The point of all this is that the interpretation of literature is, over and over again throughout the history of our race, quite often a matter of life and death. It's not just arguing with a friend over the nature of spirit and soul and mind--some people want to be elected to office to force their interpretations on everyone else. Some people want to blow up buildings and shoot kids at a liberal summer camp. Some people want to fly airplanes into buildings. Some people want to burn others at the stake, or nail them to crosses, or cut out their hearts to feed to a stone god of the sun.
In undergraduate studies, one reads literature and learns to discuss the ideas in terms of the literature itself and scholarly analysis. In graduate studies, one reads more deeply into the analysis along with the literature. My path included an aunt who was hospitalized and given electroshock treatments for religious fanaticism back in the fifties and sixties. Now we know she suffers from bi-polar disorder, but then all we knew was she would go into these rants and walk the streets preaching, scaring little children and making grown men cry.
An odd juxtaposition, this paragraph--literary criticism and a crazy aunt--but they worked together in my life because I had a desire to understand what was going on in her head and why it made my father (and everyone else!) so uncomfortable. And of course our culture surrounds us with religious fanatics--some of whom are murderously dangerous. It came to be that I learned multiple languages and read many theories of interpretation along with the history and the literature, and it was not only in the context of good stories and songs and poems, but of a crazy aunt who cried out to be understood.
I had just entered my PhD studies (already had the Masters and had been teaching for a couple of years) when David Koresh and the Branch Davidian standoff began. I was reading Middle English dream-vision literature (The Pearl, to be precise) when the news came of the fire and the 80 some-odd deaths in Waco. How was it, I wondered, that people could be so convinced by an interpretation of literature that they would either kill children or collude with a "man of God" to do so. It wasn't the first time this had happened. Jonestown had shocked me before. And two years later, we'd all be blaming the Arabs for a radical follower of David Koresh who, in the name of some sort of Christianity, had blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
So my studies have focused on language and communications with the intent of understanding where things go wrong and how to fix them. And after a quarter of a century in this quest, I've reached some conclusions:
- Religion is like a gun--it's mostly useful and helpful, but in the wrong hands it can be deadly. The more we understand about the mechanics and proper use of religion, the safer it is, but it's still a powerful weapon that must be handled carefully.
- Religion is a construct of words--i.e., literature. As such, we read its texts and think about its ideas within the realm of words. But it's a living thing too-- Post-modernism teaches me that it's purely a construct of language, but the newspaper as recently as this week teaches me that many people can die at the hands of someone for whom these words become a compelling reality.
- The point of studying literature and making students think and write about these subjects is not to destroy their faith, but to put them in the tradition of intelligent discourse that stretches back through all of human history. Not everyone participates, and not everyone even needs to, but some small percentage will engage these issues, and maybe they'll be better equipt to solve the thorny problems they'll encounter without resorting to violence.
How do we defuse dangerous beliefs? I'm not sure we really can. After all of these years of studying words and ideas and theories of cognition and theology, I've learned one bottom-line truth that negates everything else: people will hold on to their beliefs no matter what the evidence to the contrary. We see it daily. Information is not enough. Theory is not enough. In the face of really good arguments, people will shut their ears and their minds and refuse to think out of fear. Change is very scary. Admitting one's fundamental premises to be flawed is terrifying. Refusal to engage is a normal mode of coping with ideas that challenge one at the core.
My crazy aunt is still crazy, in spite of 90 years of everyone working to set her straight. I've tried to talk sense to her. So have her daughters, her husbands, her parents, her brothers, the cops who've been called to contain her, countless psychiatrists, preachers, social workers, concerned neighbors, and on and on. She's OK so long as she takes her meds--and we all know when she doesn't.
So literature is interesting and useful--but some things just can't be fixed by words or talk or fine and careful writing. Sometimes there's a daimon on the loose.