Dec 26, 2012

Literature as art

by Stacy Esch

What’s the purpose for creating a literary work?  Is it to “entertain” us?  Maybe, but entertainments are so temporary and disposable.  We forget about them so quickly.  We can exchange one for the other so readily because they’re all basically the same.  The really great entertainers, the ones who rise above the crowd and are remembered past their moment in time usually take on the status of “artist.”  Is this just a matter of semantics, of playing around with words and labels?  Or is there a real difference between entertainment and art?  It’s something to think about.  Entertainments seem very temporary and comforting; they make us feel good while we pass the time, but we won’t remember them too well or too long.  On the other hand, a work of art has a kind of permanence (the greater the work, the greater the permanence), which amounts almost to immortality.  Some will succeed better than others.

I defined imaginative literature in “Fundamental Questions About Literature” as “verbal art.”  As a work of art it’s a construct, a structure, a thing.  It has a material being, even though it’s just words.  That’s pretty amazing when you think about it, because what are words, what is language, but a system of abstract representation?  Sometimes it can get really abstract, such as when we’re trying to find the word to describe a feeling, an idea—something completely invisible.  As an art whose material is language, this is exactly what literature attempts to do. To give substance to the invisible world of feeling, to create a permanent record of our innermost, and most invisible,  experiences. The artist captures this invisible stuff and creates a material experience of it for the rest of us.

There are so many ways to approach an understanding of what the art of literature has to offer.  Here are some further ideas, in no particular order of precedence:
  • Creates an experience for readers to participate in.  We can never experience too much.  We’re always looking for more and more experiences… and literature offers a unique kind of experience, a depth experience, an inside view of things.  These characters we meet aren’t  casual acquaintances, and we’re not overhearing idle chit-chat.  We’re usually going straight to the core, and that is not something every day life gives us an opportunity to do with everyone we meet!  
  • Connects us to one another.  Wouldn’t we rather be connected to one another instead of feeling cut-off, isolated, alienated, or invisible?  Sometimes literature connects us to other people we might not otherwise connect with; sometimes it connects us to aspects of ourselves we might not otherwise get a chance to connect with.
  • Helps us escape from reality, which can be limited, oppressive, or dull.  Literature creates an imaginary world sometimes very like or real world and sometimes radically different.  It imagines things for us that we might not be able to imagine ourselves.  And how free we are when our imaginations come to life.  Imaginary worlds are free of limitations; we shed them effortlessly.  Nietzsche said famously that “we have art in order not to die of the truth.”  Is he saying we need art to escape from realities that might crush us?  Or maybe he means that art is a kind of artificial sweetener that makes the bitter truth more palatable, more digestible?  Or maybe he means that the artist is a kind of canary in the mine, testing realities imagined rather than lived in order to save us from potential dangers?   What do you think Nietzsche would say about the function of entertainment?  Same as art?
  • Challenges us, stimulates us, provokes us, shakes things up internally, which all create the conditions necessary for our growth, progression.  Entertainment never really shocks us awake, never challenges our deeply held assumptions, our sometimes completely unexamined ideas and feelings, but great art often does.  Franz Kafka believed we “ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”  
  • Give us “equipment for living.”  This is a concept from Kenneth Burke, a noted academic who wrote literary theory as well as poetry.  According to Burke, the study of literature equips individuals with attitudes for dealing with recurring situations, probably because he sees the body of literature available to us as a kind of repository, holding all the wisdom of the ages, of truths we can use.  In this view, literature has something to teach us; we can use the lessons it provides as “equipment for living.”  Of course, what that “something” is may vary from reader to reader…
  • Shows us not only what is, but what can be.  Mark Edmundson, in a great little book called Why Read? explores this idea that literature is unique among the humanities for its ability to  powerfully reveal to us our potential, good and bad.
  • Slows us down, affording us a depth experience not available in our speeded up, day-to-day lives.  Sven Birkerts explores this idea in his book The Gutenberg Elegies.  
  • Offers us a lasting experience of beauty.  The poet John Keats in “Ode on A Grecian Urn” explores the idea that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  A work of art is beautiful because it tells us the truth.  Truth is always beautiful.  There are other ways of defining beauty, of course, and an entire branch of philosophy—the study of “aesthetics”—is devoted to that, but this is one famous statement made by a poet from the Romantic era.
One recurring idea is that art and truth are very wrapped up together.  A work of art is engaging as long as it strikes us as true in some way.  Think for a minute how paradoxical this actually is.  We are arriving at truth by making up fictions?  We are inhabiting imaginary worlds in order to understand our real world?  This is a paradox, but it’s accurate.  Literature brings us in touch with a deeper, more internal, often invisible kind of truth: the truth about our emotional lives.  Our spiritual lives.  Even our intellectual lives.  We don’t wear these in public all the time.  We may keep them hidden and private; they are personal.  We may not even acknowledge that these inner worlds exist.  But literature acknowledges them, and makes them visible.

Here’s what fiction writer William Faulkner said when he accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950:

      I feel this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work—a  life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand where I am standing.
      Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
      Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.


On the enchantment of beauty

If beauty is not a gateway out of the net we were taken in at our birth, it will not long be beauty, and we will find it better to sit at home by the fire and fatten a lazy body or to run hither and thither in some foolish sport than to look at the finest show that light and shadow ever made among green leaves. 

- W.B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight

Eurozine - "Proust is important for everyone" - Gilles Lipovetsky, Mario Vargas Llosa

Eurozine - "Proust is important for everyone" - Gilles Lipovetsky, Mario Vargas Llosa

Debate on the denigration of high culture and the merits/demerits of entertainment culture.

Dec 23, 2012

World as stage

All the world, of course, is not a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify.

- Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

The use of theory

If when a theory is bad it narrows our capacity for observation and makes all appreciation vicarious and formal, when it is good it reacts favourably upon our powers, guides the attention to what is really capable of affording entertainment, and increases, by force of new analogies, the range of our interests. 

- George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty