Potok Discusses Conflict

Novelist Says Creativity Results From Cultural Contact

Cultural conflict has become a staple of contemporary society, world renowed novelist Chaim Potok told a standing-room-only crowd at Hillel last night.

"Three hundred years ago, most people who grew up on this planet never encountered a new idea," said the author of The Chosen and The Promise. "You lived you died inside a tight island of culture."

That type of society no longer exists, Potok said. While we still learn the value systems of our own particular cultures, we are also "bombarded by alternative ways of thinking," he said.

Potok described culture as a response by particular groups in society to the ultimate questions of life.

He said those "four a.m. questions" include--"What am I doing here? Does anything I do make any difference?"

According to Potok, a cultural conflict can take many forms, including a "core to core cultural conflict" which "occure when one set of ways of giving meaning to these questions crashes up against one another."

This conflict eventually takes place in everyone's life when they come face to face with an entirely new way of thinking, he said.

"You've become a battle ground for a certain kind of conflict of ideas" Potok told the audience. "As we grow up we learn to handle these alternative ways of thinking and structuring the world," he said.

Creativity flows from this conflict of cultures, Potok said.

"When cores of culture have come together in conflict--out of that charged encounter has come creativity." he said.

"Paintings are created books are written," he continued.

For Potok, literature provided a means to access other cultures.

"I found myself in a world I knew nothing about," Potok said of his first encounter with an alien Anglo-culture in the novels of Evelyn Waugh and James Joyce.

This sudden encounter with a broader world parallels the experiences of many of his fictional characters, Potok explained.

Potok said his characters attempt to reconcile their traditions and modes of thinking with the larger cultures of the world.

Potok's ability to relate his own personal experience to those of his characters caught the attention of several audience members including Karen C. Kim '98.

"I was very interested in hearing about his life and seeing the parallels between his life and the characters in his books, "Kim said.

Other audience members said they appreciated Potok's description of society as a battleground of cultural conflict. In fact, clusters of students formed after the talk to debate his ideas.

"He really defined well the society where you are constantly bombarded with different cultural experiences and you have to choose between them," said Benjamin A. Siris' 96 .