Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.
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The Principles of Particulate Stimulation (a Theory of How to Make and Understand Art)

I developed the system/concept I call “particulate stimulation” as, I hope, a practical tool for fiction writers – a way to understand the internal mechanisms of fiction’s interaction with the reader – but I believe these concepts are applicable to all the arts and to serious criticism as well (since I have yet to encounter a critical strategy that approaches the arts in this way).

In short, the concept rests on the notion that the primary, irreducible value in fiction (or in any experience of the arts) is in the direct stimulation of the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) that breaks down the barrier between self and other. This is an essentially irrational, gut-level act, so the irrational and the gut-level understanding of fiction (and other arts) is favored as a primary value. I call this value “primary” and “irreducible” because it is the first value to consider – whether or not it is the greatest value is up to the individual – and it is the one value that remains once other values are eliminated. If one were to ask “Is this piece of fiction (etc) good?” and “Why is it good?” one might name a large number of possible values, but if one were to say “Without this value, could this be good?” or “In the history of fiction (or art), has an example of a good work existed without this value?” and eliminate values in this manner one by one, the only one remaining would be stimulation. For example, values such as meaning, reflection of philosophical/social concepts, or universal model of behavior might be cited as a story’s source of value, but could a story be valuable without any of these? Yes, of course it could. However, could a story be valuable devoid of stimulation? Unlikely. So, in the practical sense of optimizing this irreducible value, the writer then considers them secondary. The role of meaning or social reflection, for example, becomes a secondary function to how these factors optimize stimulation.

The writer must also understand how the drive toward stimulation and the irrational breakdown in barriers between self and other meets the contradictory drive to eliminate stimulation (I simplify these forces below as “The Gut” and “The Mind”). To load a story with excessive emotions or completely irrational oddities, for example, might meet with the mind’s resistance to emotions and oddities, including the complex array of mental mechanisms designed for this resistance (such as subordination and categorization). To optimize the stimulation, the writer must strategically recognize these mechanisms for resistance and craft accordingly – to evade the gatekeepers, in other words.

This concept was designed to compensate for the massive deficiencies in my own creative writing education in which teachers would rely on superficial truisms or false universals without the capacity to explain or justify them. It was like teaching a cooking class by naming all the pots and pans but giving no clear understanding of flavors and the interaction between flavors. Following clichés like “show, don’t tell” might make a story more snappy, but why? I never got a good explanation, so I had to come up with one of my own: concrete imagery engages the gut while abstract narration engages the mind.

That being said, here is a simplified list of various factors to consider in understanding Particulate Stimulation:

Overview:

The Mind: Designed to eliminate stimulation (e.g. danger, discomfort, etc.) through:

  • Subordination (creating a hierarchy to organize the chaos)
  • Abstraction (elevation into the undying ideal)
  • Turning the irrational into symbols/metaphors
  • Categorization/Separation (favoring the safe over the dangerous)
  • Resolution of mystery

The Gut: Seeks stimulation (food, sex, mortal danger, etc.) by eliminating barriers between self and other (leading the reader to vicarious experiences):

  • Danger/fear
  • Rage
  • Desire
  • Gratification of physical needs (food, sex, etc.)
  • Unresolved mystery
  • Happy feelings (to a lesser extent)

Comfort/Discomfort: Though the mind seeks elimination of stimulation, one type of stimulation it accepts is comfort.

The Mind: Comforting stimulators:

  • Brief bursts of stimulation:
    • Conflict resolution
    • Mystery resolution
    • Fulfillment of desires
    • Epiphany
    • Catharsis (the false notion that art exists solely to eliminate stimulation)
  •  Function often as coda to end a story
  • Often mistaken as the main point of the story

The Gut: Discomforting stimulators:

  • More sustained source of stimulation throughout a story
  • A majority of the value is in optimizing discomfort
  • But also doing so without the mind rejecting the text (in its need for comfort)

Imagery:

The Mind:

  • Favors abstraction.
  • Concrete imagery is subordinate to abstract ideas.
  • Images stand in for or “mean” something

The Gut:

  • Parataxis: The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated image without a directly stated connection.
  • Dislocation (the surrealist version of parataxis): Disconnected images dislocate the viewer/reader from the present world, create a dreamlike effect

Characters:

The Mind: A character:

  • Stands in as a universal model
  • Represents the human condition
  • Learns a lesson so we can learn a lesson
  • Leads to vicarious catharsis
  • Resolves paradoxes.

The Gut:

  • Driven by irrational desire
  • Full of unresolved paradox
  • “Negative Capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—John Keats

Repetition:

The Mind:

  • Mechanical Repetition:
    • Copies must be exact to eliminate possibility of failure/danger
    • This creates a diminishing return as stimulation reduces with each copy)

The Gut:

  • Organic Repetition:
    • Another stimulating irrational paradox: both unique and of a pattern
    • Repetition of some patterns while remaining individual (as with any living being) indicates the presence of life without overt mental control
    • The rule of threes: 2 occurrences might be coincidences and 4 verges on mechanical repetition, so 3 indicates the presence of life.
    • The most pleasing music has been historically based on a 3 part pattern

The Importance of William Carlos Williams to Fiction Writers: Letting Go the Need to Mean Something

Diego Max

As a fiction writer, I consider William Carlos Williams the most important twentieth century American writer. This is a statement likely to meet with much disagreement, and perhaps isolating the statement to the second half of the twentieth century might turn the competition into a no contest, but there is no reason to isolate a poet’s influence to poetry. He’s just as important to fiction and theater. His importance is best summed up in the statement “No ideas but in things,” the letting go of ideas as the central value of literature and with them all those persistent Greek infinities indelibly inserted as central literary values for centuries: the supposed ideals by which literature and all beautiful things were to be judged; the structural goldenness that tied literature to nature’s order; the timelessness and universality literature was meant to achieve as if relating to another human regardless of different setting were some secondary function to all humans conforming to generalizable features; components like imagery subordinated by mechanisms like metaphor and representation to concepts outside of the text itself. Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and all its connected implications represented a sea change, letting go of all those old, worn out, unnecessary notions. Letting go of ideas meant literature didn’t have to be subordinated to concepts; images didn’t have to be subordinated within metaphors to abstractions. Images could then be images for their own sake, for the stimulation of their beauty or ugliness. What they mean could then be secondary. A red wheelbarrow doesn’t have to mean anything other than itself. Letting go ideals meant questioning how these ideals were created. Beauty, the good, perfection – these weren’t manifest by some eternal force outside of the perspective of humans (and Christian European males most often accessing supposed objectivity to justify their subjective ideas of the universe’s functionality, subordinating anyone outside of their group as outsiders, servants, fools, or savages). “No ideas but in things” localized ideals subjectively within humans and their varied concepts of perfection opening up multiplicity of possibilities. This, as significantly, meant letting go of the need to be perfect, closer to the Japanese concept of beauty, wabi sabi (hence why I’m qualifying Williams’ influence to twentieth century America – he was more an adamant propagator of this concept than an originator). Letting go of the old structural ideals so important to the Greeks led to the innovation for which modernists are most commonly given credit, and this might close-mindedly limit the perception of Williams’ influence on fiction since the collapse of poetic meter might seem irrelevant to fiction, but the dissolution the ideals at the source of this development marks Williams as iconoclast regardless of genre. Letting go of timelessness meant literature could be about the present moment; letting go of universality meant both letting go the notion that universality is possible and narrowing focus on interaction between writer and reader. Instead of writing something for all people at all times, an impossibility only the arrogant can believe is achievable, the writer now needs only to write for one person at one time. This is one of the major points Charles Olson focuses on in “Projective Verse” and credits Williams and Ezra Pound for their developments in this direction. Olson is credited with being first to use “postmodern” to refer to literature, and “Projective Verse” in 1950 essentially inaugurated postmodern literature (though postmodern literature is most often discussed in a very limited way based on some concepts by a handful of French philosophers catching up to Olson about twenty years too late and making claims that only ever worked well with a small portion of postmodern fiction—no wonder Williams gets lost in that). Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is another important essay in postmodern poetry which gives significant credit to Williams – O’Hara says only Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Williams are “better than the movies” – though O’Hara’s importance is too often limited to promoting spontaneous composition, something O’Hara identifies at the beginning of that essay as an irrelevant distinction compared his apocalyptic, if smart ass, attack on universality.

Williams, the avuncular family doctor with his quiet and simple poems, seems like an odd figure to place at the top of this revolution, hardly ever as aggressive in his promotion of it many other revolutionaries, but it’s there in his poetry. “The Red Wheelbarrow” perhaps receives too great a place as masterpiece since its importance is too easily isolated to its structural innovation and its strong use of concrete imagery – its “red wheelbarrow,” “rain water,” “white chickens,” and so on – but as important as adapting the structure and imagery of haiku (and more important when considering fiction) is the concept of how imagery works adapted from haiku, taking the essential content of poetry from metaphor to parataxis. Metaphor traditionally requires imagery to be subordinated to something outside of itself, concrete or abstract; it either represents or means something and has much less importance than the thing it represents or means (in I.A. Richards’ terms, the vehicle must stand in for the tenor). This is also how we frequently understand fiction: a realistic piece must either represent something “real” accurately or some convenient generalization/false universalism called “the human condition”; something imaginative must function as metaphor for some abstract concept or some real human experience other than what the imaginative piece directly depicts (Alice’s experience represent childhood experience, for example). With parataxis, the value of the imagery is the imagery itself. Williams said he wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” because he saw a wheelbarrow and thought it was beautiful. The readers can certainly feel in what “depends” on the red wheelbarrow, as the first line certainly invites them to do, but for Williams, it was the wheelbarrow itself, and for other readers, that’s all it has to be. It can be as many things as there are readers, and this approach breaks from the classical concept that ideals are set outside of the reader. A better place to see the way parataxis works is in “Spring and All” which starts with “By the road to the contagious hospital” and then presents images of a winter landscape where new plants are preparing to grow. This might easily be read as a metaphor for the abstract concept of regeneration, but Williams presents only the images. Whether or not the abstraction is necessary is up to each individual reader. The value is in the beauty of the juxtaposition, sickness next to rebirth and no philosophizing to guide the reader’s reaction. Likewise, fixating only on timeless and impersonal poems like this may make his influence unclear on later postmodern poetry in which confession and tying poems to the present moment are mechanisms by which poets reject the old ideals, but one need only look at Williams’ great epic Patterson, a palimpsest of fragments that are very personal and bound to a particular time and place. Patterson is essentially most of the seemingly contradictory strands of postmodernism in one book.

Isolating this influence to just Williams is, of course, a convenient over-simplification since so many other American and non-American writers have been integral in promoting this concept. It’s a centuries-old taken for granted truth of art in Asian cultures. There are plenty of European writers who might take this same position of importance. I would nominate Tristan Tzara for his vigorous attacks on reason and tradition (identifying Williams and Tzara as the American and European figureheads of this revolution, promoting similar concepts in very different ways, might more clearly unify the development of the so-called “postmodern” fiction, poetry, and theater, for the sake of simplification). Other American writers who are candidates for this position include Ezra Pound, for example, helped adapt Ernest Fenollosa’s ideas of how Chinese language – as an interplay between images instead of a subordination to abstractions – in a highly influential (if somewhat inaccurate) way, but Pound was too thoroughly married to ideas in much of his work to function as a consistent anti-idea iconoclast. Wallace Stevens, likewise, made similar statements about the relationship between ideas and things, but struggled to accurately understand Surrealism. However, the factor that might alone make Williams’ the most important American poet of the 20th century is biographical: Stevens can’t claim the same legacy of mentorship. From the Beats to the Black Mountain Poets to the New York School to the San Francisco Renaissance to countless other poets beyond, Williams directly mentored and inspired younger poets who went on to mentor and inspire many generations after them. The spiritual children of Williams are so numerous that it’s hard to name a single significant American poet who started publishing in the 50s and after who was not connected back to Williams by at most two degrees.

The poet who more often gets the credit as most important twentieth century American poet is T. S. Eliot, and isolating focus to the first fifty years might make the contest somewhat even. Ask anyone in the poetic establishment in the 1940s, it might seem ridiculous to claim some obscure provincial poet like Williams could have the same impact as the great champion of High Culture and indirect founder of New Criticism, but starting in the mid-50s, when Williams’ spiritual children came of age and started publishing in overwhelming masses, it might seem equally ridiculous to think that High Culture and New Criticism were ever considered the eternal standards of great literature. True, Eliot is important in challenging traditional form in his poetry and criticism, but Williams’ impact is equal in this realm through his direct mentorship of young poets, giving his flavor of anti-traditional form a longer impact. The problem with Eliot’s legacy as significant influence is he’s too thoroughly married to the subordination of old. His mission was to save high culture from destruction by finding some way to represent the fragmentation. In this way, Eliot would always be tied to the past, always retrogressive, making him less and less important for the forward progress of poetry. One way in which Williams is most significant is shifting poetry from metaphor to parataxis, but here’s a metaphor describing Eliot’s place: it’s like an armada of Greek ships got shattered to pieces, and Eliot’s plan is to keep patching the ships together. This may seem inspirational to other survivors who wish to retain the integrity of Greek structures and seem to have few other options, and they might start patching boats together too, but a survival plan like that has diminishing returns; soon the fragments will cease to function as proper sailing vessels. Meanwhile, Williams, who was perhaps part of that armada’s original disintegration as well, has found an island where he’s growing crops and raising children. Eliot’s line is bound to die out, and Williams’ line is bound to thrive.

This whole claim is based on a concept I have taken for granted, that moving away from ideas is the natural development of literature, but the arts seem to leap forward starting with the visual arts, then poetry, then fiction. Any visual artist who places ideas, high culture, or representation as a central value would seem old fashioned today, but that has been true for 150 years. For poetry, that has been true for about one hundred years. For fiction, that has only been true for about fifty years. William S. Burroughs most aggressively promoted this concept in fiction (see, for example, his piece “Apocalypse” which summarizes this concept most effectively: “everything is permitted because nothing is true,” etc.). Whether or not Naked Lunch was the beginning of postmodern fiction is up for an unnecessarily complicated debate since “postmodern” as a term is so poorly defined, inaccurate at its core, and overly fixated on relatively recent developments in fiction and criticism; regardless, Naked Lunch marked a major break in the old concept of what fiction could be and opened up countless worlds of possibilities. “No ideas but in things” has been slower to catch on in fiction as so much of it seems fixed forever in the nineteenth century. Likewise, much of what followed Naked Lunch relied heavily on gimmickery. I would never bemoan the fun of gimmickery, but it’s not built for the long haul and collapses easily under its own weight since its bones are so brittle, but the alternative has offered little to replace it but rehashing Flaubert. Somewhere beyond the same old Victorian novel and the weak gimmickery is the gloriously irrational future of fiction.

Summary of the “Seven Mountains Echo Chamber” Stories

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Presently I’m live tweeting a series of stories called the “Seven Mountains Echo Chamber” in a structure I invented called an “echo chamber” — in other words, a series of stories posted in increments over time that echo vertically but horizontally tell a linear story (see for example “Seven Minutes to Midnight” or #7m212 from last fall). As this is perhaps a hard structure to follow, here’s a simplified guide to make it easier to jump on board midway. This is the basic schedule:

5:30 a.m. #ForeignPlanets

3:00 p.m. #UnknownWorlds

4:30 p.m. #Babylon

7:30 p.m. #PopulatedWound

11:00 p.m. #FertileCrescent

Here’s a summary of each of the stories already in progress:

#ForeignPlanets (5:30 a.m.) is the story of Far Clooney, an inadvertent destroyer of planets. Far discovers one day she has transmutation powers just as she falls on a small ice planet ruled over by a monstrous space pirate named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt takes pity on Far, but Far soon destroys the planet  in a misguided attempt to save it. They flee through an unexpected version of outer space with gravity, breathable air, and an abundance of animal life. Teddy Roosevelt finds out from a comprehensive library inside a nearby tree planet that Far and her sisters, Claire and Greta, may together be able to eliminate the threat of red rage moss wiping out the teeming animal life, but they must find Claire and Greta and fight off the Alchemy Robots, creatures upon whom Far’s transmutation powers seem to have no effect. As Far’s powers and awkwardness lead inevitably to planetary destruction once again, she is plucked out of this adventure and placed into another by a godlike doe named Sevendoe who recruits Far to build a body planet — a planet made from a giant body — to infiltrate the army of Vampire Gorillas ruled by Michel, the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks, to save a monster called Old God from being turned into a body planet himself. Far finds out, likewise, her two sisters, Claire and Greta, have been recruited to make body planets with their own transmutation powers, but they both believe they appeared magically in their own perfect place: Claire on an isolated island where she gets everything she demands and Greta in a heaven full of babies. The Vampire Gorillas have agreed to allow Far to visit her sisters as long as she doesn’t reveal the paradise is fake on threat of execution of her friend and fellow adventurer and former lover, Cosby Rose, the Bleeding Ghost. Now that she’s convinced Claire to explore beyond the island and climb a lapis lazuli mountain, she must somehow find Greta, save Old God and Cosby Rose, and escape the Vampire Gorillas.

#UnknownWorlds is the story of Old God and The Broken Heart, two birth defect monsters who work as villain thugs because it’s the only work they can do. Old God is a giant who walks on all fours and wears a diaper, but he can summon lightening when he pounds the ground. The Broken Heart is a giant, disembodied heart who floats around inside a silver gyroscope-like machine; his tendrils can send victims into a heart broken paralysis. Old God and The Broken Heart love each other — as best friends and brothers in a common effort — because no one else will. Their job requires them to be beaten up and mocked by heroes, and the villain who hires them too often screws them out of the pay they’re owed. This has made Old God bitter and cynical, trusting no one but Broken Heart. Broken Heart is more often compassionate and tries to find the best in everyone despite knowing there’s little chance of any situation turning out well for them. Old God does have one other person he admires, however: a villain named Unknown Worlds. Unknown Worlds is a Promusaurifex, meaning he has a whole city full of slaves living inside his body, giving him power — except unlike the normal Promusaurifex, Unknown Worlds is filled with imaginary creatures. When Unknown Worlds displaces and flattens the entire country of India, Old God wishes somebody like that would hire them instead of their normal duplicitous a-holes. As if in fulfillment of this wish, Unknown Worlds soon arrives and whisks them off to his flattened India. He reveals that he’s actually flattened India to shock the world but created a paradise for all the residents below the surface. Unknown Worlds now considers them all his children though Broken Heart doubts his sincerity. Unknown Worlds hires Old God and the Broken Heart to discover who has made a mountain that has suddenly appeared on his flattened India. As they ascend the mountain, they discover a mysterious empty city and floating above this mountain, as if inside of a sphere, seven mountains pointing inward at each other. They then discover that the one who appears to be responsible is Broken Heart’s brother Hank, a hero who bullied Broken Heart his whole life. He has with him a team called The Orchestrals — a ragtag team of superheroes bent on revenge against Unknown Worlds including remnants of the Hospitalers, a team based on medical/crusader gimmicks, and “Murdergod” Ford Fordham — though their role in the creation of the city has yet to be revealed.

#Babylon is about Packer Seen in the small town of Oloi who makes an observation that brooks don’t babble, they whisper. Vivaldi, the local crazy person, tells him he just brought an end to the world. Later, Packer is sitting in his quiet place on a small hill outside of town when he sees Vivaldi, whom he views with pity and curiosity because of an exile status to which Packer relates, riding a horse up and down a nearby brook. Packer then observes a sideways tower growing out of the brook winding along the same shape as the water’s path. Vivaldi tells him this is the Tower of Babel which took an ancient war to suppress in its previous incarnation. He also says Vivaldis are fruits from a tree called The Red Priest that grows near the Vatican. Vivaldis are tasked with keeping the Tower of Babel from returning to existence. Packer comes back later alone and finds the tower has now grown bigger than the brook, and there is a monster in terracotta armor lurking, still and silent, on the tower’s side.

#PopulatedWound is part of the “Boodlepax and the Birth Monsters of Hell” series about a small, barnowl-like monster tasked with convincing customers not to pay to be tortured in Hell. His mouth is a paper rectangle floating an inch outside his face through which he must force his words, so often others fail to hear him or simply ignore him. He’s undaunted by the obstacle of his small size and weak voice because the torturers in Hell are so kind to him: these torturers include Mr. Peyzer who wears a red wedding dress and uses needle and thread to torture, treating each torture like the perfect aesthetic creation; then there’s Judson Almanac, the pacifist burnout with giant immobile stone wings who always finds a way around torturing customers. One night when Boodlepax has an especially unpleasant experience at his poetry group, he visits Hell looking for company and ends up helping deliver food to prisoners whose life is less pleasant and whose torture is less beautiful than paying customers, and there he encounters a mysterious woman named Sophie Echo whose prison cell is set up like the luxurious room of a captured princess.

#FertileCrescent is a murder mystery featuring eccentric detective Burdeneye Parnassus who rents a house in a neighborhood called Fertile Crescent to spy on brother and sister Tom and Amanda Wood who live side by side only three streets down from Burdeneye’s new house. His job is to find out for their estranged father if the Wood siblings are happy. He uses trips with his one and a half year old son Cole around the neighborhood in his wagon as pretense for spying, and he uses his son’s geniality and curiosity to overcome his own intense social anxiety for which taking on the detective role was meant to be a remedy. Burdeneye gets sidetracked, however, when Cole finds a piece of broken ceramic dentures with the word “Oloi” stamped on the side. This coincides with observation that the woman who lived on the dirt road behind him had ceased her regular 4:30 a.m. appearances, and the hefty, often-scarred man who lived with her, her son perhaps, seemed to bury something big around the time she went missing. Burdeneye decides he must pursue this murderer to keep his young son safe because protecting his son is the only happiness this broken man has ever managed. Now, he must somehow complete his investigation into the happiness of the Wood siblings while trying to find out if a murder has even taken place only a few feet behind his home. A conversation with the burly son, Holt Hefter, sheds little light on the situation but gives him the names of two residents of Fertile Crescent as clues: Murdergod and the Bird Man.

Tips for the Moral Teaching of Creative Writing, part 2: The Mini-Movement

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If the first, most important thing to do in teaching creative writing is to establish essential principles upon which work is to be assessed and guide young writers to find their own principles of assessment to judge their own work and likewise judge the judgment of others, etc. (hence the Mogan of Primary Values I spoke of in part one), part of the problem with this is that young writers, if we are to assume they are inexperienced and seeking help, may not have confidence enough to embrace or fight for these principles. This is why small group work is necessary: to build this type of confidence, create mini-movements that give students a foundation of principles shared with classmates from which to assess and argue effectively. Even if an inexperienced writer is uncertain about arguing from principles, two or more writers with the same principles can bolster that writer’s confidence.  It’s not like this is science class where everyone has to learn the accepted principles as dictated by the unimind before being able to challenge them, like you have to learn why an alligator is a reptile before you can prove it’s a mammal (I’ve already discussed why “you have to know the rules to break them” when applied to any of the creative arts is an inaccurate, elitist cliché). A young writer’s principles are already correct just as everyone’s opinions are inarguably correct. A sense of what is beautiful cannot be made superior simply by experience because a sense of beauty is innate and subjective — perhaps changed but not improved in any objective way by experience or interaction with others; learning can perhaps hone a sense of this instinct or give someone a practical capacity to tap into this instinct and translate it effectively in the creation of a piece, but there is no way to make it greater than what it innately is. The problem comes when creative writing teachers, no matter how egalitarian they claim the classroom is, will teach from a principle (or more commonly from superficial truisms disguised as principles, as I’ve discussed in the past) that have an assumed superiority based on experience, and students don’t have the tools to resist this. Teachers may claim the goal is to guide students to better writing — but better writing based on what? Or to find their own voice — but what does that mean? A unique narrative style still being judged by principles that aren’t their own, principles the writer (or teacher for that matter) may not even be aware of? The way to circumvent this taken for granted uncertainty is first to build confidence that the writer already has perfectly valid tools of assessment. Creating a mini-movement can accomplish this and takes only a few simple steps:

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1) Find out the students’ spiritual/aesthetic forbears and group accordingly. This could be accomplished through a simple survey like “Who is your favorite writer? What is your favorite book? Who would you love to write like? What book made you jealous? What piece have you tried to imitate?  Whose principles of writing have taught you most?” and so on. In this way, the teacher can judge who best belongs together: maybe the Hemingway and Carver students will agree on a lot; maybe the Orwells and Huxleys will have interesting arguments; maybe the Stephanie Meyer and Edgar Allan Poe students can learn from each other; maybe the Kerouacs and the Rushdies will have a blast together (I’d totally be in that group). However the teacher sees fit to group the students is irrelevant, as long as there is the perception that the students’ concepts of great literature will work well together.

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2) Have them write a Mogan of Primary Values and eventually a manifesto. I consider a Mogan of Primary Values a very practical way to assess what is merely opinion and what is deep level, irreducible principle. It’s something students could/should do on their own, but it is also a simple way to start the mini-movements on a shared task to find their shared principles. Any mechanism for achieving this is fine, as long as they are working together to find what is at the root of any assessment or any argument. Perhaps the Orwell/Huxley group will argue the logic of everyone’s piece, and while this may be useless for, say, the Meyers/Poe group, everyone will know the Orwells need logic in the assessment of their Orwellish pieces or make the other students aware that they need to argue against logic as an assessment necessity. Perhaps the Hemingway/Carver group will start from elimination of extraneous words based on a principle of achieving great psychological effect through language efficiency and indirection, and a comment about eliminating an extraneous adjective may be big help to those who agree, and it could likewise function to reaffirm the principles of the group in a way that bolsters confidence. The elimination of extraneous adjectives won’t do much good for the Rushdie group for whom great aesthetic effect is achieved through the manic overwhelming of senses and irrationality, through catachresis, neologism, and juxtaposition of disparate elements — none of this indirection nonsense — but to a Carverist, these things may seem like mistakes. In this case, if a Carverist tells a Rusdieist to take out some adjectives or fix the catachresis, this will not be a total waste of a comment as such comments so commonly are. The Mogan likely will be incomplete at the beginning of the class (as they will ideally come to a greater understanding of their own principles through the practice of workshopping, etc., in the class) but somewhere around the middle of the semester, the groups should work toward forming something more concrete and specific: a manifesto outlining their principles and the grounds by which they assess the quality of work. Argument about whose now more firmly established principles are most valid can be far more productive than the surface level revision workshops fixate on, even though no final winner could or should be declared.

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3) Conduct small group (mini-movement) and large group workshops. This class will by necessity involve workshopping in the small group and with the whole class, and the teacher can determine the workshopping schedule based on the size of class and the size of groups (even if it’s a four person class with two groups of two), but I recommend starting with small groups, in particular starting with an unfinished or currently developing story or poem. Students are less likely to fear judgment in a small group, especially one that starts from shared opinion and shared principles. If students are given the task of workshopping an unfinished story in small groups, knowing it is unfinished and in need of help, this could significantly increase the effectiveness of the workshopping on many levels. Even if a regular workshop is designed to be for work that is unfinished and in need of help, how are normal students expected to proceed when presenting this work without context right from the beginning? Of course, normal students would be prone to submit their best to avoid embarrassment in front of people they just met, and when you submit your best, defensiveness at criticism rises. Defensiveness, in my experience, has been counteracted with the otherwise pointless and counterproductive cone of silence, and my frustration with that nonsense can fill up a few more pages. Worse, the writer will put forward the most bland and inoffensive to please multiple viewpoints they have no obligation to agree with, and isn’t this precisely the sort of work the MFA system is criticized for producing? If I were making a movie for a group of strangers, the type of movie I would make would be quite different if I knew they were fans of The Human Centipede series or if I knew the most disturbing movie they ever watched was The Worst Witch. If I didn’t know their opinion at all, I’d make it as close to Hallmark Hall of Fame as possible or face an onslaught of the most useless comments. This is also why the small groups can function to determine which works each writer puts forward to be workshopped by the whole class. In this case, if defensiveness becomes an issue (and why not defend, honestly?) the defense can be taken up by the writer’s movement-mate. Offensiveness of a piece will likewise no longer be an issue as someone fighting for one principle over another is more likely to present both the best and most offensive work. Another thing I’ve always found to be a waste was the necessity to include positive comments which, because they are required, come off as empty platitudes. Perhaps they are helpful to writers who don’t already know their strengths, but how long does it take to learn them? Once you have learned them, these positive platitudes become wasted breath, the sort of repeated positive nonsense one receives when conversing with strangers, a relationship the large class model perpetuates — people whose opinions you may never share but with whom you must be emptily polite before you get down to the real business of, well, remaining polite or showing off or repeating superficial clichés so as not to face alone backlash to your original idea, etc., all the multitude of terrible and useless things that happen in this poorly thought out situation. But this becomes quite different when grouped by first principles. If a movement-mate takes up the task of saying something positive about a piece, it suddenly becomes useful; if it no longer functions to bring the writer to greater awareness of strengths, at least it functions to argue for or reaffirm the principles of the mini-movement.

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Final bit of advice: principles should be used to assess, not to write, as writing from principle leads to cold, cerebral argument lacking the sort of instinctive ecstasy that makes great work. However, knowing I’m from the ecstatic Kerouac/Rushdie school, you can better consider how to take that advice. If you were from the George Orwell school, I’d understand why you’d reject that advice all together. And for that, I applaud you.

Tips for the Moral Teaching of Creative Writing, Part 1: The Mogan of Primary Values

I’ve been discussing what’s most problematic about the present philosophy and technique of teaching creative writing, and I could probably write a hundred more posts on this subject, but upon request I’ll speak in the positive: how to teach creative writing – despite the problems, despite the inherent impossibility, despite it being primarily a matter of self-discovery. While it remains impossible regardless of what you do, there are plenty of ways to point in the right direction better than surface (empty craft) and subordination (representation fetishism).

You have to start with something missing from every workshop experience and written pithy tippy tip I’ve ever seen: Primary Values – Primary Values are the justification of craft; craft is not its own justification. Primary Values are singular to the writer – despite any incidence of overlap that might seem to reveal a pattern – and can’t be universalized. To proceed without recognition of primary values is to proceed blind. It’s to follow religious doctrine with no concept or love or fear of God. Speaking of which…

Here’s an exercise: draw a Mogan, a six-pointed Star of David. You can use any image if you’re not into the whole God thing – a simple triangle would be fine, but that doesn’t quite have the bi-directional movement of the Mogan, but as long as you get the concept, do whatever the hell you want to:

At the top point, in the position of the source or the demiurge or however you want to conceive of it, you place your Primary Value, the value of a piece of literature, for example, that is the first, irreducible value of the text. This implies that no text can have value without this element. If you say the Primary Value is footy pajamas, no text can be good without a reference to footy pajamas, and everything else is justified by its ability to allow the reader to access the reference to footy pajamas. This is the hardest thing to find in many ways, so this can be the last thing you find once you fill out the other two spaces.

In the middle – in a single space or in a word cloud since this is not three absolutely distinct units but a spectrum of value – you place Non-Restrictive Values. These values are non-restrictive in that good stories have these elements, but it is possible for a story to be good without these elements. This is where most of the pithy, superficial tippy tips of much of the workshop experience belong. Good stories have strong verbs and not adjectives … well, good stories are possible without strong verbs, so that’s not a Primary Value, just one of many ways to access the Primary Value.  The third element is Personal Opinion, so the middle is Non-Restrictive in this sense as well. Elements in this area can make stories that you can recognize as good without necessarily liking them.

Fill up the bottom with Personal Opinion (essentially this is all just opinion since no art can fully escape that, and “value” is only a fancy way giving opinion more strength, but here I just mean stuff you like at the most personal, informal level) – so just dump in everything dump the kitchen sink of story elements you like, whether or not they would necessarily make good stories for everybody. So many workshops I’ve seen place these Personal Opinion elements as the Primary Values. A workshop leader may struggle with getting students to Non-Restrictive Values and away from just Personal Opinion, but that’s just halfway there. You’ve got to climb all the way up the Jacob’s Ladder to Primary Value to have a clear understanding of how stories work – and, in particular, how your story works.

One way to find this is to take writers you like and try to figure out why you like them based on this scale. Say, for example, you take three writers you like who are somewhat different. Figure out the commonality between them and whether or not that is Personal Opinion, Non-Restrictive Value, or Primary Value.

Here’s an example: I’d take Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, and Louise Erdrich – three writers I really like who are different enough to make the sample work. One thing that stands out is that I like monsters. Kafka has great monsters, Vonnegut’s aliens are great monsters, and Erdrich may not make monsters central, but she’s certainly monstery in much of what she does. But clearly I recognize that good stories are possible without monsters. So that’s just Opinion. I might then propose that good stories involve characters caught in incomprehensible situations beyond their control, and this, in turn, gives them some goal and some obstacle in achieving their goal. I’m crawling inch by inch to Non-Restrictive Value from Opinion because I can recognize when someone else achieves this, writes a story with the markers of greatness, but fails to use the monsters I love so much and, therefore, writes a story I would not normally like. So I keep getting closer and closer to primary value, continuously asking myself, “Can I honestly say a good story cannot exist without this element?” You can also do this with writers you hate but others consider good. I can do this with Raymond Carver. I can ask why I disdain “Cathedral” so much. Well, I don’t consider self-important drunken douchebags interesting characters, but I can recognize the way he’s treating character may be valuable. I find easy metaphors obnoxious, but I can see how they can work well within stories in other ways. I recognize from my Kafka/Vonnegut/Erdrich exploration that I do value the juxtaposition of the banal and sublime, and Carver could be said to achieve this somewhat in “Cathedral” maybe.

But the main goal is to find the Primary Value. I’ve known my primary value for years: ecstatic stimulation of the direct experience that breaks down the distinction between self and other. Once I discover it through this process or any other process, I can then recognize every other element on this scale as a means to get to this end. Primary Values are, as I said, singular to the writer, but if you can honestly say this is the main thing that gives any text value, then that gives the writer a reason for writing and the goal in crafting. Without that reason and without that goal, what are you actually accomplishing? What happens instead is that the Primary Value goes unaddressed, and the workshop proceeds with one assumed Primary Value that may not apply to others – this is especially a problem when these others aren’t yet aware of what they value. Workshop leaders certainly can teach from their own Primary Values – why wouldn’t they – but the assumption that this is the only one in existence is egregious.

Just because values are singular to individuals doesn’t mean we can’t debate them. An environment with only one assumed Primary Value and no room for debate leaves little room for self-discovery. Primary Values function kind of like religion: you can believe passionately in them, you can defend to the death the rightness of your Primary Value, but you also have to recognize others have different Primary Values and have just as much right as you to have them.

For example, I criticize representation/subordination as a Primary Value because I’m afraid of the harm this causes to literature – to so thoroughly devalue the ecstasy of direct experience as mere representation – but, like a religious belief, I recognize the right of others to feel this way while still recognizing the negative effects. If a religion justifies the oppression of women, I can bewail the oppression of women without suggesting the suppression of someone’s right to a set of beliefs. To believe that one set of beliefs is the only set of beliefs is morally irresponsible. Too bad the system is set up presently to honor only one anachronistic and oppressive set of beliefs.