As a literature professor, it is only fitting that I believe I have learned much about life from literature. Of course, the corollary to this is that I have been accused of not having learned as much about life from life as perhaps I should have.
The main difference between literature and life is that literature possesses an interested, hands-on god—the author—in a way that I strongly suspect the world does not. The presence of a god in turn means that things in literature have meaning, whereas things in life are largely stupid and meaningless. Sometimes, we experience moments of life that seem like they have meaning—birth, death, marriage, great love affairs, etc.—but that is mainly because they resemble a novel.
Art clarifies life, makes it comprehensible in a way that life cannot do for itself. This is why Walter Pater advises that we should spend our days with art:
“We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among “the children of the world”, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”
What a strange claim. Art has more life in it than life. Art is life that has been curated and distilled for maximum impact, making it ideal for “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”
Pater’s commitment to “art for art’s sake” is thought by most people to be confusing and perverse. Art needs life; it is only an imitation, an adjunct, a helpful commentary on experience–who would prefer it to actual life? Well, life is scary. We see less of life than we ought to because we walk around blinded by sheer terror. The terror of death, naturally, but also the astounding array of terrors that hide behind the innocuous stuff of everyday-–the terror of losing our jobs, our health, our children, our sanity. So we keep our heads down and our perspectives narrow. When we turn to literature, however, as Aristotle and Stanley Kubrick knew, we feel safe to keep our eyes wide open. Then, if we are lucky, we experience catharsis, the purging of pity and fear-or at least the purging of their debilitating parts-so that we can return to the world and once again dip our toe into the stream of life.
Or perhaps we simply read to become numb to all the terrible things that might happen. In life, it is exceedingly rare to have a cage with ravenous rats attached to one’s face. Most of us would never even conceive of such a thing. But, thanks to George Orwell, now I think of it all the time and I have become somewhat used to it.
In that sense, literature provides a form of escapism in its promise of relief from anxiety. There is a more traditional, positive notion of literature as escapism; it provides vicarious thrills, even if these are not always pleasant. On the one hand there are unicorns and rainbows, magical worlds, exciting adventures. But on the other, there are grim dystopias, existential wastelands, and unspeakable tragedy, which are no less thrilling. I remember watching the 1971 post-apocalyptic movie The Omega Man as a child-one of a run of feel-bad Charlton Heston features in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s about the end of the world that includes Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes—and thinking it was pretty awesome that he could just go into a supermarket and grab whatever he wanted, then nab a car from the parking lot to drive off with his loot. The thrill of chaos, of destruction and violence incarnates a most terrible childhood fear: that our parents have been in an awful accident and won’t be returning from date night. But it does so in close proximity with a secret wish: that without their rules and prohibitions, we will be free to indulge forbidden desires. Freud calculates these as sexual; or, they may just be, as Ronald Dahl’s character Matilda puts it in the eponymous musical by Tim Minchin, to “watch cartoons until my eyes go square.”
So, this is something I learned from literature—that some thoughts are better off felt than thought about. The understanding literature provides doesn’t always make sense, isn’t always pleasant, and often isn’t particularly useful, but it is shiny and distracts us from something possibly much worse that we can’t just decide to put down. I’ll take it.