Monday, October 20, 2003

Media Influence, circa 1615

In my continual onslaught on the world of literature and my own mind, I find myself comfortably mired in Don Quixote, Part I - Chapter XVIII.

In thinking through my reading to this point, I was struck by some of the parallels to modern media controversy. In particular the concerns about the influence of movies and video games (entertainment apparatus) on the behavior of youth and the viewing public in general.

The title character, Don Quixote de la Mancha has gone mad, driven to insanity by the continual reading of books depicting the chivalrous adventures of countless knights errant. He ambles from one misadventure to another. His own delusions are often the cause of his misfortune, yet he's always able to rationalize away the negative consequences of his behavior with yet more examples of the ways and means of knights errant about whom he has read, leading him further into his delusion rather than out of it.

When our "ingenious hidalgo" returns from his first set of misadventures, he is in very bad shape, having suffered quite a beating. His houseservants and the local priest come to find him dressed in his old shoddy armor and blame his misfortune on his large library of chivalrous adventures (rightly so, by Cervantes' assertion.) Their immediate judgment, based on Quixote's condition and the experience of another person also so afflicted, is that his library is the source of the madness and should be burned, down to the last page.

Naturally, as they go through the library, they find that some books are more equal than others. Books that for one reason or another are considered "higher quality" stories are saved from the fire, while others are cast in almost arbitrarily, in some comic-tragedy version of the final judgment. Even though the books saved can be said to be as much blamed as those burned, aesthetic priorities override the practical priorities in rescuing the Man of La Mancha's mental health.

As an added indictment to their activities, they become tired of making decisions and, without regard to what higher quality works may remain, cast the rest of the lot in the fire.

An interesting side note is that the two men, more learned than the two women, are the ones we find making value judgments on individual works, while the two women, portrayed as uneducated and simple, are afraid of the books and want them all destroyed. On the one hand, they are far more cognizant of the original purpose and priority of their task, but haven't the tools or the courage to judge the literature for themselves. The more learned men don't mind judging the materials on a piece by piece basis until it begins to cost them a little (they grow weary with the process) and have a much looser grip on their original purpose.

As the books burn, Quixote revives and sets off on his next series of misadventures, rendering their efforts fruitless.

I'm not sure exactly what Cervantes was trying to communicate here (though I'm sure he didn't advocate broad brushed book burning) but I was struck by the parallels to some modern media theories: Violence in the media begets violence in the consumer of said media, the problem is in the media rather than in the consumer and in the society that created the demand for the media, the solution is to destroy said media, and arbitrary judgments will be made on which violent media is art and worthy of preservation and which is good only for kindling.

And isn't that very much the issue both with media violence and with censorship/book-banning? Who can say that Don Quixote wasn't already mad and needed only a vehicle by which to express his madness? Who's to decide what really is worthwhile art (Pulp Fiction?) and what is vile influence (Friday the 13th?) Are the learned who draw arbitrary lines any better than the unlearned who would simply cast them all out? Is media violence creating violent people, or is it reflecting the violence that already exists in our hearts? How does one pinpoint the truth?

I don't know.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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