It’s Not My Fault I Don’t Get It – Literature and Culture

We are often quick to discredit critiques or opinions of work we don’t understand ourselves. Two primary examples are literary fiction and modern art. Upon first read or glance, we might feel lost or confused, and deem the work as “bad.” Perhaps, instead of being deep and meaningful, they’re just pretentious.

Maybe, but it’s more likely the observer is using an ego-defense mechanism for not feeling “smart” enough to comprehend the medium.

Literary fiction and modern art are confused as “bad” because the plot or image doesn’t initially make sense. But, with these two genres, the whole point of the work isn’t to convey a straight-forward message. The message isn’t literally written down and you won’t see it upon first glance. Instead, the reader must intuit the deeper meaning. They must recognize different elements: characterization (round, flat, static, dynamic), setting, verisimilitude, plot, symbol, allusion, etc., and connect them to the true heart of the story.

This isn’t easily done. When gaining a better understanding of anything, I feel it’s less about your threshold of “smartness” and more about your dedication to learning.

I believe there is a process to decreasing ignorance and increasing understanding. We’ll use a quote by Terence McKenna, a philosopher and whack-job, to help. Some sections are useful, but as a life-long learner, there are also parts I cannot accept as good advice:

“One of the reasons I like to make this argument about the mushroom and the extraterrestrial is to show people how one can see things differently. If things can be seen that differently, how many ways can they be seen differently? Try to get people to stop waiting for the president to enlighten them. Stop waiting for history and the stream of historical events to make itself clear to you. You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your own responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding. It doesn’t do you any good to know that somewhere in some computer there are equations that perfectly model or perfectly don’t model something that is going on. We have all tended to give ourselves away to official ideologies and to say, ‘Well I may not understand, but someone understands.’ The fact of the matter is that only your own understanding is any good to you. Because it’s you that you’re going to live with and it’s you that you’re going to die with. As the song says, that last dance you dance, you dance alone.”

It is true that “you have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your own responsibility.”

You should not depend on other people to make decisions for you. Only when you go through the process of understanding it and dissecting it can you truly claim it to be yours. McKenna says, “We have all tended to give ourselves away to official ideologies and to say, ‘Well I may not understand, but someone understands.’” When a professional says it’s true, we either take his or her word for it and don’t look further into it, or we briefly look at it, don’t understand it, and call the professional pretentious. In actuality, you are taking it solely on faith that other people did or didn’t do it right, and that is an unfortunate and cowardly choice to make.

On the other hand, it is not true that “the only understanding of the universe that [is] useful to you is your own understanding.”

Your individual existence may isolate you in ways, but your influence on others and their influence on you makes everyone a part of a greater whole. In order to gain an opinion with merit, it is essential to first compile many people’s discoveries and understandings. I am limited by my own perception, and because I exist within a complex community of conscious beings, it is essential to consider, but not depend on, other’s perceptions. But, their discoveries and understandings should only further individual contemplation.

So please, don’t claim literary works or modern art, or anything else, is “good” or “bad” unless you understand the criteria for labeling it as such (this doesn’t include your personal taste or level of understanding the medium).

My Guide to Obtaining Beliefs and Opinions:

  1. Don’t blame the source for your failure to understand the message.
  2. Research how other people came to better understand the message. If no one can, you can better affirm that your initial opinion is correct.
  3. Keep researching. Consider as many sides to the argument as possible – especially ones that oppose your argument.
  4. Take your time and don’t be afraid.
  5. When you reach a likely conclusion, re-evaluate the medium. Do you easily see connections you didn’t before?
  6. Accept that your new understanding is not the end. This is a journey.
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