Thursday, December 11

Abject Things, Part 2

And now, a confession. In truth, my stated project of "considering the relationship between works of imagination and reality, specifically what literature has to say, if anything, about how we should live" may be entirely a defensive act. I love to read, and I want to believe that reading is good. True, perhaps the pleasure of reading could in itself be an argument in favor of reading, except that there are those (the author of this recent book, for example) who would argue that reading does harm to the reader. Also, reading has often been presented as a form of escapism, while as a student of Zen I am committed to living in accord with reality, insofar as I am able to perceive it.

Clearly, given his desire to incorporate "abject moments and moments of spillage" in his work, Aleksandar Hemon is not interested in literature as a vehicle for escapism. And, with his vivid perception and idiosyncratic language, his voice seduces me, and I am able to tolerate stories about experiences that in reality are intolerable either to live or to consider. In our culture, we are encouraged to turn inward and tend to our own little gardens, investing our best energy in ensuring that we look and feel good and that our homes are beautiful and comfortably arranged. Such stories as Hemon's, by calling attention to the suffering of others, puncture the fantasy that by tending to my garden I can shelter myself from the possibility of difficulties or sorrow.

So, given that I cannot actually wish away the abject things of the world, what do I do about my knowledge of the suffering of others? It may be that the knowledge in itself is transformative. Since reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, for example, I've been interested in the connection between reading fiction and empathy, an idea with a history longer than I had realized. In fact, it has even been argued that "novels spread human rights and discourage torture."

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