Sunday, November 29, 2009


In Pinker’s piece Why We Curse, he writes that “Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire.” This concept of language-as-weapon certainly helps illuminate what, exactly, is so threatening about literature. Though words are, in theory, “arbitrary labels” (Pinker in Freedom’s Curse) they nonetheless possess the power to alter the world in significant ways. That each book we have read over the course of this semester has been viewed as a “weapon” is evident: they have all, at some point in time, been banned. Yet perhaps part of the weapon-like quality of the books lies not in the books themselves but in the readers’ interpretations.

For example, Pinker writes that “the common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone.” He then evokes the example “To hear nigger is to try on, however briefly, the thought that there is something contemptible about African Americans.” While this word might be “weapon-like” to the extent that it may cause a reader discomfort or pain, its purpose in the type of literature we have been studying is rarely to harm. Rather, as in Huck Finn, its purpose is to enlighten; to cause the reader to consider the implications of a word by “trying it on.” The deeper understanding that ensues as a result of this discomfort is worth the initial pain.

I’m not attempting to refute Pinker’s point about the weapon-like quality of language entirely. Indeed, I agree with him that “the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs.” I simply think it worth noting that something that might appear weapon-like (i.e. the use of the n-word in novels like Huck Finn or the mingling of religion and science in novels like A Wrinkle in Time) is not necessarily so and that from these apparent weapons comes growth.

What I found most interesting about these articles was the extent to which they highlight the dangers of language and fiction. Though I argued above that not all weapon-like literature is truly destructive, I still appreciate Pinker’s point that language can act as a weapon. In Hettinga’s article, I think it particularly interesting when he writes “when fiction is not read as fiction but as philosophy or aphorism, the reader, however well-intentioned, does the writer a significant injustice.” I think this is a major danger present to the uneducated reader – especially those who interpret novels like A Wrinkle in Time or The DaVinci Code as actual philosophy or history. This type of literal reading is exactly that which we are taught not to do in the classroom.

Finally, what I found most surprising about this semester was the manner in which I was able to relate our readings to my world and, in particular, to my service learning. Never before have I taken a class that asked me to consider its content in the context of my surroundings and connect the two in such an explicit way. I don’t think a single week passed where I was unable to connect our course readings to the world and/or to my service experience. This method infused both the readings as well as my reality with more meaning and opened my eyes to the interplay between literature and life.

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