Thursday, August 26, 2010


If you are an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-mosque-at-ground-zero type, you will love this 2007 autobiography by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If you are a liberal, progressive believer in cultural diversity, religious freedom, and inclusion, as I am, you may find yourself sorely challenged.

Presented as a personal narrative, Infidel tells the story of Ali’s Muslim upbringing in Africa and Saudi Arabia, including her genital “excision” as a child; her abuse from both mother and grandmother; her subordination as a woman; her treatment as a sexual object on her wedding night; her escape from an attempted forced marriage (after her previous one was ruled invalid); her education and liberation in Western Europe; her co-creation of the film Submission, protesting the treatment of women under Islam; her escape from death threats, and her continued life under armed protection from those threats.

The title of the book focuses on Ali's identity as a Muslim who has renounced Islam as both a religion and a culture. In much of the narrative, however, she portrays herself as a victim of Islam who vacillates between submission and resistance before “converting” to a Western cultural identity, embracing political and religious freedom, women’s equality, and secular education.

As a convert to Western culture, Ali claims that, based on her experience of both, Western culture is superior to Islamic culture. She then goes on to directly challenge Western cultural relativism and tolerance of practices such as female genital “excisions,” forced marriages, and honor killings based on respect for cultural difference.

Is Ali’s experience under Islam typical or does she generalize her narrow experience to all Muslims? Why does she paint Islam in such extreme terms as a violent and backward religion, despite exceptions documented in her own narrative? Why does she discount the presence and power of moderate Muslims? Is she exacting vengeance for her own ill treatment by her family or has her experience in the West liberated her from the mental shackles of her upbringing? Are Islamic and Western cultures merely different but equal, or is one superior to the other, as some adherents of each would claim? Is there middle ground between absolute claims of cultural superiority and relativistic claims that there are no moral values that transcend religion and culture?

Regardless of how one answers these questions, Infidel will lend credibility to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-mosque-at-ground-zero sentiments and sorely challenge liberal, relativistic, culturally inclusive world views.

In terms of literary value Infidel is not one of those non-fiction prose works written in a literary or poetic style. Generally servicable and rhetorically effective, the writing seems less literary than one might expect from a personal narrative, with all the expressive opportunities that that form allows. While well-written, the book seems more focused on information and persuasion than on expression or imaginative literary display.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

*Tortilla Flat* and the Ambiguity of Literature

What distinguishes “literature” from “ordinary” language? It’s not just a matter of fiction vs. non-fiction or poetry vs. prose. Fiction can be based on fact and non-fiction can be written in a “literary” style; prose can be poetic and poetry can be prosaic.

Literary language is heightened language, elevated, more figurative, connotative, and ambiguous. Even literature that uses colloquial language does so in a way that sets it apart from everyday speech. Similarly, a literary narrative, whether fantastic or realistic, is larger than life, more selective, more concentrated, and/or more grandiose. Even “realistic” fiction requires certain elements of romance in order to give it compelling interest. And literary non-fiction uses language that is more expressive than factual.

Another characteristic of literature that distinguishes it from ordinary language is ambiguity. Non-literary prose is more denotative, transparent, and communicative of a clear message, whereas literature is more opaque, more figurative, and more open to multiple meanings.

Sometimes those multiple meanings seem to completely contradict each other. A Deconstructionist would say that all texts inevitably, irresolvably contradict themselves, but literary texts (ironically) are more obviously ambiguous, whereas non-literary language appears at least to be more definitive.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck is a work of fiction that presents a group of California “paisanos” in a humorously sympathetic light and simultaneously mocks them by comparing these unlikely heroes to King Arthur’s knights and by satirizing their elaborate rationalizations for sloth, drunkenness, lust, deception, and violence, to name a few of their typical behaviors.

When Danny returns from World War I to discover he has inherited some property, he attracts a number of hangers-on who create a community of irresponsible, pleasure-seeking, though largely harmless, wastrels. Danny’s property, like Arthur’s Round Table, becomes the center of this all-male community for whom women are either sexual objects or damsels in distress.

Ironically the burden of being a property owner leads Danny to depression and possibly suicide. With Danny’s death comes the end of the community and the camaraderie, as the paisanos disperse and “no two walked together.” Property is thus the basis for both the beginning and the end of their temporary social utopia. The fleeting enjoyment of freedom, community, and pleasure is followed by inevitable decline and fall.

Is the novel a socially conscious celebration of the paisano underclass or is it a satire on their wasted lives and their ambivalent relationship to property? Does Danny’s apotheosis as a mythic hero in the local imagination represent a redemptive conclusion or is it a satire on the human ability to create a grandiose fantasy out of a mundane and paltry reality?

Can the novel be read as a modern retelling of ancient myth, with its cycle of creation, fertility, quest and triumph, followed by decline, death, and rebirth, or is it a kind of mock epic that makes the paisanos look ridiculous by comparison to the mythic heroes?

The issue of whether such questions represent the irresolvable contradiction of textuality, as the Deconstructionists would have it, or the complexities of human experience captured in literary form is yet another ambiguity at the heart of literary study.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Power of Poetry

In addition to the power of poetry to create pleasure and appreciation (see previous posts), there is the power of poetry to motivate and inspire, to change consciousness, shape attitudes and even influence behavior.

Each of the haiku quoted in the June 13 post focuses the mind on an image and a vicarious experience which has the power to heighten our sensitivity to the world around us. Poetry can enhance our consciousness of what we observe on a daily basis.

Similarly the poem “Design” by Robert Frost (June 29) may make it impossible for us to look at a white flower, a spider or a moth in quite the same way again. Even more, though, Frost’s poem disrupts the popular view of nature’s innocence and challenges us to confront the predatory behavior at the heart of surviving and thriving in nature. Pretty sentiments about nature’s beauty are dramatically exposed as na├»ve and superficial. The darker truth that life feeds on life is conveyed with chilling effect. A sentimentalist about nature would be seriously challenged.

“The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window" (July10), depending on how it’s read and by whom, can equally challenge the conservative who opposes government programs to help the poor and protect the environment and the liberal who supports them. Likewise, it can challenge the believer in a random universe, the believer in a universe governed by a grand plan, or the proponent of human free agency.

One of my graduate school professors used to love to quote the following lines from W.H. Auden as an example of unmatched beauty in poetic expression:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

The rhythm and sound effects, the elevated language, and the timeless images of human limitation and transcendence powerfully and poignantly convey the universal human dilemma of aspiration in perpetual tension with mortality.

As we appreciate the power of the poetic composition, as we are moved to identify and sympathize with this lofty expression of our shared human condition, however, all we need ask about to bring us into a change of consciousness is the sexuality of the lovers. Most readers will assume it is a heterosexual love poem, but Auden was a gay man, and in 1937 when the poem was written a homosexual relationship was predominantly associated with sexual deviance and perversion, not to be in any way confused with the emotional grandeur or the noble tragedy of romantic love.

Yet, out of his experience as a lover of men, Auden can write a poem that captures the universal human experience of love that is both transcendent and earth-bound.

Though Auden wrote in a time when his sexual orientation had to be disguised and hidden, his poem serves to raise the experience of same sex love to that of the legendary romantic love stories to be found in heterosexual literature. Such an effect might be powerful enough to move even a homophobic religious right conservative. Or else, such an effect might require an equally powerful resistance from such a reader.

Even if the reader does not know Auden’s sexuality and reads it as a heterosexual love poem, the words complicate idealized notions of romantic love, fidelity, “til death do us part,” and unspotted beauty. At the same time that it undercuts transcendent love, it celebrates love that transcends human imperfection.

Such complexity captured in such concentrated poetic form has the power to challenge both the gay rights advocate and heterosexual marriage proponent alike.

Thus ends this series on the uses, the pleasure, and the power of poetry.