Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

FRAMEWORK for Workshop 8: "Literature, Identity and Discourse" by Conlin Wagner

In retrospect it seems that was expected from me at the conference in Brugges was some clear-cut model based on the experience of America that would help the regions of Europe solve some of the dilemmas facing integration. My conclusion was that the 'American experience' is so individual that no clear comparison can be made. The American population is much more diverse than the population of most European countries. Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain and countless others have celebrated the individual in their writing. But the American myth of the hardworking individual who in the end achieves what he or she had set out to do has been exploded. Lee Iacocca stated at a recent graduation ceremony at the University of Southern California, that he did not envy the graduates who were forced to go out into the world which his generation had helped to create. There was a time, he said, when a corner grocery store could flourish and bring wealth or at least a comfortable existence to the grocer and the grocer's family. But those days are gone. What corner store could compete with Safeway, Acme, A&P, Ralph's, Alpha-Beta. The question was rhetorical. Nobody needed an answer.

What needs to be kept in mind is that America was from the first an experiment: an experiment in democracy; an experiment in equal opportunity; an experiment in cultural integration. But those who become assimilated are largely those that give up the customs and those who deftly balanced 'American values' with the values of their fathers and mothers. This is the most prominent and perhaps the only theme which unites contemporary American literature, a literature which finally celebrates minority voices. American universities are now expanding the canon of literature to include writers of the several minorities as well as many women writers who have long been ignored. One of the questions now faced by European universities is what literature should be taught, i.e. how should the canon be expanded to include those who are under-represented? The first question to be asked then is "What groups of people are under-represented?" The second is "Who are the best writers from these groups?" The third is "how can the works of the best writers, no matter to what group they belong, be disseminated?" And this leads to the fourth: "How do we train translators of the highest calibre?"

European unity has been pushed so hard by certain parties in the past few years that Europe does not have the luxury of the three hundred some years that it has taken the American experiment in cultural integration to reach its present stage. But all is not well in America. I have seen highly capable people rejected for teaching positions, because the college was pressed to hire a minority. One case involved the hiring of a woman from India who wore a sari, though she had neither the qualifications nor the experience of a Caucasian male who had also applied for the position. Later the college discovered that Indians were not considered a minority in America, because by and large they tend to integrate successfully. I point this out as a means of trouble-shooting, to avoid the precarious swing of the pendulum which is causing turmoil in America, which may be encouraging integration, but which is not always in the best interest of the students who are entitled to the best education their money can buy.

Many of the talented writers in Europe have been ignored because they are writing in a language which few can read. This is unfortunate. Two goals which need to be considered are the initiation or development of comparative literature programs and the means needed to competently translate and disseminate their work. The June seminar in Athens should address these concerns. One of the most remarkable aspects of the informative and carefully planned seminar in Brugge was the under-representation of women, and men and women from smaller regions of Western Europe, and Central and Eastern Europe as well.

The United States has swung far away from the classical model of education which it inherited from Europe toward a more "user-friendly" model. Though we have swung too far in this direction to the extent that we are graduating students who are functionally illiterate, there have been some advantages. If the Nobel Prize can be considered an accurate gauge, then we are producing our fare share of creative minds. One concept which was initiated by the University of Iowa was "The Writers' Workshop" to represent mid-western writers who until the middle of this century were overshadowed by writers from other regions, predominately the Northeast and the South. The experiment was so successful that it has been copied by a large number of universities in America. At the same time the workshop has admitted writers from all regions of America and foreign countries as well, based solely on their ability to write (as subjective as this criterion may be). Flannery O'Conner and Raymond Carver are but two of these. As of now, I know only of a few programs in Europe which attempt to train creative writers - and all of them in England.

Companies such as "Els Comediants", the Catalan commedia troupe, and the "Royale de Luxe" theatre from Toulouse are virtually unknown outside of Spain and France. And yet they produce theatre which is easily accessible and enjoyed by those with no knowledge of Catalan or French. An exchange of artists and students from various regions could promote understanding.

I conclude from my reflections during and after the valuable seminar in Brugge, that Europe is facing a unique challenge - one that requires a European solution. And what's more, the answers are here. We (and I mean all those who care enough, no matter what our language, country or region of origin) need only to look and listen and recognise the voices which are struggling to be heard. And this includes the young people who were unfortunately not represented at all in Brugge: those who will become the artists, the professors, the translators, the architects of the Europe that will be. M.B.A. programs abound. We know how to train businessmen and women, though the American model has not been completely successful. And the Japanese are also experiencing burn-out of those who are narrowly trained and coerced to give all to The Company. What is apparent is that we can learn from the mistakes of others. Some people thrive on competition; others are ill-suited toward it. Certainly business thrives on creativity. When asked how he could be both an insurance executive and a composer, a famous American composer (whose name escapes me at the moment) remarked that the world of business demands creativity, whereas a concert of new music would draw the smallest of crowds. Even today the music which sustains concert halls throughout the Western World, is tried and true, music which tells a story. The music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Mahler sells the tickets for the entire season, just as the balladeers of the fifties and sixties sell the tickets for many recent movies (Stand by Me, Pretty Woman...) People crave a good story, not merely for escape and entertainment, but also for identity. Who is Pretty Woman if not Cinderella in thin disguise? But is rags to riches, as the Disney Studios and Twentieth Century Fox would have us believe, really what "Cinderella" is about? Or is the message of the original lost? Can we trust the movies to help our children develop their identities? To help perhaps. But through literature, through good literature, children are required to forge their own identities, to ask questions, to draw their own conclusions. The schools, the universities, the publishing houses must keep their needs in mind. Raising, educating children is a process rooted in experiment. One parent says the child needs structure; the other says too much will stifle creativity. How well do we listen to the child, and to what extent do we encourage their preferences? Those who are suited to business should study business; those suited so science should study science; those suited to the arts should study the arts. And all should be supported to develop their full potential according to their capabilities.

I was interrupted by the moderator, during my presentation in Brugge, who asked me if I had answers to the many questions which I was raising. My first response was no, mainly because I resented the interruption and wanted to get on with presenting my paper. But I realised that this was a pat answer and not at all accurate, so I quickly recanted and said, yes, I had many answers. This I truly believed. And still do. But I hope I shall never have all the answers.

Isn't this the best we can expect? To provoke debate within ourselves and among others? We've seen the Mercator projections in which certain countries appear much larger than they do on a globe. Which then is more accurate? Which is better? If we want answers, we must ask questions. If we want the best answers, we must ask incisive questions.

How can we promote the best literature? the best education? the best translators, the best theatre? We cannot rely on what we have done in the past. The world is turning too rapidly. We must listen to trained and untrained minds, to the majority and the minority, to those with power and those without, to those who know what they want, and those who are open to discover. Only then can we come up with answers. Intuition, according to Einstein, will help us to recognise - among all the possibilities - the best hypothesis, and perhaps even, the best answers.

Athens, February 1994


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