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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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Even though Pope Francis does not happen to advert explicitly to Martin Buber's book I AND THOU (1923) in his eco-encyclical, the pope refers repeatedly to I-thou communication and to dialogue. Surely an open society should encourage dialogue, as the pope does.

In theory, an open society without dialogue would involve an atomistic view of the people in the supposedly open society -- and thereby would seem to encourage and endorse individualism over against what the late Jewish American Buber scholar Maurice Friedman refers to as a culture of otherness. A culture of otherness depends on the spirit of dialogue to sustain it. By contrast, what Friedman refers to as a community of affinity depends on like-minded people. In theory, the Roman Catholic Church involves a community of like-minded people, a community of affinity, not a community of otherness.

The atomistic view of people tends to favor the spirit of individualism that Pope Francis criticizes in connection with the technocratic paradigm. In the United States, the atomistic view of people and its concomitant spirit of individualism are favored by economic libertarians such as the Koch brothers.

Pope Francis criticizes individualism (see, for example, Paragraph 119). But Vargas Llosa questions whether "extreme individualism" has developed around the world (page 17).

Now, Yale's literary critic Harold Bloom is a cultivated anti-religion academic. Nevertheless, in his latest book THE DAEMON KNOWS: LITERARY GREATNESS AND THE AMERICAN SUBLIME (2015), Bloom discusses imaginative literature in ways that are not incompatible with Vargas Llosa's ways of valuing imaginative literature.

Bloom invokes Percy Bysshe Shelley's observation that "[t]he function of the sublime is to persuade us to end the slavery of pleasure" (pages 30). Bloom says, "We have a need to heal violence, whether from without or from within. Our strongest writers . . . can meet that imaginative poverty and help protect the individual mind and society from themselves. I now have come to see that as the highest use of literature for our way of life" (page 31).

When Bloom writes about "a need to heal violence, whether from without or from within," he appears to be referring to what Jung refers to as brutality. Bloom appears to attribute out human tendency toward brutality to "imaginative poverty." And he suggests that the individual mind can be protected from succumbing to the tendency toward violence and brutality by undertaking the study of profound works of imaginative literature.

Whew! Big claim.

But is Bloom here just formulating his version of "the myth that the humanities humanize" that Vargas Llosa reports has been rejected in contemporary French theory (page 9)?

Bloom's reference to "our way of life" presumably means our American way of life. Vargas Llosa centers his attention on the way of life in a democracy, which he connects with Popper's open society. Vargas Llosa, who has lived in the United Kingdom (and in France and in Bolivia), discusses the British sense of high-brow and low-brow culture. He says, "A poet such as T. S. Eliot [who was an American who relocated to London] and a novelist such as James Joyce [who was Irish] would, in this [British] division, belong to high-brow culture while the short stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway [who was an American] or the poems of Walt Whitman [who was an American] might be considered part of low-brow culture since they are accessible to the ordinary reader" (page 60).

No doubt the British high-brow/low-brow distinction that Vargas Llosa explains here deeply informs the British novelist D. H. Lawrence's book STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE (1923), which Bloom describes as "famously outrageous" (page 37; also see page 168).

No doubt the British high-brow/low-brow distinction as Vargas Llosa explains it prevailed among British literary critics such as F. R. Leavis and Frank Kermode. But because Bloom values Whitman's poetry so highly, he clearly breaks from the British sense of Whitman as representing low-brow culture.

Later Bloom once again invokes "Shelley's notion that the sublime persuades us to abandon easier pleasures for more difficult engagements. In this severe vision, the slavery of pleasure yields to what lies beyond the pleasure principle" (pages 47-48).

Like Bloom, Vargas Llosa also draws on his own personal experience. "[W]hat is important about reading good novels always happens after the event; it is an effect that lights up in one's memory and over time. This fire is still alive within me because, without these books, for better or worse, I would not be who I am. . . . These books changed me, moulded me, made me. And they are still changing and forming me, just as life is changing me" (pages 215-216).

Vargas Llosa also writes of "profound works of imagination" having "powerful vitality" and the "capacity to change the life of the reader" (page 87).

As I say, Vargas Llosa's views about profound literary works of imagination are not incompatible with Bloom's.

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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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