For as long as I can remember, I have prized one activity above all others. As a child, I would forgo recess, talking with friends, and playing outside in favor of this. As a teenager, I chose this above what some very silly magazines told me were typical teenage girl activities: going to the mall, talking about boys, lounging by the pool.
Instead, I read stories.
I read stories and stories. I read Nancy Drew and American Girl, mystery and historical fiction, fantasy and classic literature. I especially loved reading about girls. I loved reading what girls were capable of; I loved reading about girls who were brave. Anne of Green Gables was the first “novel” that I read, and it was also the first time that I felt like I had not simply read about friendship, but experienced it for myself through another’s eyes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was my favorite book in second grade, and since that time, my favorite character in the book, and the one with whom I most closely identify, has always been Edmund. It seems that my second-grade self had some innate knowledge of my failings, of my strange but ever-present capacity for deceit and spite, and at the same time, my desire to reach, to place myself in the hands of someone greater.
A nagging question accompanied me through high school, through the days that I discovered Simone Weil and Plato and realized that there was some absolutely crucial truth about the world that was embedded within the pages of philosophy both ancient and modern, through those early days of college as I pored over Aristotle and Plotinus and couldn’t seem to make heads or tail of it. I loved the narrative, I loved being swept away by language, feeling the language viscerally, as viscerally as I felt hatred or joy or pain in regards to other people. But it seemed, at least the way it was presented to me, that the truth was in philosophy, and that philosophy was the higher road. So for a while, I forsook the business of being swept away, and exchanged the telling of experience for the proposing of argument. What does literature matter? I never consciously thought the question, but always in the back of my mind, causing me to second-guess what I loved. Philosophy simply seemed to matter more, to most of the people I was surrounded by. Philosophy was about truth, for goodness’ sake. Literature – that was lighthearted fun after the real work was over.
Two singular experiences changed my mind – changed it back to what it had been when my second-grade self received from God knows where the stunning realization that I was Edmund, and that Edmund was me. The first was encountering the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins while studying at Oxford. In my humble opinion, such playful mastery of the English language was never before written, and has never been written since. Hopkins’ poetry writes into existence the depths and heights of the human experience. Never before had I encountered a poet who seemed to speak the truth so profoundly, and who also seemed not to light the darkness of the human condition, but to write it instead. Hopkins exults in the grandeur of creation, and muses on Mary’s role in the rebirth of the world, yet he also lives in the abyss that is suffering, and he reaches from the abyss to the world of the living through his writing. Philosophy, history, theology, art, music – all the humanities seemed to coalesce into one in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the act of reading him seemed the experience of dwelling in the truth, of abiding in the reality of what is really here. The experience of studying Gerard Manley Hopkins has been without a doubt one of the two most formative intellectual pleasures that I’ve enjoyed.
The second concluded only weeks ago, and it solidified the non-conclusive but not inconclusive answer to the question that began to take shape in my study of Hopkins. During the spring, I took a class called Philosophy and Literature, which addressed the question of the role of literature in the philosophical pursuit, and the idea that philosophy requires literature for its completion. We read criticism and we read shorter novels, but then we read The Brothers Karamazov. I had tried reading the novel twice before, and twice before had I failed. But this time was different. There were eleven of us, and one devoted professor, and a miracle took place in the classroom: we learned to see. We discussed together, and wondered together, and asked questions together, and we learned to see all the characters through the eyes of Alyosha. We learned to level a just and loving gaze not only at those we loved, but at those we despised, in the hopes that we might learn to love them. From Father Zosima and Alyosha, from Grushenka and Kolya, even from Dmitri and Ivan, we learned what love is.
And this is something that I believe philosophy can never teach us, not holistically I mean: how to love. This is not meant to be a diatribe against philosophy, but rather, a response to the idea that becomes so alluring – that philosophy is the vehicle for truth. It can certainly be used in service of the truth, but it cannot teach us how to love. It cannot teach us how to look at the world with bright eyes, how to notice the slanting rays of light as the day comes to a close, and how to revel and delight in the world, how to embrace ecstasy and water the earth with our tears. We learn those things by example, we learn those things by watching others do them. This is what literature affords us: an experience, replete with movement, emotion, contour, and incarnated life.
In conclusion, I think I’ve begun to learn how to love again. Perhaps I knew all along. But in the flurry of premise and conclusion, of point and counterpoint, I forgot. The inscape of living things was waiting to be attended to, but my mind was in the abstract. How do we write love? What form must it take, what words must we inscribe to share and to know love? And here is again where I differ in opinion from most contemporary literary critics. If nothing else, literature has taught me to love, and for that reason, it is irreducible. It is not mere cultural artifact, and it is not mere reader response, and it simply will not be deconstructed. We might try, of course, but there remain Kents and Cordelias, Alyoshas and Edmunds, Zosimas and Grushenkas, always showing us that at the heart of it we are brothers and sisters all, and that it matters how we treat one another, and that it matters how we spend our time and how much attention we pay not only to those around us, but to our own selves and to the world. It is the task of attention to particular moments that literature asks us to undertake, and it is “what is really the case” that literature asks us to see. Through the lives of those beings which inhabit the narrative form, we learn the art of attention, vision, and love, and we learn to see the world we inhabit with patience, justice, and clarity of vision. Finally, we learn to love life before logic, and in so doing, come to understand the meaning that was embedded within all along, something akin to the truth that Zosima speaks: that love is “like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world.”