Category Archives: Human Nature

Sailing in the Archipelago of Knowledge: Wonder, Certainty, and Skepticism

Each year on Academic Awards night I give a brief talk to the assembled students and parents–this year I spoke on the quality of wonder.

Academic Awards Night 2013

I’d like to speak tonight—a night on which we celebrate all kinds of measurable excellence—in praise of the quality of wonder, for which, ironically, there is no measuring rubric. “Wonder,” writes my friend Tom Hibbs, Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, “is a counter to two of the chief vices of our time: inordinate certitude, the confidence that we know everything there is to know, and [radical] skepticism, a surrender of the human spirit that despairs of the very quest for truth.”

So, how does cultivating an attitude of wonder inoculate us against the twin evils of absolute certitude and absolute relativism? It does so because it draws us away from what we are positive about and it gives us hope about what is to come. Wonder means that you are not likely to think of education or intelligence as an accumulation of facts or a set of answers that you can apply anywhere. Wonder pushes you to go outside of your usual limits. And wonder nourishes a passion for meaning; it asks us to connect the things we know to the things we don’t know—and to understand those connections.

Think of the acquiring of knowledge (and eventually wisdom) as sailing in an archipelago—or a series of islands. Each time we get to an island, we own a bit of knowledge, but we get restless, we “wonder” what is out there—and in an act of surpassing bravery we set sail again for the next island—not sure if we will get there or when—but believing that we will. One is never certain where one will end up next and that is where the courage comes in. Can we risk giving up our inherited and adopted opinions? Can we challenge our own ideas? Wonder makes that possible. So we travel and arrive at our new outpost and reflect on how we got here—but soon, for it is in our temperament, we will have to forge on. We check our ship—make sure our ideas are sound, our minds and sails open, and our senses aware. We’ll wonder what’s next and what it will take to get to our next port of call, whether we’ll follow where others have been—though for us it will be brand new and so still a great thing—or whether we’ll go, like members of the Enterprise, where no one has gone before. Can we wonder like Newton, like Clerk Maxwell, like Einstein, like Heisenberg, like Higgs? Each refused the certainty of his own time and each refused to yield to radical skepticism. Can we wonder like Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant; can we wonder with them? Can we wonder with Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Ellison? Can we wonder with Capra, Ford, Eastwood, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Nolan, and Pixar? Can we wonder with King and Chavez, with Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, with the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis? Nothing can stop us wondering except ourselves.

An unreasonable certainty is one of our great enemies. We might be tempted to settle down on our current “island of knowledge” and never go out again—we would shut off our capacity for wonder. We could believe as the early map makers did that when we can no longer see the next land that “here there be dragons”—that is the curse of certainty without wonder. Our other enemy, radical skepticism would have us recognize no lands, no safe harbors, no places to mark or guide ourselves—just endless wandering under a starless, sunless sky—movement without purpose.

Wonder is small-d democratic. It requires no natural ability and anyone can cultivate it. It is free to all in whatever portion, generous or meager, you wish to take—and it is inexhaustible—it cannot be used up.

There is one thing that wonder cannot do—it cannot make you immune to failure, which is why the corollary to wonder is courage. If you wonder, then you will make mistakes–you’ll sail in circles sometimes; your destination will not be obvious, you may land on several islands that DO NOT have water, wood, food or whatever you need before you find the next right one. Certainty and radical skepticism won’t make you immune to failure either but they promise that they will and because of that lie they require no courage, no risk, no vulnerability. Certainty gives you the illusion of immunity to failure because you risk nothing. Bunkered down in your own ideas, talking only to yourself, listening to those with whom you already agree—ah, there is safety in that. Radical skepticism will also give you the illusion of immunity to failure for the same reason—you acknowledge no authority, you question every motive, you doubt every idea or action (except your own)—you stand always on the outside—you never risk anything.

The reason that certainty and radical skepticism lead to the same place is because no motion—a perfect stasis—is the equivalent of all motion with no direction—a perfect kinesis. In the lexicon of physics, life does not exist at zero degrees Kelvin—perfect stasis—any more than it exists in absolute entropy.

One of my heroes, Carl Jung, said “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” All of us here, of whatever age or gender, no matter where we are seated, play both roles—teacher and pupil—over and over in our lives. Let’s vow to use the currency, the coin, of wonder to repay the teachers in our lives. If we do so—they, and we—will be paid in full.

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Back to my roots: Pulp Teaching and the defense of the middle brow

I am “PulpTeacher”–celebrator of the middle brow, defender of abused genres, scourge of those who venerate and genuflect before “the classics” and who forget Horace’s dictum that art “should delight and instruct.” I can hear the calls from ivory towers everywhere that I should have my poetic license revoked, that I should go back to telling students that they should bow down before the canon, that they should just take my word for it that Shakespeare and Milton, James and Twain, are beyond any questioning of their greatness. (And I do love Shakespeare and Milton–not so much on James and Twain–but I also love James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, and Michael Connelly, Christopher Nolan and Stephen Spielberg, Michael Crichton and Ted Chiang and scores of other allegedly second, third, and fourth-shelf artists).

There is a continuum in art (literature and film included) that should have us take a look at something as otherwise pedestrian as the writing of Jack DuBrul. I have read three of DuBrul’s novels: Havoc, Pandora’s Curse, and Deep Fire Rising. His recurring hero is Philip Mercer, a great geologist. DuBrul is a serious if limited craftsperson and you can learn lots about mining, exploring, geology, and related subjects in reading the novels. DuBrul intends to delight and instruct and for the most part he succeeds. His novels are what we might call “reality-fantasies” like much popular, escapist entertainment. Mercer’s skills are extraordinary and he is actually a throw-back in some ways as he is remarkably noble and gracious with no shadow side that drives him. The plot of each novel can be rendered thusly: Mercer gets called into some geologically-related activity; there is much more to this than meets the eye; there is a beautiful woman who will share the adventure with Mercer; shootouts, violence, hairbreadth escapes will occur; usually there is a particularly physically menacing henchman that Mercer will deal with; and Mercer’s sidekicks will remain stable.

I quote a page-long passage from Havoc below as Mercer’s octogenarian, chain-smoking sidekick and friend, Harry, talks with Mercer about his loss of a woman he actually LOVED. This presents DuBrul with a problem–the woman cannot live because then Mercer would marry and would no longer be “Mercer” (lots of Romantic Hero things to consider here from Robin Hood and Don Quixote to Shane and Josey Wales to Han Solo and James Bond). So DuBrul kills off the lovely Tisa in a previous novel–but this presents another problem–how should Mercer, a man not really given to reflection, respond to this tragedy? The following passage with my intermittent commentary in bold:

“Harry noted the tension creeping into Mercer’s neck and saw the shadow lingering in his storm gray eyes when he turned from the map. ‘You were attracted to her.’ [Yikes! “storm gray eyes,” wow is this clunky]
‘She was attractive,’ Mercer admitted.
‘Quit dodging. That’s not what I asked.’
No matter how much Mercer wanted to avoid the issue, he knew his friend wouldn’t let him. ‘Yes, I was attracted to her.’
‘She’s the first since Tisa and now you feel guilty about it.’
‘Yeah.’
‘Six months is an eternity and it’s the blink of an eye. I can’t tell you how to feel about this but I will tell you that being attracted to another woman is not a bad thing. You do realize that since Tisa died you’ve held yourself to a standard most married men can’t touch. Guys find women attractive every damned day and you can bet that not one of them feels the least bit guilty. But you, you see it as an act of deepest betrayal. This isn’t mourning, Mercer, it’s self-inflicted punishment.
‘What if I can’t help it?’
‘You’ve always found a way in the past.’
‘What do you mean?’
Harry lit another cigarette, gathering his thoughts. ‘You beat yourself up every time something in your life goes wrong. You blame yourself whether it’s your fault or not. Most people don’t take responsibility when they screw up but you do even if you don’t. [This point about Mercer’s feeling of responsibility for everything is made over and over again] This isn’t a character flaw, or maybe it is but not a bad one to have, except each time it costs you a little more to find your center again and come to grips with whatever just happened. It’s been six months since you lost Tisa and you’re no closer to putting her death behind you.’
Mercer’s anger flared. ‘I won’t put her behind me.’
‘Not her, you dope, her death. You haven’t put her death behind you. There’s a distinction and maybe that’s where you’re stuck.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I bet you relive her death every day but don’t relive her life.’ Mercer didn’t deny it so Harry continued. ‘You turned her into the symbol of some perceived failure, a memory where you can unload all the guilt you carry around. You don’t celebrate the short time you were with her and that’s not very fair. To her I mean.’
Mercer was rocked by what Harry had said. In a rush he realized it was all true. Tisa’s memory had become a wound he would reopen just so he could revel in the guilt he was certain he deserved. This wasn’t mourning. It was self-flagellation and was actually a little sick. He’d made her death about him and in doing so reduced her life to something he could blame himself for.” [That last line makes this passage worth reading–it reflects a human truth that many of us, scratch that, ALL of us do sometimes–we make “it” about ourselves and thereby reduce someone else’s life to a prop in our lives]

Big deal, I can almost hear, so the blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while. True–and the blind squirrel gives hope (like the stopped clock) to all of us who stumble along without genius to accompany us.

Next week on the quality of “wonder.”

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Utopia–you won’t find it here! But you’ll find several Lesson Plans

“That’s not fair!”  What teacher or parent hasn’t heard that statement from a teenager?  That question–in no matter what tone it is uttered or screamed or no matter how misguided we might think it is–reflects nascent stirrings about justice.  And good teachers will use that question to draw students into dialogue with texts and each other on the central topics of utopian writing: human nature, justice, iconoclasm, satire, authority and governance, and work and play. (Warning–this entry is teacher-nerdy and longer than usual–by about 50%)

I’m going to present several ideas about the place that utopias might have in a curriculum and suggest some texts that might illustrate particular ideas about utopias and that might help us sharpen our definition skills. The irony that I spent my graduate school academic career studying utopias and that I now run a school has not escaped me; I’m sure that it has not escaped my faculty or students either.

 Utopias have several virtues that recommend their teaching.  Here are three:

1)       One is that they break down the boundaries of academic disciplines.  Northrop Frye wrote of Utopias as a place where “specialized disciplines can meet and interpenetrate with a mutual respect.”  I love the notion of interdisciplinary work (see the blog post on the virtues of a liberal arts education for an elaborate treatment of that topic). I know that I studied theology, philosophy, history, sociology, political science, psychology, literature and ecology while I was working on my dissertation.  So the study of utopias forces students to make connections across boundaries and that is a real gift in education. 

2)      A second important reason to teach utopias is that they force us to confront some of the really big questions in life in a direct way.  How should we live our lives?  What is the goal of society?  What is the telos or end at which social life aims?  How do we govern ourselves?  How should we govern ourselves? Where does authority come from?  Is authority related to force? to power? Why is education important?  What is human nature? Where else will students confront questions so nakedly if not in our classes?

3)       Utopias are essentially works in the history of ideas and their appearance in so many forms allows us to introduce lots of ideas and genre conventions.  Consider that a partial list of the forms in which utopia appears would include: philosophical dialogues (Plato and Thomas More); travelogues of More, Swift, Wells, and Gilman; the diaries of Zamyatin, London, and Atwood; the dream visions of Morris and Piercy; the beast fables of Swift, Wells, and Orwell; the theological tracts of St. Augustine and Campanella; the psychological plan of Skinner; the social plan of Bellamy; the plays of Čapek; the films of Fritz Lang, Ridley Scott, Stephen Speilberg and numberless others as well as whole realms of speculative fiction. I might also mention that while most genres are distinguished by their form (lyric poetry, drama, non-fiction, the novel, the short story), Utopias are distinguished by their content.

The fact that many of these writers had limited success at the literary forms they chose may actually be a point in their favor—student accessibility is sometimes easier when teaching the apparently obvious. The painfully obvious names in Erewhon might be one reason for high-brow critics to dismiss such a text.  To a student who is just learning to really read (to interpret and not just sound out groupings of letters), the idea that “Erewhon” can be rearranged to “nowhere” is an important insight. I think I have mentioned before that when Hawthorne’s eponymous Young Goodman Brown leaves behind his wife, “Faith,” my sophomores do not immediately find this over-the-top pointing by the author.  They are often genuinely fascinated to think that “the author thought that up.”

Thomas More in 1516 gave us u-topos, and its homonym, eu-topos so that to the auditor one was essentially hearing the “no place” or “the good place”–or more likely given More’s playfulness, “The good place that is no place.” Dystopia follows by the same construction–the bad place (dys + topos).  In class I use “utopia” for the whole group, “eutopia” for attempts to depict “the good place” and “dystopia” for depictions of “the bad place.” (For a painfully overwrought and academic discussion on why I use “dystopia” as opposed to “anti-utopia” you’ll have to search out my dissertation–the barely readable Maps of Mythreading: Utopias as Revolutionary Mythologies.) 

I like beginning our work on utopias by asking students about the process of definitions (this is actually a lot more fun than it sounds and next week I’ll share a terrific “definitional exercise”). Prescriptive definitions are those that tell us (or prescribe) what defines something and descriptive definitions are those that describe the way things are used.  Most dictionaries walk a line between these two approaches to defining meaning but there are GRAMMAR MAVENS and other extremists who believe with jihadist fervor in PRESCRIPTIVE DEFINITIONS and there are those whose lack of precision is so extreme that getting to any meaning is difficult.  We’ll use the word “utopia” to refer to texts that posit an alternative fictional world conforming in some way to the 7 elements below; the sub-genres “eutopia,” and “dystopia” we’ll use to refer to those texts where we understand that the author intends to show the society as attractive or horrific. 

Judging authorial intent is really difficult—even some authors (Wells, Swift) are ambivalent about their worlds.

We are going to lean more towards a descriptive definition of utopia includes the following 7 elements (though this is NOT a math exercise where we say that “if we achieve 4 of the 7 elements we have a UTOPIA” etc.):

1)     Utopias practice dislocation in time or place.

This requires almost no commentary.  Utopias are about the “not now” and/or “not here.”  This is one way that utopias are related to SF (both science fiction and speculative fiction). Plato constructs the Republic (or has Socrates construct it) as a thought experiment; Thomas More has Hythlodae travel to foreign lands (on earth); Wells takes people to the moon.  But there are utopias of the underworld, the future, and the past. Utopias are also related to fairy tales and to religion and mythology–the Garden of Eden or the Golden Age are important as are concepts of Heaven and Hell and Elysian fields.

2)     Utopias demonstrate explicit concerns about justice, governance, authority, and politics.

Even more than literary-political novels, utopias are texts of ideas about these topics.  They are close to satire and social criticism and often go back and forth between the two. I often think that Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo may be the finest literary-political novel ever written or that Graham Greene has written some terrific literary-political novels; but I think of Orwell’s 1984  or Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale as political-literary novels. That’s one reason why Conrad and Greene are rarely thought of as utopists but Orwell and Atwood are.

3) Utopias make directive assumptions about human nature.

A)     Hobbes (evil), Locke (tabula rasa), Rousseau (good) are one way of thinking about this.  As I wrote about human nature and these guys just a couple of weeks ago I’ll give just a brief version and two other ways of approaching this quality of utopias.  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, life is “nasty, brutish and short,” humans are essentially evil, despotism (1984).  John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1692 tabula rasa, democracy (maybe LeGuin’s Anarres from The Dispossessed?) Jean Jacques Rousseau Emile, Social Contract 1762, humans are basically good, romantic, anarchy (William Morris, News from Nowhere)

B)    The Pelagians and the Augustinians. I usually go with this one–Pelagius (360-420) and St. Augustine (354-430) were contemporaries and seem to have known each other.  Pelagius argued that humans have free will and divine grace merely helps a Christian accomplish what is in his power without it.  Pelagius argues that “ability limits obligation”—there can be no sin without free will. So, no original sin since we weren’t free to prevent it.  He “lost” to St. Augustine and Pelagianism was declared a heresy in 416.  Pelagianism made a comeback in the 14th and 15th century (Thomas More and some Protestant reformers were accused of Pelagianism).  Are all utopists either Pelagians or Augustinians? I’d say so.

BONUS ASSIGNMENT For American lit teachers, use:

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1757) (he believes that humans are basically evil–Hobbes)

Ben Franklin, “Speech at Constitutional Convention” (1789) profound ambivalence regarding future success of government.  In fact, he says that we’ll be able to have a successful government as long as we can educate people but that eventually we will lose our way and despotism will return (tabula rasa— or blank slate–Locke).

Thomas Jefferson, Letters to James Madison and Edward Carrington that indicate humans are by nature good and governments are corrupt! (he admires the “anarchy” of the Indians).  (humans are basically good–Rousseau)

These three thinkers, all working within 30 years of each other and at the founding of the United States, are working with one of the central elements of utopian thinking–a directive assumption about human nature.  It works great; I’ve done it many times. 

4)     Utopias conflate work and play.  Eutopias collapse work into play (Thomas More, William Morris, Rabelais, LeGuin); dystopias conflate play into work (George Orwell, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Margaret Atwood).  Related to this conflation of work and play is the conflation of public life (work and polis) and private life (play and oikos). 

Work is often seen as a public enterprise or obligation and play as a private form of entertainment.  In eutopias, work often becomes play.  In More’s Utopia, all games are designed to teach virtue, in William Morris’ News from Nowhere, there is no “work” only play.  For Ursula LeGuin in The Dispossessed the word for work is the same word for play in the society of Anarres (they use the word kleggich for drudgery.  In Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, the word robot comes from the Czech word for drudgery.  

In dystopias by Yevgeny Zamyatin (We) and George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) there is no play–there is only work. So attitudes towards work and play are revealing as an element of utopian writing and thinking.

I might mention that in Greek society the polis was the domain of men and is the public sphere; the oikos or hearth (a private area) is the domain of women.  So another way of thinking about utopian projects is the expansion of the public into the private world (the telescreen of Orwell or the glass buildings of Zamyatin’s One State–there is NO PRIVACY). One might point out that we have this debate in the forms of GPS on our phones, “cookies” in our computers, cameras on street corners, buildings, etc. (A whole tv show, “Person of Interest,” hinges on this debate.)  In many feminist utopias the public world is the home and the hearth grown large–Charlotte Gilman’s Herland or Margie Piercy’s work. Think of the perversion of family (privacy, the oikos, the hearth) in Orwell’s “Big Brother.”

5) Utopias have powerful educative impulses!

A)   education is the key to establishment and maintenance of utopia (eutopia or dystopia). Plato’s Republic is the first in the long line of utopias which lay out an educational plan so that the utopia can be perpetuated. 

B)  There are good further “educational” questions to be asked–who is being educated?  The central character?  The reader? The society?

Education always calls into question what is “natural”?

Plato tells the noble lie; there are people of gold, silver, bronze (foreshadows Orwell’s Inner party, Outer party and proles or Huxley’s alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons) and the inequality reinforced by education.  For Thomas More, all games should reinforce educational goals. LeGuin spends countless chapters on education in The Dispossessed.

The traveler to the utopia is often being educated (Gulliver being a prime example).  What is natural is called into question?  Does education contravene “nature”? “Education through estrangement” uses a traveler as a norm and then estranges him or her from norms of the traveler’s society—we watch the traveler learn.

Isn’t the reader actually being educated or taught? Whatever their problems with education you have to admire the utopian belief in the power of education.

6)     Utopias are composed of creative and destructive elements.  They imagine a society (creative) and would destroy or replace the present society.  In addition, the texts can be self-destructive, i.e., both eutopias and dystopias posit a world in which they could not or would not be produced. 

In a perfect world, an “eutopia,” what would one write about?  William Morris cannot solve this problem in Nowhere; he says that there are novels about old times but people are querulous about them because they hinge on conflict and there isn’t any in Nowhere.  More and Swift never produce an example of the indigenous literature of the Utopians or the Houyhnhnms (horses–pronounce this “winnims”–like a horse neighing) even though we are told that the literature they produce is sublime.  Dystopias present a different problem—you don’t want people becoming educated and so the production of texts must be controlled—most particularly in Orwell’s 1984 but in Atwood’s Gilead (Handmaid’s Tale) and elsewhere of course.

7)     Utopias adopt iconoclasm in theme and form.  They are most influential when attacking the society in which they are produced and this can date them as topical.

A gifted young teacher I know introduces Utopia by discussing the Gotham city of Batman. I like to begin with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  These two short stories give the students plenty to think about given the 7 elements. 

Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at….”  I agree. Wilde calls our attention to the desire for justice, a better life, and the belief in progress in some way; that’s got to be a good thing.

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Horacio Quiroga’s “Juan Darien”–a dangerous story

Horacio Quiroga is too-little known; he is a wonderful short story writer of great range from his naturalistic and disturbing “Decapitated Chicken” (the title story to one of the two collections that I have read) that recounts a horrific family event in flat prose without commentary to his parable, “The Alligator War.” His long short story, “The Beasts in Collusion,” can be found in the collection The Exiles, and is another good example of his mature work. Quiroga (1878-1937) is Uruguayan and his life was touched by tragedy (death of one wife–both children committed suicide, he suffered from prostate cancer). He was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant and their influence on him is visible to a casual reader of his stories.

I love teaching Quiroga’s incredibly dangerous–and seductively subtle–“Juan Darien” each year.  A brief recap before we discuss why it is so dangerous: the story is told by a first person narrator in direct address to the audience (there are asides such as one that recommends that a child who doesn’t understand a particular episode should go find an adult and another that suggests that the narrator is withholding something to protect children who would hear the story).

The story is set up as a “fairy tale” beginning as it does, “Once upon a time,” which dislocates us in time and is followed by the declaration that we are in a village (unnamed) on the edge of a jungle.  We are effectively dislocated from any real space; we are in the liminal world between the civilized and the savage; the domesticated and the wild.  A young widow has lost not only her husband but her infant son in a plague.  One night she hears a mewling noise and discovers outside her cottage a small tiger cub who is so young his eyes have not yet opened. She takes the creature in and he is starving; she nurses him and the narrator tells us that she obeys the great commandment of the Universe, that one life equals another.  A man going by the house hears a noise and concludes that there is a wild animal in the house–the woman (there are no names, a common motif of much parabolic literature) runs out the back door of the cottage and a snake stops her and tells her that she should have no fear–that her great love has transformed the tiger cub and he will only lose his humanity when another mother calls for his blood.  She goes back in the house and lets the frantic man in–he searches everywhere but finds only the woman and her baby boy.  She names him Juan Darien.

They live an idyllic life for 10 years and then the good woman dies and Juan Darien is orphaned.  He is the best student in his school but his classmates find him odd and don’t take to him.  One day an important visitor comes to the school and, struck by Juan Darien’s oddness, tells the school teacher that Juan Darien is dangerous and is a tiger and that he can prove it.  (One thinks of the victims of the Salem witchcraft trials and the tendency to scapegoat the outsider, the weak, and those with no one to defend them–watch bullies at any level work and this is what you will see.) He asks numerous students what it is like to live in the jungle and they give pedestrian answers.  He calls Juan Darien forward and instead of just asking him questions he leads him on a guided meditation about living in the forest (“Close your eyes, it’s 3 a.m., you are heading towards the stream, where are the bushes in relation to you? What sounds do you hear from the river?” etc.).  Juan Darien’s imagination, being more powerful than the imaginations of his classmates, describes the world as he sees it as a tiger. He says he sees the bushes going by at eye level and watches as his breath stirs the leaves on the ground.  The interrogator claims this is proof that Juan Darien is a tiger though the narrator has been quite clear that when he arrived on the doorstep of his mother that his eyes had NOT opened–he could NEVER have seen the things that he narrates.

The interrogator now says that he knows of an infallible test to prove Juan Darien is a dangerous tiger hidden in human shape–he knows of four dogs that have ALWAYS discovered a tiger in any form.  Juan Darien is locked in a cage with the dogs and the dogs are told to get the tiger–they jump around madly but leave Juan Darien alone (in fact they merely lick him in a friendly way).  At this, in the manner of all eisegetic readers (an eisegetic reader is one who forces a meaning on to a text to make it fit what he or she wants it to say) the man says the test proves nothing. (I expect to post a more elaborate definition and description of eisegetic readers later in the fall when blogging about Ovid.)

The man then takes to beating the child until he raises stripes on his back.  Then Juan Darien is turned loose, his clothes stripped from him, and he staggers towards home begging to be understood–it is incredibly painful to watch.  He sees a woman with her infant in her arms and stretches out his hands in supplication to her–and she claims he is attacking her and demands blood.  Thus is the snake’s prophecy fulfilled and Juan Darien becomes a tiger.  He is left to die in the jungle but does not. We are told that he retains three things from his time as a human: 1) he is able to use his hands; 2) he retains language; and 3) he retains his memory.

The tiger Juan Darien has the patience of a wild animal and he hunts the man who most tormented him finally capturing him and torturing him in EXACTLY the same manner he was tortured as a little boy.  When the man begs “Juan Darien” to stop, to save him, etc. the tiger looks about and says that there is no Juan Darien anymore.  The man is killed and the tiger goes to his mother’s grave, writes “and Juan Darien” below her name on the wooden cross that marks her grave and declares “Juan Darien” dead.  The tiger leads a war against the humans. All of this and more in just 7 or 8 pages.

Why is this story so doggone dangerous?  On first blush it suggests that the power of love is so extraordinary that it can make humanity out of non-human forms.  And there is something incredibly seductive about that. There is also the drive towards justice (or maybe vengeance?)–the man who tortures the child gets what he deserves.  I suppose it calls to mind “Beauty and the Beast,” no?  If we are loved then we become human–until then we are merely animals.  What terrific power this gives the “lover”–and for those of us who believe love to be an act of the will then the sense that our love can MAKE another life human is astonishingly powerful. (And this notion has been claimed by lovers about their beloved ones world-wide.)

But…if we can be made human by love, can we be rendered sub-human by being treated as sub-human?  Can we have our humanity stripped from us by poverty, by slavery, by the concentration camp?  Well, if our humanity is NOT essential to us then I suppose that is true.  Do we want to believe that? Should we? Is our humanity conditional or essential?  And now we begin to see why Quiroga’s story is so seductive and so dangerous.  It suggests that humanity (or human-ness) is conditional–and can be taken from us.  Or maybe, you are thinking, Quiroga has left us a tiny aperture to squeeze another idea in.  What happens to Juan Darien takes place before he is 12 years old.  Maybe, we think, the humanity of children is more malleable (one thinks of Russ Rhymer’s brilliant telling of the abused girl–a feral child–known as Genie or Roger Shattuck’s Wild Boy of Avignon or other histories of feral children).  What Quiroga does so subtly is to cause us to think about what makes us human–though he does not seem to believe that it is something we can create ourselves or that humanity is even “natural” to us.  That’s why it is a femme fatale of stories–beautiful, seductive, destructive.The vexed question of what is “natural” is at the heart of lots of great writing.

“Juan Darien” seems so simple.  The level of vocabulary is elementary and the plot direct.  What remarkable depths this story plumbs, leading us believe that our humanity is constructed by others.  My students and I often end our dialogue about this story in a kind of reverential silence, each of us inside our own heads, turning over the ideas and looking for answers about who we are and how we came to be.  The story should be better known than it is.

Next week some ruminations on utopia (eutopias and dystopias)–I think.

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Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on Human Nature: Another Lesson for a Rainy Day

I have discussed a couple of assignments elsewhere in my blog and I like doing this thought experiment with my students; usually it takes two days but could be compressed or expanded.  I tell them that they can believe that humans are: 1) basically good; or 2) basically evil; or 3) tabula rasa (good to get the Latin “blank slate” in here).  I tell them that there are philosophers that I’d like them to be able to associate with each one: Jean-Jacques Rousseau for the basically good; Thomas Hobbes for the basically evil; and John Locke for tabula rasa.  We toy around with these categories (and I give them dates and texts and flesh out the philosophers a bit) and I ask them which they believe.  Nearly every student says “basically good,” followed by a significant portion of tabula rasa, and then, if I’m lucky one or two students who say “basically evil.”

I build from here by asking them to consider which form of government you might design based on your view of human nature.   We usually work around to anarchy (I’m precise with this term and DO NOT mean “terrorism”) if you believe people are basically good (and–good news for us–this IS what Rousseau argues for); totalitarianism or some form of controlling government (monarchy) if you believe that people are basically evil; and something between–democracy say–for those who have argued for tabula rasa.  Again, we are fortunate because Hobbes and Locke line up here, too. I ask them if they can deduce the assumption that an organization makes about human nature by studying its structure?  I propose they think about the Catholic church (I teach at a Catholic school and many of the students are Catholic and ALL of them are taking Theology).  This is where things get funny–most say the church believes people are fundamentally good–even though the structure is relentlessly hierarchical and there is the doctrine of original sin! I ask them about the structure of the school–they are savvier now and see the school as desirous of controlling them–Hobbes! Ask them about teams, clubs, North Korea, their youth group, any group that meets for any reason.

By this time the discussion is going exceptionally well and I turn the direction towards education.  If you believe people are basically evil (Hobbes), then you have an obligation to explain how “goodness” gets into the world.  If you believe people are basically good (Rousseau), then you have to explain how evil gets into the world. If you believe that humans are tabula rasa then you have to explain how good and evil are established and how they get into the world.  Of course, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke all have good answers for these questions and usually I can tease these answers out of the students. I tell them that I am in the “basically evil” camp–my argument for how “good” gets into the world is that it has to be taught and learned. The discussion about education that ensues is always terrific–education is the thing that students–by their sophomore, junior, or senior year–are most expert on and about which they have the most opinions. (A later blog will discuss St. Augustine and Pelagius on human nature!)

The cool follow-up assignment is to have all the followers of Rousseau write a letter to Hobbes and Locke–using ANY events in human history–to try to convince them to change their minds.  Have the followers of Hobbes write to Locke and Rousseau and have the followers of Locke write to Hobbes and Rousseau to change their minds.  Evaluation of this is straightforward–do they understand their philosopher’s basic position (and their own!) and can they marshal evidence to defend it?

Further cool follow ups can be done with literary characters and fictional characters.  I like to introduce Machiavelli here and ask the question as to whether a leader should desire to be loved or feared.  Show the clip from “The Office” where Michael explains it’s both–he wants to be loved so much it scares people.

I was a philosophy major, so that helps but a basic encyclopedia knowledge of the three philosophers will be enough for an introduction, and the whole assignment could be done without any of them–just the three basic views of human nature.  Students like this because they get a chance to take on the big questions, the things that matter. 

Next week a discussion of a truly dangerous story that scares me (and should scare you!).

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