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American literature conflict creativity English literature French literature friendship generosity retirement social media wisdom

how not to despair, or dialog with a tech guy

An exchange of letters between a CIO of a large agency and a lit professor, both recently retired, who are wondering what the world is becoming as their two worlds collide with consequences no one can predict.

1/23/2023

Dear Julia,

I am reaching out to see if you might be willing to continue our brief conversation since some of what we discussed touched on a problem I have been trying to work through.

While serving as the information officer for an agency with about 1,500 employees, it was necessary to struggle with the introduction and then overwhelming increase in digital information assets.

I am using some of the time available with retirement to question the general presumption that information technology specialists are the sole authority for solving the mysteries of how best to adjust our information ecology – which was developed during what might be characterized as the age of written memory.

I have looked for clues in the transitions from mimetic communication to spoken language, and also from spoken to written language. Given the critical role of literature in all of them, it strikes me that specialists in literature (is the proper term philology?) need to be included in the conversation.

Would you have any interest in chatting with me about this?

Dan

1/24/2023

Dear Dan,

Your email has stayed with me all night and generated the following thoughts which I am putting into writing so I can get on with my day!  It is a fascinating inquiry and a question for which I have no big answer, only an extremely modest proposal for local action.  Ideally, a local kind of action which would allow people like your former colleagues to interact with people like my former colleagues and students, and children everywhere, eventually!

Meetings—better yet, true communion enacted over time through lasting, deep friendships created during these meetings–between people engrossed in creating new technologies and people involved in sustaining the written word, or the spoken/written/taught universe of literature and language, seems increasingly crucial for the wellbeing of our planet.

The two books that have been swirling around in my mind are Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (aka “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”), especially the chapter entitled “Ceci tuera cela” (This Will Kill That, in other words, the printed word—unleashed by the printing press which was newly invented in the fifteenth century, the world depicted in his novel[1]–would kill the stained glass windows of Catholic cathedrals and their  monopoly on public story-telling and provision of visible narratives that give meaning to human life).

Here are my morning thoughts:

Now that humankind has (or is in the process of) switched from reading paper to interacting with screens, what is lost?  How to retain our humanity in this new environment? Of course, the issue is not identical to the one raised by Hugo in his 1831 book.  Stained glass windows only represented the Christian perspective, one set of stories, and you could only see them in a church. The printing press unleashed all kinds of perspectives and a potentially infinite range of stories.

But the new printed world excluded the illiterate or made their lives worse, by magnifying the divide between written and oral information systems. At the same time, moveable print made possible the deep learning and idea generating that led to the enormous “progress” in technology, medicine, and the democratization of knowledge which describes the past few centuries since the Renaissance.

In one way, digital technologies return us to a preliterate age, via the growing use of images—emojis, symbols, cartoon faces—instead of words, and the appeal of photographs. Yet forgeries are harder to spot. Photos may be prettified or altered from the real sources. Computers can now generate texts that seem to born from a human imagination. Now it is not only one church whose influence is fading; we may be witnessing the rise of a new superpower that humans no longer control: computers. Especially since computer science is dominated (or seems to be) by a certain kind of people: the new priests of the 21st century, who dictate the inner workings of those vast circuits, and seem to ignore what the consequences may be. Well, we are all ignorant of that.

But so far, the signs are worrisome. Shorter attention spans. Increased forgetfulness. Indifference to other peoples’ feelings, or unawareness that they even exist. Atomization, loneliness, despair.   

And at the same time, vast potential. Instant data retrieval, communication in real time with people far, far away. Alas, much of that communication is “spied on” (or could be) by humans with algorithms, so that predators can maximize details of their interest by selling analytics to advertisers, or compiling data banks to exploit for selling or influencing people. Still no one is “in charge.”

And we can all feel the burned-out sensation of too much screen exposure. Is it analogous to similar concerns over too much reading, from earlier times? Think of The Female Quixote[2] or Don Quixote himself: those novels were meant to depict a danger arising from too much of one kind of reading (novels). Too much imagination can lead one to hold unreal views and harbor expectations ungrounded in reality: disappointment, social ridicule, ostracism may ensue. Love remains out of sight, sadness and loneliness may befall the uncritical novel reader.

Too much screen time, esp. with violent video games, may do a similar trick on the mind but with a difference: instead of seeking and not finding love, one may seek to annihilate people perceived as “enemies” to the self. Even without such violent exposure, one attuned to screens may reduce people to targets or transactions, so that the self continues to feel strong and powerful, as it does on screen.

Spatial relations fade when the experience of walking, doing sports, or navigating a new place with a map are no longer common. Our world becomes an image on a screen with a dot for “you are here” which may be magnetized 1,000% or minimized into insignificance, instantly, with a flick of the thumb.

Communion through idea sharing, mutual experiences, sharing reactions to powerful writing, music, or art—therein lies our humanity, our greatness and our joy. What is the point of thinking, if all your thoughts are private property to be shared inside your head alone? Or posted online and forgotten seconds later by you and never read by anybody during your life?

Writing is still the most profound way to communicate and focused reading remains the best mode of activating thought.

Events that are local, in real time, with small groups of highly literate people (or children/teens/adults who are open to becoming such): that is the kind of event that I have discovered as a college teacher and which I now seek to propagate around me in West Seattle. That kind of event works, is remembered, and is cherished by humans. It is in a way a medieval model, except with no Church to coerce us or for us to serve. It is not “scalable” except in multiplying the model in locales worldwide.

Then what?

Therein lies the mystery.

Does it matter?

But I will seek ways to help create communion as long as I am here. Give hope, encourage, commiserate.

Thanks for asking!

Julia

p.s. Below I’ve pasted a flyer for one of my latest efforts. Pass the word to any kids you know!

“Write YOUR Story” now enrolling for Spring 2023!

Free Writing Workshop for people ages 8-12

Meets on Thursdays, February 2 – May 4, 2023*

4:30pm to 5:30pm,

High Point Community Center: 6920 34th Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98126

Taught by two West Seattle writer/professors                               

TO ENROLL:  Contact the High Point Comm. Center (206) 684-7422

Website:  http://jdouthwa.wixsite.com/writeyourstory1                

*(no class on 4/13 and 4/20)


[1] In Germany, around 1440, goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, which started the Printing Revolution.  Wikipedia.

[2] The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella is a novel written by Charlotte Lennox, pub. 1752, imitating and parodying the ideas of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615).

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English literature memory retirement wisdom

Trivia quiz for Iris Murdoch, “The Sea, The Sea”

                         Trivia Quiz for The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)

For West Seattle “Classic Novels (and Movies)” book club, 10/30/22

With answers below

1. Why leave? Why go there? Many reasons lie behind the choice to leave London for a retreat, at the book’s beginning. Which one of the following is not cited by narrator Charles Arrowby?

a. “To repent a life of egoism”                      

b. “It is time to think about myself at last”

c. “It affords me a curious pleasure to … watch the violent forces which the churning waves, advancing or retreating, generate inside the confined space of the rocky hole.”

d. “I looked with timorous joy towards a stately house; I saw a blackened ruin.”

e. “(There is only one bed; I am not expecting visitors!)”

2. The Sea: a landscape of the mind. Charles reveals his changing feelings by reflecting on the sea. Which one of the following is not from Murdoch’s novel?

a. “Although the sea was fairly calm I had the same irritating difficulty getting out of it…. Swallowed a lot of water and cut my foot.”

b. “What is pertinent is the calmness… its sense of restraint.”

c. “The early dawn light hung over the rocks .. with an awful intent gripping silence, as if it had seized these faintly visible shapes and were very slowly drawing them out of a darkness in which they wanted to remain.”

d. “The sea was joyful and the taste of salt water was the taste of hope and joy. … Meeting my sea-dervish companion I shouted, ‘Now aren’t you glad you came to me?’”

3-6. Uneasy truths. The Sea, The Sea includes numerous lessons on life: some are of dubious value, others are heard then forgotten. Match the saying to the source. Characters include: a. Charles ; b. James; c. Rosina  d. local folks at the Black Lion inn

3. “A man would drown there in a second.”

4. “Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

5. “It’s so easy to frighten people.”

6. “People lie so, even we old men do. Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.”

7. Marriage and desire: painful illusions. Which of the following quips is not from The Sea, The Sea?

a. “Our marriages have become a mere farce.”

b. “One of the horrors of marriage is that the partners are supposed to tell each other everything.”

c. “A marriage is so hideously private. Whoever illicitly draws back that curtain may well be stricken … by an avenging deity.”

d. “A long marriage is very unifying, even if it’s not ideal, and those old structures must be respected.”

8. The wisdom and mystery of James. As Charles mulls over his past, the reader gleans curious insights into his relationship with his cousin James. Which one of the following does not apply to James?

a. After Charles plunges into the sea, James rescues him in a miraculous way.

b. His London home is full of gold Buddhas, fetishes, and other oddities from the Orient

c. He was a Nazi sympathizer whose secrets, when revealed, caused a public disgrace.                       

d. As a boy, he was fond of custard cream biscuits, and he offers some to Charles during a visit.

e. He warns Charles to avoid myth-making, and to stay away from Hartley.

f. When reminiscing with Charles, James says, “What larks we had.”

g. At the end, Charles inherits James’s London house and moves there.

9. Titus: a Long-lost family member? Or a weird coincidence? Which one of the following phrases is not spoken by Titus Fitch to the narrator Charles?

a. “Are you my father?”

b “I want to go home.”

c. “Oh, the sea, the sea—it’s so wonderful. … A swim? Oh—yes.

d. “I’m against forcing people, I think they should be free.”

e. “We’ll get to know each other one day. There’s time.”

10. Happy ending? A chance encounter with some animals seems to put a happy ending on Charles’s retreat. What animals show up?

a. dolphins

b. sea turtles

c.  seals

d. rabbits

11. Yet one foe may persist: the mind. Which of the following is not a description of Charles’s thoughts toward the end of the book?

a. “My thoughts still had to be kept on a leash, and there were long dark passages down which they were straining to run.”

b. “My responsibility for Titus’s death, which now so largely occupied my mind, amounted to this: I had never warned him about the sea.”

c. “But suppose nothing happened .. and nothing happened…?”

d. “Time, like the sea, unties all knots.”

e. “Last night someone on a BBC quiz show did not know who I was.”

f.  “I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express.”

ANSWERS

1. d. (That quote is from Jane Eyre.)

2. b. (That quote is from The Remains of the Day.)

3. d.

4. a.

5. c.

6. b.

7. a.  (That quote is from Père Goriot.)

8. c. (That reference applies to the employer of Stevens, in The Remains of the Day.)

9. b.

10. c.

11. f. (That is the ending of Jane Eyre.)

******

COME BACK NEXT MONTH, for our quiz on Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening (winner of the International Man Booker Prize, 2020).

Categories
death dogs English literature loss retirement wisdom

can one be sad “better”?

Hi, Feeling a bit sad this morning, about the inevitability of decline. Three reasons why : 1)First there are the enormous vet bills that have been pouring in for our beloved Honey Girl who, at 13, is a less mobile, less aware dog whose ahem, unhygienic habits are starting to make my life exhausting as well as breaking the bank. 2) Then there’s husband about to turn 70. 3) Finally, there is all that mail I suddenly started receiving about Medicare. Wow, we must all three of us be getting old!

So this morning I turned to audiobooks for help, and I’m now listening to Helen Russell, How to Be Sad. It’s pretty good. (Despite the annoying subtitle: Everything I’ve Learned About Getting Happier by Being Sad, Better. Why can’t they just let the sadness be?)

I’m still sad.

Sad is ok, just kind of quiet…

Hope you are ok too.

Categories
Honey Girl Books and Gifts humor meditation retirement wisdom work

a zinger about ambition, from Seneca (ca. 4 BC-AD 65)

Reading Seneca this morning, I had the feeling of being with a shrewd friend who was laughing at me! And I had to laugh along, because there was a lot of truth in what he said.

“We commonly give the impression that the reasons for our having gone into political retirement are our disgust with public life and our dissatisfaction with some uncongenial and unrewarding post. Yet every now and then ambition rears its head again in the retreat into which we were really driven by our apprehensions and our waning interest; for our ambition did not cease because it had been rooted out, but merely because it had tired–or become piqued, perhaps, at its lack of success.” Letter LVI, p. 111-112, in Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, ed. Robin Campbell (Penguin ed., 1969.

HA! just see all those books on my bibliography about Buddhism, alternative economies, compassion, and “letting go” etc., as contrasted with the exuberant posting when I made a sale on Etsy! We are all the same.