Changes Nothing

The other night, I dreamed I was talking with my former dissertation

A Few More Books

 director, Dr. Philip Sicker, about a recently published critical study of the poet W.H. Auden.

This led to a long discussion of the often quoted line “poetry changes nothing” from Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”

Yeats, you see, believed poetry (and plays and fiction) could change things. Some people say he was right (after all, the Irish political landscape changed markedly in his lifetime, possibly in part because Yeats helped create a modern Irish cultural identity). Some people (and not Auden, by the by; read the whole poem) say poetry changes nothing.

My dissertation director and I (remember, this is a dream) went on to discuss whether or not literature does change anything. In the course of this, Dr. Sicker admitted that he’d tried some of my stuff, “but it just didn’t work for me.”

Aside: I have no idea whether or not Dr. Sicker has ever read anything non-academic that I’ve written. Other than a few e-mails many years ago, we long ago fell out of touch.

I said, “Well, I can see why. When I think back to the books we read in your Modern Literature classes, most of them were about people who didn’t do much, certainly didn’t change much. These books were basically about self-reflection. Sometimes, at the end, the person seemed to be moving toward change, but we rarely saw the change happen.”

I went on, “The message in those books seemed to be ‘You can’t change anything.’ No wonder they don’t have much general appeal. No wonder young people turn to computer games or genre fiction for entertainment and inspiration. The implicit message in computer games and genre fiction (in which I’m lumping SF, Fantasy, Mysteries, and Thrillers) seems to be, ‘If you’re careful enough, if you plan, if you try and try again, you can change things.’”

Dr. Sicker nodded, but about that time (just before 5:00 a.m, dear lord) one of the cats decided she needed her ears rubbed. Abruptly awakened, I came out of the dream with a clear memory of the discussion and spent the next twenty minutes, until the alarm went off, thinking about it.

“Poetry doesn’t change anything.”

I just don’t see it. Literature – in which I’m now lumping both “literary” and “popular” materials – has changed so many things, on so many levels for me, has introduced new ideas, has upset me or delighted me. Even those much maligned computer games have taught me things: patience, attention to detail, the value of cooperation.

Wandering slightly sideways, I’ll add that, from comments I’ve had from readers here and there over the years that I’ve been a fiction writer, sometimes my writings have been a gateway into a change of life or at least a broadening of thought.

Does it matter if the changes a story affects are on a small scale? Not really. After all, isn’t that the implicit message in all those introspective literary fiction novels – that the smallest scale matters just as much as the largest?

Has a story changed your life? Made you think differently? Maybe even led you into a career choice? I’d love to know.

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21 Responses to “Changes Nothing”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Oh gosh yes — literature can certainly change things; both big and small. Perhaps the archetypal example as far as I’m concerned is Charles Dickens’ novel “Nicholas Nickleby”. The injustices of Dotheboys Hall and the sadism of Wackford Squeers made a big impression on contemporary society, as did the workhouse scenes in “David Copperfield” and, to an extent, the ‘us and them’ social divide portrayed in “Hard Times” (though the unionism is somewhat caricatured which tends to weaken the message). I well remember being taught all three of these books at school in English classes (naturally) but also in social history classes. Apparantly questions were asked in Parliament…

    Has a story changed my own life in any way? Yes, I think so. C. P. Snow’s novels and his ideas about the two cultures were a great comfort at age 16 when I had to choose between the arts and the sciences for the remainder of my education. I chose science, but I could equally well have gone with the arts. Snow was influential in this choice (as was my English teacher, bless him). And had my choice been different, my future career would never have gone in the direction that it did, I’d probably never have emigrated to the far side of the world and I’d certainly never have met my wife. Or my cats. A lot of people’s and animal’s lives would have turned out quite differently. It’s all C. P. Snow’s fault…

    Then there was “Catch-22” and also “Slaughterhouse 5”, thematically linked novels which were hugely influential in my teens and twenties when I began to take an interest in world politics. The Vietnam war was at its height and there were sickening pictures on my TV every night. Both books convinced me of the insanity and illogicality of war as a solution to anything at all, and my TV convinced me that it was still going on; that nothing had really changed. It wasn’t hard to take the next step after that realisation hit home. Things needed to change. But they didn’t, of course; at least not permanently.

    In a more abstract way, the novels of Jack Vance and of Cordwainer Smith taught me to love the English language. They were both master stylists, though Vance in particular was terrible plotter. There is little that is original or admirable in the detail of his stories. But the language is sublime. a true triumph of style over substance. Cordwainer Smith died far too young. I recently re-read “Norstrilia” — oh gosh! I wish there was more…

    Time to stop, or I’ll fill up the whole of your comment space. You keep pushing my buttons!


    -Alan

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    By the way — I love the pile of books in your illustration. The top and bottom bookends are a nice touch.

    “Ulysses” bored me to tears (even the dirty bits weren’t all that much fun). I’ve never read “Dr Faustus”.

    I can’t quite make out the title of the middle one but it looks vaguely like a thesis on D. H. Lawrence by someone called Lindskold…

    Assuming that it is a thesis on Lawrence, you might be interested to know that I lived for several years in Eastwood, the village where Lawrence was born and brought up. My landlady had been at school with Lawrence and she wouldn’t allow his name to be mentioned in her house. Apparantly his novels slandered too many of her friends! There was a small Lawrence museum in the village, in the house (well, more like a cottage actually) where Lawrence had been born. The villagers all boycotted it and regularly wrote letters of complaint to the council — Lawrence was deeply unpopular with everyone, it seemed.


    -Alan

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yep. The book in the middle is my dissertation (seemed appropriate). It’s entitled “The Persephone Myth in D.H. Lawrence.”

      Love the story about your landlady’s reaction to him…

      I actually picked to write about Lawrence because while I admired his work, I could step back and be balanced in my critical reaction.

      My “favorites” at that time were probably T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. Although I’ve written critical studies about both of them (one of my first publicatons was “The Autobiographical Occult in Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming'”) I wanted to keep some critical distance so I could emotionally enjoy their works.

      One of these days, I’ll write about my reaction to autobiographical fiction and what it does to the people involved, but not today.

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Any story I’ve read (or seen, as movies can sometimes be just as good in their own way) that I’ve enjoyed, I’ve done so because it had an impact. At worst, it made me think about something. Dig a little deeper into my own life. However, I can’t think of many that had a particular impact.

    But there is one I can mention.

    Back in high school, I was VERY close to a bird of mine. A Eurasian Collared Dove named Cinnamon. I was very a lone back then. Oh my family was close bout outside, I had no one. This dove kept me going. Then an accident claimed him. (details omitted for reasons I can’t explain without giving the details.) I was devastated. I’d lost the only thing I could hold onto for strength, for comfort. I soon remembered I book I read in elementary school. “Where the Red Fern Grows.” By Wilson Wrals. In my time of grief, I decided to read it again. It really helped me through it. Helped me deal with the loss, and move on from it. Also from that book, I gained the perspective of “meeting God halfway”. I have since come to believe that as a Christian, I can’t just sit around waiting to be lead on my path. I must work hard to be where I think God wants me to be, and he’ll give me the extra help I need to make it happen. Those two things are why it’s one of my favorite books.

    Of course I also (honestly) see your work as the standard to aim for, but that’s another post entirely. ;D

    Howl on!

  4. Paul Says:

    Certainly books have altered people’s thoughts, as far back as Dickens (cited earlier) and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I may have been influenced toward becoming a reporter by seeing reporters as heroes in some “B” mystery movies as a kid. (After all, I couldn’t become a wandering do-gooder cowboy. And even those movies may have influenced me not to take up smoking or drinking…I know the actors did both, but not in the roles they played in those movies for youngsters.) I think I can make an argument that science fiction, as a genre, prepared us for the space program and gave impetus to JFK’s “to the moon” initiative. Even fantasy taught me much, starting back with a child’s book in which some of the characters were out of mythology.

  5. Jane Says:

    Just today I heard a report on the radio about cuts to arts and music programs in schools. I was considering how often art can change the way society thinks and helps to set goals for society. My concrete thought was about SF and how many of todays scientists were inspired by early SF and even Star Trek. Not because of the great science in these books (or movies and TVs), but because of the stories they tell and the vision they bring to society.

    For me personally, I guess you could say that the Lord of the Rings changed my life because it got me into reading again. I had read as a youngster and grew to hate reading during junior and senior high school (beause I was being forced to read “literature” that I couldn’t identify with as a young adult.) LOTR fired my imagination and I’ve been reading Fantasy and SF since, eventually broadening my reading selections to non-fiction, historical fiction, best sellers, and classic literature.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Vision… Yes. Jane’s (who isn’t me) comment says so much.

    Poetry really changed my life. Thinking about T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland one day when I was an undergrad I suddenly saw all sorts of connections. It was the first time I was really aware how much my subconscious is a workhorse — something I’ve trusted and relied on ever since.

    If I hadn’t stretched my horizons out of my “comfort reading” zone, I don’t think I would ever have had that breakthrough.

    Jim credits a book called “All About Archeology,” given to him by his grandparents in 1961, for setting him firmly on his career choice. He was nine.

    This is the first time he was consciously aware of the field. Again, stretching horizons.

    The one problem with the net…

    No. That’s too big for a comment. Maybe I’ll come back to it next week!

    By the by, I’ll still be looking for comment on this, so feel free to weigh in over the weekend.

  7. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I have read so many books that inspired me to think differently and to see myself from another perspective. One such series is C.S. Lewis’s “Space Triology.” It has so many penetrating insights into how we view ourselves as humans, how we struggle to hold onto each passing phase of our lives, how some of us have a desire to always be part of the “in” crowd rather than trusting that we are valuable just as we are. It truly made me look at myself and so many of my flaws ~ and hopefully, my strengths. I love Emma Bull’s WAR FOR THE OAKS and anything by Charles DeLint… magic is all around us, and not perhaps, always pretty.

  8. heteromeles Says:

    Actually, I think Gerald Durrell’s books probably influenced me into liking biology, along with reading science fiction (L Sprague de Camp, for example) where smart people were the heroes.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, the bigger influence was finding which particular sciences I was good at. I’m not Doc Savage by a very long shot.

    That said, I keep thinking about those blasted planning documents I’ve had to review. While it’s romantic to think about the entertainments that influenced us as children, it’s tremendously frustrating that there are all these powerful documents lying around for public review, and most people don’t want to read or comment on them. They’re too intimidating or something, and they certainly aren’t fun to read. These are powerful documents, ones that get hills paved and turn farms into apartment complexes.

    Reading these things and commenting on the havoc they’ll cause (or the benefits they will bring) is a vital part of day-to-day democracy. With all the crap and blatant power grabbing that’s going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere, I just wish people would read them more. That’s our power, as citizens of democracies, and our way of governing our own futures. I only wish we’d exercise that power.

    Apologies for the rant.

  9. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Heteromeles ~ Not a rant! Well spoken and all too true.

  10. CBI Says:

    What a thought-provoking topic. I have also been changed *as a result* of what I’ve read, but I hope that very little of this has been *by* what I’ve read. It often seems to get missed that not all change is good — and, quite frankly, much of it is deleterious.

    Heteromeles alludes to this, and I’d go further. While there are many books that have changed things for the better, at lease temporarily (e.g., /The Gospel of John/ or /Free to Choose/), there are also many books that have changed things for the worse. /My Struggle (Mein Kampf)/, /The Communist Manifesto/, and /The Protocols of the Elders of Zion/ have made a differences for a lot of people — and the latter two are still quite influential in some venues — yet I’d contend that the world would likely be a better place had they never been written. (But what’s done is done, and now they serve as examples.)

    Reading is only a start: there is the matter of reflective critical thinking as well, plus the need for background knowledge. There is so much being written nowadays — as ever has been — with the aim of changing things, by people with much talent for writing. While this includes a lot of fiction, we see it more commonly and more apparently in the writing of pundits, journalists, advertisers, and the like.

    This was brought home recently to me in the press coverage of the post-tsunami incidents at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Almost all the press coverage (ABC, AP, CNN, Fox, NBC, NPR, NYT, in my personal experience) was sensationalist and misleading, inadvertently or not, and was intended to “change things”, in some ways or others. It took some effort to separate wheat from chaff — and to find other information sources — so that any changes in my beliefs were arrived at based upon rational thought. (By the way, the best broadcast media I found was the English language service of Kyodo News in Japan; the best plain-vanilla information source was the Nuclear Enterprise Institute.)

    I’d go further: there is a need to consider things outside one’s own comfort zone. To give a political example, if all one reads is written by someone like Ezra Klein and his co-believers — or, alternatively, by Ann Coulter and hers — one can not be said to be thinking critically. One may work towards “change”, but the two produce very different changes. Heteromeles mentioned the desire in Wisconsin for a group demonstrating to maintain its special privileges via cozy political corruption in the face of efforts by the citizens of that state to exercise their democratic power. While we might applaud that happening in a single election, it is more important to encourage discernment on a regular basis, even in the face of the confusing documents made into laws without review even by legislatures.

    Does literature — or poetry — make a difference? Of course! If you’ve doubts, consider that most hymns are poetry set to music. By any reasonable standard, there are hymns (and other songs) that have definitely made differences in many lives.

    But in any case, when looking at a proposed change, it is worth using those old interrogative pronouns. Who is advocating what change to whom? How is it to be implemented? When? What are other consequences, and what’s the cost? How do we know it will work?

    Sorry for the long response, but this is a very complex and interesting topic.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Okay… I’m really impressed.

    I think that many of you have taken this to a whole new level — and one that I find fascinating.

    Critical Thinking is so important. So is going outside of your comfort zone…

    And so, simply, are books such as those that Ann and Nicholas mentioned that show you that you aren’t alone in what you feel or those things you are reacting to.

    Interesting that both the unfamiliar and those things that show you what you have in common with the rest of the world can be fertilizer for personal growth.

  12. CBI Says:

    Do you think that a significant benefit of the “in common with the rest of the world” type of books is that they help reduce the senses of panic and of emotional isolation, which both facilitates a more rational examination of whatever the problem may be, and provides the encouraging knowledge that others have made it through this situation OK — “and so can I”?

    (Hmm. That’s probably the sort of sentence for which a professional author is thankful to have an editor to suggest fixes.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think that’s part of the reason, but even in circumstances where panic and emotional isolation aren’t the reaction they can be useful.

      Ann mentioned above finding in C.S. Lewis a greater understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.

      Sometimes a book can give us understanding of impulses we don’t feel ourselves. Then it’s a bridge to understanding of the other.

  13. Barbara Joan Says:

    WOW!!! I had read the first comments with interest. I have read the latest comments with delight and enthusiasm that there is so much to think and learn about from others whether it be in a book, a poem or a blog. Thank you all.

  14. Jake King Says:

    Though a series of books almost led me down a path in my life, I ended up not taking that road. However, to this day, James Herriott’s books about life as a English country Veterinarian still hold a special place in my heart. My mother used to read me some of his children’s books. (illustrated versions of some of his shorter stories in some of his regular books.) and I eventually read most of his other books as well. Sadly, that is the extent of this influence writing has had over me, and they aren’t fiction. (mostly not anyways). I suppose things like the C.S. Lewis books have shaped who I am, and created the strong sense of ‘right and wrong, do right, be just’ moralitu I carry with me to this day.

  15. janelindskold Says:

    I read teh Herriott’s, too. I still can start laughing when I remember the story about the goat and the old farmer’s “winter drawers.”

    I don’t think I could be a vet, though…

    C.S. Lewis also had an impact on me. I need to read more of his non-fiction…

  16. CBI Says:

    C.S. Lewis remains one of my favorite authors and thinkers of the 20th century. I own many of his writings, several bibliographies, and the first two volumes of his collected letters. (I *really* need to organize my Lewisiana library!)
    He had a knack of explaining things. I still think his discussion of sex, heaven, and chocolate in Miracles explains that point of view better than anything else I’ve read.

  17. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I’ve read a lot of C.S. Lewis, but not MIRACLES, so thanks for the recommendation, CBI.

  18. janelindskold Says:

    I also recommend SURPRISED BY JOY. As someone who has lost a partner, I found his discussion of grief right on target.

  19. Maria Menounos Says:

    Maria Menounos…

    […]Changes Nothing « Jane Lindskold: Wednesday Wanderings[…]…

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