Classical literature should not be a punchline for knowledge

I was having a conversation with someone about a mundane topic, specifically about butterflies, when it reminded me of Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes, a story of butterfly hunter who gets trapped by a society that mates him with a woman in an inescapable sand house. When first discussing it, there was no expression of interest about my story until I mentioned that the man’s story served as somewhat of an allegory to the fact that he used to trap butterflies (and thus, he became the trapped butterfly as a result). Then there was the recognition of the point of the story, and that’s the end of that.

But it got me thinking because I realized that after telling this little literary selection that there are a lot of people who seem more focused on the punchline of a story than in the story itself, and that’s the purpose behind this post. You see, what I’m starting to suspect is that people are so focused on the outcome and the “rest of the story” that they miss the purpose of the original story in the first place. In other words, people will read about Machiavelli, figure the Prince was about gaming the system and then feel they know what they are talking about when they refer to someone as being Machiavellian. I use this example because it is probably one of the more misused literary references in current usage. I observe the media constantly trying to act academic when they call some world leader, or some local leader, as Machiavellian, and what they’re really saying is that someone is manipulative. It immediately gives me the impression that they’ve never actually read Machiavelli to understand that to understand Machiavelli is to understand the Discourses, not the Prince. The Prince is only a small part of a much larger canvas, and quite often people read the Cliff Notes of even the Cliff Notes version of Machiavelli, meaning they’re getting about 1/10th of 1/10th of an understanding of the government scribe, not even realizing his whole purpose was to explain Aristotle in his modern day terms, not to create an understanding of how people can be snide to get over on others.

I find this in a lot of media (and common) references to literature. I hear a lot of referrals of Moby Dick from all sorts of sources, and almost always they focus on a tiny segment of the story. Sure, they usually get the overall message, but almost every time I get the impression that that’s all they got out of the story, meaning they probably never read it all of the way through. A couple of years ago, while sick in Prague, I sat in my room and read through Melville once again, and I came away with a completely new understanding of his novel. Most people, if lucky, might read it once, and that’s it. And usually it’s because it was required reading. Sadly enough, most will never read it and vicariously experience it through those around them who may or may not have read it but have enough of a synopsis to point out important details.

I see this same thing with Don Quixote, which is such a brilliant story, in both English and Spanish, yet I would bet that one percent of the people who talk about it have actually read either version all of the way through. I was reading it a year or so ago again, in English this time, and I was just floored at how great a story the author constructs. It’s not just a literary story, but it’s hilariously written by a man who truly understood the human condition enough to hold it responsible for all of its absurdity. A media critic bringing up Don Quixote’s loyal assistant doesn’t come close to relaying the significance of that poor follower who leads us through so many of the protagonist’s great, yet ridiculous, adventures.

A year or so ago, I sat down and re-read Dostoyevskiy (one of many spellings of his name) again. I had read Crime and Punishment when I was a young child. As a matter of fact, it is the very first book I ever read, and I only read it because my grade school teacher at the time said I was too young to ever read such a book. The first time I read it, I struggled through it and barely eeked out an understanding that this was the story of a man who did something horribly wrong and was fearing the ramifications of his actions, kind of a reading I would have years later of the Tell Tale Heart from a much different nuanced author. Yet, I have re-read that book many times over my life, each time getting a better understanding of what the author was trying to reveal to me, only understanding it differently because I had years of living that backed up my new understandings. This time around, as I read through the Idiot, I think I came one step closer to understanding why the author told the story he did. Years from now, I hope to revisit it again and see if I came closer that time.

The problem I perceive right now is that way too many people are hearing stories, or watching them on TV or in movies, and they’re convinced they’ve “read” the novel and understand all of the choices the author took to relay his story. That is such a weak interpretation of literature and so sad of a compromise that it bothers me to even think about it. I fear for America because almost all of our bestseller charts are filled with young adult books rather than powerful novels that challenge us to think, rather than fill our heads with mild entertainment. From vampires and zombies to Harry Potter, we keep filling our libraries with crap that does so little to stimulate people intellectually, and while I sometimes think “well, at least the masses are reading”, I’m left wondering if we’re a society doomed to complacency and easy manipulation by people who are smart enough to realize that an intellectually void mass is much easier to control than one that thinks for itself. All it takes is someone with the wrong intentions, perhaps someone very, shall I say Machiavellian, and the future might not look so bright.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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