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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/1/15

The Pope's Eco-Encyclical and Mario Vargas Llosa's New Book (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Historically, by the standards of their various times, profound works of imagination may have contributed in one way or another to "interact[ing] with the rest of social existence" "not [as] mere reflections, but rather [as] the wellsprings of social, economic, political and even religious phenomena." In a certain sense, each creative artist involved in producing profound works of imagination is a kind of prophet to his or her group, and his or her works are in a sense prophetic.

However, there are also prophets such as the ancient Hebrew prophets, who used imagery to appeal to the imaginations of their fellow Hebrews, and today there are numerous people who see themselves as playing a prophetic role in the world, including of course Pope Francis.

But Vargas Llosa seems to hold out for artists who produce profound works of imagination -- over against more superficial works of imagination such as those found in advertising.

Vargas Llosa mentions the brutality involved in World War I and World War II and "the Nazi crematoriums and the Soviet Gulag" (page 8). But all the profound works of imagination did not stop all of that brutality. Does that mean that we need profound works of imagination that explore the depths of the human psyche more deeply and more profoundly?

C. G. Jung notes that brutality is the flip side of sentimentality. If this is correct, then sentimentality needs to be countered to hold brutality in check and perhaps even stop it.

But does Vargas Llosa have a plan for countering sentimentality?

Pope Francis is in effect concerned about the brutality of the free-market ideology.

But does the pope have a plan to countering sentimentality?

Nostalgia for the past is a form of sentimentality that Vargas Llosa seems to indulge in. He says, "In every historical period, up to our own, there were cultured and uncultured people, and, between these two extremes, there were people who were more or less cultured and more or less uncultured, and this classification was quite clear the world over because there was a shared system of values and cultural criteria, and shared ways of thinking, judging and behaving" (pages 57-58) -- including of course shared anti-Semitism and racism and sexism.

Elsewhere, Vargas Llosa says that "the idea of culture never implied any given quantity of knowledge, but rather a certain quality and sensitivity" (page 12).

But Vargas Llosa to the contrary notwithstanding, there has been no golden age in the past.

Besides that, is there any compelling evidence that "a certain [cultured] quality and sensitivity" somehow contributes to enabling those people who have it to overcome their culturally conditioned tendencies toward anti-Semitism and racism and sexism -- or toward brutality or even toward sentimentality?

Besides that, is Vargas Llosa himself just advancing "the myth that humanities humanize" that he reports has been rejected by contemporary theory (page 9)? If contemporary theory is rightly claims that the claim that the humanities humanize is just a myth, then should the humanities be abolished from formal education? But if the humanities should not be abolished from formal education, then what reasons can be advanced for retaining the humanities in formal education?

In a similar vein, if the humanities should be abolished from formal education, should all creative artists cease and desist from producing "profound works of imagination" -- and not so profound works of imagination? But if creative artists should not stop producing works, what reasons can be advanced for having them continue to produce works?

Now, Jung himself does not set forth a specific plan for countering sentimentality and thereby presumably holding brutality in check and perhaps stopping it. However, his more general plan for advancing psycho-spiritual growth involves integrating "shadow" material into one's ego-consciousness. But this is far easier said than done.

Now, Vargas Llosa's concern with values and valuing and valuation centering on valuing profound works of imagination lead him to characterize the process of taking in and assimilating profound works of imagination as involving a dialogue (page 66). However, in his various expressions of enthusiasm for democracy and for Popper's ideas about an open society, he does not refer to dialogue.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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