a contrapuntal essay
If literature is just for pleasure, I don't need it: I can seek better pleasures elsewhere.
If literature is just for the appreciation of beauty, I don't need it: the world is full of great beauty uncreated by man or woman, and I can appreciate that.
If literature is just for the exploration of ideas, I don't need it: ideas don't require literature for exploration (and there is, after all, plenty of nonfiction to read).
This is not to say that literature doesn't offer pleasure, appreciation of beauty, exploration of ideas. It does offer those things to me, but that alone might be insufficient for literature's dominant place in my life. So why do I read literature?
For language. All poetry is ultimately "about" words, about language itself. Literature offers language in ways creative and energizing (aside: I'm just beginning to learn Italian, and finding the joys and challenges of immersing into a new language). And for stories. Centuries of human history (I think of Homer. I think of fairy tales) speak to the human desire for entertainment through narrative. But still for something else.
I sometimes tire of a detached, analytical critique of the aesthetic. I sometimes tire of the way we often talk about literature. For what I want literature to offer me can't quite be approached on those terms.
I want literature that reaches to my sinews, to my very marrow. I want literature to reach me in the depths of my soul, and to touch the heart of how and why I live. I want it to teach me, but to teach me not just intellectually, morally, but spiritually, passionately. I want to feel the literature in my very being, for it to grasp onto the core of a lived life.
This is not a common experience, and sometimes it is not felt immediately. It is not all literature which reaches me so strongly. King Lear does. My body and soul leap with energy when I encounter King Lear, or even when I simply talk about King Lear. King Lear has told me something I can barely put into my own words, that I can only encounter in the play and hope others can too. Dostoevsky, too, touches me with rare depth. Weeks, months, years later, the characters and images from Dostoevsky's great novels continue to haunt me, to call to me in moments both quiet and loud. Since reading Demons, a certain image of those two characters who had gone to America will enter my mind. I don't even remember their names or personalities, but I see them laying and suffering in a small dark room, and I see them later living in the same building but simply not talking to each other, because of what they shared. Why, from that entire book, is that the image that clings to me? I cannot say. Since reading The Idiot, I feel all the darkened places where Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin meet. Their meetings may work at an intellectual level, but I don't think those darkened places: I feel them. Some lines of Wordsworth's poetry cling to me and periodically emerge. Perhaps Wordsworth was my "first poet," and thus will always be there for me to measure all other poetry against.
I demand much from literature, and though I rarely find what I demand, I don't know whether I've found it until much time is passed. Wordsworth's language cries to me still. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky make demands of me, requiring me to examine and re-examine myself. And I need them to. I seek in literature the very stuff of life.
This essay is, a bit abashedly, Romantic. I offer no program of reading, no literary theory, nothing useful to understanding or appreciating literature. In fact I am writing about that which (for me) transcends such ways of thinking and reading. I don't wish to cheapen what reading literature can and has offered me. It demands the romanticized language I'm using: reading literature has been a spiritual guide to my soul.