I loved my university library. I used to browse the different stories and gather different random books that happened to catch my eye. That's how I first came across Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence, surely one of the sexiest books out there that's labeled a classic. It was in just such a dusty book browsing sessions that I first came across S. I. Hayakawa's book Language in Thought and Action. Even if this book had been the only thing I took away from college, it alone would have made all the investment of money and time worthwhile. It changed the way I understood the world.
In this blog post, I will borrow heavily from Hayakawa's thoughts about abstract and concrete. And we will use these concepts as the underlying theory to all the reading and writing we do in this class. In this blog post you will read about:
Abstract and Concrete
Hayakawa talks about abstract and concrete in his chapter "How We Know What We Know." He presents a concept called the ladder of abstraction, because like so many other things in life, a thing is never simply "abstract" or "concrete:" it's a spectrum. Below is a page from Hayakawa's book depicting an example of the ladder of abstraction with Bessie the cow. On the right are pairs of words, abstract and concrete. Although, what we now know because of Hayakawa is that the concrete words are actually just more concrete than abstract words, and vice versa. Compared to a mile of land, the concept of "Texas" is abstract.
All the levels of abstraction on the ladder are important. The ability to move up and down the ladder is the hallmark of meaningful language. On page 93, Hayakawa says, "A preacher, a professor, a journalist, or a politician whose high-level abstractions can systematically and surely be referred to lower-level abstractions is not only talking but saying something." Take a politician, for example, who is always talking about "freedom." The concept of freedom is a pretty high-level abstraction. The key between meaningful and meaningless language is whether the politician can move down the levels of abstraction successfully without contradicting reality. Maybe the politician moves down the ladder by defining freedom as the freedom to get help when you're sick, no matter what. Or maybe they define freedom as the freedom of a landowner to shoot someone who walks on their property. In my experience, politicians mostly never bother with the lower levels of abstraction at all.
How does all this apply to the literature we will be reading? Allow me to quote Hayakawa again:
The word of good novelists and poets also represents this constant interplay between higher and lower levels of abstraction. A "significant" novelist or poet is one whose message has a high level of GENERAL usefulness in providing insight into life, but they give their generalizations an impact and persuasiveness through an ability to observe and describe actual social situations and states of mind.
These concepts also relate to your analysis of literature. Moving from a claim to textual support is moving down the ladder of abstraction. Drawing or writing conclusions based on evidence is moving down the ladder. One way to understand all the analysis you will be doing in this class and maybe all your other classes, is to see analysis as moving up and down Hayakawa's ladder.
In the spirit of empathy and roadblock acknowledgement discussed in our first class and blog post, our summer reading assessment will be optional. It will be an extra major grade if you do it. If you don't do it, it will be excused. For your assignment, you will choose one of your summer reading books. The assignment has two parts. First, you will create a collage to represent character, setting, and plot. Generally speaking, this exercise of finding specific photos is an exercise in moving down the ladder of abstraction. Here's my example:
You have all the freedom when it comes to how you will create this collage. It can be with images from magazines or photos printed out and glued. If you choose the digital route like I did, I have some tool suggestions in the assignment under the Plans tab in the HUB. In the second part of the assignment, you will explain how the photos and the literary elements relate. So you will be moving up and down the ladder of abstraction. Here's my example:
In Uprooted, the main character Agnieszka begins the novel as an Eastern European peasant in a mountain village. Her culture and her style is represented by the black and white photo in the lower left corner. This image is the only literal representation of Agnieszka because her journey is a story of finding the strength within herself that she always had. Her settings change, and the people surrounding her change, but each of these changes only teaches Agnieszka how to find more strength and magic within herself.
I chose the three images of the setting to mark the progression of Agnieszka’s character as she travels through these places. She begins in a village, the serfdom of a power magician named the Dragon. The Dragon takes Agnieszka as tribute, and Agnieszka is forced to live in an environment that is completely unnatural: a castle on top of a hill. There she learns of her own magic and by the end, Agniezka builds her own home for herself in the magical and treacherous woods. The stream represents the literal stream from the story, but it also represents Agniezka, because she is a channel between the magic and the history of the land and the present.
The plot line that I chose to illustrate is the story of Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia being taken by the forest and planted into a tree. Agnieszka rips her out and tries to save her, as seen by the face in the tree and image of tree roots in the upper left corner. The middle image is an image of Baba Yaga, who becomes a kind of mythical mentor to Agnieszka and the source of the power she uses to save Kasia. The title Uprooted has meaning on many levels but one is a reference to this story: a girl uprooted from her home and devoured by a tree. Agnieszka herself is uprooted by the dragon, and the whole novel explores the question of how to create your place in the world when your home and a part of yourself has been violently severed.
The image, the character, the setting, and the plot explanations will be worth 25 points each. The project is due Tuesday, September 22.
Please read the Hemingway short story "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." This short story was another thing I read that had big implications on my life. I'm not really sure why, but I can trace decisions I made, like working the night shift at Waffle House during college and then running a bagel shop, to the feelings this short story stirred up in me. Also be prepared to share three different quotes that you think reveal something about character.