Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Get reality

WARNING: Question-begging blog post ahead.

Lis, with whom about 50 other Americans and I lived together in London, which felt at times like an alternate reality, says:

In writing, or in any art, reality inspires. Yet, as a reader and a writer, I strive to avoid reality through my readings and pieces of writing. I embrace the absurd while staying away from anything that may tether me to reality. This fear of reality is recognized by many who write. Nabokov skillfully convinces readers that his reality is placidly absurd; Humbert Humbert is sane and a sympathetic protagonist. Gabe Hudson writes of a war hero surviving six holes in the head while his daughter’s soul harbors herself in him. Kafka’s apes speak and humans turn into responsible bugs in his stories. Likewise, poetry reeks of the absurd. The idea of comparing two dissimilar things to illustrate a relationship is absurd.

Yet, when faced with how to define the absurd — I simply trip over “unique and original”. But after minutes of contemplating this on the treadmill, I come to T.S. Eliot’s “Mankind cannot bear much reality.” I want the absurd to be something we do not encounter everyday or something in which we fear an encounter. I want the miraculously illogic of the world to prevail in pieces of writing. I want the wildly unreasonable to work itself into the lines and the characters of each piece I read. I, myself, cannot bear much reality, but ironically, reality is what inspires the absurdity in writings.
This is the exact opposite of how I see the world!

That's probably why I have such a negligible understanding of poetry. [UPDATE: More thoughts on not appreciating poetry, etc.]

The way I look at things, one of your very most important goals should always be to accurately perceive reality. That sounds so obvious and boring that it's tempting to think it can't be a particularly worthy goal, that surely it would be more worthwhile and exciting to transform, dress up, or escape reality somehow.

But I actually think that simply confronting the real world as it stands is a complicated, important, and challenging enough endeavor that nothing additional is needed to justify devoting your life to it. And the idea that the unadorned real world isn't exciting enough ... well, that would be a pretty depressing outlook on life if you really stuck to it.

If I had to attribute a single "theme" to this blog, I'd say it's this:

We need to look at reality, and see it for what it transparently is.

Being uninterested in looking reality in the face will cause you to worry about things that aren't really problems, and ignore the real problems.

But what about art? That always involves transcending reality. You're not saying you're anti-art, are you? Well, no, of course I'm not against all art, but it all depends: art can bring you closer or take you further away. If a war movie accurately shows the brutality of war to viewers who've never seen war in person, that's bringing people closer to reality --> good. When the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 depicted pre-2003 Iraq as a place full of happy children galavanting around in playgrounds until the US came in and messed everything up, that was taking people further from reality --> bad.

Non-literal art such as instrumental music might be a more awkward fit in that framework. But I do think it fits in there somewhere ... if you believe, as I do, that music's function is to channel emotions. And those, of course, are perfectly real. (Oh, and, yeah, can of worms. I could certainly get a whole week's worth of blogging out of the music/emotions point, but that will have to wait.)

Maybe in the distant future, we'll have enough of the world understood and under control that we won't need to devote so much energy to figuring out what's true and what's false, what's real and what's not. But so far, humanity's track record at staying firmly tethered to reality has not exactly been an unadulterated success.

(Photo by Don LaVange.)


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality" is the quote; it's worth looking up.

Eliot also said, "And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence: seeking every one after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness."

The wish to dodge emptiness is, I think, along with miseducation, the reason so many American writers and readers today believe that literature should be about "magic" and the "absurd" rather than about reality. But the limitations of one particular culture and era are not what define art.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I'm probably being nasty to pursue this, but I can't help observing that the received idea that Humbert Humbert is "sane" and "sympathetic" is exactly what I mean by miseducation. And I doubt if Eliot meant his statement on reality to be a rallying cry.

wickenden said...

interesting (and fun that you used my image, and perplexing as to how you thought of the connection between image and text).

The difficulty I have with your stated goal "The way I look at things, one of your very most important goals should always be to accurately perceive reality." is how futile, and therefore wrongheaded, such pursuit is. I see reality as infinitely deep, perceptions always varying depending on the context of the looking.

Maybe it's true that I attempt to perceive "reality", but if I try to frame that reality linguistically I think I'm always going to come up short, and so will we all.


John Althouse Cohen said...

Hi, Don ... I think this may be a first: the photographer of a photo I used showing up to comment on the post! Thanks for stopping by.

I'll have a new post up next week that responds to your comment -- it's too complicated to get into now...

Ann Althouse said...

I clicked on Don's profile and see that he has 23 blogs. What's up with that?

John Althouse Cohen said...

And one of them is all about hats!

wickenden said...

Hah, ann... I have no CLUE what is up with that. But I keep creating them. The trick is to actually add content. On my blogspot I have very few that actually have content. My longest running blog is my Livejournal ( ), which I've been posting to since the 2001 or something. I'm interested in the extended expression that my trail of blogs might leave.

It has no point. So why do I do it? Not sure, but, I'm thinking of a new blog to start now...

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks for responding, Don. I've created some extra blogs, so I know the feeling of wanting to have a blog that has a very narrow focus, idea, or rule. Like, I have a blog -- haven't added to it in ages -- where every title is one word and the body of the post is also one word. I did it for a while for fun. I have another one where I blog as if it were some year in the past. Just little experiments. The ideal sort of extra blog would be something like StuffWhitePeopleLike, where you have an idea that can get popular, go on for a few months, and turn into a book that you get a lot of money for.