In his famous poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rainer Maria Rilke writes about the experience of looking at a great piece of art. His point is that great art looks at us, too; we find ourselves observed, questioned and judged. I argue that this is as true of literary art as of sculpture. What will we do after we close the book? The last line of Rilke’s poem tells us, “You must change your life.”
The same Orthodox Christians who rightly express concern over the dangers of gaming or the number of hours being spent in front of screens may be unaware that their beloved Dostoevsky novels are also the fruit of technology, and as such also present a possible means of disengagement from the real world. Socrates was one of the first to raise the alarm against the strange new technology of the written word. One of his complaints is that written texts cannot really teach us anything; at best they remind us of what we already know. He worried that when people could write things down, they would stop remembering. I believe it is imperative to remember, especially as we worry about the effect of screen-mediated reality, that books are also human artifacts: made things. If this is forgotten, books (included sacred texts) can become idols or fetishes.
I am an English Professor at a community college. If I didn’t think the written word mattered, I would not have devoted so much of my time and energy to reading and writing, and to teaching these subjects. The written word does matter. But I grow increasingly convinced that, in terms of the currency of eternity, it matters only when it is embodied and acted upon. Those of us who study literature write in what is sometimes called “literary present tense.” In attempting to explain this to my students I find myself saying things like “there are no past tense readings of a story—every reading occurs in the present moment—the character lives and acts and thinks now. The author writes—not wrote.”
This way of understanding the temporal space in which literature abides provides the warrant for the metaphor Wayne Booth employs in The Company We Keep—An Ethics of Fiction. We can keep company with authors and characters because the book is here with us now, and our experience of them is a present-tense experience. If we’re not careful, though, we are liable to commit errors analogous to those we lament in our students who are lost in “virtual reality.” Am I really keeping company with Oliver Twist if I never cook him breakfast or shiver with him as we negotiate the streets of London together? Or with Anna Karenina if her tears never dampen my shoulder? Isn’t this—at best—a kind of “virtual company” we’re keeping? Socrates was right, in a resolutely pragmatic sense; when we pose questions of a text—it can’t answer us. And when I reflect on my own history of reading, I have to admit that my attitudes and actions often contradicted the theory that reading good literature makes people more empathetic to others.
For example, I often opted to “lose myself” in the “world” of the novel. Comparing my family members to the characters in novels, I found my family members superficial or just plain boring. This resulted in deferring or ignoring obligations to them in order to read, while at the same time justifying this behavior because it is “good” to read, and the fact that I liked to read and was good at it suggested I was somehow superior to those who were not. Another moral danger presented itself when I began to realize, much later, that I was assuming I was virtuous, courageous, loving, generous, and wise simply because I was capable of being moved by reading about characters who exhibit these qualities,or because I preferred story lines which endorse them.
All that being said, the reading of literature does require one to develop the ability to attend to language, to focus, to acquire vocabulary, to discover the importance of historical context, and to develop the disciplines of stillness and silence. These are all very good things, but I insist, nonetheless, that unless something good happens after we close the book that wouldn’t have happened had we never read it, unless those textual “goods” can be translated to and embodied in our real lives, all we do in our literary endeavors finally results only in a more scholarly version of the alienation from the real world for which we condemn gamers, or those who walk around not seeing the trees for the texts they tap out on their iPhones.
I am stressing the similarities rather than the differences between these arguably very different technologies because I think it is important to realize that all of our technologies affect and change us, and sometimes master us. They cause us to adapt in ways we may not be conscious of, to attend to them and, consequently, begin to fail to attend to what we are really doing and the environment in which we actually exist. (When you read a good book—do you remember turning the pages? Do the muscles in your lower back cramp up because you forget you have a body that needs to move and stretch? Do you note the shifting patterns of light on the walls of the room in which you read as the position of the sun changes in the sky visible through your window?)
No technology of writing can be engaged in without a concomitant disengagement from our real environment and the people who are physically near us, and—because we need engagement in our real environment and with those people as a way of keeping us honest about who we really are (among many other things)–to get lost in or be consumed by or obsessed with any of these technologies is to become separated—not only from that environment and those people—but from ourselves.
If a “good man” (as Aristotle claims) is one who wishes to continue to live with himself. . . who is at unity with himself and desires the same object (“the good”) with every part of his soul (Nicomachean Ethics, IX), then what are we to make of our fundamental disunity, our multiplicity, our duplicity, and our brokenness—or of our compulsion to escape, disguise, or forget ourselves? Our willingness not only to drink Lethe—but to manufacture it in as many forms as the market will bear and call that enterprise “progress”? Like the protagonist, Paul Giamatti in the film, Cold Souls, many of us will do almost anything to avoid sitting still in silence and looking inside of ourselves. Even if I wanted to (and I don’t) there is no way for me to escape technologies of writing, so how do I use them without being used? How can I ensure that my involvement with these technologies leads to engagement rather than separation? To integration rather than disintegration? I will attempt to offer some suggestions in my next post.