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Ovi Symposium; Seventy-Ninth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Seventy-Ninth Meeting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-04-15 11:52:41
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

Between Professors Emanuel Paparella, Ernesto Paolozzi, Michael Newman and Azly Rahman
Seventy-ninth Meeting: 15 April 2017

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Symposium's regular participants

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

 

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

newmanProf. Michael Newman received his Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Eastern Michigan University.  He discovered his love for teaching English as a Second Language while living abroad. He moved to South Florida and began his journey for a tenure track position at Broward College where he has recently earned a tenured position teaching English for Academic Purposes.  Another great passion of his is that of philosophical writing and discussion.  

azlyDr. Azly Rahman holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University, and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, and Education. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. He has edited and authored seven books. He resides in the US where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural and American Studies, and Political Science. His interest in research and writing lies in the cultural interplay between Cybernetics, Hegemony, and Existentialism.

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Subtheme of session 78: The role of myth in story-telling and historicit

Indirect Participants within the Great Imaginary Conversation across the ages: Vico, Verene, Dante, Croce, Homer, Grassi, Nietzsche, De Ruggero, Rushdie, Vogler, Attar, Blake, Campbell, Kahattam-Shud.

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Table of Contents for the 79th Session of the Ovi Symposium:

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

First Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella: “Mytho-Poetic Myth as Origins of Self-knowledge

Second Presentation by Azly Rahman: “Myth and the Danger of the Single Story: A close Reading of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’”

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Coordinator’s Preamble to the 79th Meeting

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In this April issue of the Ovi Symposium we are offered two presentations: one by Dr. Paparella and one by Dr. Rahman, both focusing on hermeneutics and the role of myth within narration and historicism. They dovetail each other quite well.

Dr. Paparella revisits the role of the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico in opposing a rationalistic Cartesian approach to history which privileges rationality at the expense of myth and imagination and creates a dichotomy between body and intellect. Vico represents a major correction in Western philosophy in as much as it alerts us that myth and historical narration and rationality are complementary to each other and to exclude one or the other in narration is to run the risk of distorting reality itself. Imagination remains central. This is a recurring theme in modern hermeneutics of which Vico is the precursor in the 18th century.

Dr. Rahman then offers us an example from modern literature by analyzing the narrative style of Salman Rushdie in one of his imaginative writing, Horoun and the Sea of Stories which is a sort of meta-narration (a narration on narration) presenting itself as a fantastic story for children. This dovetails perfectly Paparella’s presentation on Vico’s conception of the role of myth and the dangers of separating myth (or imagination)from logos when engaging in a single narration immersed in ideological fanaticism.

I dare say that this is one of the best sub-themes with which the Ovi symposium has dealt since its inception

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1

Mytho-Poetic Wisdom as Origins of Self-knowledge
Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

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Giambattista Vico (1688-1744), author of The New Science

Vico insists throughout his opus that in order for Man to understand himself and avoid the danger of scientific objectification, he needs to attempt a re-creation of the origins of humanity. This is achievable in as much as it was Man himself who created his own origins, and therefore he can return to them. By doing so he can hope to understand the destiny and meaning of his striving in space and time, which is to say, in history. In the beginning there is the end.

This kind of hermeneutical operation cannot be carried out by means of scientific archeological tools but by an act of the imagination, that most human of faculties which Vico calls fantasia. It is through imagination that Man may recreate mytho-poetic mentality. While the modes of thought of primitive Man were different from ours, the mind which created them is the same. Imagination may be impoverished in rational Man of the third Vichian historical cycle but it remains one of those modes of perceiving reality and remaining human. It is a sine qua non for the discovery of his human nature. How does Vico explain the process?

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Vico points out that primitive Man could not have been a creature of the intellect. He was steeped in the senses and the imagination. This gave his language, religion and other institutions a peculiar character. Which is to say, the character of primitive Man’s institutions reflected the character of his mind, especially those pertaining to language. It bear repeating here that Vico identified three stages of human development: (1) the poetic or divine age: the age of the gods wherein imagination is strongest and reasoning is weakest. The mind of this era ascribes to physical things the being of substances animated by gods. (2) The heroic age: the age when heroes believed themselves to be of divine origin. This is the mind that creates Homer’s or Dante’s heroes. (3) The age of men: the age when reason and intellect reign supreme. This is the mind that produces the age of Enlightenment, so called. To these stages of development accrue thee different kinds of natural law: (1) divine laws, dictated by the gods, (2) heroic laws, dictated by the strength of the heroes but curbed by religion, (3) human laws, dictated by developed and autonomous reason.

The human mind not being static develops slowly over time and Vico, in the light of those three stages of natural law, says that it is a mistake (dubbed by him as boria dei dotti or “the arrogance of scholars”) to claim as universal features of all societies a law based on fully developed reason belonging to the third stage of development. This conceptual mistake is the result of a mistaken assumption, namely that the ideas and institutions of all historical ages are the product of a human mind whose character is fixed. This mistake explains in turn the inability on the part of philosophers and historians, who are the product of the third rational age of men, to recreate and understand fully mytho-poetic mentality, a sine qua non for the recreation of origins.

While this kind of misconception abounds in academia, it can also be easily found in popular culture. Let us take an example from the film medium. The movie Quest for Fire was inspired by the book The Naked Ape. Both book and movie purport to show primitive man’s first tentative steps toward his own humanity and toward civilized life. However, I would submit, that far from getting a recreation of origins, the reader and viewer is served an image of primitive man as seen through a Cartesian paradigm. Both narrator and director bring to the recreation of primitive mentality all their rationalistic premises and assumptions. The most egregious and erroneous is the assumption that primitive man’s mind functions as a sort of lower underdeveloped rational mind. Corollary to this assumption is the one which holds that man’s origins can best be understood rationally, for the vantage point of the third cycle of history, that of full-fledged rationality.

That is so is apparent from the very outset of the movie. Nowhere are the gods, issuing from primitive man’s fertile imagination, to be seen or heard. As Vico has pointed out, without a recreation of early man’s religious impulse, without the fear and the wonder inherent in this primordial religion, no beginning of man’s humanity and of his civilization can be recreated. And in fact, nowhere in the book and the movie is an act of “piety” to be discerned. Acts such as, the burial of the dead, ritual dancing, marriage, sacrifice to the gods, cave painting. What we are treated to instead is strife and violence, indiscriminate mating and a thinly veiled competition for primitive technology, fire. The message is clear: the fit and the winners deserve to survive.

All this is presented despite the latest archeological findings of eminent archeologists, such as Leaky, suggesting that there might have been much more cooperation among early men than has been surmised; that what in fact assured their survival was less competition for natural resources and more of a common concern for the common good of the tribe. And that explains why the book and the movie lacks social phenomena such as ritual dancing and singing, initiation, the telling of fables or myths by which primitive man attempts to create order out of the surrounding natural flux continually assaulting his senses.

What gets most glaring ignored is the most important institution of early man, namely language. Language is understood rationalistically as a utilitarian means of communication and an instrument of social control. What is accorded a privileged position is the incessant anxious search for fire and the constant struggle with other men that such a search and possession entails. The premise seems to be that the tribe who controls fire wins the technological competition and earns the privilege of carrying on the evolutionary process. The unfit simply perish.

Within a Vichian paradigm, this is an obvious distortion. It is nothing less than a portrayal of modern rational man fighting for oil in Kuwait, and measuring his humanity and civilization by mere economic standards. This rationalistic premise even assumes the character of a dangerous myth devoid of its logos when it takes on racial overtones. At the conclusion of the movie we are treated to the contemplation of the “naked ape,” the blue eyed, successful conqueror of the primeval forest (the Anglo Saxon?) washing himself under a water fall while his dark swarthy, less successful colleagues (the minorities) grove in filth in a cave. This is practically a Madison Avenue advertisement: technological control of resources (fire) and hygienic living (water and soap for one’s body) leads to “enlightenment” and civilization. Indeed the ape is naked in more ways than one. The nakedness is primarily one of spirit and intellect. That kind of impoverishment leads right back to the cave, albeit one endowed with a cellular phone and a fax.

Vico, on the other hand defines primitive man’s mode of thinking as “poetic wisdom” and considers it nothing less than the master key to the understanding of his thought. As already seen, in the first two stages of development, imagination prevails over reason, and myth (the image) prevails over logos, i.e., the rationally explained meaning of those myths. In those two first stages, imaginative universals are preeminent over any, if indeed there are any, intelligible universals derived from abstract thought.

To understand the imaginative universal one has to begin with myth which for Vico is the primordial spiritual movement of primitive man, the mediator between nature and spirit, between what is useful and what is moral, between natural necessity and law. Vico is the first thinker to be aware that indeed myth is truth that incarnates itself in images, a symbol of truth, as it were. Myth is a very concrete image of the world expressing in very rudimentary fashion the ethico-religious experience of primitive man; an experience rooted in fear and wonder and which is always at the origins of religion. For Vico, myth rather than logical thinking, is the first form through which truth reveals itself. In other words, myth is the primordial historicization of the eternal and mytho-poetic mentality is always related to religion even when it appears in adversary relationship to it. It is the first indication of the passage from the bestial to the rational, but even more importantly, it is the veil of transcendence hiding under the particular and the finite—the concrete historical moment of Being.

Based on this speculation on myth, Vico can confidently assert that the first science to be mastered in recapturing human origins is the interpretation of myths (SN, 51). Myth is primitive man’s answer to questions he cannot answer conceptually but which demand a prompt answer on which may hang the very future of civilization, even the very meaning of life. Myth is the instrument of imagination for making sense of the surrounding world and giving it some kind of shape and meaning. The first of these meanings is identifiable for Vico in thundering Jupiter, father of the gods. This is a god that provokes fear, an emotion on which, as pointed out by Lucretius, primitive religion is based. But this fear is positive: it orders the bodily activity of primitive man and is the foundation of human thought and human society. To understand human origins, it is necessary to somehow recapture that primordial fear.

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Frontispiece to Vico’s New Science

As the Vico scholar Donal Phillip Verene has well rendered it: “Any genuine beginning in thought requires the power of fantasia to produce true speech. The reflective mind is not the support of itself, any more than reflective society is the support of itself, but develops and always has beneath its activity the imaginative forms of early life.” (Vico’s Science of Imagination, p.18). This is the crisis of any beginning placated by the expression of the myth, a sort of faith in the myth. Great poets like Dante are able to re-create this fear of beginnings as they begin their work. Because of that first myth of thundering Jupiter Vico could confidently declare that primitive man’s life is “poetic.” He could moreover declare that the most difficult and yet most necessary task of the reflective mind of modern man is that of pondering the origins of human existence, not in an abstract way, but concretely by paying attention to particulars and then showing how providence unfolds its plan.

In my opinion, this concept of providence is the most unique concept of Vico’s historicism, and yet it has hardly been understood by modern and post-modern man. More often than not it has been relegated to a less privileged position in the whole of Vico’s speculation. Benedetto Croce is a philosopher who while being generally sympathetic toward Vico, did in fact relegate the Vichian concept of providence to a secondary position.

Vico is also the first thinker to point to a development in man’s spiritual life: at the beginning man is all sense, then he is fantasia, and finally he is intellect. To those three stages correspond three forms of language: sign, images, concepts. Thus the “poets,” as myth makers turn out to be the first historian of primitive humanity. The universal incarnated itself in the image and becomes a fantastic universal which presents itself as a “poetic character.” Hence, properly understood, the gods and the heroes of antiquity represent aspects of life and moments of history. Here are a few representative examples:

* Hercules: the founding of the institution of the family through the twelve enterprises needed to safeguard it.

* Medusa: the victory of Man over the primeval forest. Venus: sacred and profane love. Mercury: commerce.

* Neptune: navigation.

* Cibele: the earth’s fertility.

* Flora: springtime.

* Pomona: autumn

And so on down a list of thirty thousand gods enumerated by Varro, ushering from the fertile imagination of primitive man who, spurred by emotions of fear or wonder, created a separate divinity for just about every natural phenomenon he observed.

Here it bears repeating that Vico is the first to point out that Homer could not exist as an actual individual poet: the Iliad and the Odyssey have different poetic styles. Homer is a poetic character to be interpreted as an image of primitive man who was a “poet” and made history by narrating it in the imaginative language and mode consonant with the particular era in which he lived. As Vico himself renders it: “the mother of wonder is ignorance of reasons and scarcity of abstraction.”

To reiterate, Vico’s thought has ethico-religious dimensions. The Vichian particular moves the imagination and is aesthetically beautiful, but it does more than that, for “poetic wisdom” is a movement of the divine (the transcendent) descending into the human and conversely, of the human (the immanent) reaching for the divine. These two complementary poles, human free will and divine providential order, appear contradictory and mutually exclusive to the reflective mind. They are however paradoxically related and inseparable. The particular of primitive mytho-poetic mind and the universal of abstracting “pure” mind capable of reflecting upon itself may be distinguished but may not be separated: they remain complementary to each other.

Croce erred in trying to downplay one pole (the transcendent) in favor of the other (the immanent). The Vichian mind-set, on the contrary, has little in common with a Cartesian mode of thinking. This is so because it is so immersed in life and history that its clarifying processes coincide with the clarification of life and history. That kind of clarification is never as neat as abstract thought, but it is less sterile.

What Vico is saying is basically this: the coming wisdom of the philosophers is already implied non-rationally in the “poetic wisdom” of primitive man. When Man begins to think humanly, he has already given birth to a rudimentary kind of metaphysics. As Ernesto Grassi has pointed out in his Rhetoric as Philosophy: the Humanist Tradition, within the human mind the cognition of things precedes judgment about them; hence topics necessarily precedes critique. The faculty of topics makes the mind ingenious and ingenium is the source of the creative activity of topics; it is the ability to see and make connections between disparate and even contradictory notions. In other words, ingenium is a “grasping” rather than a deductive property. In as much as primitive mytho-poetic mind possesses ingenium, it has an unconscious metaphysics which becomes conscious later through reflection. The historical process, however, admits of no fractures between one moment and the next.

Man is continually moving between two complementary poles such as passion/virtue. Barbarism/civilization, spontaneity/reflection, intuition/reason. This complementarity seems to be built in the very structure of reality. Later Heidegger, like Vico, will reach the conclusion that “…multiplicity of meaning is the element in which all thought must move in order to be strict thought…” (What is called thinking). This complementarity and multiplicity is especially present in Vico’s concept of providence.

One caveat is in order. Throughout the New Science Vico remains aware that ethical action cannot be founded on purely imaginative truth but more properly on reflected truths (SN, 1106). Vico, after all, has not called his work a myth but a science. In order to alleviate the primordial fear, early man had a psychological need to grasp a global vision of reality through the myth and thus evaluate choices. However, the contradictions remained largely unresolved, and that is fine at the first stage of development. However, when it happens at a later stage, problems arise. When, within a fanatical organization such as the Nazi party, myth wants to guarantee its own irrefutability, it proceeds to suppress the logos, i.e., the content or rational meaning within it. Wagner’s German myths certainly were used in a such a mode by the Nazis with some help from an equally misconceived Nietzschean philosophy emphasizing “the will to power.”

Guido De Ruggero in his Da Vico a Kant best explains the relationship of myth to reason in Vico by pointing out that within the “imaginative universal: the aesthetic element is expressed by the adjective (imaginative), while the intellectual rational element is expressed by the noun (universal). The proper function of imagination, therefore, remains that of a limiting adjective and neither adjective nor noun can be absolutized; they are complementary to each other.

Another way of explaining the relationship myth/reason is to think of the relationship form/content. Without content, form is meaningless. The form is myth, the content reason. An adjective is meaningless by itself when it is deprived of the noun it modifies. Similarly, mythic assertions self-destroy when they are separated from logos. On the other hand, the proper function of myth is never that of reducing the unknown and mysterious to rational clarity, rather it is that of integrating the unknown and the known together in a living whole wherein the limitations of the external self may be transcended. To use a metaphor adopted by Unamuno somewhere, myth is like a mountain on the small island of rationality and scientific knowledge, the more we climb the mountain the more vast the expansion of the sea of what is still unknown will appear to the climber.

So the search for the true meaning of myth becomes for Vico one of the essential tasks of literary interpretation. In that sense, Vico is the grandfather of modern hermeneutics.

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2

Myth and the Danger of the Single Story:
A close reading of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

 A presentation by Azly Rahman

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 In my close reading of Salman Rushdie’s delightful work of magic realism, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I focused on the philosophical seriousness, via characterization, of a work that reads like a fiction for young adults. Central to the novel, written in an easy-to-discern (Christopher) Voglerian 12-stage model of a hero’s journey, is Rushdie’s characterization of the key players in this great war of Grand versus Subaltern Narrative or the anti-foundational versus the foundational, and of critical dialogue versus controlling dogma.  It is a story about storytelling and how Rushdie deconstructed the most fundamental issue of today’s writing: the danger of the single narrative.

I propose Rushdie masterpiece is essentially a critique of contemporary Wahhabi-Salafi-Saudi-and-Ayatollah-Khomeini-type of Islamism; a grand narrative of an ideology that is anti-story and counter-liberating to the celebration of multiple voices of the human experience, as well as an enemy of Liberalism and Humanism. The following instances in the novel suggest the theme of the author’s meta-story of the art of naming and story-telling. I will first provide its synopsis.

Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a story of a young man Haroun Rashid searching for ways to bring back his mother Soraya who ran away with his neighbor Sengupta. His mother, a terrible singer, could no longer stand living with his father Rashid who makes up stories for a living. She preferred “just the facts”. She eloped with the fact-loving-clerkish-skinny-looking Sengupta. (pg. 21) From the ordinary world of urban India Haroun and his father, a prized storyteller-in-the-service-of-politicians (somewhat like the role of the liberal corporate or State-controlled media in endorsing politicians,) journeyed into a land of phantasmagoric proportions, beginning with a bus-ride uphill to Dull lake. This story is reminiscent of the Sufi author Sheik Fariduddin Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (a story about Sufism and the journey towards self-knowledge and enlightenment) to battle the evil kingdom of The Chapwalas, ruled by “Khattam Sud” (a metaphor of “The Last Revelation,” The Final Word”, The Ultimate Truth,” or “The Grandest of the Grand Narrative,”) – to set his mother free.

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Salman Rushdie

Haroun the protagonist, riding the “mechanical bird” Butt the Hoopoe (pgs. 67) is a metaphor the vehicle of human imagination as it is used to battle dogma, embodied in the character of the antagonist and arch-enemy of “General Kitab””, the grand vizier of (Herbert Marcusian) One-Dimensionalism named “Khattam-Shud”. Rushdie deployed Haroun not only as a metaphor of the glory of the once-world-renowned and revered--center-of-Islamic learning of Baghdad at the time of the Khalifah Haroun Al Rashid (pg. 216), but as a literary device to launch an attack on the walled-fortress-cum-gigantic ship of dogma that was producing “poisoned stories” (pg. 160) choking the life out of the ocean of stories, of the ocean of mercy, and narratives of multiplicities. Butt the Hoopoe, a metaphor of Simurgh – the king of birds who led other birds on a search of the true self in Attar’s Conference of the Birds-- functions similarly as the Hindu god of Flight and Imagination, Indera (or Inner Sensibility,) or the Greek god of messages, Hermes, bringing Haroun to places in the battlefield of ideas in a dystopic world of where “sad stories” are mechanically produced. (pg. 15)

Religious doctrines consist of sea of stories of sadness and salvation and how the soul can be saved in the complex matrix of soteriological paradigm of the fate of the Human Self. Rushdie characterized this notion of Khattam-Shud’s world as anti-story and anathema to the realism of the human experience (pgs. 159-167) I recall William Blake’s notion of the superiority of human imagination over the certitude of dogma as he wrote about the senses five and the power of the sixth sense of human imagination in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Through Haroun’s collaboration with the mythical-mechanical bird, “Butt”, the notion of grand narration to be waged war against, until storytellers are liberated and the oceans are cleansed of the poisons of the single narrative. 

In fighting dogma, it is the “General Kitab” that became Rushdie’s anchor point in his characterization of the semiotics of Liberal-Humanism in this great war with Ideology. The Arabic word for “scripture” is kitab and the general scripture signify, as I read it the sum total of the works of human creativity through the millions and billions of stories weaved from Time immemorial. Stories are what maketh the Universe, as Joseph Campbell might say in his study of myths and the structure of monomyths, making the world an ocean of stories. Essentially it is broad-based liberal education, framed by the foundation of “general kitabs/scriptures/great books,” I believe make the human mind alive and living in a sea of stories, rather than sad and gloomy living in a poisoned ocean of anti-stories filled with glum fish, in a land called Alifbay (pg. 15) or Alif-Ba-Ta or AlphaBeta or the Alphabet or in a land in which Creative and Critical Literacy reigns as how it ought to be. I believe this is another point made by Rushdie in deconstructing the reality of today’s ideological sensibility.

More examples abound in this engaging story of humorous proportion yet its hermeneutics can be applied to the study of the hegemony of the one-truth, all-encompassing, imperializing dogma inherent primarily in all mono-theistic religions --- of those creations of Man, through the work of the priest-class, that hates the progress of innovation and creativity in human literary evolution.  A key passage from Haroun’s story exemplified the importance of critical dialogue and the battle for ideas in order for a Marxist-type of dialectical-materialism to occur, as in the scene of the Guppees preparing for war with the Chupwalas:

The black-nosed Chupwala army, whose menacing silence hung over it like a fog, looked too frightening to lose. Meanwhile the Guppees were till busy arguing over every little detail. Every order sent down from the command hill had to be debated fully, with all its pros and cons, even if it came from General Kitab himself. … the Pages of Gup, now that they had talked through everything so fully, fought hard, remained united, supported each other when required to do so, and in general looked like a force with a common purpose. All the arguments and debates, all that openness had created such powerful bonds of fellowship between them. “(pgs. 184-185)

 Such is Rushdie’s characterization of the importance of critical sensibility in bringing minds together – the essence of unity in diversity in a living democracy.

In conclusion, in deconstructing Rushdie’s notion of stories, the foregoing brief examples which barely touch the outer-crust of the layers of philological-philosophical depth of the author’s critique of Islamism ala’ Khomeini-Wahabbi Foundationalism, I proposed instances in which the author used names that signify the larger problematique of the art, science, and aesthetics of storytelling. Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is not just a simple and immensely entertaining children’s story but a complex notion of conceptual confrontations cast in a world of consciousness of the importance of the celebration of human creativity through story-telling as an ancient enterprise of cognitive rejuvenations. It is about the need to celebrate the depth, breath, and the magic of multiple narratives to opposed the grand march of the hegemonic single-story jihadism.  I end this brief close reading with a line of on an important philosophical argument between Haroun and his arch-enemy Khattam-Shud, the Author of the Ideology of the Single-Story Narrative, signifying the theme of the story:

“But why do you hate stories so much? Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. Stories are fun

The world, however, is not for Fun, Khattam-Shud replied. The world is for Controlling.” (pg. 161)

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 END  OF 79th SESSION OF THE  OVI  SYMPOSIUM (15/04/2017)

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