SOPHE Presidential Address
Time in Babylon—Contemporary American fiction and ethical living: Three works by Barbara Kingsolver, Jim Harrison, and John Murray.
Douglas R. Davis
Georgia State University
Last week, in a conversation with my father, he asked me how my preparations for this address were coming. Fine, I said. He then gave me some fatherly advise, “just remember an after dinner talk should be short and funny!” After the conversation, feeling a sense of dread because my talk was getting rather long and was not filled with much humor, I called my friend Anita and asked, “How can I make a philosophical talk on the critical issues of our time short and funny?” “I don’t know,” she replied, “but you really do not want your audience crying in their dessert!” Not feeling any better, I turned to my dog Shivas and he said, “Scratch my belly.” So please finish your desserts and if I get too serious, or if I talk too long, I will not mind if you scratch your bellies.
My topic tonight is serious yet I will try to make my points brief. I believe we are living in serious and, it often seems to me, dark times. I find many recent events and trends deeply troubling and I feel there is much to be concerned about. Without becoming overtly political on the eve of a critical election, I want to talk this evening about what I find to be a loss of purpose and meaning in education. Certainly, the purpose and meaning of education is a common topic in educational philosophy; yet, I hope to provoke thought on some old issues in new and intriguing ways.
I want to explore the purpose and meaning of education through three contemporary American authors and three examples of their literature that have nothing directly to do with education. It is my belief that these three authors, through the medium of fiction, speak eloquently on the essential issue of what Warren Zevon called “my dirty life and times”. This exploration is an appeal and argument for a consistent educational ethic. Simply, I believe educators must be guided by a responsibility for the future of humanity and the natural environment that sustains us. I argue that the purpose of education needs to be re-focused on ethical relationships; relationships between humans, and relationships between humans and the natural environment. In support of my argument, I will discuss works of fiction by John Murray (2004), Jim Harrison (2004) and Barbara Kingsolver (2001). All three authors explore human relationships with a focus on the land with remarkable insight and compassion. More importantly, however, the works provide meaning to my call for a consistent educational ethic.
Milan Kundera (1993) describes the novelist as “an explorer of existence.” Kundera’s collection of essays in the book, The Art of the Novel, describe the European novel as a reaction to the “forgetting of being.” Kundera laments that as the domination of science swept Europe in the 18th and 19th century, Europeans lost site of the world as a whole and of the individual self. The ontological was not completely lost and Kundera locates ontological meaning in the novel and states, “Indeed, for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.” Kundera continues, “If it is true that philosophy and science have forgotten about man’s being, it emerges all the more plainly that with Cervantes a great European art took shape that is nothing other than the investigation of this forgotten being.”
In the spirit of Kundera, I wonder if something of our being is not lost in the current hegemony of popular culture and vitality of the technical-rational information age. For this talk, I label that which is lost, relationship; specifically relationship with others and relationship with the land. Regardless, if relationship is lost in the essentialist metanarratives of techno-rationale information systems, it emerges, as with the modern European novelist revered by Kundera, in contemporary American fiction.
The first author I will discuss is John Murray (2003). Murray’s only publication is a collection of short stories published in 2003 entitled, A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Murray is a M.D. who, for the past nine years, has worked full time with child health programs in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana and Uganda. The lead characters in Murray’s stories are typically individuals with high levels of technical training struggling with the irrational lives and conditions of ordinary people in regions of the world fraught with war, poverty, disease and famine. Murray explains his characters:
Many of the characters in these stories – doctors or scientists – have very sophisticated ways of rationalizing what they see – in medical or scientific terms – but are unable to deal emotionally with the situations they face. Because they do not know how to express emotions directly, they do it in other ways – by thinking technically, or in intellectual terms, or by not thinking about it at all. I think this is true of all of us to varying degrees – we all learn ways, good and bad, to deal with our emotions.
Murray’s stories are about loss and suffering with a suggestion of redemption held out. The settings are the epidemics, the famines, and the genocides often read about in newspapers but rarely lived by Americans. In contrast to horrifying descriptions of the worst conditions of human suffering, the beauty of the landscapes in which the stories are set are described in vivid detail.
The manner in which Murray presents his stories suggests personal experience. In an interview, Murray speaks of an experience similar to his story, “Watson and the Shark”:
I did refugee work when I was with the CDC and was in Burundi for the civil war there. Many people were killed in the most terrible ways, because of their ethnicity, and this was very difficult to deal with. We had been working for some time to improve local health systems and in a few days all of this work was completely destroyed. Several colleagues disappeared, and we were threatened often by people with knives and guns. This really made me question what I was doing there and whether it was possible to change anything in the face of deep-seated ethnic and tribal conflicts. More than that, I felt as if all of my training and technical knowledge was really quite useless.
Each story, in its own way, contrasts the dominant techno-rationalism in American culture with the lived experiences of the most dispossessed people in the world. Through the focus on lived experience, Murray explores relationships in a unique, relevant and inspiring manner.
In the story “White Flour”, Murray describes, through the point-of-view of a young man named Joseph, relationships within a mixed-culture family. In an unusual twist, both the mother and the father have rejected their own culture. The mother is Indian and embraces and seeks success as a scholar in American universities. The father’s story is not fully known until the end of the story but the plot of the story revolves around the fact that the father “has left.” Not only has the father physically left, he has also psychologically and culturally left. He has literally dropped out and the mother simply describes him as “insane.”
The story that emerges, however, is a version of the classic theme of the wise man deemed insane. As the story unfolds, a subtle shift takes place in which the father is increasingly revealed as rational and sane while the culture of humans is increasingly shown to be irrational and insane. At the end of the story, Joseph, at the request of the mother, goes to Bombay to convince his father to return to American and the family. The details of the father’s life and work are finally revealed:
His father is enthusiastic. He wants to show Joseph what he has been doing. He takes him into the Jogeshwari slums, walking ahead with long, loping strides… Open drains run the length of the streets. Young children carrying yellow plastic bottles of fresh milk on their shoulders stare at them. People are quiet and stand back when his father walks past. He is offered a chair at every house he passes. All the thanks I need or deserve, his father tells him, is the offer of a chair… His father takes him to health clinics and introduces him to trained volunteers in white coats who shake Joseph’s hand and flash rows of teeth when they learn that he is the son. He shows him drug cabinets neatly stocked with capsules and tablets and rehydration sachets; opens fridges and points to the stacks of vaccines; demonstrates the Salter scales and steam sterilizers. A little bit of knowledge, he says, can make a world of difference. (127)
And, a bit later, Murray provides details of the father’s living conditions:
His father lives in two whitewashed rooms with very little furniture. On a low table, there is a stack of medical journals and a stack of newspapers and a chess set. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is mounted on the wall in a thin frame. He has no clocks in the house, does not carry a watch, gets up with the Muslim call to prayer, washes in tepid brown water that smells of sulfur. (128)
Although the father proclaims that a little bit of knowledge does make a world of difference, Murray presents a different view when Joseph and his father hear a disturbing newscast:
“Hindus are attacking Muslims,” his father says in the dark.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Joseph says.
“Nothing makes sense,” his father says. “I’m sorry to say.”
“There must be a reason.”
“Now you know why I am here,” his father says.
By juxtaposing personal knowledge and social insanity, Murray presents a clear and inspiring message: things do not have to be the way they are. The state of affairs in the world does not make sense.
I suppose at this point I am beginning to sound rather serious. In that case, let’s pause for a moment for a belly scratch.
Jim Harrison (2004) also explores a world that makes no sense in much of his work including his most recent novel, True North. In preparation of this section, I read multiple reviews of True North and multiple commentaries on Jim Harrison. Harrison certainly evokes strong feelings and opinions. Some find him tedious and boorish; others see him as the next Hemingway or Faulkner. Regardless, I was struck by how few reviewers of True North found the same meaning I did in the novel—I think they missed Harrison’s key message.
Just as in “White Flour,” True North is a story centered on a young man, David Burkett, and his relationship with his father. On the surface, True North is a novel about a dysfunctional family and a young man attempting to find purpose and meaning in his life. The larger story, however, is a family legacy of environmental destruction; specifically, the clear-cutting of millions of acres of white pine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 19th century.
In “White Flour”, Joseph tells his father “It doesn’t make sense to me.” In response, his father says, “Nothing makes sense.” “There must be a reason,” Joseph responds. “White Flour” explores the theme of no-sense in response to violence. True North explores the same theme in response to environmental devastation. Both works embed the search for meaning, the search for a reason, within human relationships. In True North, the story is about a dysfunctional family and a troubled young man; yet, on a deeper level, the relationships are representative. The relationships within the Burkett family and the other relationships of David’s life are symbolic representations of relationships between humans and the land. David searches for the reason why his forefathers raped the land just as he seeks comprehension of his father’s sexual abuse of young women.
But there is no reason, only unreason, only insanity. Jim Harrison’s prose explores the human soul; explores human existence and the whole. William Corbett, describes True North “as a pure and simple story of American rapacity at the moral center of our manifest destiny.” True North, according to Corbett, dramatizes a conflict at the heart of America’s character:
We are caught between the self, fearful of giving up our individuality, and some larger purpose that we think of as ours by some historical demand. We have large appetites, great fears, and temperaments prone to wildness. David Burkett’s forebears despoiled the wilderness that surrounded them, and David Burkett is bewildered. In an early poem, Harrison says, “Form is the woods.” As I read True North, I could not get those words out of my mind.
Much of True North is set in the woods of the UP of Michigan and the descriptions are magnificent. Form is in the woods and, Harrison seems to suggest, so too is reason.
In his short story, “The Beast God Forgot to Invent,” Harrison considers reality and perception. In an interview with The Bookreporter.com, Harrison explains his motive:
After a lifetime of world travel I’ve been fascinated that those in the third world don’t have the same perception of reality that we do. To approach the perceptual complication in our own culture, I gave my character a closed head injury, a fascinating but often mortal condition. The character Joe who roams the wilds is also a metaphor for our incomprehension of the artist.
I want to return to the topic of education and ask: where is the incomprehension?
Tyler Johnson acknowledges the difficulty and incomprehension of True North yet believes “it’s a small and honest price for a work that takes a magnifying glass to the mental and spiritual costs of this country’s ascent at the expense of the poor and the land.”
The value of Harrison’s work is that it unifies social justice and treatment of the environment, humans and their relationships with each other and with the land. Corbett makes this point well, “Out of violence and the determined annihilation of nature and the human spirit only violence can come.” Annihilation of nature and of the human spirit are the same.
At this point, I wonder, does education feed the perceptual complication in our own culture? Or, in regards to a more important point, is it time for another belly rub; or perhaps, a rub from your neighbor?
It is my opinion that no other author unites issues of social justice and the environment as eloquently as Barbara Kingsolver. Through the views of her characters, Kingsolver explores the meaning of being, human potential at its best and worst, the relative and ambiguous nature of reality, the complexity of life, and humor. Kingsolver offers possibilities for change, for a new way of being. In her novel, Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver sets three stories in the forests and mountains of southern Appalachia. The publisher describes the book as, “a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself. It weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia.”
Kingsolver is a trained biologist and many characters in Prodigal Summer are well-versed in biological knowledge; yet, for me to go into the circumstances of key characters or the plots of the three stories in this brief talk would not add to my argument. The story is not only the people but also, and perhaps more importantly, it is the story of a regional ecological system described and explained in exquisite detail. Thus, the den of newly reintroduced coyotes, the history of the white chestnut, and the life-cycles of the flora and fauna are as meaningful as the human stories. In response to questions from readers in I-Village (2002), Kingsolver describes her work:
My agenda is to lure you into thinking about whole systems, not just individual parts. The story asks for a broader grasp of connections and interdependencies than is usual in our culture.
Throughout Prodigal Summer, the force of the connections and interdependencies, both human and ecological, is love and procreation.
Just as in the works of Murray and Harrison, relationships are key. What sets Kingsolver apart is that the stories in Prodigal Summer are of people changing. They are stories of people growing and learning how to live in harmony with each other and with their environment. Kingsolver’s work is filled with a sense of wonder.
It is here where I find tremendous meaning for a new ethic of education: An ethic of relationships, an ethic with recognition of the incomprehensible, recognition of the whole, and recognition of new possibilities for education.
The purpose of education today seems lost in the din of accountability, systems approaches, curriculum standardization, and canned pedagogical programs—in short, we are bound up by positivist techno-rational assumptions of the nature of schooling. Under all of this, the purpose of education today is centered on a corporate, market driven emphases on the development of human capital—the development (production) of not only efficient producers but also vigorous consumers. The central tenet of the current system’s metanarrative is measurement. Efficiency demands measurement and measurement for efficiency is the road map of a market economy. Thus, it is no accident that current measurements, standardized tests, are, in essence, most relevant to production. Standardized tests seek to measures students’ potential ability to produce; in other words, they seek to measure human capital. Certainly, the market economy has led to a standard of living for many Americans unprecedented in human history; nonetheless, the market economy is premised on a questionable assumption given increasing indication the world’s ecosystems are under stress, the need for ever increasing production.
Resources are limited and the ecological earth, as a natural system, is exhibiting clear signs of damage. I imagine a train, on a single set of tracks, heading for a cliff. To expand this metaphor, I fear that our society as a whole and many individuals in education, are diligently working to make the train go faster. Unfortunately, we are not, as a whole, working to turn the train onto a different track. It actually seems that many are not aware of the cliff or do not even believe it exists.
The evidence of environmental stress is nonetheless compelling. Just in the past week I have read the following in my local newspaper:
1. There is new and strong scientific evidence that the ice sheets of Antarctica are melting at an unprecedented rate. And, the rate of melting is increasing.
2. Levels of acidity in the world’s oceans are increasing at a rate 100 times faster than previous measures taken only a few years ago.
3. The CDC in Atlanta released a report warning of evidence of new forms of Avian Flu in Asia and the extreme danger resulting from new rapidly emerging viruses worldwide.
4. Pollen from experimental fields of genetically altered grass in Oregon has escaped and cross-pollinated with native grasses in a thirteen square mile area. Scientists fear that it may be too late to control the genetically altered gene. As a result, new herbicide resistant grasses may threaten agriculture globally.
In addition to signs of environmental stress, we are fighting a war that seems to be creating more mortal enemies than it is eliminating. In addition, there is the prospect that the “war on terrorism,” or the war on “Islamic extremism” (or perhaps it is just a continuation of the thousand year conflict between Christianity and Islam) will continue for the rest of our lives!
To me our world, our American culture, and our education system, makes no sense; there is no reason; it is incomprehensible; it is bewildering. In response, I have examined works of fiction for meaning and make an appeal for a consistent educational ethic. An ethic based on relationship; relationship between humans and relationship between humanity and the natural world. And, in the spirit of Kundera, I have located something of being human, of what it means to be alive in 21st century America. I find a temperance of our techno-rational culture in the ontology and the meaning of relationship found within fiction.
In closing, I would like to say something about my title. I love music and I particularly enjoy music often labeled (mislabeled) bluegrass, folk, grassroots, and/or jam bands. I like songwriters who compose songs as poetry. Lyrical poetry inspires much of what I write. Given this, I want to close by playing for you the song that inspired this talk, Living in Babylon, by Emmylou Harris. For me, it is a dire and harsh description of our culture yet it ends with a sense of hope. It is my sincere wish to close tonight with a sense of hope.
Good night and thank you for coming to SOPHE.
Corbett, W. (2004). Living large: Jim Harrison’s wide open spaces. Retrieved online on August 26, 2004 at http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/arts/books/documents/03821698.asp
Harrison, J. (2004). True North. New York: Grove Press
Kingsolver, B (2001). The prodigal summer. New York: Harper Collins.
Kingsolver, B (2002). Interview with I-Village. Retrieved August 26, 2004 at http://www.ivillage.com/
Kundera, M. (1993). The art of the novel. New York: Harper and Row
Murry, J. (2004). A few short notes on tropical butterflies. New York: Harer Collins.
 Song title written by Emmylou Harris and Jill Cunniff, on the CD, Stumble into Grace (2003), Nonesuch Records, 79805.
 From the song “My Dirty Live and Times” by Warren Zevon on the CD, The Wind, Warren. Zevon Music, (BMI).