Friday, 21 January 2011

V. Interlude (Or, Why I Read English, and Why I Write)

On the train from Munich to Salzburg last month, an old couple sitting across from me told me that I looked like an artist. I was flattered, but they were surprised when I told them that I was studying English. Apparently they did not think of it as an art, but it is. Perhaps even the greatest of them all, for it is the art of life. Or, rather, it is the art of living.

I know this is a really grand statement, and that I cannot possibly corroborate it sufficiently. But I am the queen of grand statements, and it is true to me. So let me explain.

Life, to me, involves two principle things: doing (action) and talking (conversation). The two are not completely separable, of course, for oftentimes actions are done because of other people and what they say. I greatly enjoy interacting with people, talking with them about whatever comes to mind, whatever the circumstances decide. And the more spontaneous, the better.

In the past three days, in fact, I have had a number of scintillating conversations with people—they are the inspiration for this very chapter. The most recent was at half past midnight today, when one of my good friends dropped by my room on a whim. He was wearing a button-down shirt, nice trousers, and a tie (proving that there are guys out there who actually care about their appearance no matter what the hour). We talked about metaphor and writing in general. It was perfect.

It was also the complete opposite of the insanely heated argument I had with someone about literature vs. philosophy in hall several nights ago. Another English student, in fact. My basic proposition was that literature was about life, whereas philosophy was, for all intents and purposes, bullshit (more on this later). He completely disagreed with me, but neither of us ended up winning the other over. I just might show up to hall next time clad in full-body plate armour, because this war is just beginning.

The following evening, one of my friends from Columbia messaged me on Gmail chat, and we had a beautiful conversation. We had not talked for a year, but we understood each other perfectly; the "lost" time was of little consequence. She had written for me when I was the Books Editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, and she is also a poet, something that I do not think I will ever be able to call myself.

I told her about my "conversation" with William in hall, and she completely agreed with me. She, too, studies literature because it is about life. On the other hand, philosophy is bullshit. It reduces life to abstract concepts that don't need to be discussed in themselves. Literature includes these concepts in their natural habitat, not in a vacuum.

In Kate's own words: "You're basically studying life in a way that's explaining (or at least attempting to explain) it in the most breathtaking way. Not necessarily the most beautiful ... but in a way that makes you think 'Yes! That's what that is!' "

There is also an important distinction to be made between literature and history. Literature, or at least good literature, doesn't try to overly romanticize life. If it does, it's still honest, even though it's "fiction"—whereas subjects like history present themselves as fact but in reality are not. [The best proof of this is the huge difference between the way history textbooks from different countries present the same event.] Literature recognises the fact that "truth" in life isn't objective and never can be.

So literature incorporates both philosophy and history, and the fact that it presents itself as fiction is the very fact that makes it honest. History presents itself as "truth," by virtue of the fact that it is not literature, and philosophy also presents itself as truth: the "greatest" truth of all, the "truth" of life. But such truth does not and cannot exist. As Kate said, "Truth is whatever you, personally, perceive to be true. But that's different for everyone."

This is not to say that history and philosophy have no value at all. They have a lot of value, and I can declare this with the utmost conviction because I have studied both extensively and have enjoyed them immensely. They are inextricable from literature, but literature will always be my subject of choice, because it is not bullshit, because it is essentially the anti-vacuum. As I indicated in the beginning of this chapter, you need to live, truly and fully, in order to write (or at least write well). Without meaning to, you write about life. That is to say, action and conversation. Meeting people, moving around. Change. If you stay in one place and do nothing, or if you keep on doing the same thing in the same manner, there is no way you could write anything worthy of being read. [You could experience change vicariously by reading other novels, watching films, etc., but it would not be quite the same; it would be one degree removed; there would be less agency. Like reading a Kindle instead of a physical book.] Stagnation is a certain death. So it's ironically apropos, then, that I began this blog, this "novel" so to speak, for the express purpose of recounting my travel adventures. I hadn't thought it would evolve into something like this, into so much more. But that is the thing with life. You can never predict what happens next.

And that is what makes life so exciting. The purest literature is unfinished. I'm not talking about Disney or commercialised fiction, which is only "literary" to a certain extent. I'm talking about books that don't really have an ending. Or, rather, that have an ambiguous one. There is a resolution but it is not finite. I'm talking about books that are not written for a monetary profit. I'm talking about books that have to be written because they have to be written. Because the words are there and they simply come out—they might get reshuffled a bit, but they have to come out. All writers feel a compulsion, a natural force, to write. And that is that. There is nothing else to be done.

What is so exciting about blogging is that it is the most "limitless" type of writing there is. There is no permanent end; there can always be another update. And previous entries—chapters, if I may—can always be changed. Which may seem like cheating, but really is not. I would only change something to make it more accurate. What I once perceived to be a truth might have altered; there might be a new truth, a different truth, a "truer" truth. There are hardly any absolutes in life, except those that we create because of convention (the notion of divisible time being one of the most important examples). Truth is constantly evolving. When you look back on something—i.e., in retrospect—rather than look "on" something as you experience it, you have a completely different conception. And writing is always retrospective, because the act of writing must take place after the event itself, even if it is just a matter of seconds. Blogging allows for that immediacy of reflection, and it is at once fascinating and frightening, dangerous and exciting.

Reflection. A process that is related to, but different from, thought. For reflection (at least, the type of reflection I am referring to) involves writing, which is the opposite of thought. If you just think about something, you are keeping it entirely to yourself. So thinking is selfish, in a sense, or just private. Whereas if you write something, even if it's in a padlocked journal, you're getting it out there. You're communicating it to someone or something. I would even go so far as to argue that if society didn't exist, if there was just one human being in the entire universe, writing (and perhaps even language itself) would not exist... because there would be no one for whom to write. And communication is the essence of writing.

I write for other people. Not for myself. I always have, and I always will. People inspire me. It is the perfect feedback loop, and I would not have it any other way.

I do recognise, however, that literature is inherently flawed, because words can only say so much. Words are limited vessels. They can be interpreted—and misinterpreted—in so many different ways, and can cause an innumerable (and insurmountable) amount of difficulties. Words create, but they have just as much capacity to destroy. I have learned this the hard way, time and time again. But they are all that we have. They are all that I have.

All that we have, except this is where the language of touch, of taste, of smell, of seeing, and of feeling comes in. The language of the senses, which by definition cannot be articulated. So I won't even try. But words are what bring all of these different languages together, for they are the means through which we attempt to represent them. Words are also permanent (relatively speaking to the human lifespan, of course). They can be erased but they do not have to be. They are not malleable; they are the preservation of memory.

The problem with my previous attempts at fiction is that they were all in a vacuum, and deliberately so. I made my settings timeless, and gave my characters overly appropriate names (à la J.K. Rowling). I wanted everything to be perfect. And it was, in a certain sense. It sounded pretty, very pretty. But it was artificial, and my language was artificial too. It didn't really mean anything. There was no feeling.

Now I am determined to tell the truth, the way I feel it, and just the truth. No embellishments (okay, maybe the occasional fancy flourish, but nothing more). I already have a fairly good start, I think. I have no idea where this will go, but that doesn't matter. That makes it all the more fun. And more than anything, I like to have fun. We all do. It's just a matter of accepting this fact, which 21st century reality tends to render rather difficult. But not impossible, of course. Most certainly not impossible.

No comments:

Post a Comment