A Literary Convention, Of Sorts

I've thought a lot about those Sal and I came to identify as Roger's insiders, and about what was really different about them. One odd thing, it seems to me, is that so many of them are writers. Even though that is what my own profession is, I've always had the nagging idea that writing is a kind of scam. I don't mean that writers, at least the best ones, intend to cheat anyone, but that making money just by writing down what you think or imagine does not seem like real productive work. I know that some writers really work very hard at their writing and would be upset with my characterization of their craft, and perhaps it is only because writing is very easy for me, that sometimes I have the impression that writing is almost a racket. It's when I have that impression that the number of Roger's circle who are writers makes me question whether we are really what we believe we are. Above all things, the independent individualist is a producer, a producer of concrete values. What concrete value do we writers actually produce?

I thought about Peter Sterling, a superlative philosopher, but all that he has written is essentially a joke. Oh, it's satire, of course, and that requires some cleverness, but beyond the immediate entertainment it gives those who understand it, what other value does it have?

I decided to have a look at the Priscilla Van articles that were causing such a stir, and Frank had recommended. Rather than describe them, I'll transcribe them.

The one that started it all he entitles, "Questioning Angels." It begins with a letter to Miss Van, followed by his (her) response.

"Dear Miss Van, "I know about the government's claim that there are extraterrestrials in the world which is being used as their excuse for the NatAlSec sweep to find everyone's birth origin. It is very worrying to me, because I was certainly born in this world, but not in this country. Both my husband and I were born in Mexico, and have been living in the United States since we were children, and now have our own teenage children.

"I'm worried about the sweep, not because we are extraterrestrials, but because we are 'illegal aliens.' We can get false papers if we have to, like all the others we know, though we hate to do it. We just want to work hard, earn our own way, and be left alone until we die.

"My question is, do you believe extraterrestrials are real and are the real reason the government is doing this? If not, what is the real reason.

"—Honest, Hardworking, Illegal American

"Dear Honest, Hardworking,

"That is really two questions, but I'll answer them both.

"Yes I do believe there are extraterrestrials and they are in the world, but they are not what the government is saying they are. They are, however, the reason the government is carrying out this campaign to find them.

"The so-called extraterrestrials are actually angels and the government is trying to find them to destroy them. It's an old story, actually. One that you know.

"You know the story of the two angels that warned Abraham of God's pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They also visited Lot's own family in Sodom, and in fact spent the night in Lot's home. The Sodomites got wind of the angel's presence and went looking for them. Rumor had it they were staying at Lot's house, and the entire disgusting mob crowded around lot's house demanding Lot bring the angels out to them to do to them what sodomites do.

"See, the homosexual agenda had been totally successful in Sodom, and even when the pusillanimous Lot offered to give that crowd his own daughters to abuse, if they would leave the angels alone, being what the were, they insisted the men (which is how angels appear in this world) be brought out to them. Fortunately, the angels struck that whole perverted crowd blind, and that was the end of that.

"Things are not much different today. The governments of the world know the men they are looking for are not simply aliens, but agents of God, and they are afraid of them. The whole thing is an attack on your religion and on your God. That is what you really have to be afraid of. At all costs, if you, or anyone else knows any of these 'angel' men, please hide them from the NatAlSec government agents.

No wonder Frank said the homosexuals were planning to kill Priscilla Van. Of course, the irony is, Peter knows there really are non-earth humans in the world. Peter's use of angels is a very clever metaphor for the truth, that only those who know the truth can understand.

In his follow-up article he explains that the government will try to explain away the angels as simply members of a highly evolved race of intelligent beings. No doubt most government agents really believe the government propaganda, including the stories about certain celestial anomalies, like the Fermi Bubbles actually being artifacts of advanced civilizations.

"Their attempt," he wrote, meaning the government, "is to destroy your faith in your religion and replace it with faith in their false science. When they have accomplished that, the government will be your God, and they will have complete control of you."

I admit is was all fun to read, but what exactly was the value of it all beyond that. I'm sure Peter enjoyed writing it, and enjoyed the reactions even more, but was it really productive effort?

I wanted to know what Peter would think about my question. In fact I wanted to know what all the other writers thought. Jo, at least, was writing Peter's philosophy, which had real objective value, even if it had little or no market value. I knew I would buy it, and perhaps some of the others, but few others in this world seemed to be interested in the truth.

Ruth Sparberger was the only exception, as far as I was concerned. Her children's books certainly had market value and had made her justifiably wealthy, and their objective value in making independence and individualism real ideals for children, though not appreciated by the adult world, certainly was appreciated by those children the adults had not yet corrupted. I wondered if the Barret children had read Ruth's books. I was sure they had.

Sally and I invited everyone, but made it clear the subject of the day was going to be literature and writers, and that no one who was not really interested in the subject needed to attend. We were quite surprised that everyone showed up.

That was all the writers, of course, Jo, Margo, Franz, Peter and Ruth. I was not too surprised by the Barrets' appearance, since I was sure they were interested in everything intellectual, and of course Frank was interested in everything as well. I wasn't sure exactly what Dempsey's interest would be, except to learn more about earth humans possibly.

I was surprised, somewhat, when both Ned Carpenter and Joel Rice showed up. Even Andrew asked if he might, just this once, be part of the company.

"Andrew, you are always part of the company. You never have to ask," I said.

"Oh thank you Sir. Really, I do enjoy serving the guests more than being one, but I am very interested in literature," he explained.

After a light buffet lunch we all gathered in what Roger called the parlor. Chairs and love seats had been arranged informally in a circle. Everyone became very quiet when they were seated, and everyone was looking at me.

I had no intention of being an MC, formally or informally. I wanted the discussion to reveal the thoughts of our guests, because I knew I had before me, the best minds available in this world. My purpose was to learn from them, not to solve some philosophical problem or arrive at some esoteric conclusion.

"I'm afraid I've invited you all here for a very selfish reason. I'm a writer, as are several of you. I hope the question I have is not a problem for you, but it is for me. What is the objective value of literature, what is the objective value of my work, or yours, if you are a writer?

"That's two questions isn't it Mark?" Peter interjected. "What is the value of literature, and what is the value of one's own writing. On second thought it is actually eight questions, because for any product, its value has four elements, value to the producer, value to the buyer, market value, and objective value."

Of course you're right Peter. I'm interested in the question of what the value of literature is, from all those perspectives. But even if we end up only talking about one of them, I'm sure I'll learn a great deal and be satisfied.

For a moment, there was silence. It did not worry me, because it meant that everyone was thinking, and I knew in another moment the product of that thinking would begin to pour out.

These things never take the course one expects, of course. and I was quite surprised that it was Dempsey who started things off.

"There is one other value that Peter did not mention, perhaps because it is a false value and would not occur to him, but on this planet everything is presumed to have a 'social' value, especially things like literature, and the 'arts.'"

"That's right I would not think of it, Dempsey, just because there is no such thing as a social value," Peter said.

"Doesn't literature have an influence on society, though. Doesn't religious literature influence those who believe it, and doesn't political literature influence people's political views? Wouldn't those influences affect the society they live in?" Joel asked.

"Aren't you suggesting that if literature influences people in a bad way, that a society made up of people influenced that way would be a bad society?" Jo asked.

"Yes, exactly," Joel affirmed, but there was some doubt in his voice.

"You already know what's wrong with that, Joel. What does it mean to say someone is 'influenced' by literature. Does any literature actually make anyone do anything? If it does, that's the end of what we all believe, that everyone must choose what they do. It can't be both ways," Margo asserted.

"I know that's true," Joel agreed. "But doesn't literature provide a way for people to learn? Certainly the printing press increased learning in ways that changed the societies of Europe and made the industrial revolution possible."

"Was it printed literature that made the changes in European society, or was it individuals that used the literature to learn and pass what they learned on to others, and put into practice what they learned in new development, especially in the sciences?"

"Well, of course it was individuals," Joel admitted.

"The mistake is in this. A society is only a collection of individuals, and the kind of society any society is will be determined entirely and solely by the kind of individuals that make up that society. Literature cannot be read by societies, it can only be read by individuals. Putting what is learned from literature into practice can only be done by individuals, not societies. There can be no social value in literature. If a society becomes either better or worse as a result of literature, it is because the individuals in that society chose to be better or worse. It might be what they learn in literature they use as the basis, or excuse, for their choices, but the literature did not make them choose as they did. Society did not make the choice, only individuals did," Peter explained, and Joel seemed satisfied.

Dempsey did add one other comment.

"That is true, Peter, but so long as most of the people in a society believe that literature truly influences society, and choose to let it influence them, it will appear to be exactly what they believe it is—and it will always be bad," she said.

Joel too, added another comment.

"I agree with that, Dempsey. One of the great disappointments of my life has been the dearth of literature worth reading, and the flood of literature that is so horrible, it is torment to read. If people really believe literature provides them anything positive and proceed to read what is available, it can only corrupt them."

"That's exactly the way I feel," Ned added. "I love to read. I started reading before I went to school, and had read every children's and young adult's book available by the fifth grade. Then I started reading so-called adult books and found them all worthless, or worse. I had to stick with westerns, mysteries, and science fiction to find anything to read, but gave up looking while in high school. I only read history, biographies, and science books now." Then, almost apologetically, he added, "I have read all of Ruth's books, however." He grinned.

"Who hasn't," Bill Barret said. "Of course we, Sarah and I, only read them because Roxanne and John, our children, read them," he winked. "Thank you, Ruth," he said directly to her. "You have no idea how much pleasure you have given us."

Ruth smiled and nodded recognition of the Barrets' appreciation.

"Well that answers your question, Mark. Some literature has real value," Frank said.

"Yes, Frank it does, but I already had that answer. I know the value of what Ruth has written, I do not know the value of what I've written, or Peter, or Franz, for example."

"Have you read what Peter and Franz have written," Margo asked.

"Yes, I have, Margo. They are excellent writers, and I enjoyed their books immensely, but the enjoyment was diversion, entertainment, and even escape. I have to admit I learned something from their books as well.

"Does my pleasure in reading those books constitute a value, an objective value. Perhaps there does not need to be any other value, but if that's all there is, isn't it rather subjective?"

"Isn't all pleasure subjective, Mark?" Margo asked.

"Yes, of course, as it is experienced consciously, Margo. But the experience of pleasure alone is only a feeling, not a judgment. Pleasure is good, but just because something gives me pleasure that does not make it good. That's the view of hedonism. The truly good will give me pleasure, but what gives me pleasure may or may not be good. Just because I derive pleasure from reading something does not make it good."

"You're becoming almost as good a philosopher as Sally, Mark," Peter remarked. Of course no one understood the remark except Sally and I.

"I was referring to that pleasure one experiences from reading books that do have real value," Margo added. "The pleasure is still subjective, even though the good that produces it is objective."

"That's right," Peter said. "So long as the order is not reversed, pleasure is simply the consciously, and therefore subjectively, experienced reward for doing what is right."

"What about the opposite experience, Peter?, Joel asked. "My experience. Most of the literature I've read has been anything but pleasurable. It has been disappointment, usually filling me with revulsion and contempt. I don't like anything about it and reading is usually painful. There's no pleasure in it at all, except the tiny satisfaction from the fact I've managed to wade through it and confirm my personal view that almost everything that goes by the name literature is garbage. Is my painful experience a subjective one?"

"Your experience is, yes, but the reason for it is not subjective. It's your own values, your own grasp of the nature of reality and the purpose of life that make literature a disappointment to you. You expect an affirmation of the reality you understand from literature, and since almost all literature contradicts that reality, it is painful to read," Peter responded, philosophically."

"Wouldn't the opposite fact about literature say something about the nature of humans, at least the humans on this planet?" Andrew said, looking seriously at Dempsey. "The same literature that gives Joel, 'a pain,' if I may use that expression, just because it contradicts all he holds valuable and understands to be true, is apparently embraced as wonderfully, 'enlightening,' and, 'stimulating,' by the academics and so-called intellectuals, who apparently find real pleasure in reading the pap and tripe popularly called literature—unless they are all lying, which is certainly possible."

"Oh, they're not lying, Andrew," Dempsey replied. "What Joel, and all of us find repugnant in most literature, the mass of earth's humanity finds reaffirming. They regard life itself as a kind of burden and the world a place of constant threat, a dangerous place into which they have been thrust involuntarily, a world that constantly demands more than they are capable of. They regard themselves as weak and subject to passions, desires, and feelings they have no control over, and look for anything that will relieve them of their constant fear. They love literature that represents individuals as helpless victims of a world, society, and culture they never made or chose, as those who are never certain of what they ought to do or ought to be living for. Far from frightening them, such literature reassures them that their own paranoia is a normal state which they share with all others. Being part of the herd of the helpless is a comfort to them. It is not really pleasure they derive from such literature, it is relief from the pain of their constant terror."

"'The herd of the helpless.' Oh, I like that, Dempsey. I think I'll steal it," Franz said. "I'm sure the copyright laws do not cover extraterrestrial quotes."

"At the moment, I'm as terrestrial as you are, Franz, and will certainly sue the pants off you if you steal my material."

Ruth suddenly burst into laughter, which she tried desperately to suppress, apologizing:

"I'm sorry. It's just my irrepressible imagination. I just couldn't help seeing Franz removing his pants in court, and handing them over to Dempsey."

Franz, frowned, but everyone else laughed.

"Since most literature is trash, or worse, is there any literature with real value? I agree that most literature, especially that which is most highly praised, is simply terrible, but I have to admit, I've enjoyed some literature immensely. Do any of you enjoy any literature at all?"

"I do," I said, and Sally agreed, then several others said they found some literature quite enjoyable.

"I have greatly enjoyed many of the classics, but certainly not all," Franz said, "but most were a mixed bag. In most cases I've had to ignore aspects of such literature to enjoy the rest, but admit I did enjoy them."

"I have too," Margo said. "The ones I've enjoyed the most were those which challenged me intellectually, that had enough substance to really chew on and think about, even when I did not agree with much of them."

"What are some examples of books that are worth reading, that have something of real value?" Sally asked.

Sally's question led to some of the most interesting conversation of the afternoon which I'll describe when I return to our, "Literary Convention."

—Mark Halpern