Thursday, November 16, 2006

Language and Government

Just saw a link to this speech by Ursula K. LeGuin. [hat tip to Jonathan Schwartz.]

I like the speech for a number of reasons, including its brevity and eloquence. But it also touches on the importance of literature, and the relation of that literature to government and freedom, including the inherent tension between government and literature:
Government and Literature, even when they share a palace, exist on different moral planes. Each is the ghost in the other's bedroom. A government can silence writers easily, yet Literature always escapes its control. Literature cannot control a government; poets, as poets, do not legislate. What they can do is set minds free of the control of any tyrant or demagogue and his lies and disinformation.
And indeed, it is the ability of writing to acquaint the mind with both the habits of thought that can detect tyrannical control and the knowledge of evil without the experience of it that make literature so critical to freedom. Governments manipulate language and ideas [Or as the journalist I.F. Stone notably said, "All governments lie...."], so it behooves us to understand that and learn to deal with it. And the key to that is using and learning about language.

This was one of the essential points made by John Milton in his classic treatise against censorship, Areopagitica (my emphasis):
Since, therefore, the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
There are not a lot of phrases that stick with one over the years, and it has been nearly 30 years since I read Areopagitica in my high school Oral English class. But "the benefit...of books promiscuously read" stuck with me, and I think it fair to say that my reading habits qualify as reasonably promiscuous. So among the many debts of gratitude I owe to Mr. Dansky, the Oral English teacher, is that he forced a lot of us to read and comprehend Milton's rather difficult language, and to appreciate both the language and the lessons contained.

And one last note about Ms. LeGuin. I like her writing, although I have only read a few of her classic novels. But I have to note a small family connection. Ursula Kroeber (that's the "K.") grew up in Berkeley, California, where her father was a professor at the university. The anthropology building on the campus is named after him. One of her school classmates and close friends was my aunt Pat. I just think that's cool.

Anyway, go read something (besides this). It's good for you, and it's good for all of us.


sueinsacca said...

And is that Kroeber as in Professor Kroeber who studied and wrote about Ishi? Would the professor be her father?

dragonfly said...

This blog post helped me in an interview... thanks Chard!

Chard said...

Sue: Yeah, that Kroeber family. I think the wife/mother wrote the book about Ishi, too.