My Photo


Roll Call

Become a Fan

« How to Police the Discourse (with Three Toothpicks, an Old Sock & Your Lies) | Main | Two Quick Notes »

Thursday, 19 April 2007


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The Management

[Nazis -- I mean actual, honest-to-God Neo-Nazis -- posted a link here earlier. Must not have known I was Jewish.]


Just what I wanted ... Nazis!


I really wish I hadn't followed that link...


Man. Reading this blog makes me glad that I switched majors from English to CS after freshman year. There was simply no way I was ever going to learn to read with such a nose for nuance, or to write nearly so well.

The Necromancer

It's a novel about boyhood and adventure...Isn't it "supposed" to "enact a failure of conviction"? That and describe fucking around with rafts on the Mississippi...

Tim Lacy

Although I admire the analysis of Huck Finn, I want to focus on a few larger ideas in your post.

SEK said: "Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them."

I too have been troubled by a variation of this very point. In fact, before learning the details I assumed, since Seung-hui shot folks in an engineering building, that this was a liberal-arts-challenged engineering student that turned on his classmates. Because like you (SEK), I believe "that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read," I was disoriented after learning Seung-hui's area of study. In some ways I still can't believe he didn't absorb the lesssons of humanity contained in the books he likely was required to read.

This conundrum unfortunately proves that, as humanities folks, our modus operandi (that "literary study improve[s] them, even if only in this smallest of ways") is partly just a mere hope. We can't control the listener, or the way one chooses to read.

But we can, strangely, take hope in the fact that college students operate in check-list fashion in order to obtain a credential. They're not violating the sacred nature of reading on purpose: it's a function of their environment. They read not for the beauty or philosophy of a book, but to get a grade. The humanities are still alive (woo hoo!), but not fully in higher education as it exists today - no matter the major of study (even in the core liberal arts disciplines).

If higher education's present-day utilitarian functions kill the desire to be a lifelong learner, then we're in for more tragedies like Virginia Tech. But I've observed that people do maintain their love for books in spite of their schooling. Sometimes they return to that love when the credential is done, or after a pause. - TL

Jesse A.

It was my impression that the proprietor disagrees with that statement, thus the first half of the sentence "On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—..." The idea that reading certain books, even reading them well and with pleasure will somehow create good people, or still whatever homicidal urges they may have, strikes me as wishful thinking, which I believe was SEK's point. On a different note, I'm not quite sure I'm reading the end of your post properly. It seems to me that you're implying that a person who loves books will not commit murder, that somehow "a desire for lifelong learning" inoculates a person from violent tendencies. This seems to me to be a fairly naive perspective.


Todd, I wrote like this as an undergrad. Whatever "skill" I now possess is the result of years of laboring on it. In other words: no reason to be hard on yourself.

Necromancer, I'm not following. Are you calling all children perfidious liars? (Not that I'd disagree, mind you.)

Tim and Jesse, I think you're responding to my dilemma of conscience here. I believe that literature is no guarantor of morality and that it improves the moral conscience of its readers. My hypocrisy aside, Jesse, I think Tim's responding to the two-part solution I discussed: it's not enough to read literature, a person needs to be taught how to read. "Sympathetic identification" often seems like the "natural" reaction to narrative, but to develop a sophisticated moral barometer takes concerted effort. This is why you have many clever, soulless readers of science fiction: spend all the time on the gadgets, the humanity suffers. (The obverse, however, isn't true. Or, maybe it is for something like Updike's Couples, but not for the run-of-the-mill Harlequin Romance.)


There is another possibility: that the guy was just plain ol' mentally ill. Literature is great stuff, but it's not much of an antipsychotic.

Rich Puchalsky

"This is why you have many clever, soulless readers of science fiction: spend all the time on the gadgets, the humanity suffers."

I recently read E.E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark series. It's a fascinating 1950s-60s SF train wreck over four volumes. Part of the structure of escalation in this kind of space opera means that the hero must always be meeting new species of humanoid aliens, each of which contributes some technical knowledge or intellectual skill that the hero uses to eradicate the current enemy but which involves them in a fight against a new enemy. And there's a continual tension between the hero being "good" and between ever-larger acts of genocide being "necessary".

By the last book, one of the people hanging around the hero is a member of a warlike culture whose technical abilities have been surpassed a couple of books ago. This culture worships evolution, which they believe means, in part, moral evolution. So they realize dimly that while their first move in conflict is to completely wipe out their enemies, that this is a growth stage they are supposed to get over -- symbolized in the last book by them deciding to wear only one or two hand weapons at all times rather than always having many.

So, somewhere in the last book, it's "necessary" for an ultra-genocide of an alien race of trillions of individuals to take place. This is a bit too much for the hero, even though he sets up the machinery to do so. So the guy from two books ago is brought in -- to push the button. That's his special cultural skill, the ability to guiltlessly be the proximate cause of genocide. What a good thing that not everyone is yet fully evolved! There is a task for each of us, etc.

There's something really special about SF. I'm convinced that there's bits of our culture that you'd never get a clear inkling of otherwise.


In yesterday's Daily Telegraph (London) an idiotic MP had an>opinion column suggesting that watching violent films (specifically, Chan Wook Park's Old Boy, John Woo's excremental Face/Off and - inexplicably - Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine) inspired Cho, and so film makers should think about the social consequences of their movies, particularly 'violence as entertainment.'
Utter nonsense, as plenty of responses have pointed out. But the inverse argument makes no sense either: if we think blaming violent films and video games for massacres is silly (and I think we can all agree that it is) then it is equally silly to expect reading novels to prevent them. Literature can be as lurid in its description of violence as film can, but drawing a connection between cultural consumption and behaviour is impossible; simply, the determining factors are far too complex. If they were all that simple, perhaps horrific crimes could be more easily prevented, but culture - and life in general - would be pretty dull.
Secondly, there is something a bit disturbing to me about the thrust of your argument in general. Of course we can all agree that killing innocent people for no reason is wrong, but I wonder where your argument about "improvement" is headed on less clear-cut matters. What I'm getting at is that there is a particular value system you seem to view as self-evidently superior. This is a value system broadly shared by those who engage in the production and criticism of literature - people who largely belong to a certain, relatively priveleged, social class. So there's a danger here of turning a particular set of values in to a tool of class oppression. As Zizek>has put it:
"For example, feminist struggle can be articulated into a chain with progressive struggle for emancipation, or it can (and it certainly does) function as an ideological tool of the upper-middle classes to assert their superiority over the "patriarchal and intolerant" lower classes."

Rich Puchalsky

I'm a few hours ahead of you, Simon. But Zizek is confused, as always. If you're talking class struggle, than the middle class is currently the more revolutionary class -- Zizek's attempt to have it otherwise casts him in his usual role of implicitly siding with fundamentalists, conservatives, and that avatar of belief in the absurd, Bush. There are fundamental reasons of justice why feminism is better than patriarchy. Therefore, it's good that this encoding of feminism as middle class takes place; that's the source of the relentless cultural propaganda that is making patriarchy less and less acceptible -- I'd say the current years of reaction are going to turn out to be its local high point. Zizek is in the odd position of thinking that revolutionary violence is a good thing but that ideological encoding is not.

The Constructivist

Rich, if you scroll down this link to sf posts at Mostly Harmless, you'll come across a few on Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which from what I can understand of the little I've seen attempts to bring characterization and ethical issues to the space opera genre. It's never been translated into English or marketed internationally, but you can find a few very badly subtitled episodes on YouTube.

Scott, that Twain post I promised you is half-way there--more coming tomorrow. I completely agree with your reading of the ending of AHF and in the longer chapter this post is based on argue that Huck's failure there is part of Twain's larger critique of the end of Reconstruction.

Eileen A. Joy

I'm mainly in sympathy with Simon on this discussion. I never thought reading literature humanized anyone or made them better citizens or better persons or more moral or whatever. My favorite two books on this point are James Anderson Winn's "The Pale of Words" and Bill Readings' "The University in Ruins" [Readings' book, especially, is a must-read, I think, for anyone planning a future working in the humanities at the university level--it is a pessimistic but also hopeful book]. Furthermore, what Cho did at Va. Tech. has nothing to do with his being an English major [or even a creative writer] and it really surprises me how many blog posts have been generated on academic and literary studies blogs hashing through the anguish of that fact. Art and literature attract devils as well as angels and both sane and insane men and women create art and literature. Of course, as a professor of medieval and other literatures and as a scholar of literature [and of literary and cultural thought], obviously I have to have some faith that what SEK might call the cultivation of good reading [and interpretive] practices might matter somehow in the inculcation of certain types of moral [and other] understanding in our students. It's just that, over the years, I've developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer. Remember that moment in the movie "Frankenstein" [not the book] where the monster is stumbling around in a field somewhere and he sees a girl throwing flowers into a well and he's like, "ooooo, ugh, oooo, cool" [said in his inimitable inarticulate way]? And then he's also throwing flowers in the well and having fun? And then said girl ends up at the bottom of the well. In any case, the incident at Va. Tech. does not indict the humanities; I thought we stopped carrying that flag a long time ago. You can never teach morality. You can only model it. And maybe live it.


It's been a while since I read it, but Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities does a pretty good job showing that the tension between the highest ideals of humanistic teaching and the varied impact of such teaching on students was there even at the very beginning. Not being a Renaissance scholar, I couldn't follow some of the details of the Latin, but the comparisons between teachers' writings and students' notes were certainly interesting.


What makes you so sure that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to humanize its students?


I just read the two plays at the link provided above by Cho Seung Hui. I found it interesting how his heroes were outcast youths and the antagonist (or "evil" characters) to be adult authority original.
Overall, his works resounded like the whines of an immature, angst-ridden brat with deplorable vocabulary, which shocks me really. Someone who is an English major usually develops their "writing voice" to be a bit more sophisticated. How utterly disappointing.


"This is why you have many clever, soulless readers of science fiction: spend all the time on the gadgets, the humanity suffers. (The obverse, however, isn't true. Or, maybe it is for something like Updike's Couples, but not for the run-of-the-mill Harlequin Romance.)"

Could you point me to your source for this? I was unaware that SF had been shown to cause or correlate with the loss of ones soul. And the characterization of SF as 'spending all the time on the gadgets' seems a little unfair, given how little hard-SF gets published or read these days (I know it bores me to death.)

In my experience, SF readers come in two types - people who read for the weird and wacky worlds, and people who read for the ideas (not that the two are unrelated.) I doubt reading SF improves ones moral character, but a shared background of SF can often be useful for discussing our future-shocked modern world (among other things - explaining 'cogito ergo sum' became easier for me when I could use The Matrix as an example.)

Returning to the subject at hand, I think that perhaps interactive narrative (i.e. computer games) have more potential to encourage moral behavior. The problem with books as a means of teaching morality is that they require no moral decisions from the reader. The worst a book can do is require us to occasionally re-evaluate our judgments of the characters (as in your example.) Virtual worlds force us to take a role, and make mistakes (I suspect that making mistakes, and feeling the unpleasant emotions that that produces, is largely what makes for a morally-useful experience.) Of course, current virtual worlds are essentially useless for this, except insofar as other human players create real moral decisions, but this may change in the future.

And yes, I think computer games could cause real moral harm as well. I don't think the computer games currently available do, for the same reasons they are not morally helpful.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Proteus, that's the classic ideal, and the one bandied about when the current roster of departments were formed at the turn-of-the-last-century. You're right that it's not necessarily so, nor need it be, but it's a common sentiment. More frequently, it pops up as the justification for any of the various multiculturalisms. They never say as much -- or they do so more sophisticatedly -- but it's still there.


Someone who is an English major usually develops their "writing voice" to be a bit more sophisticated.

I wish. "Sophisticated" is not the first word I'd used to describe the prose of an English major. Oftentimes, the pressure of trying to write like an English major makes students sound like mildly intelligent but perpetually confused non-native speakers. That said, Cho had a tin ear. I almost wrote a post mocking it, then decided -- correctly, I think -- "Too Soon."


Could you point me to your source for this?

My own experience as 1) a formerly soulless reader of science fiction, 2) teaching many currently soulless readers of science fiction, and 3) selling soulless books to soulless readers of science fiction for the four years I spent working at a used bookstore. Honestly, though, the comment was flip. Not that I don't believe that there is, in fact, a particular sort of voracious reader who -- despite engorging every SF novel to hit the shelves -- remains unchanged and unchangeable. I could go further and say they're also typically libertarian, a philosophy they adopted via Heinlein ... but this is still too gross and uncritical. Maybe I'll do something with it later.

The Constructivist

Scott, the post I promised you is closer to done. Letting you know here to avoid the other TC at The Valve.

The comments to this entry are closed.