Dialogues According to Jonathan Levy, Dostoyevsky Briefly, and Rohmer Yet Again

There's an interesting piece by Jonathan Levy in the latest issue of the New England Review that focuses on the benefits of introducing old-school Platonic dialogues back into education.  Part of the piece, appropriately, is written in dialogue.  I tend to keep an eye open for ideas of this nature, or anything that someone has to say about education that isn't along the lines of BIGGER FASTER STRONGER and OUR CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE.

Levy argues that creative dialogues which present multiple points of view are a natural and positive thought process for working through problems.  This notion of dialogues runs counter not only to the mentalities mentioned above as they manifest in an effort to keep up with technology and globalization, but also to what is taught in a liberal arts environment, where students are expected to present singular ideas which are simultaneously backed up with regurgitated information.  A gross simplification, but largely true.

It also runs counter to what I think of as being the norm in creative writing programs.  That is, the cliché of show, don't tell.  More description, less talk.  Reduce, reduce, reduce.  Furthermore, it's not just writing programs, and not just a recent development.  Nabokov blew Dostoyevsky's philosophical meanderings to smithereens in his lectures and works like The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment have been conversely so overblown in some circles that the resulting backlash places them as almost pre-collegiate, sinful in their novels-of-ideas status, suitable more as history and/or philosophy than serious literature.

I'm not sure entirely how I feel about this rupture myself.  Much of the purist attitude regarding writing runs in my own veins, but I've always been able to enjoy Dostoyevsky, particularly the parts of his books that involve conversation.  This is also a great opportunity, of course, for me to bring up the French film director Éric Rohmer yet again.  Both Dostoyevsky and Rohmer are something along the lines of a guilty pleasure for me, not because I actually feel ashamed of liking their work, but because the pleasure itself seems capable of becoming detached from any serious artistic appreciation.  Watching their characters struggle with moral decisions is not so fundamentally different from doing a crossword puzzle or taking an online quiz.  I can appreciate good description, I can read quintessential literary fiction and aspire to write it, but this requires long-term commitment and faith.  Watching The Bakery Girl of Monceau, on the other hand, is as easy as indulging in one of the sugary treats featured in it, given the opportunity.

Conversely, another of the main points Levy makes in his article is that good dialogue is actually extremely hard to write, which is one of the reasons why it's so often hated.  I have no hesitation in believing this and in believing that dialogue, when it's entertaining and memorable, probably is one of the fastest and most practical ways to get people to pay attention.  Hence the popularity of Pulp Fiction.  This leaves the creator of a dialogue, however, alone with the next question in the process:  What do I want people to pay attention to?

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