Sunday, 03 October 2010
Tomorrow sees the start of the new academic year. It is the very beginning for some, the start of the end for others and for those in the middle it is entry into the very heart of the matter. For me, it is the opening of another Philosophy and Literature Essay Prize and the chance, once again, to explain the aim and the purpose of the competition.
When I was a student on the course from 1984 to 1987, one of the lecturers from the faculty of English was Rick Gekoski. Rick now deals in rare and first edition books, writes a column for The Guardian, and broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio 4. Next year he will be a judge (for the second time) and chair of the judge's panel on the Man Booker prize. He has also written a few books of his own.
Outside of A Dog tells the story of Rick's love affair with books and it describes the influence they have had on his life. Interestingly, he also considers the mechanism by which literature has such a hold on us. It is as if "...literature offers us foreign voices and enables, even urges, us to assimilate them."
The passage I found particularly interesting with regard to the competition describes how as a teenager Rick was influenced by J. D. Salinger, or more pointedly, by Salinger's fictionalised self, Holden Caulfield, along with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and other radicals.
"I didn't simply learn from them, I appropriated a whole series of attitudes and beliefs which were neither warranted nor engendered by my own experience: I despised phoneys! I wanted to be lawless and to embrace all!"
Rick, quite rightly in my view, does not seek to separate the importance, the significance, nor even the meaning of works of literature from the subjective experience of encountering them. In fact he does the complete opposite. He dives right off the pier and writes a whole book on how, why and by what method literature and philosophy have had an influence on his life and how his life at any given time has had an influence on the reception he has given to literary or philosophical propositions.
(I'm not sure there is much significance in it, but I was very amused to find that he had almost the exact same argument with his father that I had with my own when it came to an admiration for Jean-Paul Sartre. Rick was more magnanimous than I was; when he discovered that Sartre had recanted his stance on existential self-determination he silently conceded the argument with his father. I simply reverted to the impossibly obstinate view that both my father and Sartre were wrong. )
More broadly, what Rick's book demonstrated to me was the same notion that gave impetus to the essay prize—that Philosophy and Literature as an academic pursuit has an inherently personal aspect.
In my final year at Warwick I wrote a project essay on the subject of Myth and Narrative and their status as philosophical tools. I was interested in the way that Plato's later works have a tendency to round off philosophical propositions with mythical narratives and I tried to combine that with a view on Roland Barthes' Mythologies which, to my mind, seemed to be showing how simple 'narratives' contained unarticulated philosophical propositions.
What I was trying to get at (but failed to achieve at the time) was that stories influence our beliefs with an ease and elegance that reasoned, logical arguments can rarely achieve. The essay didn't manage to express the ideas that I had for the simple reason that I hadn't thought them through.
I came back to this subject many years later when I found myself learning about the strategies employed by a remarkable hypnotherapist by the name of Milton Erikson. Erikson was an astoundingly successful therapist whose methods spawned a whole branch of hypnotherapy—Eriksonian Hypnosis. His method? He told stories. Not just any old stories, he told stories that utilised the metaphorical and symbolic structures that his patients revealed as they talked to him. When I learned about this, my mind went flying back to Plato and Barthes.
So twenty-odd years after finishing my degree, I am still engaged in the question that I posed myself in my third year. My bookshelves are filled with books about myths, mythology and the structure of stories. I've worked my way through Joseph Campbell, Robert McKee, Carl Jung and the story traditions of Norway, Japan, Greece, Italy, Germany and the UK.
In a similar (though more modest) way to Rick Gekoski, my degree course was just the beginning of an engagement with Philosophy and Literature. Indeed, you could say that the course taught me the tools and gave me the skill set and then posed the question I have been tackling ever since.
So the Philosophy and Literature Essay prize invites you to consider how and in which way you are engaged with the subject at a personal level. How does studying philosophy and literature matter to your life?
It is a chance for you to get personal about the subject (not, I'd suggest, too personal) while escaping the rigours of academic examination. The top prize does not necessarily go to the best essay. A poorly written badly-argued essay that demonstrates an obvious and deeply felt association with the subject will win out over a sparklingly brilliant essay that explains how philosophy and literature should matter to other people.
That's why it is possible for a first year student to win the top prize just as much as a post-graduate student. First year students are still familiar with their reasons for choosing this course whereas post-graduate students may not be able to discern the line that divides the subject on one hand and their lives on the other.
You are invited to submit your entry in any form you like. You can be as creative as you wish, but don't eschew the essay form too readily; it has emerged as the preferred means of expressing complex ideas and arguments for a good reason. It is often the best medium available.
And finally, you may need to accept before submitting your entry, that the answer to the question is a work in progress. How Philosophy and Literature is important to your life is not just a catalogue of works and notes on the impact they have had; it is an interplay of beliefs, critical faculties, philosophical and political and socio-economic forces and real, down-to-earth influences. Would 1960's French Philosophy have been anything like as attractive without Gauloises and black roll-neck jumpers?
I look forward to reading your essays.
Did I mention there's some prize money? First prize £500, Second Prize £200, third prize £100. Good luck!