There’s been a lot of litblogging interest of late on the question of the interplay between literature and life; what can books teach us, if anything at all? One line of argument suggests that the hallmark of literature is its moral and ideological ambiguity. To take up a stance on an issue would transform fiction into propaganda or polemic, and that’s not what it’s about. My own response to this problem is to say that literature teaches us to question and to imagine. That it’s aim is not to tell us what to think, but to awaken within us the recognition that we need to think at all. The general chaos of the world with all its competing problems, vices and despairs slows down and takes on lucid form for the temporal expanse of a novel, focusing our wandering and confused attention on one crisis, one joy, one wild event. So this is what life is all about, we can say, wonderingly, and with transcient clarity, before the insistent demands of daily life with its short-sighted viewpoint close in on us again. Literature enlivens us to consequence, causality, possibility, creativity and critique. Or at least that’s my answer in theory.
In practice, I’ve found the impact of stories to be more profound and far-reaching than mere intellectual enlightenment. And I have not always found this to be a good thing. In Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, Emma’s ridiculous romanticism is seen to be a direct result of her misguided adolescent reading. If the disaster that is Emma Bovary’s life has a moral lesson to impart, it is, ironically, that taking reading seriously can sometimes be very bad for you. As a child, my reading matter consisted (in retrospect) far too homogenously of Enid Blyton, and it took me years and years to replace her neat, rule-driven moral universe, with the reality of the lawless world outside her books. In real life, naughtiness goes unpunished, goodness unrecognized, people do not learn their lesson, get their comeuppance, or come to their senses; those who dislike you rarely overcome their prejudices, and the opportunities for acts of heroism to disprove general opinion are very, very rare indeed. If you run away, you do not pitch up on some delightful, resourse-rich secret island, and the plots that adults hatch are rarely open to intervention by small children. I made a kind of narrative pact early in life in which I believed that behaving well, being polite and embracing virtue would result in things being ok. I can’t quite believe how long it took for me to finally abandon this life plan, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a part of me clinging tenaciously to it still.
As I grew older and read more morally complex literature, so I acquired another level of narrative certainty to overlay the shadowy, obscure world that won’t negotiate with us. No matter where you look in the fictional dimension, things happen, and they happen for a reason. A simple event is enough to set off a chain of vivid consequences, people act decisively and responsively, and when things get really bad, rescue and closure are generally in sight. I often think I’ve led a plot-heavy life in an attempt to remain true to the rules of fiction that dictate that meaning and insight are the natural harvest of intense and numerous events. This is simply not the case. No one tells you how long it takes for the plotline you’ve initiated to come to fruition. What struck me about life, when I realized I needed a serious overhaul of my innate philosophy, was how stubbornly it refuses to allow things to happen, how the least conflict drags on unresolved, how the smallest hope gets stuck in the waiting room of expectation, how insight, guidance and rescue are like the proverbial buses that never appear. Most galling of all is the absence of an underlying system of causality. I just love to analyse; nothing pleases me more than the neat division of cause and effect. But mostly in reality things happen for no reason at all, or for ridiculous, inappropriate, senseless reasons that barely warrant the name. As for the emotional life, well, here I have to throw my hands up in despair. In younger years I have to confess to a profoundly romantic view of romance. I felt that love ought to be intense and proud and dramatic; that one’s desirability could only be proved by the enormity of the barriers overcome, and that relationships ought to leave a lasting mark on one’s life. Ordinary life seemed impossibly domestic and trivial in comparison to these outlandish fantasies of what could be. In fact it wasn’t that long ago, having watched the video once again with a good friend of mine, that I came to the disturbing realization that I had assumed, wholesale, the vision of life peddled by The Thorn Birds. No, really! I had to go home and sit quietly for a while and think about what I had done. I mean, it’s not like The Thorn Birds isn’t a good story, or anything. Undoubtedly I would have felt a little easier in my mind if it had been Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, but no one can possibly heave a contented sigh at its climax and say ‘Now those people really knew how to live!’ So how on earth had it ended up as my privileged Weltanschauung? That truly was an enigma equivalent to the murder in a locked room.
So it seems to me that whilst literature doesn’t really teach us anything quantifiable, its influence can be dangerously insidious. Stories are how life could be if we cut all the dull bits out where nothing happens, and fast-forward the snail’s progress we make towards understanding. They are condensed, compact, sharp-edged versions of the real thing. And for what it’s worth, I do think that they are the only means we have of making sense of this crazy business of living. No genome project will ever convince me that the human being is a solvable conundrum, just as no economist will ever convince me that life is statistically predictable. For all the existential blind alleys books have led me down, I would still rather entrust my stumbling progress to their uncertain, enigmatic truths.