Cliodynamics of Literature: Mass Amnesia

What I love about studying cliodynamics under the patronage of Google is not finding, evaluating and applying meaning to data. The main struggle is actually to stop expanding on the chain of ideas.

That's how things have gone so far, at least. Until I started writing about this elephantine of a nation: Writing about Indonesia's state of literature brought me to a standstill. 

  1. Cliodynamics of Indonesian Literature
Major Event
Psycho Stage
17th - mid 20th Century
Dutch rule.
Mid 20th - Early 21st
Everything! From war, coups d'etat, massacre, crises, reformation, natural disasters, etc, you name it, Indonesians have done it.
21st Century (so far)
Recalibrate everything!  

My maternal ancestry lists veterans, politicians, royalties and witches among its ranks. The main reason why my family remembers this fact is in due thanks to the Dutch governance. If it weren't for Dutch education, Indonesians would not have moved on from the archaic lontar (palm leaf manuscripts). Okay so education came at the cost of a lot of nutmegs and the loss of a lot of our relatives to Christianity, but at least people read.

Then the second World War broke. Remember how war, as the dark patron of the arts, has the power to catalyze literature? It didn't happen in Indonesia mainly because Indonesia is too big.

For so many reasons, in less than 20 years since her independence, a tyrannical regime had to be established. That regime caused a general amnesia by butchering at least half a million of the the population, then brainwashed the rest of by censoring, detaining and silencing the Indonesian Vox Populi for the length of a whole generation.

The movement was justified as an effort to protect religion from Communism. Take a moment to associate freely.

  1. Size Matters
A few things. Indonesians aren't dumb. Unlike the entitled Saudis, Indonesians have every reason and mean to produce mean literature, win gold medals at science olympics, and run major corporations in their countries of origin. But they don't because, the social structure doesn't encourage it.

It's not that Indonesia is poor (far from it).  It's only a matter of logistics: The larger is a country, the harder it is to control the distribution of resources. The harder to implement quality education upon all. The harder to maintain a standard for evaluation and reverse the widening inequality of income. You get my drift?

Compare to its population size, the Indonesians are not writing well enough. And how could they, if they don't read well enough? And how could they read well enough, if the writers themselves are still struggling with their basic and security needs?

The 30 years of illiterate silence systematically erased whatever memories and stories that the people might have learned from the past wars or occupatioons. for independence and Dutch maturity in Indonesia's literature.

Fortunately, like the rest of ASEAN agricultural nations, Indonesians are pious and mild-mannered enough to take things as they go. And, thanks for the steady stream of natural disasters, rural Indonesians are rarely so bored to be motivated to fulfill beyond their basic physiological and security needs. For a while, at least.

  1. Why should they read?
I'm writing this from an idyllic village. The land is good and yielding and the people are obedient and yielding to their crops. Whatever is their religion, it has not made them fanatical or argumentative, because religions here are congruent with the laws of nature.

The people's disagreements are petty, their pleasures simple, their days and nights are monotonous and repetitive. The educated classes, the ones who have traveled far for their education, their main work is to maintain this idyllic peace. To keep the farmers farming, the mothers feeding, the husbands caring.

This has always been the state of things in this village, for many generations past, through the fall and raise of governments and kingdoms, since the formation of the Ring of Fire. 

Steadfastness too is a kind of Grace. 


Cliodynamics of Literature: Saudi Vox Populi

In the last three posts, the main theme was about process theories. A person needs to go through stages in order to self-actualize and understand literary novels. Civilizations need to go through stages in until it can write up lasting literature. Even members of the book industry, with every book, need to endure exhaustive processes; from writer to market to reader.

The understanding about book writing process will help us detach from our diagnostic biases. Detaching from diagnostic bias might allow us to respond more objectively to the state of literature anywhere. Instead of reacting defensively or boastful about the state of literature, levels of productivity, or nationwide stupidity, we might say, "Oh, considering how far they have gone, it's only normal for them to be where they are on the hierarchy of needs."

  1. Saudi Literature Since Gutenberg
Similar to the times when the printing machine was strictly regulate by the Kings and Popes of Europe, so is the printing machine in Saudi today. And it is a natural thing to happen when the majority the population doesn't know how to constructively control their voices. Not until it learns how to play fair. Not until it knows the shape and idiosyncrasies of its own identity and the modulations of its voices.
Major Event
Psycho Stage
15th-18th Century
Ottoman Empire bans the printing machine on penalty of death
18th-19th Century
Tribal unification and division of Arabia
20th Century
Saudi Arabia founded. Girls allowed to go to school. Seige of Makkah. Fine, we'll let you educate them a little bit.
21st Century
9-11. Okay, we'll let you educate them a lot. But not at home.

  1. Child Phase
The rulers of Saudi aren't idiots. They would not be rulers if they were. They understand that the majority of Vox Populi (Voice of the Population) in Saudi is still in its child phase.

One thing that makes children frightening to me is that they can see through facades, but lack the wisdom and discernment to control their responses, no matter how harmful. Like children, the majority would collect viciousness to thwart their heroes and foes with. Then throw fits of anger without trying to understand the reasons why things happen, or even offer regard to how hurtful their remarks might be, then sulk at the corner until Kingdom comes. Pun intended. Haha.

Until the end of the 20th century, vox populi of Saudi was still in its child phase, which is a period of self-discovery: A phase that precedes social awareness and identity formation. At least, this is how I explain why the syllabus of history in Saudi Schools, from grade 4 until grade 12, repeats on a three topics: My religion, my prophets, and my country.
Grade Lvl.
Study Topic
Grade Lvl.
Study Topic
Grade 4
History of the Prophet
Grade 9
History of Saudi Arabia
Grade 5
History of Islamic Nation
Grade 10
History of Prophets and Spread of Islam
Grade 6
History of Saudi Arabia
Grade 11
Aspects of Islamic Socio-Political History
Grade 7
History of the Prophet and Khilafa
Grade 12
History of Saudi Arabia
Grade 8
History of Islamic Nation

  1. Adolescent Phase: Control vs. Autonomy
Around the end of the twentieth century, when the internet arrived in Saudi, the ability to test one's voice in public became a common privilege. Whatever effort the lords and masters were spending on controlling the printing machine was then shifted to control the internet.

And faithful to the theories of psychosocial development, being able to test their voices in public (on social media), created a sense of self-awareness. A lot of self-awareness. And...Blasphemous Blogs! The world doesn't revolve around your self and awareness, oy!


Happily, a lot of Saudis in this adolescent phase are smart and motivated enough to move on to the adolescent phase. And the Saudi government is all the happier to facilitate the transition for their entitled children toward self-recognition and identity formation. This is one the good side-effects that 9/11 triggered in Saudi; it became necessary and justifiable to send millions of the young Saudi population abroad for their higher education.

We know ourselves better by interacting with others. We understand the value of our privileges when we lose them. We develop empathy when we bear the full consequences of our autonomous actions. Which, by the way, is one of Erikson's themes of adolescence: Control vs. Autonomy.

A lot of the Saudis who return from their foreign education have better awareness of themselves. They are more articulate in presenting their ideas. They marry and procreate with calculation. They value their personal freedom and opinions, which epitomizes adolescence. And you cannot underestimate just how good an education does a Saudi boy and girl by living without a maid at their constant behest.

And it's actually nice to be able to see this progress in my lifetime. 


Cliodynamics of Literature: Book Business

Books as Commodity

Artistic value is as hard to measure as intelligence. That said, books cost money. A lot of money. So as long that it costs money, it's measurable. Every book in the market, in paper or digital format, depends its entire existence on very concrete and measurable factors.

  1. The Writer

Say that a writer needs X amount of calories, Y amount of hours, Z amount of travel to produce a book. Multiply that number by the book's level of artistic value. The more beautiful a book, the more education, experience, emotional intelligence, spiritual strength it takes from the writer. When Norman Mailer said that, "Every book killed me a little," he wasn't kidding.

In addition to all that, consider that every writer will need to spend the whole of his lifetime practicing writing to produce his magna carta. It took Dostoyevsky everything from The Idiot, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, until he eventually concluded with the Brothers Karamazov. This was a Russian artist, so that took a lot paper and a lot of rewriting and a lot of nights at the verge of insanity.

When the artist got it easy at practicing, and his debut novel shot through the sales early in his career, it would have still taken a lot of sacrifices from others. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Vonnegut and Mailer got dented in their heads from their experiences at war. Surviving war, unlike love, spreads a person's soul on the misery of others, destroying every flicker of vanity with trauma. (While love encapsulates the world in an impenetrable bubble of self-awareness.)

War, as a dark patron of the arts, is a powerful catalyst that not every nation, not every writer is able to stomach, or unbraid through his letters. Though, done carefully and successfully, the worst state of humanity can fuel the beacon for those who learn and take guidance from it, for as long as the book is being read, one heedful generation after another.

  1. The Publishing Industry

Say that a writer was strong and patient and patronized enough to write a book. Does it automatically get published and start soaring merely for its merit? Try again. 

For a book to show up in a bookstore (in digital or paperback format), it needs to be properly edited, formatted, covered, and prettified. For that book to stay on that bookshelf, it needs to sell. Selling a book is not very different from selling a house or a pack of cigarettes: It needs marketing, advertisement, seasons, signing, touring. The whole brouhaha.

For the book to get reprinted in second, third, or Centennial editions, it needs to arrest of the market's attention long enough to justify the work it takes to repackage, resell and reserve that precious spot on a bookstore shelf.

The book publishing industry, at the end is a business model, and a kind that has been fluid enough to evolve along the change of times. One of the book publishing's techniques of survival is providing supermarket books, genre fiction, non-fiction, tabloid magazines by the bulk, to bear the publishing industry's 80% of market appetite.

On the long run, some of that money (ideally) would go for good cause. And that good cause happens in two ways:

i) Maintain loyalty in a market segment.

People who love to read, will read, regardless to genre. At least a part of that market would continually evolve in their tastes for books. People grow up, situations change, needs need to get fulfilled and there should be a book to satisfy these changing needs along the hierarchy of needs and psychosocial stages. 

ii) Support the book industry's idealistic values.

When it comes to the literary novels, the kind that has made me vent thousands of words into these series, the system becomes dependent on awards. Literary novels aren't meant to sell fast and plenty. Not a lot of people outside of Turkey would have recognized Orhan Pamuk if he didn't win the Nobel Prize. I honestly wouldn't have made the effort to read through DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little without a Booker stamp on the cover.

And how do you finance a book award event or a literary competition? I'm making my wildest guess, but in some way, there has got to be enough number of readers out there who care about artistically valuable books, to create and maintain all the awards, the festivals, the writers, and the book publishing industry.

  1. The Reader

The paradox of literary novels is that they need to be written personally enough by the writer, while at the same time still sport universal values to make it relatable to the normal reader. 

Universal values? Lessons? Normal? Why would a regular layman want to spend his hard-earned leisure minutes reading about reality? Hence, only 6% of the book market has the balls to read literary fiction.

What makes the profile of a literary fiction reader? Who would be crazy enough to read artistic stories for their educational entertainment? Based on the statistics, she's most likely female. Based on Maslow and Erikson, she would have to be at a stage where her basic, security and intimacy needs have been fulfilled and secured. Upper-middle class. College level education. Aware of social injustice. Sensitive. Emphatic. Curious. Worth fighting for. Based on Alia Makki, she's worth every word. Worth writing literary novels for, to remind her that her opinions matter, her sensitivity is worth protecting; for that is also the voice of the world's conscience, so long that she keeps her heart and mind and actions straight.

This is why literature matters. We ain't so tough, and we need verbal, cliodynamic and concrete reminders to keep us straight. 


Cliodynamics of Literature: English Model

Aligning the cliodynamics of English literature with psychology doesn't even cover the whole of my argument on the reasons why the Saudi and Indonesian readership is 300 hundred years behind the English literature.

I'll be nice and butcher the minor details in the development of English literature as to fit my argument. Thank the Gods of Psychology that Erikson's Psychosocial stages aren't more than 3-10 stages (depending on whom I'm arguing with). 

Mind asking me why I'm doing this? Because I'm a snobbish intellect and I'm frustrated and need to vent in even and logical terms. Okay?

Aligning the History of English literature with Human Psychology
Major Events
Major themes
Major works & Authors
Psychological Stage
Gutenberg Printing Press
Canterbury Tales, KJB
(Oh! A foot! A god! A printing machine!)
Witch Trials. Protestant, Catholic, Anglican Church conflict
Marlowe's Faustus
Elizabethan Golden Age
Childhood (Play!)
Expansion of British Empire, American Revolution
Travel, colonialism, slavery
Robert Burns, Declaration of Independence
(I am me. What I am is mine!)
Victorian Era, Industrial Revolution, Civil War
Austen, Dickens
Early Adulthood
(Calm down. Let's be reasonable.)
World War I & II
We're screwed, aren't we?
Conrad, Hemingway
Middle Age
(Oh my foot. OMG)
(So far) Felix Baumgartner, Obama
Yep. We're screwed.
Late Adulthood
(Fuck this shit.)
Chinese Empire
Gog and Magog arriving
(I would be dead by then, think I'd give a gog?)
Infancy (again) (Because. Chinese)

15th-16th Century
  • The Gutenberg press machine was invented in 1439. This is my starting point because basically literature became a tangible, measurable thing from this point in history. 
  • Writing became trendy when reading became trendy. Reading became accessible because the printing machine made books a lot cheaper and easier to distribute.
  • When a new medium of communication appears, people begin experimenting with their voices. But it was still such an expensive machine and literacy was a thing reserved for the ruling classes.  Only the richest people could afford having their words spread, mainly Kings and Popes.
  • Naturally, the literature that were allowed to spread in those early years were propagandist and religious. The King James Bible, one of the most widely spread books in the world ever, was published around this time.
Comparing this period with Infancy
Talks about God and religion teaches obedience and perfect compliance. It's also the language rulers use when they want to justify their reign. "I am King, under God. You obey Me, you obey God. If you disobey Me, you meet your God," is the underlying motto to support the legitimacy of a ruling government.

And that is the Innocence of Infancy in the history of printed literature. It's that pure state where religion dictates thought, and anything that goes beyond the Holy word is sin and punishable by death. 

17th Century
There was relative domestic stability during the Elizabethan reign. Remember the hierarchy of needs? After fulfilling the basic physiological and security needs, there was room for secondary needs to develop and expand.

Comparing this period with Childhood
The English thought, "Okay, so I've eaten and slept for a few decades, and now I'm bored. Shall we play?" 

After fulfilling the basic and security needs, the people had their esteem and aesthetic needs nagging. They had time to think and daydream and write sonnets. Consider the number of people and props and practice it takes for a theatrical performance to take place. Shakespeare would not have been able to write and his crew wouldn't have performed so many plays, if there was a hint of domestic instability to sustain a theatrical production.

18th Century
I should mention that the French Revolution took place in this century, spreading its effect all over Europe, building momentum and strength until, ultimately, it triggered the American revolution (1775-1783).

Nevertheless, angry Americans at the west of the pond did not stop the eastward spread of the British Empire. While the English colonized, the travelers jolted the folks back home with souvenirs from the new territories, in the seeds of diversity and oriental awareness into the English soil.

Comparing this period with Adolescence  
English literature perfectly embodied adolescence stage of development in England. Just like when a teenager begins to wonder about self and identity, the first realizations that they are not the center of the world, as children would have thought.

19th Century
In the U.S. This country was so new that I shouldn't even bother. But the people spoke and wrote in English, and probably in British accents. The break of the Civil War sent back the development of American literature a few hundred years. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Hawthorne's "Scarlett Letter". The themes were religious and basic again in the New World. How else would the Union justify slavery?

In England. Queen Victoria was uptight and there was huge emphasis on propriety, but that didn't stop Charles Dickens from writing. In fact, this is my favorite period of English literature. There was censorship, but that was no excuse for the muse to leave the hardworking scribe. In fact, in the hands of a mature society, censorship is like just a door closing and a lot of other windows opening.

20th Century
Comparing 20th century U.K. Literature with Late Adulthood
How many Booker Prize winner novels have you read recently that gave off the feeling that U.K. literaterature is a young boy at the Spring of his life? Exactly.

US Literature's fast progress into Adulthood...No, Late Adulthood
Name one Pulitzer Prize winning Novel that doesn't make you feel really, really old. That's how it feels to read books from the Pulitzer list anyway.

And this is impressive, considering how fast it took for U.S. literature to progress from Puritan Infancy, Romantic Childhood, Civil War Adolescence and early 20th century maturity, then - BANG - foultmouthed Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao.

It did not take long for the US literature to catch up with U.K. literature: Since 1901, there has been as many U.S. Nobel Prize Laurets as the British. It took less than a hundred years since the Civil War for the U.S. to win its first Nobel Prize in Literature (Lewis Sinclair, 1930). 

I attribute the speed by which the U.S. literature developed and matured for the last hundred years on three things: Medium language (English), World Wars: Taking part AND winning, and the deep cultural support upon the craft.

If you're reading this, I congratulate your citizenship of the world, because English the most widely spoken language in the world.

But this wasn't always the case. There was a time when Arabic and Sanskrit were the linguae franca of the ancient world, back in the days. And if I am patient enough, I might tell in another blog why Arabic is not so hot anymore, and why Arabic and Indonesian literature are still in their (Pre)adolescence period.

Yes, it's that damn printing machine's fault!


Cliodynamics of Literature: Who reads when?

Understanding the public taste in literature happened the same way I understood why some people who were raised in religious homes become atheists as soon as they leave, and why single Saudi men act like the horniest rabbits as soon as they land in Jakarta, and why Indonesians are big fans of religion instead of, ahem, practicality.

I'm also very lazy. So in my laziness I rely on the closest thing available in my box of thoughts: Psychology. 

Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Stages
What does a person generally think about during the different stages of development? My favorite answer to this question has always been loosely based on a generalized format of Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages of development. That makes me a bad student of psychology but it simplifies my life*.
  1. Infancy (0-3 years): Is the world a safe, loving place or not? When is lunch? Ooh, a toe! 
  2. Childhood (4-12 years): Play, comradeship, learning, independence, etc. You remember.
  3. Adolescence (13-18 years): Identity, conformity, puberty, abstraction. Who am I? Why am I here? How do I look?
  4. Young Adulthood (19-40 years): Intimacy vs. Isolation: Security, love, work, starting a family, knowing self reflected by society. 
  5. Middle Adulthood (41-65 years): Establish career, settle down, giving back to society, taking pride in self and society. 
  6. Late adulthood (65 years and beyond): What was the point? Was it worthwhile? 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
This is my favorite theory in understanding human behavior for its sheer simplicity and recyclable universality. You can stretch it sideways by attaching other elements of well-being on the hierarchy, but the core idea remains the same whether applied on a single individual or the general population. Whether applied on a cliodynamics of religion or a civilization or the development of taste for caviar.
The Hierarchy of Needs: 
  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Intimacy/Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-Actualization

Aligning the psychosocial stages with the hierarchy of needs
Psychosocial Stage
Hierarchy of Needs
Infant mind
Childlike mind
Adolescent mind
Adult mind
Mature mind

Imagine the psychosocial stages and hierarchy of as tool to explain the chronological development of taste in literature...
...and we have shelves upon shelves of genre fiction, of self-help books, variations of "How to be rich in 4 hours or less", feeding the mind of the poorly intellectual.
Psychosocial Stage
Mental Needs
Literature Needs
Infant mind
Coloring books, cook books
Childlike mind
Comic books, Children's Literature
Adolescent mind
Genre and Mainstream Fiction
Adult mind
Niche and Literary fiction
Mature mind
Religion, Spirituality

Some people never grow up. A lot of folks have their intellectual needs satisfied at the childlike or adolescent stage of thinking. And some others swing comfortably between spiritual books and drawing books. 

In my snobbish defense, I still read everything, including comic and coloring books. And I have been entertained by plenty of childlike books. But because I am a snob, I have to read things that break my brain with variety, otherwise I'll get bored.

Adding up the numbers and nuggets
Just because it's a book, doesn't that mean that reading it is going to make you smarter. The general population is comfortable to never evolve their minds higher than adolescent thinking. Adolescence coincides with the time people leave school and never be forced to read another book again. 

Then again, just because the book you're reading is not going to make your smarter, it's still better than never to read again, considering these statistics:
  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%
 (Source: Reading Statistics)

That is just the American statistics. The statistics from the same country that produces dedicated ebook readers and controls the global tastes in war and peace and movies.
I can agree if someone said that the US statistics does not represent the rest of the world. I can agree that European and Asian readership would exceed the American by an intelligent knot. But comparing the American readership to Indonesian and Saudi readership is reasonable.

This article makes me a intellectual snob and writer
On a global perspective, books like Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, the Da Vinci Code, are commercially successful because the global population likes that kind of entertainment.

I take grand liberty in bashing books and the Saudi, US and Indonesian readership because they have so far successfully stunted my motivation to write. Who cares about my intellectual snobbery? Would my snobbery improve the Saudi and Indonesian taste in literature? Fat chance.

Which makes the cliodynamics of literature and book industry, the evolution of mainstrem taste, all the more interesting to study. You still want to know when the first Indonesian or Saudi is going to win the Nobel Prize for literature, right? In 300 years?

Next time.

* In Erikson's theory, there are three psychosocial stages between the ages 4 until 12 (Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority). For the sake of this article, I took the liberty to bunch up those three stages into one and call it the Childhood Stage under the assumption that my readers would still remember what they used to think about in those ages. 

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