West Chester University
Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
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."
WORLDS IN A "PRIVATE DAYDREAM"
WORLDS 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.
WORLDS 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 experience—the 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.
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.
We 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
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 come—only 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 own—the early 20th century—when 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 meaninglessness—the 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 it—it offers us the unexpected, the unpredictable, the brand new.
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
him—that 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.
ADIEU TO IMAGINARY WORLDS
Now that you've completed the LIT 165 Topics in Literature adventure, collected at least one piece of your general education puzzle, I hope you're ready to address the question "what is literature?" and "what is an imaginary world?" in a meaningful way.
I hope you leave this course with something more than a "Man, I'm glad that's over" sigh of relief, and I personally apologize if you don't.
Literature is an imaginary world. The imaginary worlds it invents are sometimes more or less fantastic, more or less alternative to the reality we all know and love—but all literature creates imaginary worlds. Every work of literature is understood to be a fiction, a pretend reality, an imaginary world.
What do these imaginary worlds have to offer us? It all depends on what you're looking for. I don't like to presume too much, so I will speak for myself as someone who's always been an enthusiastic reader, and as someone who discovered literature as a discipline only after I came to college. As objects of study, these literary worlds are infinitely rich, not only with information, but with a very unique kind of experience. They've always presented themselves to me like goldmines; I love finding that streak, and I love chipping away at the nuggets. Sometimes it's the process of chipping away that I most value, that experience of discovery, of unearthing something which was buried in time or space like treasure: some meaningful self-discovery, some new insight into others nothing like me.
In all seriousness, I would have to say, too, that these fictional worlds provide a refuge from the real world—a necessary refuge. The way I feel it, literature is a shelter from the storm, a place where we can safely escape whenever too much ugliness and falseness intrude, because the art of literature is one reminder of the beauty and truth that exists all around us. It's one way of bringing order and meaning to the chaos and clutter of daily living. It's a sweet and beautiful and useful refuge. Like all art, it's artifice—but it's a magnificent artifice founded upon an aspiration, an ideal.
Whether we're talking about The Divine Comedy, Waiting for Godot, Brave New World, or the timeless story of Adam and Eve, literature is an invitation to enter a contemplative, quiet, solitary space. That's the offer, and like any offer we can take it or leave it. There's no hard sell to fend off. It's a simple choice, and it's all yours: to read or not to read.
I turned to Keats to help me begin this semester, and I'd like to turn to him once again before we end it. This time I'm leading you to Keats to appreciate what he has to say about solitude, the one certain doorway to an imaginary world we can enter at will—that quiet, contemplative place. Reading is a solitary activity, but you are not alone, as I believe this poem so beautifully expresses.
An Expressive Gloss. Here I am alone (aren't we all?), but if I must be alone, I don't want to be in the tangled mess of human civilization, with its jumbled heap of murky buildings, where everyone's busy running around and everyone's missing the big picture, seeing nothing. I want to make the dangerous climb to the top of the mountain and feel alive and see the big picture: the beauty of it all, the incredible beauty of this incredible world with its flowery, colorful slopes and its shining, rushing river. That would be something to make me feel alive and happy—keeping watch and nothing more, nestled and protected beneath the big tree (of knowledge? of life?), on the birds and the bees, and whatever else happens to jump past. I could be satisfied with that. I'd gladly stay there forever—except...there'd be something missing. In this spectacular solitary place, to discover another kindred spirit who speaks your language, someone who you really understand and who really understands you, is surely the greatest bliss a person can experience.
What if we said that literature is like that mountain that the solitary writer created and the solitary reader climbs, and gets perspective, sees the order of things, the truth of things, terrible or otherwise? There will be some authors you'll encounter who will frustrate, baffle, amuse, or bore you. But then, too, there will be those who enlighten and inspire you, and those who feel like kindred spirits.
Questions? Contact me.
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