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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004) ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
~~ One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds ~~
We can speak of imaginary worlds as two pretty different kinds of pretending: the pretending that becomes public art (in our case, the art of literature) and the pretending that remains essentially private "daydreaming."
IN A "PRIVATE DAYDREAM"
IN "PUBLIC ART"
An interesting question: whose desire for meaning is fulfilled by the work of art, the writer's or the reader's? I would say, both. That is the beauty of art. It is satisfying not only to its creator, but to all of us.
If we say that the art of literature is the art of "shaping experience," we're saying that the imaginary worlds we enter create for us a kind of experience. I would even say, they create a refuge.
CREATE AN EXPERIENCE, A REFUGE
Whether public art or private daydream, both kinds of pretending create a special kind of experience. Stepping into an imaginary world is stepping into an experiencethe experience of an "alternative reality" which in many ways is like a "refuge" from the real world.
Why do we need to experience alternative realities? Why do we need a refuge from the real world? For starters:
The reality all around us can become invisible through familiarity. We can become unconscious of it. We lose our sense of the wonder of it all. We had that sense of wonder as children, but somehow we lost it as we grew older. The imaginary world yanks us back into the position we were in when we were more naïve, before we became the know-it-alls we are as adults. It steals us temporarily away from all that humdrum familiarity, and when we return we are more aware; the blinders are off.
Just like any experience
in life, literature can help us grow internally; if we're open to it there are
many different ways we can grow from it. But it's not a preacher. What it has
to "say" depends on the reader to a great extent. The more personally
engaged you are, the more you take away from the experience literature. Some
works have a profound impact, others don't. Some flavors please some people,
some don't. You have to find the flavor that pleases you personally, and then
literature can provide a rich, meaningful experience.
THE PURSUIT OF MEANING
The imaginary worlds we've visited in this course have been very different from one another but they've all been places that provide a unique kind of experience.
explored several mythic stories whose sole purpose was to create meaning. The
myth's purpose is to explain the cosmos and our place in it. What is the nature
of this world we find ourselves in? How was it created? What's our place in
it? The myth directly answers these questions.
Inferno. From ancient times, we jump to the middle ages, just before the Renaissance, before what we might consider the modern era. The mythic stories compete with other kinds of literature. One of the great artists of this period is Dante, formerly a poet in the in the new courtly love tradition. Feeling the angst of frustration and powerlessness, fighting despair, to defend against the awful feeling that the meaning of life is slowly draining away, Dante boldly re-asserts meaning by taking the long view of human life. Beauty may perish young, and injustice may reign here for a little while, but the human soul is immortal and when you take that long view you see the real consequences in the afterlife. A fully fleshed out vision of this afterlife is completely realized in his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, where perfect justice restores meaning to all our actions by awarding them with just consequences, each of us individually. Although Dante boldly asserts meaning by making us inescapably responsible for each and every one of our actions, already we can see how meaning is contingent on faith, on revelation; it surfaces only in a vision that's a promise of consequences to comeonly visionary truth can rescue meaning that's in danger of draining away. But if the vision is powerful enough, it can be done.
Brave New World. From the middle ages fly past the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and we arrive with a bump at the base of our modern era, to the time just before our ownthe early 20th centurywhen it was becoming obvious how the industrial revolution had radically changed our lives forever. What is the meaning of human life in an age where science and technology have trumped nature, where material values supplant spiritual ones, and where people have completely rejected their freedom and individuality? Technology, materialism, and conformity all threaten to make our lives not better, not more comfortable, but meaningless. We think we're creating utopia, but we're really creating dystopia. Our "pursuit of happiness" has taken a blind turn and we're chasing it in a way that threatens to dehumanize us. We're confusing "comfort" with "happiness" and "numbness" with "pleasure." Although Huxley projects the Brave New World 600 years into the future, its roots are right here, right now. A "comfortably numb" existence, whether now or in some imagined future, is dehumanized and meaningless.
Waiting for Godot. Last but not least we confronted Samuel Beckett's tragicomic vision in Waiting for Godot, where "faith" and the pursuit of happiness are equally rejected in favor of an existentialist view of the cosmos. Faith in a "savior," a Godot, seems tragically futile in the context this play creates. However, the characters' inability to maintain even the slightest feeling of well being or "happiness" without Godot is a frequent source of comedy as well. In the battle for certainty, for absolutes, uncertainty wins in Waiting for Godot. If you want certainties, there are precious few: we exist, we suffer. In the absence of any uplifting absolutes, any firm or certain truths other than the plain fact of our suffering existence, it may seem as if Beckett's masterpiece is a dark, depressing vision of meaninglessnessthe exact opposite of Dante's. But think about it another way. Real faith is never about certainty. Faith without doubt is not faith. Didi and Gogo are highly doubtful that Godot will come, but they're waiting anyway. Theirs is a tragicomic faith, but it's a faith nonetheless. Faith in what, you are probably asking. But Beckett leaves that completely up to you to decide. Faith in what? Meaning may be contingent on faith, just as in Dante, but it is not contingent on certainty, and it is not to be found in any false absolutes.
IMAGINARY WORLDS AND REALITY
We've spent a semester hopping from one alternative reality to the next. We've had to leave behind many of the familiar ground rules we ordinarily operate upon. We've had our expectations frustrated, reversed, and in some cases exploded all together. That is the nature of the fantastic, and the value of itit offers us the unexpected, the unpredictable, the brand new.
In Kafka's "Before
the Law" the doorkeeper blocks the man's way, denies him admittance to
the law. Permission denied, the man from the country sits by the gate waiting
to get in for his entire life. Nothing in his experience gives him any power
to gain entrance. He's trapped outside. As he's about to die the doorkeeper
announces that the gate, which was made for this one man alone, would be shut
forever. Perhaps this absurdity, this meaninglessness, might have been avoided
if there had been a sign above the gate that had motivated the man to take action:
"Abandon all hope, ye who fail to enter here." A simple sign, an alternative
course of action. His own experience wouldn't allow him to imagine this possibility,
but if some had been there to imagine it for himthat he could rise from
the stool and push his way through the gate-then perhaps he might have the found
the justice he was seeking. A simple, meaningful sign might have done the trick.
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