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Literature and our lives: the Fiction of Relationship

What is the role of literature in our lives? What is the fiction of relationship? How do we make sense of the plethora of interpretations that get ascribed to literature? I confronted these questions during the interesting (and for me disturbing & challenging) free on-line Coursera offering Fiction of Relationship with Arnold Weinstein of Brown University.

Subjects to be discussed:

• What is the role of literature in our lives?

For Enjoyment? To understand the other? To foster empathy? To get a thrill from drama, excitement, or bone-chilling fear? To supplement our imaginations with imaginary experiences? To explore other roads that we will not or cannot take ourselves? As a propaganda or meme-selection evolutionary process? To stimulate our base emotions to make us care (about the book, its characters or its values)? Why do you read and tell stories?

What is the nature of reading? To become the other? A multidimensional "fiction of relationship"? A relationship with the story or its author?

What is the nature of art? How does art change after it enters the real world where it is experienced and discussed beyond its originator? Does it make sense to honor the artist's original intention? Or is that both unavailable and undesirable? Does art fundamentally change through time?

• What is fiction of relationship? Arnold Weinstein suggests a plethora of possibly contradictory, sometimes paradoxical, but always probing partial definitions.

As an epistemological thesis it suggests that connection (relationship) and story (fiction) are inherently intertwined. Are they? Is this a paradox? Is fiction of relationship the fundamental epistemology of Universe? [Epistemology concerns the nature of understanding or knowledge.]

As an ontological observation it suggests that story and connection are all that there is. Is fiction of relationship the fundamental ontology of Universe? [Ontology concerns the nature of being or existence.]

In human relationships it suggests the ethereal nature of bonding. Is fusion of bodies, souls, or beings possible? What is the self and the other? How do they relate? What are the dimensions of relationship? Of story? How do stories color relationships and conversely how do relationships color stories?

• What is the nature of interpretation in literature?

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story "The Garden of Forking Paths" which suggests that all possible futures and paths exist. Arnold Weinstein seems to take the same attitude toward literary interpretation in that he engages so many that I became dizzy and almost dumb with all the possibilities.

Why do we have so many interpretations of literature? In a theory of literature course at Open Yale over 20 theories of literary interpretation are considered. I'm sure I do not have the patience for such a course, but why are there so many?

In college I refused to take literature courses because I heard that Freud was a significant force in literary interpretation. Unfortunately, Arnold Weinstein played the Freud card many times. I consider several of Weinstein's Freudian interpretations to be rubbish. Am I wrong? Is Freud an important modality of literary interpretation?

Here is a listing of the works I read for the "Fiction of Relationship" course:

• Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731).

• Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).

• Herman Melville’s Bartleby (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855).

• Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) and A Country Doctor (1919).

• Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse (1927).

• William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932).

• Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones (1956).

• Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace (1963).

• Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).

• J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999).

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  • CJ F.

    A new session of the free on-line course "Fiction of Relationship" has been announced. It will run again from Sep[masked] - Dec 8 2014. You can sign up here: https://www.coursera.org/course/relationship

    July 17, 2014

  • CJ F.

    US Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer extols the virtues of literature in this interview in The New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/07/reading-proust/

    Most of the discussion is about Proust, but he lauds literature in the middle: "Literature is crucial to any democracy." He then discusses other benefits of literature in general and to the law in particular. He ends with a nice quote: "To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe."

    October 24, 2013

  • Sidney

    Woke up with a bad headache. Sorry to cancel last minute.

    1 · October 13, 2013

    • Patty

      Oh, so I'm not the only one who's been getting serial headaches. Thanks, Andrea, I hadn't made the connection with the weather. Keeping my Tylenol handy.

      October 17, 2013

    • Jyoti M.

      Patty, Andrea and all other aching friends , please read the article on ,"How Knees Predict the Weather" in Tuesday's ( 10/15/13) Health & Wellness section in the Wall Street Personal Journal. WSJ.com/Wellness. You will never blame yourself for having aches and pains before and during the rains!

      October 18, 2013

  • Jean S.

    Great! CJ is brilliant to say the least... He often makes me dizzy with all of the research that he has done to prepare for a discussion. I can only hope to have a little of his intellectual capacity for learning. Thank you for being a great teacher, CJ.

    1 · October 14, 2013

  • Sidney

    At no risk of sounding repetitive, I once again say "thanks CJ" for your time, effort, and facilitation of another thoroughly stimulating meetup!

    1 · October 13, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Thank you all for a cleansing cathartic experience. I now feel ready to read more fiction again! I guess Arnold Weinstein burnt me out a little. I was not prepared to exercise my imagination quite so much. Now I see exercising my imagination as a task to pursue more diligently and fiction as a powerful tool to explore the social dimensions of imagination, Theory of Mind, and empathy.

    My first comment from Oct 1 has the link to the New Yorker podcast of John Cheever's remarkable short story "The Swimmer." You will enjoy the workout that that story gives your imagination.

    My next novel will be "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak (but first I have to finish Kierkegaard for the next "Art of Living" meetup). I mentioned Shafak's poignant TED talk a few days ago. Since she was prosecuted for what she wrote in this novel, I'm motivated to read it! Shouldn't reading be subversive?

    Here is another shout out for Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk. I mentioned it in the same comment as Shafak.

    October 13, 2013

  • Jyoti M.

    CJ, thanks again for organizing such a meaningful and intellectually stimulating meet up. Today's topic of fiction and relationship was very complex but with your facilitation, flow was very smooth. Group dynamics was non threatening and very responsive. Really enjoyed being with the group. Thanks!

    1 · October 13, 2013

  • Will B.

    I was initially hesitant due to my fears that the entire time would be spent on the ontological status of "relationship(s)" That didn't happen and everyone stayed within the reasonable boundaries set by acceptance that this would be unproductive. I was very happy with the personal "sharing" (is that PC?) as well as the less self-referential remarks made today. Everyone was friendly and open to the ideas that we can and do differ in how we approach literature of all kinds and what our "relationship" with all types of literature mean to us.

    2 · October 13, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    So sorry to cancel at the last moment!

    1 · October 13, 2013

  • John S. J.

    Recent New York Times column:
    For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov
    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/

    October 13, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I really wanted to come to this discussion, but unfortunately something came up that I have to attend at the same time. I would be very, very interested in future discussions centered around literature, fiction, stories, storytelling, etc. and look forward to taking part in this group soon.

    1 · October 12, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Here are three penetrating quotes from Arnold Weinstein that I captured from his "Fiction of Relationship" course:

    "I think most of the great literature of the world is willy-nilly about relationship. It's about the individual negotiating or discovering the nature of his or her connection, links to others."

    "Our thoughts are not only constrained by others, but made up of others. Do we own our thoughts? Are our thoughts ours? Did you create your own thoughts? Your values. Did you make your own values?"

    [O]ne interesting thing about literature is it delivers something of the murk that we actually live in. It's only when trouble comes, when the collisions occur, when the horrible lights go on that illuminate the errors we've made, that we see things and we discover how inscribed and circumscribed our lives may be."

    October 12, 2013

  • CJ F.

    For the "Fiction of Relationship" course I also wanted to explore the bond, connection and depth of inter-personal human relationships, so I wrote this essay "The Electrifying Charge of Ethereal Relationship in Life and in Death": https://plus.google.com/104222466367230914966/posts/cS9GgPF8npm

    Is human relationship ethereal? Are human relationships, therefore, a fiction? A construction of our minds with little objective substance to them? What is the bedrock of human relationship? Is it mutual desire? Is it expectation? Does "fiction of relationship" hint at and partially reveal the core and essence of the nature of a human relationship? Can literature help us better understand human relationships?

    October 12, 2013

  • Patty

    C.J., I'm not sure if I can make this discussion so I took myself off the Yes list. If I can make it, I'll sit toward the back for those on the list to be able to participate. I'd really wanted to attend this discussion.

    1 · October 12, 2013

  • CJ F.

    In this short 2 minute teaser for the "Fiction of Relationship" course, Arnold Weinstein defines the Fiction of Relationship as our desire to blend with and become the other. It is a poignant introduction to our discussion for tomorrow. Watch this short 2 minute video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssu8GN8UHhM

    October 12, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Arnold Weinstein is the instructor of "Fiction of Relationship". Here is an exquisite 53 minute audio interview with him: http://www.radioopensource.org/arnold-weinstein-the-dimensionality-of-reading/

    A key topics for tomorrow's discussion is the role of literature in our lives. Is literature a way to be introduced to what you don't know? Is it a workout for the imagination? Does literature provide distorted mirrors to see our world and our lives in new ways? Is reading basic nourishment for our souls where like with eating we intake nutriment and excrete what we cannot use?

    The interview also discusses the role of interpretation and "literary theory". Weinstein accepts theory but thinks literature should be read and discussed at the level of perception and experience. Should we encounter literature for its emotion, for its "essential liquids" (Orhan Pamuk), for its "further flowing" to inform and enlighten the contemporary world? Or through the lenses of sundry literary theories?

    October 12, 2013

  • CJ F.

    My final essay for the "Fiction of Relationship" course explored "The Both-Neither Paradox of Story and Relationship": https://plus.google.com/104222466367230914966/posts/YvYW4tchWPr

    Is there a fundamental epistemological paradox at the heart of experience? Does the expression "Fiction of Relationship" capture that essence of reality? Does knowledge and "Fiction of Relationship" have a both-neither paradoxical quality to them? How does abstraction affect relationship or connection? How does abstraction affect story? How does language affect the relationship of story and connection? Do story and connection mutually define each other? Is this paradox the essence of knowledge?

    October 11, 2013

  • CJ F.

    One of the issues with stories and storytelling is how they establish, reinforce or break our stereotypes. Chimamanda Adichie's powerful 18 minute TED Talk explains the importance for many stories: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

    Elif Shafak's poignant 19m TED Talk about the transcendental role of story and connection in contradistinction to the politics of story also highlights the value of art and story in our lives and our literature http://www.ted.com/talks/elif_shafak_the_politics_of_fiction.html

    October 11, 2013

  • CJ F.

    In the "Fiction of Relationship" course, my essay on Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse" explores her metaphors of darkness and light and their relationship to the fundamental epistemology (knowledge) and ontology (nature of being) of "fiction of relationship". My essay is at https://plus.google.com/104222466367230914966/posts/3f2H4c568UB

    My plan for Sunday will be to present these ideas in much simpler terms. This is just background information for those who are interested to know what I did for the fiction of relationship course. On Sunday I will simplify this material so that everyone can participate even if you have not read Woolf nor my essay.

    Are darkness and light opposing forces that provide the creative forces for life and literature? Are paradoxes such as the creative interplay between darkness and light at the heart of knowledge, understanding, and existence? Do novels like "To The Lighthouse" and plays like "Hamlet" help us understand these deep existential paradoxes.

    October 10, 2013

  • CJ F.

    In the "Fiction of Relationship" course, I wrote an essay about the novella Manon Lescaut defending her character as ethical from a Nietzschean perspective:
    https://plus.google.com/104222466367230914966/posts/PW4tUaShigD

    Should we be allowed to interpret a work from the perspective of a writer who lived more than a century after the book was published? Can we interpret art however we choose or are their requirements that must be met by an interpretation? What are those requirements? Is a woman who defends her cheating on the narrator with the ethics of a "fidelity of the heart" defensible? Are the stories we tell of the unique art that makes our lives and our literature both a fiction of relationship and a Nietzschean ethics?

    October 9, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Is there such a list, or can people make suggestions here, to the question 'What are great literary characters to emulate?

    October 1, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Randy, you might want to look to Hamlet as a hero to emulate. I just reviewed a penetrating lecture which depicts Hamlet as a hero seeking "right action" in a world governed by injustice and outrageous fortune (much like our own world): http://www.meetup.com...­]

      October 8, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Thank you ... a solid archetype if there ever was one.

      October 8, 2013

  • CJ F.

    For the Fiction of Relationship course I mention in the description for this event, I wrote a short 150 word response to the question "What is The Fiction of Relationship?" that just barely exceeds the character limit of 1000 on meetup. So you'll have to read it on my Google + page: https://plus.google.com/104222466367230914966/posts/7zfgiN7PLK6

    By the end of the course I had changed my tune and viewed story and relationship as co-equals in forming a "unit of knowledge". On Sunday, we will discuss the roles of fiction (=story) and relationship (=connection) in the theory of knowledge (epistemology).

    Can literature help us understand knowledge and explore fundamental philosophical questions? Is "Fiction of Relationship" somehow fundamental to our understanding of knowledge? Is fiction of relationship the fundamental epistemology of Universe? Is this a paradox? As a paradox does it open up creativity and depth or is it troubling or exciting or both or neither?

    October 8, 2013

  • Brian

    Great topic and preparatory materials. It might also be useful to distinguish more clearly between "story" as "fiction" and "story" as "narrative" (and perhaps "story as representation"---"The World as Connection and Representation" (is there a quasi-Kantian implication there that "connection is not a predicate")?).

    October 1, 2013

    • Brian

      (While literary theories of deconstruction may be tangential, I think it's worth noting that Weinstein's concept of the paradoxical relations between "fiction" and "relationship"­ seem to obviously derive from deconstructive criticism's conceptualization of "metaphor" (as structure/similarity/ico­nicity) and "metonymy" (as contiguity/ connection/reference)).

      October 8, 2013

    • Brian

      (on second thought he probably got it more from Lacan's view of the paradoxical interplay of metaphor and metonymy, which I haven't read much of because he's Freudian, though perhaps to a slight extent more philosophically and even scientifically rehabilitatable than Freud....)

      October 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/?_r=0

    "For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov
    Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel."

    October 7, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Award-winning novelist Isabel Allende's great TED Talk "Tales of Passion" is an example of storytelling with a strong social-political component. Do all stories have a political component? Are politics, propaganda, or meme evolution something that stories lead or are stories following these qualities from the broader developments in civilization?

    http://www.ted.com/talks/isabel_allende_tells_tales_of_passion.html

    October 7, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Filmmaker Andrew Stanton of Toy Story fame gives some hints and clues as to what makes a great story. Among his thoughts are "make me care", "give a promise", "invoke wonder", and "use what you know". He gives a nice quote from british playwright William Archer: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty".

    The talk doesn't directly address the questions I plan to explore with you on Sunday, but it is a nice talk about the elements of storytelling.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story.html

    October 7, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Carmen Agra Deedy tells this brilliant story about human connection "You're Going to Miss Me": http://www.ted.com/talks/carmen_agra_deedy_spins_stories.html

    Poignantly she argues "every one of us has this desire for once just once to tell our story and have it heard" and that "great story is the art of letting go".

    We may not discuss this story during the meetup on Sunday the 13th, but it is such an wonderful story and it makes a deep point about the "Fiction of Relationship" which will discuss in some depth on the 13th.

    So please enjoy Carmen Agra Deedy exquisite storytelling at http://www.ted.com/talks/carmen_agra_deedy_spins_stories.html

    October 6, 2013

  • CJ F.

    New research shows that literary fiction (in contradistinction to popular fiction and nonfiction) improves readers "Theory of Mind" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_Mind), that is, their ability at empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Here is a news release about the research: http://www.newschool.edu/pressroom/pressreleases/2013/CastanoKidd.htm

    A New York Times blog post tries to put the research into perspective: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/

    Here is the abstract of their paper in Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/10/02/science.1239918

    So maybe literature does have an important role to play in our lives, in society, and in our educational system. What do you think?

    1 · October 4, 2013

  • CJ F.

    In this 42 minute podcast "Voices Over Water" from the New Yorker's "Fiction podcast", Anne Enright reads John Cheever's remarkable short story "The Swimmer." Here is the podcast page for it: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2011/02/14/110214on_audio_enright

    You can download it directly here:
    http://downloads.newyorker.com/mp3/fiction/110216_fiction_enright.mp3

    What does this story do for you? Why do you like? Did you enjoy it? What role do such stories play in our lives?

    What does this story say about the "fiction of relationship"? Do such surprise endings apply only to others or should we ourselves take the message of the fragility of life and story to heart?

    How would you suggest we should interpret Cheever's "The Swimmer"? Ought we classify it? How so?

    October 1, 2013

  • Will B.

    I am looking forward to attending this one Your list of references is really impressive!"

    1 · September 4, 2013

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