation about conversation. We’ve already established that the interlocutors are the two waiters who each speak through their respective colored glasses of reality. But the deaf old man also demands our attention for being two things: deaf and the subject of the waiters’ conversations. The first exchange between the two waiters brings to light the role that deafness plays in this conversation about conversation:

“Last week he [the deaf old man] tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.


“He was in despair.”

“What about?”


“How do you know it was nothing?”

“He has plenty of money.” (Hemingway)

Unable to hear, the old deaf man cannot answer for any of the questions and assumptions the two waiters make about a recent event that supposedly occurred in his life: his attempted suicide. He is like the silent universe that is inevitably mum about the truth, so to speak, to all those who inquire by poking and prodding for the truth. In this way, the deaf old man is the object whose truth will not be known regardless of how much the waiters make an effort to guess what it is.

So far, all that is known about the deaf old man is filtered by the waiters’ interpretations, which are subsequently expressed by their words, their language. That is, what we are left with are mere descriptions of an old man who supposedly tried to commit suicide, was in despair about nothing, and has plenty of money. And this train of thought, going from suicide and despair to nothing and money ends up revealing more about the waiter who spoke rather than the old man.

Readers can never be too sure of what kind of man this deaf old man is. Did he really attempt to commit suicide? Were his motivations truly despair? And was his despair really because of nothing? For all we know, the waiter who made these descriptions could be spinning a narrative to fit the picture he may already have of this deaf old man. In a later section of the dialogue, one of the waiters (it is not clear whether it is the same waiter who made the initial commentary about the old man) claims that the old man “must be eighty years old,” to which the same waiter or the second waiter immediately follow-ups saying, “Anyway I should say he was eighty” (Hemingway). The waiters are actively constructing an idea of this old man with their language, which becomes the truth accepted not only by the waiters accept but also by unsuspecting readers.

As the story progresses, the waiters’ descriptions of the deaf old man begin to reflect more concretely the character and values of each waiter. One of the waiters is in a hurry to close the café and come home to his wife before three in the morning while the other is unhurried and unnerved by any timely obligation. Upon observing the hurried waiter’s successful attempt to finally get the old man to leave the café, the unhurried waiter asks “What is an hour?”, to which the hurried waiter replies, “More to me than to him [the deaf old man]” (Hemingway). In response, the unhurried waiter says, “An hour is the same” (Hemingway). What is so remarkable about this minute exchange is that how well it exemplifies what it means for language to be distinct from that which it describes. The question by itself, “What is an hour?” seems to anticipate on face value, the essence of an hour, of time. But the response that the first waiter gives answer a different question; that is, he answers “What is an hour to me?” His understanding of time is relative to himself, which in effect replaces time, the object of interest, with himself. It is no longer the object that is inspiring its descriptions, but the waiter himself. The unhurried waiter, however, nullifies the label that the hurried waiter assigns to the object of time. That time is more to one than to another is purely arbitrary. For “An hour is the same” to whomever and whenever. There is nothing more to the object that makes it any more special to a particular person. Rather, it is the labels, the language we use, for describing these objects that makes them appear as such.

Perhaps most indicative of this idea of the autonomy of language is the conversation the unhurried waiter has with himself. At this point, the hurried waiter has left the café for home and the unhurried waiter is left musing on how good and necessary it is to have a clean, well-lighted café. Contrary to his hurried colleague’s opinion, the unhurried waiter deplores the absence of such a café, which he thinks leaves him with no dignity and “a nothing that he knew too well” (Hemingway). The idea of nothing makes its entrance again in the latter half of the short story. We’ve already seen it mentioned during the exchange about why the deaf old man was driven to despair. But in this case, the use of the term nothing is different. The waiter calls all things, including man, a nothing and contrasts it with light, cleanness, and order. Though the waiter does not specify what he means by this nothing, he prefaces it earlier while conversing with his colleague saying, “Each night I am reluctant to close up [the café] because there may be some one who needs the café” (Hemingway). There is a twinge of loneliness, a kind of emptiness, in this nothing upon which the waiter constantly dwells. But not much can be said as of yet until further on when the waiter says the following in his head:

Some lived in it [the nothing] and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. (Hemingway)

The waiter uses the term nada, the Spanish equivalent for nothing, as not simply a thing that exists but surrounds us, is us, and pervades the very language used for acknowledging and declaring allegiance to God. But what’s important to note here is also the phrase “pues nada.” It is recognized as a muletilla, which is a word that serves as a filler or verbal crutch. There is no meaning to a filler word, just as nothing is devoid of any meaning. They are arbitrary terms that illuminate nothing about anything, just as the language and the labels we designate for objects reveal pretty much nothing about the actual object itself.

The very repetition of nada further reinforces this nothingness by rendering the term meaningless and arbitrary. The waiter replaces nearly every significant word in the Lord’s Prayer with nada. But this act of replacement is more than just to emphasize nothingness in human lives, but also to devalue and forget the terms themselves — to strip all significance and meaning from all the terms that previously held so much command and presence and leave the words empty like husks. It is a brilliant demonstration of what we end up with when we acknowledge the divide between language and objects and realize there is no real substance to the terms and the languages we use to describe objects, except for the meaning that we fabricate and pretend to see as true. What we end up pledging allegiance to is neither God nor some heavenly kingdom. Instead, we “Hail nothing full of nothing” because “nothing is with thee” (Hemingway). Humans do not possess anything more than illusions of what is real. As told by Nietzsche, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (117). Not only have we fabricated our truths, but we’ve gone so far as to forget that they are fabrications! We trap ourselves, it seems, in this cycle of lies — of conversations about conversations — believing ourselves to have hit upon the pot of golden truth.

With so much nothingness in the world and in ourselves, it is no wonder the unhurried waiter loses his dignity, feels lonely, and ultimately, empty. And so, he seeks solace in a clean, well-lighted place and hopes that this diversion from the darkness of nothingness can last, quite frankly, 24/7. And perhaps this is one way Hemingway is telling readers to cope with this fabricated reality in this silent universe. But I beg to differ. It is not so much about finding solace, as if our lives are completely worthless and all our foundations must be broken down, as it is about exploring the breadth of our constructions. We might have a ceiling to our endeavors, but we have such long hallways that are endless and diverse in all the ways we make something out of nothing. It is true that conversations are nothing more than just that: conversations. But our ways of having those conversations are plenty. And questions of “What do you mean?” and “How do you mean?” will continuously appear as little blinking red lights and collapsing bridges, so long as we don’t try to anchor ourselves to the object. Because we can’t. And, well, that’s okay.

Works Cited:

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Harry Youtt, n.d. 11 Nov 2016. < http://www.url-der.org/a_clean_well_lighted_place.pdf >

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” 1873, p. 114-123.