by Lauren Jackson
Post-literacy tends to denote a technologically progressive society, wherein life is made simpler by the productivity available through technological resources. The reliance on humanity grows less and less in these situations. However, despite the “advancement” of society, there is a definitive regression in the mass population, that this lack of literacy projects. In these apocalyptic novels, the foundation of a successful society or nation is built upon actual literacy, literature, and history. History and literature are stabilizers in otherwise unstable or, in this case, destabilized environments.
When man finds himself, or the technology he surrounds himself with, is superior to ideas, words, and thoughts, it seems that chaos eventually reigns. This occurs through a disconnection between provoking thoughts and actions, versus mindlessness and consumption. When man relies on technology instead of language and wisdom, the system apparently fails. This leaving behind of the past, or in some methods completely obliterating the past, creating an ahistorical society, destroys the intellectual function of the common man, setting up a society bound to fail for its lack of merit. The collective consciousness of the whole of the population is degraded when literacy is removed, and the threat of uprising is summarily attempted to be defeated. The problem inherent in this attempt at suppressing the masses is that it results in mindless destruction, or inevitable collapse that the denying of a history or the lack of an education or the missing stimulation of literature provides. We begin to see these things as necessary when they are evidenced in a disturbing light in novels such as Super Sad True Love Story, Fahrenheit 451, Cat’s Cradle, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Matched.
Literature is seen as a strain or a blood-sucking monster of society in that it does not directly contribute to its advancement of marketing and selling, of moving beyond parchment and ink. Our modern invention of e-readers and tablets have attempted to revolutionize the method of reading. However, inherent in publishing and reading is bound pages, a book, a physical object containing the writing of the author. This attempt at sterilizing or creating a homogenous object to project different messages, seems a way of desensitizing its readers and creating a society bound in chains to technology, and changing the face of what literature itself means. A redefining of a definitive field. And this type of change creates a field for images over data, and a moving away from reading itself.
Are we facing this type of suppression in our own society? Have we been setup for this trajectory of living? Universities have raised the cost of degrees in Humanities; hoping to discourage students from choosing a course of study that will not streamline them into the workforce. Times Higher Education released an article written by David Matthews titled “Oxford survey finds humanities degrees pay”, and states sadly that in England: “…the coalition’s decision to remove teaching funding for the humanities implies that these subjects are ‘of secondary importance to the economy’” (Matthews). To put it even more clearly, in Inside Higher Ed, there was an article written by Colleen Flaherty titled “Pricing Out the Humanities” and it explains the issue plainly: “Quoting the task force’s language on differential tuition, petition co-creator Norman Goda said, ‘The theory is that students in ‘non-strategic majors,’ by paying higher tuition, will help subsidize students in the ‘strategic’ majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targeted programs and more graduates from these programs, as well’” (Flaherty). This overarching theme of a more rigid, streamlined, functioning society wherein everyone has a role to play is converging directly with the theories surrounding these apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions. The Matched trilogy discussed later, functions directly in this line of thought. It places people in jobs based off of their data and abilities, taking into account only what they are capable of to provide the most efficiency, versus people doing something they are passionate about; an uncontrollable emotional element that creates instability in society. To discourage from studying the humanities and literature at its richest form, we see a direct removal of literacy from being a primacy, and moving on to a more technology-focused and production-driven society. Sitting around and thinking, developing theories and creating works of art are not conducive to a constantly consuming society or one that is essentially pushed down.
The social dystopian novel finds itself oddly pitted against literature and art. History tends to be destroyed in the wake of a new or ‘better’ society. This lack of history, this, as Gary Shteyngart titles it in his novel Super Sad True Love Story, ahistoricism, is what helps develop a created society. These societies deprived of literature, and therefore choices, always find themselves collapsing. The crux of the novel stimulates itself off of lack of readership, authorship, and artistry, and the revolution that follows results in a society providing and creating these works once more. Therefore the restoration of stability is brought about by literature, and the literal downfall of society stems from the lack thereof.
In Super Sad True Love Story, the protagonist Lenny Abramov is asked again and again to “Deny and imply?” (131), and signs posted throughout the novel directly tell readers to deny the existence of the signs and imply consent. These statements are purposefully left ambiguous, deny what and imply what? But the novel seems to deny the characters and even the reader a history, and implies the loss of existence through that loss of history. The juxtaposition of the fall of Rome with the fall of the American government in this novel seems very clear, and to open the doors to Lenny in Italy seems to imply this all the more. The purpose history serves is to teach and inform, and Lenny finds everyone around him denying the history that created them, that spawned the age they lived in. Lenny directly explains the loss: “Here was the anxiety of choice, the pain of living without history, the pain of some higher need” (208-209). Lenny wonders and worries too about nonexistence, which seems to go beyond simply dying, and explain actual living. Lenny speculates about his boss Joshie: “I wondered, heretically, if he would ever miss being older, if his body would ever long for a history” (222). Lenny paints the picture of a body seemingly disconnected from a soul or mind, longing for its history, longing for the stability this provides. Yet in this novel, this concept is denied, and consent to accept it is implied. Lenny believed the generation of youth he was living around was “ahistorical” (261), merely living their lives in the moment, and accepting the streams and feeds the corporations and government disseminated to them.
History was an in-the-moment process within Super Sad True Love Story. It wasn’t research, or leafing through archives, it was text-scanning to glean information, or recording images live to grasp history in the now. Though history cannot be history until it is passed, which opens up an interesting new dimension within the beliefs of the characters in the novel. Lenny says: “Only a few hours together, and Eunice and I were already witnesses to history! I took out my apparat and started to take Images of the man…” (107). While Lenny and his girlfriend Eunice watch what they believe to be history unfolding, they place a layer of technology between themselves and the physical actuality and reality of the subject before them, creating the technological space and distance the government pushed them towards continually. Lenny relates his fallen country to the Soviet Union’s collapse, and attempts to see the world through his father’s lens: “I tried, unsuccessfully, to see the country around me not just through my father’s eyes but through his history” (290). Lenny presents to us how vital history is, but again shows us it is unsuccessful, because the history is unknown.
The suppression of creativity and construction of literacy led even the government to make errors throughout Super Sad True Love Story. Countless signs and advertisements were written down in Lenny’s diary, with a comment by Lenny explaining he was not the one misspelling the words. Some examples are: “America Celebrates It’s Spenders” (208), “Houssing is a human right” (233), “Don’t throw us off the peir” (233), “Together We’ll Repare This Bridge” (100), and “Don’t write us of” (179). The government makes Lenny uncomfortable with his books and attempt at expanding his knowledge base, yet when he sees a copyright sign on an image, he feels comforted by its inherent message of regulation! (189). Universities had closed down their physical libraries (206), and the publishing industry was a thing of the past (85). Books were considered nonstreaming Media artifacts (90), and Lenny’s best friend Vishnu even remarks to him: “You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro. All those doorstops are going to drag down your personality rankings. Where the fuck do you even find those things?” (90). With this comment, Lenny’s other friend Noah exclaims: “Lenny Abramov, last reader on earth!” (90). But why? Why has reading become a thing of the past? Why is it dismissed and noted as a disgusting hobby. There seems significance in the very antagonistic approach the streamlined people of society take against books. The message is carried through again and again that to read is old and outdated, to own books is smelly, and to purchase them a way to lower your personality rankings. This transparent degradation of what is considered a pastime and freedom, a pursuit of higher things, shines a light on what happens in futuristic places.
Books are made to be a thing of the past, an archaic object, an artifact, and distinctly smelling of rot and decay in Super Sad True Love Story. When Lenny opens a book on an airplane he explains: “I noticed that some of the first-class people were staring me down for having an open book. ‘Duder, that thing smells like wet socks’” (37). Lenny experienced the social stigma and degradation that reading and being educated offered. Lenny even talks to his books and says to them: “’You’re my sacred ones. No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again” (52). And indeed, Lenny fulfills on that promise, with the culmination of the novel resulting in the publication of his diary. The new slogan being: “To write text is glorious!” (327) became the restored world. Once the country collapsed, literacy and literary pursuits were reinstituted, making it appear that it was in fact a necessity to restore order and progression. A literary critic at the end of the novel cites the pre-Rupture period of the book as being the “illiterate period” (327), clearly classifying and denoting the time period as one of lesser and an obvious failure. All of the notions here presented, seem to be tied up neatly by Lenny in Super Sad True Love Story. He says calmly: “We’re in a post-literate age. You know, a visual age. How many years after the fall of Rome did take for a Dante to appear?” (277).
But before the world recognizes the need for literature, Lenny says: “I felt the weakness of these books, their immateriality, how they had failed to change the world…” (311). It is telling in itself that Lenny expected novels to change the world. And perhaps they didn’t fail, but the government’s near-suppression, at the very least discouragement, of literature is what kept the novels from being successful in their works. Lenny provides many different meanings to books, explaining he read some as an undergrad, some as a way to bridge the gap between him and his father, and some were supposed to make him look good in front of potential girlfriends (311). Corporations and government encourage the use of images over words, of communicating with data versus language. Lenny exemplifies this notion when he says: “I’m learning to worship my new apparat’s screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors” (78). Books in this world were not ‘useful’ and thus did not take a place in peoples’ lives.
Yet literature is capable of stimulating the masses, of creating controversy, and provoking radicalism. It is these kinds of notions that the government must keep in check. This is seen vividly in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy. Both authors explore a future society, wherein literature is condemned. In Condie’s trilogy, the Society is allowed only 100 Poems, 100 Stories, and 100 Paintings, that were handpicked by the Society because they subscribe to the message or propaganda they want to present to the people. When Cassia, the protagonist in Condie’s novels, comes across a poem by Dylan Thomas entitled Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It is this poem that provokes Cassia, and many others, into a rebellion against the Society. They create an underground arts showcase, allowing people to be creative and express themselves. To learn, share ideas, and grow. The Society sought to suppress this, knowing that knowledge was dangerous. History was mostly barred to the population, not wanting people to rise up against their authority. And a false history instated. A highly regulated and controlled society, was purposefully not allowed to indulge in creative acts, nor to partake in literary pursuits. The Society was specifically designed around this. The resolution of the novels is to be allowed the freedom to learn to read and write. And significant moments in the novels occur when the characters learn how to simply write their own names. They claim power and agency through these actions.
Ironically, the very first journal entry made by Lenny in Super Sad True Love Story, is entitled ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ (3). Lenny recognizes in Super Sad, what Cassia recognizes in Matched, that to accept the government, corporation, or mass population’s opinion of leaving behind the literary and artistic world is detrimental to existence, and perhaps even human survival. The reliance on literature and developing seems inextricably linked. The society in Super Sad True Love Story would rather support a product called TotalSurrender, than to fight the flow of the river rushing towards them, obliterating their past, and the language it contained.
In Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, the government has firefighters who no longer put out fires, but start them. Novels and literature of any kind are banned. Thoughts and exploration is not encouraged. The protagonist, Montag, is a firefighter who must burn books. Reading books is literally against the law (5), and the government is in direct opposition to anyone with books. In fact, if any book owners attempt to hold onto their precious novels while the firemen do their work, they are to be burned along with their treasures. Such extreme measures to take away what seems inherently part of the people is unnerving to say the least.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, a writer is likened to a drug salesman, and it is taken even farther when the role of the writer is dubbed sacred: “No, I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed” (103). In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist Offred shows us a further insight into literature: “The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains” (186). This novel denies writing and reading to women, believing it to be dangerous, because it clearly places power in their hands. Furthermore, the history of the society before is removed from females’ grasps, and they are left to live and adhere only to the present. To look behind and to fall behind into a past life can equal nothing more than death and destruction.
Novels and literature, art and history are made taboo, and in some cases alive with possibilities of sensuality, destruction, temptation, and the vivacity of life itself. But the clear direction all of these novels take, in suppressing or discouraging literary pursuits or historical knowledge, it seeks to establish itself as a society based on modernity, yet destroys itself in doing so. The novels represented here, seek to restore order to the world by restoring the authenticity of history and the availability of literature! The fear of literature falling away seems a very present one. Are we sloughing off an old skin to watch pages flutter to the ground in a rainstorm of novel thoughts and ideas, to watch ink bleed off the pages in creeping tears of loss of life? Do we discard the old, the weighty, for the lightness of e-readers, or for the ultimate eschewing of literature altogether? And will this lack of literacy and evolution towards a technology-centric society be the purport of our downfall? The power of the language seems to shout from the pages: “Do not go gentle!”

Works Cited:
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. N.p.: n.p., 1985. Print.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. N.p.: n.p., 1953. Print.
Condie, Ally. Matched. N.p.: n.p., 2010. Print.
Flaherty, Colleen. Pricing Out the Humanities. N.p., 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. .
Matthews, David. Oxford survey finds humanities degrees pay. N.p., 11 July 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. .
Shtyengart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. N.p.: n.p., 2010. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. N.p.: n.p., 1963. Print.

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