from The Rubaiyat of Omar KhayyamI have read much recently, and grown quite tired of the current academic emphasis on the unreality of everything that is read. I suppose it is something like a new toy, shiny and appealing, but nothing more than a rattle, spinning and humming the same tune, saying the same thing time and again. Perhaps it's just a spin-off of the wonder at a preoccupation of so many people--"if it's not real, why do so many people spend so much of their time engaged in it?" I suppose I tire of it because it is so obvious, but it is so inflated with the notions of those savvy young children who really want to show how-in-the know they are by tellling us all there is no Santa Claus and all magic is merely a set of tricks done by the magician. Even if true, the jaded nature of the truth isn't really all that appealing. It is axiomatic that the reality of the content of books or any writing is entirely in the head of the reader. We're done with that.
tr. Edward Fitzgerald
A Moment's Halt -- a momentary tasteOf Being from the Well amid the Waste -- And Lo! the phantom Caravan has reach'd The Nothing it set out from -- Oh, make haste!
As with any art, the art of writing is about stripping away the unnecessary and show the essential--it is about form and order, even when it seems to be about the opposite, it is about choice and detail. In short, writing, like all the arts is a lie that tells the truth. (Sorry for the cliché, but it works well here.) When I take time to step into the world of a book, I'm stepping into a highly artificial, highly purposeful created world--the world is not formed of paint, plaster, and marble, even less of the dust and grit of the street I walk through every day. Rather it is a world formed by well-chosen words--words chosen for the artist's purpose, which, is not fully knowable by anyone--and in this, I include the artist. There is certainly conscious intent and motive, but there is also something that drives one to write that cannot be fully grasped or defined. Why do millions of people spend hours of our days crafting words for blogs read by, perhaps, twenty, twenty-five people? I can't tell you why life is better--lived life that is, when I spend time each day writing. But it is, and it is so for many of us. Perhaps because we spend time constructing our sense of things as they are and resolve momentary doubts.
Stepping into literature is, for me, exactly as described above. It is a momentary and raw taste of being. I am reminded of Keats's hyperexultation in the real:
from "To Autumn"An indulgence in literature is a moment at the cider-press of all that is real. In quaffing its sweet and mellow brew, we stand open to what is at the core of all that is. It is a taste of being at its core because everything extraneous has been stripped away. It is not real, and yet it pierces straight to the heart of the real--and only the unreal can do this because the real world is too complex to reveal meaning. We live in it as high-functioning autistics--filtering and making sense of what we can, but rarely touching whatever may lay underneath.
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
This little manifesto, you can see, gives glimpse of one writer's highly supernatural weltanschauung. Reality is reality--large, menacing, llife-giving, complex beyond even momentary comprehension. But literature, writing, while never denying that complexity, strips away layers to reveal a core. The worlds of literature may be unreal, but what we learn from them and take into the world, is highly real. One stands in wonder when one hears a child justify his or her actions, appropriately taken in defending one weaker and less popular by saying that "there comes a time when one must choose between what is right and what is easy." Literature, at very least in its cinematic form, has entered into and shaped reality. And in a very real way, the fundamentals of our world are based on the realities of the "unreal world" of literature. Withou the calculus of Leibniz and Newton, (an understanding of the real conveyed only through the medium of words and numbers) we do not have the marvelous inventions and constant innovations of our day. Calculus is not something that could easily be conveyed in an oral tradition seeking to preserve reality. So too with the complexities that drive the complexities of our lived existence. Without literature we do not learn to build and maintain houses, energy-generating plants, airplanes, paved roads. Without the instruction and the shaping of reality that we take from literature, we lose much that we have come to value and cherish. We lose the ability to make medical innovations because we lose the ability to record knowledge. Literature, in this broad sense, stands at the base of the complexity of modern life. It is the well amid the waste, it is the foundation of things as they are, but not of reality itself. Despite its irreality, it is a fundamental shaping influence.
As we read, we train ourselves and shape ourselves to be a type of moral person in the world. What we read influences this, perhaps not as much as other forms of experience, but certainly to a great degree.
In sum, a dip into literature is a dip into the momentary taste of being--a sensation that you can finally come to terms with one small thing, you have finally constructed enough of the reality around it for it to be meaningful. Literature itself is "the well amid the waste," the life-giving water, the ordering, that helps makes sense of the desert of our pilgrimage. And doesn't the "return to reality" often feel like "the phantom caravan has reach'd/ the nothing it set out from?" Isn't there a slow dying away of the euphoria of the other as we once again rejoin the living and the "real."
Hence--"A momentary taste of being." I hope that you have enjoyed what I've shared so far and what I will continue to share--those "moments of being" brought to the fore by a work well-wrought. Not real, and yet, in some ways more real than the swirl of sensation that tugs at us every which way.