Revisions in Literature and the Modern World

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Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry

2005 Web Report

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Revisions in Literature and the Modern World

Ariane Briski

Stories are capricious beings. They morph and change for each reader, taking on a slightly new meaning, a slightly different relevance. We all revise every story we read, even in the smallest ways like assigning the character physical attributes different from those intended by the author, or tweaking the meaning to apply it to our own lives. In this way stories are alive, they morph, they reinvent, and they change ever so slightly for each and every reader. It's all well and good when we revise each other's stories to apply to ourselves, but what happens when we have to revise our own stories? What happens when a story you have believed your whole life is presented as incorrect? Everyone handles the revising of stories in different ways. Edwin A. Abbott's Faltland shows a reluctance to revise stories out of fear or a desire to maintain a thought process, a reluctance that often has to be overcome by force. It also points out examples of story revision in different generations. Yet these texts fail to address a contemporary reason that people do not revise stories. Members of my generation often do not revise their stories because we are so overwhelmed with information that we cannot find information we deem relevant enough to adopt.

Let take a look at Flatland, a story about A. Square, a two dimensional square living in a two dimensional world. A. Square spends the majority of the book telling you his story. He tells you of his life, his society, and the physical world around him. Everything about his life is very factual, for instance:

"Our soldiers and Lowest Class of workmen are Triangles with two equal sides, each about eleven inches long, and a base or third side so short (often not exceeding half an inch) that they form at their vertices a very sharp formidable angle."

A. Square never seems to question his world. A. Square's grandson, however, does question the world around him. During a geometry lesion in which A. Square explains to his grandson the idea of dimensions squared (as dimensions can only get to be squared in Flatland) his grandson questions

"Well, then, if a Point moving three inches, makes a Line of three inches represented by 3; and if a straight Line of three inches moving parallel to itself, makes a Square of three inches every way, represented by 3^2; it must be that a Square of three inches in every way, moving somehow parallel to itself (but I don't see how) must make something else (but I don't see what) of three inches every way- and this must be represented by 3^3."

A.Square's response to this is less then accepting, as he replies "if you talk less nonsense, you would remember more sense." This shows not only that A. Square is set in his ways, but provides an example of the importance of youth in revising stories. Through many cultures the youth are often the ones charged with reform. Younger people are often more open to new ideas because old ideas have had less time to become engrained in their heads.

A. Square still remains convinced of the validity of his story. This changes, however, when he receive a visitor, a Sphere from the third dimension. At first A. Square refuses to believe the Sphere's story of another dimension, as he can only see the Sphere as a circle in his two dimensional world. The Sphere tries just about everything to convince A. Square, from moving in and out of the two dimensional plain to touching A. Squares middle, a feat only possible if one is in another plane. Yet A. Square remains unconvinced, refusing to revise his story and accusing the Sphere of being a magician. It is not until the Sphere physically forces A. Square into "Spaceland" that A. Square realizes that the Sphere is correct. After seeing this new world A. Square chooses revises his story and becomes very excited about the revision. When he is returned to his own dimension he attempts to preach about this new dimension to his fellow citizens. What A. Square does not anticipate is that others will often refuse to revise their stories, especially without the advantage of being able to see this third dimension. So, as the story comes to an end, A. Square is imprisoned for life. Therefore A. Square is an example of someone who choses to revise his story after physical force was exerted from an outside force, yet is unsuccessful at convincing others to do the same.

Flatland also provides an interesting insight into the role different generations play in story revision. A. Square, a member of the older generation, is reluctant to revise his story but does so after he is able to physically see the truth. The other older citizens of Flatland will not revise their stories at all, choosing to imprison A. Square instead. His grandson, in contrast, openly questions the foundations of Flatland without even giving it a lot of thought. However, once the popular opinion turns against the existence of Spaceland A. Square's grandson quickly conforms and gives up on the revision of the story. This suggests that while the younger generation can often think of reform they are sometimes not capable of becoming a martyr for their ideas.

So Flatland provides a good cross section of characters unwilling to revise their stories because of the negative implications those revisions would have on their lives. But what about story revision today?

I am now a member of the younger generation, much like A. Squares grandson. People look to youth for new ideas and reform, and the general consensus seems to be disappointment in my generation's revisions. Youth are becoming more apathetic, less radical and more conservative. And while I can't speak for my entire generation I can say that I am reluctant to revise my stories, but not because of the negative implications those revisions would have. My generation's issues with story revision often stem from another reason, not addressed in any of the texts. Today people often fail to revise their stories because it is so difficult to find something relevant to cause revision.

We live in a very different world today. With one click of the mouse I can rise above the world and travel around in seconds with Google world. I can get news from around the world, in forty three different languages at that, with a quick visit to the BBC website. People can even travel around the world just to attend the college of their choice.

I have information bombarding me just about all the time. Especially with the creation of the internet people can keep up with everything going on in the world today. And that's not all, the true kicker is the idea that has been deeply ingrained in my generation, the idea that you should question everything. This creates an undeniable paradox, as there is no way to even keep up on the all news available now, much less analyze and research it in an attempt to pick what to accept. This idea is summed up by Jeb Grobstein in an article entitled Writing Descartes: I Am, I Can Think, Therefore..."

"In seems that in a world in which the number of sources and possibilities for belief have been exponentially multiplied by the information revolution, K-12 schooling and the institution of democracy, that our problem is not in rejecting sources of authority [truth, security, tradition] as it was for Descartes and as Dr. Grobstein would have it, but in finding something relevant to accept."

Accepting a story revision is truly a commitment. Take, for example, the possible existence of aliens. The idea that they exist has been presented by many people, and yet I reject it (at least for the time being) because there are so many ideas that have been presented by so many people that there now has to be a very large amount of indisputable evidence before I will revise my ideas. The bar, in essence, had been raised. There is no reason for me to consider one piece of information more relevant then another (in most cases) because there is a vast amount of research to support almost any idea if you look hard enough. You can't simply just accept all ideas either, as they constantly conflict with each other.

The characters of Flatland were scared of the implications the existence of a new dimension could have on their lives. Some in my generation are still scared, but I do not believe that fear is the dominate force that keeps people today from revising their stories. Nor is it laziness (as has been suggested by some members of older generations) because members of my generation are willing to investigate new ideas. I think the best word to describe people today is "overwhelmed". I have so many options for possible story revision that there is no way to confront them all, and so I often find myself not revising at all.

Flatland shows relevant and logical examples of revision. It shows characters from the older generation who refuse to revise out of fear or protectiveness, and characters will not revise until shown such undisputable physical proof that they are forced to revise (just as much as anyone can be forced to change a thought process). It also shows a member of the younger generation whose mind is open to new ideas, yet who cannot rebel against an overwhelming majority. Yet these examples exclude a reason that my generation often resists revision today, being that they are overwhelmed with information to the point where finding something relevant enough to accept is difficult. So this leaves me with two questions: who will revise our modern stories? And how will they overcome this new reluctance to revise?

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