Violent Obsessions of the Literary Kind

“Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth—I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can’t help myself. […]

As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theatre or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life.”

Anton Chekhov, The Seagull

See also: The Sorrows of a Young Writer
https://spywriter.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/the-sorrows-of-a-youngish-writer/

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Reading – a Bridge to Self

“What does reading do?”
“You can learn almost everything from reading.”
“But I read too.”
“So you must know something.”
“Now I’m not so sure.”
“You’ll have to read differently then.”
“How?
“The same method doesn’t work for everyone, each person has to invent his or her own, whichever suits them best, some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters. Unless…”
“Unless what?”
“Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.”

Jose Saramago, in The Cave

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The FBI’s First Double Agent

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William “Sebold, a German native born in 1899, served in his nation’s army during World War I then lived in the United States and South America before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1936. Three years later, during a visit to his homeland, Sebold was recruited to spy on the United States for Germany. The Nazis, who had learned he once worked briefly at an airplane factory in California, threatened him if he failed to cooperate. Sebold secretly went to the American consulate in Cologne and reported what had happened. Back in the United States in February 1940, the FBI convinced Sebold to become the agency’s first counterspy, or double agent. The FBI constructed a shortwave radio station on New York’s Long Island, where agents impersonating Sebold exchanged hundreds of messages with the Nazis. The FBI also helped Sebold set up a specially rigged office in Manhattan, where agents clandestinely filmed him meeting with German spies, including Frederick Duquesne, head of a Nazi espionage network in America.

In June 1941, as a result of Sebold’s work, the FBI arrested 33 people accused of spying for the Nazis. All 33 members of what became known as the Duquesne Spy Ring were convicted that December, shortly after Germany declared war against the United States. By then, Sebold and his wife had entered a witness protection program. He died in California in 1970.”

From, and more double agents:
history.com/news/history-lists/6-daring-double-agents

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Writers, Surveillance, and Self-Censorship

“Writers are reluctant to speak about, write about, or conduct research on topics that they think may draw government scrutiny. This has a devastating impact on freedom of information as well: If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished.”

… “according to the survey, writers living in countries defined as “Free” by U.S.-based NGO watchdog Freedom House expressed an almost equal level of concern about surveillance as those living in countries defined as “Not Free” (75% and 80%, respectively), prompting notable levels of self-censorship.

“The levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democracies are astonishing, and demonstrate that mass surveillance programs conducted by democracies are chilling freedom of expression among writers,” the report notes. According to the survey, 34 percent of writers living in liberal democracies admitted to self-censoring, compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries.”

From: commondreams.org/news/2015/01/05/fear-government-spying-chilling-writers-speech-worldwide

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The Relationship between Math and Literature

How can a literary work “have infinite critical interpretations, while at the same time not all its interpretations are critical”?

To answer this seemingly contradictory question one must look to mathematics:

Infinite Interpretations of Literary Works

One of the main things critics of literature do is to interpret literary works. In the past, the notion that a literary work, say a novel, only has one real meaning was widely accepted. But, with the dawn of positivism and the ascension of hermeneutics in the humanities, that notion was left behind. Nowadays almost every critic of literature will argue that a novel has as many meanings as there are interpreters. Most of them will even argue that a novel has, in fact, potentially infinite meanings.

But, if every reader can find different valid meanings in a novel, then, how is it that the work of the literary critic is still relevant? According to French philosopher Paul Recoeur, most of the interpretations given to a novel by ordinary people are just quick guesses based in conjectures. For sure, they are valid, but clearly are not as valuable as that of the literary critic, who spends most of her time studying the history of literature and its relation with the social contexts in which it is produced and received.

Also, a critic has to present her interpretation to a whole group of other critics. In doing so, she has to defend her ideas about a novel or a poem with a number of arguments: by relating it to the culture where it was produced, with biographical information about the author, by paying attention to what other people have believed about that specific novel or poem in different moments of history, or even by studying the reasons the publisher had to publish it in the first place.

For all of that, the critic’s interpretation of a literary work tend to be better informed and argued than the ones of casual readers. s. As Recoeur said, maybe there are no methods to make valid interpretations, but there surely are ways to make those interpretations invalid.

To help clarify this idea, I will call interpretations of casual readers real interpretations, in analogy to the uncountable infinity of the Real numbers; and I will refer to the interpretations given by literary critics as integer interpretations, in clear analogy to the countable infinity of Integer numbers. Is there any connection between the two types of interpretations.

Please Continue for the answer:  hplusmagazine.com/2015/01/02/infinities-literature-mathematics/

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Writers, the Engineers of the Soul

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Living in a Screen World

We are spending too much time in front of various screens, instead of reading books, to the detriment of our brains.

“To illustrate the neurological effect of this imbalance, we can adapt Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about “hot” and “cool” media: the screen delivers its communication piping hot, in fully cooked messages. If it’s a tree, it looks like a tree — no decoding required. Moreover, the screen delivers fully formed stories, with actors, sets and all other manner of visual stimuli and narrative embellishments — no imagination required. Reading a book, however, demands all kinds of brain work: decode the words; imagine the look and sound of the story; and be responsive enough that conflict, suspense and climax are made emotionally satisfying without a musical score and well-crafted editing. And might this emotional satisfaction teach our brains that hard work is rewarding?” 

“If de Saussure were alive today, I suspect he’d approve of mashing up semiotic theory and neurobiology, since he argued that it’s in the brain that the signifier (the word) is combined with the signified (what the word represents) and meaning is made. Today, neuroscientists have extended that notion exponentially: because “the neurons that fire together, wire together,” we know this meaning-making process affects the brain’s physical structure and shapes our behaviours and our proclivities. It follows logically that living in a screen-filled world, without the brain-training afforded by habitual reading, is undermining [ our ] ability to accurately decode the details and nuances of the written word”.

From: m.thespec.com/opinion-story/5204679-all-i-want-for-christmas-is-semiotics/

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Does Fiction Open Closed Minds?

“One question tackled in this study is whether reading nonfictional texts such as essays has effects on belief processing that are different from those of reading fictional texts such as short stories. In both cases, a reader tries to understand another’s thinking (and feeling). The difference, though, is that in nonfiction there is a clear delineation between the author’s and the reader’s opinions, such that the reader is either persuaded or not by the author’s arguments and stances. With nonfiction, changing or not changing the content of one’s belief system is still bound by permanence and, in at least some cases, by urgency, because one’s opinion, once settled upon, can have implications for decision making. The content of one’s belief system may change, but meta-cognitive processes may be unaffected. With fiction it was hypothesized that there may be greater flexibility of a meta-cognitive kind. It was previously found that whether a text was nonfiction or fiction made no difference to whether changes occurred in participants’ self perceived personality when they read the text; only the text’s artistic level affected personality (Djikic, Oatley & Carland, 2012). In this article, there is a different, meta-cognitive question in relation to beliefs. Is fiction, specifically, able to open closed minds?”

From, and read more: tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2013.783735#/doi/full/10.1080/10400419.2013.783735

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Infinite World Awaits Your Discovery

When we read books our world becomes infinite:

“We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books…. in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” C. S. Lewis, in: An Experiment in Criticism

From: lifehacker.com.au/2014/11/cs-lewis-on-reading-literature-those-who-dont-inhabit-a-tiny-world/

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Modern writers are stylistic clones

American mathematicians … set out to investigate “large-scale” trends in literary style. … they processed 7,733 works from 537 authors written after the year 1550, were looking for the frequency at which 307 “content-free” words – such as “of”, “at” and “by” – appeared. They called these words the “syntactic glue” of language: “words that carry little meaning on their own but form the bridge between words that convey meaning”, and thus “provide a useful stylistic fingerprint” for authorship.

“When we consider content-free word frequencies from a large number of authors and works over a long period of time, we can ask questions related to temporal trends in similarity”, they write in their new paper.

After finding that authors of any given period are stylistically similar to their contemporaries, they also discovered that the stylistic influence of the past is decreasing. While authors in the 18th and 19th centuries are still influenced by previous centuries, authors writing in the late 20th century are instead “strongly influenced” by writers from their own decade. “The so-called ‘anxiety of influence’, whereby authors are understood in terms of their response to canonical precursors, is becoming an ‘anxiety of impotence’, in which the past exerts a diminishing stylistic influence on the present,” they write. This could, they suggest, be explained by the modernist movement, in which authors “reject their immediate stylistic predecessors yet remain a part of a dominant movement that included many of their contemporaries.

From: theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2012/may/14/writers-no-longer-influenced-by-classics

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