Just Another Day

"Any idiot can handle a crisis, it's day to day living that wears you out." - Chekhov

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A War on Words

I've had the window open for several days but only now got around to reading the piece from Philip Pullman in The Guardian on the sedition called reading. As many of you know, I have a background in literature, prior to my MBA studies. Add to that my intense interest in politics and distaste for the intrusion of religion into politics as anathema to American democracy and you'll understand my interest in writing such as this. Pullman here doesn't limit theocracies to the nominally religious kind but broadens it to include any cultish political system which certainly explains America under Bush.

I start from the position that theocracy is one of the least desirable of all forms of political organisation, and that democracy is a good deal better. But the real division is not between those states that are secular, and therefore democratic, and those that are religious, and therefore totalitarian. I think there is another fault line that is more fundamental and more important than religion. You don't need a belief in God to have a theocracy.


In fact, the Soviet Union was one of the most thoroughgoing theocracies the world has ever seen, and it was atheist to its marrow. In this respect, the most dogmatic materialist is functionally equivalent to the most fanatical believer, Stalin's Russia exactly the same as Khomeini's Iran. It isn't belief in God that causes the problem.


The root of the matter is quite different. It is that theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do.


"Unable to decipher or understand complications or irregularities, angered by what they considered betrayals in their own ranks, the officials were forced to impose their simple formulas on fiction as they did on life. Just as they censored the colours and tones of reality to suit their black-and-white world, they censored any form of interiority in fiction; ironically, for them as for their ideological opponents, works of imagination that did not carry a political message were deemed dangerous. Thus, in a writer such as Austen, for example, whether they knew it or not, they found a natural adversary."


So the trouble with the way theocracies read is that they have a narrow idea of what literature is: they think it only contains one kind of thing, and has only one purpose, which is a narrowly political one.


The second charge against the theocracies is that they only know one mode of reading. Because they think there is only one way that books can work, they have only one way of responding to them, and when they try to apply the one way they know to a text that doesn't respond to that reading, trouble follows. There is a good description of two different modes of reading in Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001). Armstrong is eloquent on the difference between mythos and logos, fundamentally different ways of apprehending the reality of the world. Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.

Both are necessary, both are to be cherished. However, they engage with different aspects of the world, and these days, says Armstrong, they are not equally valued. Her argument is that in modern times, because of the astonishing progress of science and technology, people in the western world "began to think that logos was the only means to truth, and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious". This resulted in the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which, despite its own claims to be a return to the old true ways of understanding the holy book, is not a return of any kind, but something entirely new: "Protestant fundamentalists read the Bible in a literal, rational way that is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of pre-modern spirituality."


My third and final charge against the theocracies, atheist or religious, and their failure to read properly is this: that the act of true reading is in its very essence democratic.

Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book - and I mean, of course, a work of literature, not an instruction manual or a textbook - in private, unsupervised, un-spied-on, alone. It isn't like a lecture: it's like a conversation. There's a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our limitations, too, our own previous experiences of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.

And we are active about the process. We are in charge of the time, for example. We can choose when to read; we don't have to wait for a timetabled opportunity to open the covers; we can read in the middle of the night, or over breakfast, or during a long summer's evening. And we're in charge of the place where the reading happens; we're not anchored to a piece of unwieldy technology, or required to be present in a particular building along with several hundred other people. We can read in bed, or at the bus stop, or (as I used to do when I was younger and more agile) up a tree.

Nor do we have to read it in a way determined by someone else. We can skim, or we can read it slowly; we can read every word, or we can skip long passages; we can read it in the order in which it presents itself, or we can read it in any order we please; we can look at the last page first, or decide to wait for it; we can put the book down and reflect, or we can go to the library and check what it claims to be fact against another authority; we can assent, or we can disagree.

So our relationship with books is a profoundly, intensely, essentially democratic one. It places demands on the reader, because that is the nature of a democracy: citizens have to play their part. If we don't bring our own best qualities to the encounter, we will bring little away. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. It's dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading - and of life itself -increases. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom.
And we become better readers: we learn different ways to read. We learn to distinguish degrees of irony or implication; we pick up references and allusions we might have missed before; we learn to judge the most fruitful way to read this text (as myth, perhaps) or that (as factual record); we become familiar with the strengths and duplicities of metaphor, we know a joke when we see one, we can tell poetry from political history, we can suspend our certainties and learn to tolerate the vertigo of difference.

Of course, democracies don't guarantee that real reading will happen. They just make it possible. Whether it happens or not depends on schools, among other things. And schools are vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, not least that exerted by governments eager to impose "targets", and cut costs, and teach only those things that can be tested. One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.

But that was what the president of the United States, and his advisers, thought was worth offering to children. Young people brought up to think that that sort of thing is a real book, and that that sort of activity is what reading is like, will be in no position to see that, for example, it might be worth questioning the US National Park Service's decision to sell in their bookstores a work called Grand Canyon: A Different View, which claims that the canyon was created, like everything else, in six days. But then it may be that the US is already part way to being a theocracy in the sense I mean, one in which the meaning of reading, and of reality itself, is being redefined. In a recent profile of Bush in the New York Times, Ron Suskind recalls: "In the summer of 2002, a senior adviser to Bush told me that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"

The democracy of reading exists in the to-and-fro between reader and text, when each is free to engage honestly with the other. The democracy of politics needs the same freedom and honesty in the public realm: freedom from lies and distortions about other candidates, honesty about one's own actions and programmes and sources of information. It's difficult. It's strenuous. The sort of effort it takes was never very common, but it seems to be rarer now than it was. It is quite easy for democracies to forget how to read.

I highly recommend reading anything from Karen Armstrong, by the way, if you are interested in religious matters, how they affect us today, and the historical background of that influence. The Suskind article is an eye opener and heart stopper for people who believe in logical thought process and reality.