Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Literature Elevates Us

In light of Tuesday night's presentation on Picasso, Storytelling and The Unseen Masterpiece, this seemed a suitable follow-up while being a nod to Throwback Thursday. This originally appeared on August 19, five summers ago.

In addition to the philosophy club which we host, Susie has been for ten years involved with a Barnes & Noble classic books club in which each month the group reads and discusses some of the world's great literature. The group has seen its share of ebb and flow but one constant throughout has been the classics, literature that goes beyond its moment in time.

What's the difference between a good book and a classic? To illustrate, I'll point to the business book Built to Last by Jim Collins. In Collins' analysis, the great companies are those that have dedicated themselves to the long haul. They hang their shingle on the word excellence at every level of the game. By way of contrast, and this was the plight of the tech bubble, many companies were being built to flip. That is, from the outside they looked like good companies but the management disregarded strengthening the foundations for the sole aim of getting bought out at a very high price, bringing profits the stakeholders.

So it is that writers have different aims when they produce books. The Jonestown Massacre took place the year I worked in a bookstore in Puerto Rico, in 1978. The Peoples Temple tragedy occurred in November, and to my utter amazement two books appeared on this topic before the end of the year. These books, long forgotten now, would not be deemed literature. They were rushed to market with the intent of exploiting the moment and are examples of a "built to flip" style of writing.

Books written to exploit the moment are not necessarily bad books, and can be informative, often timely and have a measure of value, though many are clearly written with the hope of making a buck, its only aim quite transparent. On the other hand, classics aspire to something greater. Classic fiction strives to participate in the great dialogue, our human story, bringing additional light into the great battle of light verses darkness. Unlike books on how to make a killing on Wall Street or how to raise your son to be a doctor, the great stories wrestle with ethical issues, the problem of evil and questions like Why am I here? Where did I come from? Who am I and what is my life about?

In other words, the great books deal with great themes.

Another factor in the great books is the writing itself. The importance of the theme motivates the great writers to strive for a perfection of language that is effective for higher purposes, laboring over his selection of words and sentences to more eloquently convey the ideas and the story. Hence the phrase belles letres, beautiful letters. The aim is not only a worthy theme, but writing that is worthy of the theme.

My view on these matters has been significantly shaped by John Gardner, who wrote, "Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations." (The Art of Fiction)

Gardner's high view of literature stems from a high view of humankind.

Leo Tolstoy had this to say about the writer's task: "The main purpose of art... is this, that it tell the truth about the soul, revealing and giving expression to all the secrets one cannot say in simple words.... Art is a microscope that the artist focuses on the secrets of his own soul, and that then reveals to men the secrets common to them all."

There are two metaphors I've frequently used regarding our personal stories, which help us not only understand our human condition but also help us to better understand God. The first is the image of a chandelier. Picture a large ball of cut glass (or jewels, diamonds, whatever) and in the middle is the light, which we cannot see, but which is reflected through each jewel. We are the jewels. Our stories, and transparency, make the light more vivid. We each make a contribution to the human story, and our role is to do it the best we are able, first in learning how to understand our stories and then fine tuning our ability to communicate the story.

The second image is that of a fly's eye. (Yes, I know flies are creepy to to people, but go with me on this.) The eye of a fly has two thousand faces, which enables it to see in multiple directions. These multiple images are then synthesized in the fly's brain into something coherent. So it is with our own manifold stories. Each contributes to the whole of our understanding of the human situation.

Remember growing up and thinking every family was like yours? Then you discover that not only families are different, lives are totally different based on where you are from, etc.

I'm out of time and will have to leave off discussing Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country or Andre Gide's Two Symphonies, Melville's Moby Dick or Dickens, Conrad and Twain.

If you write, aim high. In the process you will not only achieve more for yourself, but might lift others as well. Let your light shine and your story be told.

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