Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Erudite, Anti-Intellectualism, and the Overlap Between the Writer and the Story

*Divergent spoilers everywhere in this post. And mild Insurgent spoilers.*

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Oh, Erudite. You get a bad rep, don't you? Let's talk about why.

First: Divergent is written from Tris's point of view, so you have to keep in mind that the things you see, you see through her lens-- and she has biases. The bias against Erudite came from her father, who emphasizes only how power-hungry and corrupt they are. These biases seem to be confirmed at the end of Divergent when the Erudite do exactly what Tris's father taught her to expect-- they make a play for control over the city.

However, we also see that Tris's father is pretty close-minded. He just assumes that his children will choose Abnegation. He scolds them any time they fail to live up to their faction's ideals. When Tris leaves Abnegation, her mother is proud, despite her sadness, but her father is enraged. He won't even visit her on Visiting Day. So you have to take what he says with a grain of salt, even though Tris doesn't.

A lot of Divergent involves Tris waking up to the truth. Realizing that the Dauntless are more than just a pack of adrenaline junkies looking for a rush, as her father told her. That murder does actually happen within the city limits. That her mother wasn't always Abnegation. That not everyone fits into a faction. That selflessness and bravery aren't all that different.

Unfortunately, she doesn't really wake up to the truth about Erudite, which is this: that they are just like Dauntless. They have a morally corrupt leader, and a few seriously warped members, but there are many of them who hold to the real values of Erudite, which are open-mindedness, innovation, creative thinking, knowledge, and most importantly, using that knowledge to better other people's lives. This seems to me to be echoed in real life, with a lot of our groups in this country: a small minority happen to scream the loudest, and we identify the rest of the group with that minority without realizing the variation and the nuances of belief that exist beyond them. It's natural, I think, but also something we have to fight against.

Tris begins to realize the nuances in Erudite in Insurgent when she encounters Fernando and Cara and the others who have taken refuge in the Amity compound. That whole scene, really, is supposed to show how Erudite is when Jeanine is not around-- how its members strive for accuracy and clarity in their speech, and how they gently (or humorously) correct each other, how they make jokes, how they delight in information, and how they take an interest in what other people believe, even if they don't agree. Here's the quote I'm really referring to:

(Cara is talking about the stunner.)

"...I made it so that the Amity would have a way of defending themselves without shooting anyone."

"That's..." I frown. "Understanding of you."

"Well, technology is supposed to make life better," she says. "No matter what you believe, there's a technology out there for you."

What did my mother say, in that simulation? "I worry that your father's blustering about Erudite has been to your detriment." What if she was right, even if she was just part of a simulation? My father taught me to see Erudite a particular way. He never taught me that they made no judgments about what people believed, but designed things for them within the confines of those beliefs. He never told me that they could be funny, or that they could critique their faction from the inside.

Cara lunges toward Fernando with the stunner, laughing when he jumps back.

He never told me that an Erudite could offer to help me even after I killed her brother.

(p452-453)

To go a little deeper, I think it's interesting how our lives and our struggles creep into our writing. When I wrote Divergent, I did not have a particularly good relationship with the Erudite in my life. I was in the creative writing program, surrounded by (at least what I perceived to be) scorn for commercial writing, while also engaging in that scorned writing in secret. I was also struggling with my relationship to a family member whose intellect had made him elitist and condescending. If Divergent has an anti-intellectual bent, it's because of a combination of things-- because Tris is the protagonist; because if you're going to have a mastermind behind a take-over plan in the world of Divergent, the most natural mastermind ("mind," get it?) is an Erudite; and because I was wrestling with some things.

By the time I wrote Insurgent, I had found a way out of that place. I was dating my husband, who loved to read and think and talk about his thoughts, and I was re-learning my fascination with the world and everything in it. I have always loved learning, and found it to be one of the most valuable pursuits available to us. I think that knowledge can arm people against evil in a thousand different ways, each of them worthwhile. But this is a perspective I had to re-claim, and am still re-claiming. As I wake up, I find that Tris also wakes up--not because she and I are the same, but because I often work out my struggles in my writing, without really knowing it.

With things like this, it's easy to agonize over what I wish I had done-- I wish Erudite had been more nuanced in the first book, I wish there were more Erudite characters, I wish I wish I wish. I think this happens to every writer years after they write their first book-- it's something you finished and grew from years before, but that people are just discovering for the first time. But I try not to agonize-- I try to just know that every book will reflect a different part of my journey through life, and that means every book will be a bit messy in certain ways, because I am a bit messy in certain ways.

In the past few years I've learned that I need to develop a compassionate attitude toward myself and my work. It's in my nature to be very critical of myself and what I've done, and while that's necessary for growth, it needs to be blended with gentleness. So, if there are any writers reading this, remember to be kind to yourself and to your old work. Delight in the things you did well, and if nothing else, value your old work for the little pieces of yourself and your struggle that are buried in it. It's a piece of your personal history.

So, the Erudite: they are becoming one of my favorite factions, over time. But it's taken some time for me to get there.

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