The acquisition of knowledge is not progression from point A to point B. There in fact, is no point B. The Colossus crawls ever westward, overlapping its own footprints, making new impressions in the Earth.
The Turn of the Screw is a novella by Henry James about a Governess who becomes convinced that the ghosts of former employees are haunting the children in her care. It is never completely clear whether the ghosts are real or whether the admittedly tightly wound governess is unraveling thread by thread. The story ends with the death of a little boy, and again it is unclear whether the ghost killed him, or whether the governess merely smothered him. The same book pops up in the show LOST where it hides an orientation film for a station where a button must be pushed every 108 minutes “or else”; another instance where the reality of the situation is unclear. All You Zombies is a short story by Robert A. Heinlein where a man goes back in time to both create and recruit himself, becoming an ouroboros which loops forever through time. These themes are examined both in the Red Dwarf episode “Ouroboros” and the Futurama episode “Roswell That Ends Well” (the main characters go back in time and inadvertently create themselves). When we talk about the difference between literature and mass culture, we tend to lead our colleagues, and truly anyone who wants to become “enlightened” away from mass media trappings like cartoons or sitcoms. These forms of media are merely opiates for overweight WalMart shoppers and high school dropouts. We, after all, are literary scholars! We don’t play in the mud and the filth with those who are beneath us. In actuality however, we are both James’ governess and Heinlein’s Ouroboros.
When we turn our noses up at mass media or popular fiction, we’re seeing ghosts in the courtyard. We think of our pupils and peers as perfect angels who need to be protected from the twisted spectres waiting in the shadows to spirit them away. Although we are encouraged to pull back the curtain and embrace a certain level of self-awareness, we do so only through the lens we’re already given. Although we talk about the pitfalls of snobbery, it becomes nearly impossible to find a high-level literary student or teacher who will admit to unashamedly enjoying Twilight (my apologies for dwelling on this series). As seniors, many of us will go on to teach others what we’ve learned, if not formally than informally. We at the very least will teach our children or nieces and nephews or grandchildren what we know. We will teach them that there are standards, and we will tell them explicitly what they are; they’ve already been decided and agreed upon. We will work under the guise of creating free thinkers when in actuality we’re just unknowingly creating ourselves. We then become those parents who only let their kids watch the cartoons they grew up with because everything now is crap. We’ll cram so much goddamn free thinking into their heads that they’ll only be able to think freely the right way: our way. We enter the walled garden of Literature and we spend the rest of our lives building the same thing for others. The windows will be boarded up and the exits will be sealed. Anyone who enters must be sprayed down and sterilized, or else their minds may become infected.
The truth of the matter however, is that literature and culture are not divorced and separate entities. There are countless literary allusions in popular culture, and there are countless pop culture references in literature. The latter is actually used to rail against modern literature, but the truth of the matter is that Gulliver’s Travels for instance is a commentary on the culture of the time; its the equivalent of watching a Daily Show episode from 1726. Since literature influences culture and culture influences literature, one might even be forgiven for the insane notion that literature is a part of culture. As much as we try to divorce ourselves from the very culture that created us, this goal is unattainable because we’re part of the machine. The notion that we’ve somehow ascended beyond the confines of popular culture, that we’re in some way immune to the opiate of the masses is nothing more than a shared delusion, propagated by people who have already been through the cleansing rituals of Literature with a capital L.
“What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?”
What if Literature (as perceived) were simply an extension of the shared sense of self-created by the nostalgia of the past, and the backlash against the present? Whether the ghosts are real or not, The Turn of the Screw ends with the death of a young boy. The more likely explanation is that woman who is supposed to look after him becomes so convinced that the terrible influences of these hellish wraiths will corrupt the boy that she suffocates him while trying to keep him safe. The interesting thing about The Turn of the Screw is that it is a story within a story. It is a narrative told to others written from the governess’s perspective. She creates the reality we visit and everything is dependent on her point of view. The main character in All You Zombies is so unaware of himself that he doesn’t realize that he is talking to himself, having sex with himself and giving birth to himself (its a weird story). Although schizophrenic fear and science fiction incest are fairly hyperbolic ways to describe the literary machine, I feel that they are important examples partially because they have permeated into popular culture. They’ve leaked into impressionable minds unknowingly, and these themes will find their way back into literature, and back out into culture. The true serpent of culture never stops eating its own tail, and we’re merely a scale on its back.
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