Friday, March 12, 2010

Sometimes a Fantasy

She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.
Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness.
This was the first time it happened, but after a while it got so common she ceased to be surprised. It was like a drug. In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.


Most humans didn't love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn't overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for stillbait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Those two excerpts, it seems to me, contain the debate over the nature of art: morbid escapism ("It was like a drug") or ultimate bid for redemption? Going against the traditional grain of literary opinion, Rob Nixon makes the case for non-fiction as the genre that, more often than not, captures reality better than fiction. The issue, of course, is that reality is a mansion of many rooms. There is sociological reality and there is emotional reality.

In my own case I would say that as I've grown older my need for non-fiction has increased, while my patience with fiction has decreased, and given the choice between a mediocre example of either, I will go with non-fiction. The problem with fiction, as with film, is that so much of it is mediocre, and as one ages, the pressure of reality increases, making it harder to justify the expenditure of time in the pursuit of mediocrity.

However, fiction (in which I include poetry and drama) at its best surpasses anything that non-fiction can offer, and given a medium-sized suitcase for a sojourn on the proverbial desert island, I can think of very few non-fiction works that I would pack (Walden is the only obvious one that comes to mind). This is because, as I and many others have written, fiction offers an extra dimension of meaning. Indeed, non-fiction could be likened to tradition 2-D film: solid, reliable. Fiction, like 3-D, offers a far more intense experience, but it also carries the risk of being merely goofy.

A long time ago I came across a remark by Tolkien, whether in his letters or in an essay I don't recall, in which he protested the common dismissal of escapism as a literary motivation. He argued that if the reality in which one finds oneself seems to be a prison, what is wrong with trying to escape from it? There are all kinds of problems with this, including the Platonic and Christian assumption that if one escapes from the cave, one will find oneself anywhere else but in a larger cave. But I think he has a point that the artist seeks not merely to reconcile himself and others to the world as it is--the work of art adds to the world as it is, and in so doing it aspires to redeem it. Art is not a housecleaning--it is a remodeling, even an annex, while non-fiction is a diagnosis. Each has its place.

Oh, and what is the genre that seeks to combine the reality of diagnosis with the supreme emotional truth of art? Wouldn't that be religion? But can that circle be squared?

1 comment:

Novalis said...

Where does philosophy fit in I wonder? Borges argued that metaphysics is a genre of fiction. It may be apocryphal, but I remember reading somewhere that Kierkegaard quipped that if Hegel had ended his titanic metaphysical project with a resounding "Just kidding!" then it would have been the greatest achievement in the history of philosophy.

I see philosophy as a cousin of religion, but without the nifty narratives or happy endings. No wonder it isn't very popular.