Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Truth and value in literature

My friend forwarded me a video, an interview with thinker Jacques Derrida about the fear of writing. The video was comforting, as I found justification for my own fears in Derrida's words. I feel quite vulnerable when I write and publish something here, because it makes me open to scrutiny, judgement. The value of my thoughts and feelings will come out in the open. But I already decided that not standing your ground for fear of rocking the boat is not very respectable.

The reason I go ahead and publish my stuff here is neither this principle, nor a disregard for others' views. It is rather the strong emotion a "good" idea creates or a desperate need to overcome my confusion over something. My favorite posts were written under the influence of a powerful idea or feeling, or they culminated in it. A discovery gives rise to this emotion - gaining a deeper, vaster understanding of something. My discovery may be obvious to everyone but me, but it is new and dear to me. If I can come up with something that rings new and true to others, then I could call myself talented and my work valuable.

(Precisely because I love this feeling, I am also scared by it. I am scared of being possessed by a bad idea, convincing myself that it's good simply because I like the ecstasy of conviction.)

I am possessed by a new idea now: Over the past few days I have been thinking about truth and value in literature. I have written before that the idea of value in art or science is closely associated with the belief in the existence of a truth. The quicker and closer you get to a truth, any truth, the truth of a place, a time, a feeling, a dilemma, an encounter, a relationship, a situation, a conversation- the more valuable your work is. In this quest for discovering and portraying the truth, I don't think a literary piece is any different than an academic article. I like it if it can show me something new and meaningful. The ecstasy of reading a good novel or story would only be second to writing it (I have never written fiction, so I can only guess). It is like the first derivative of the enlightenment I described, only shadowed by a hint of envy.

A piece of fiction is obviously not an opinion piece, academic article or lecture. This is simply because of its subject matter. A good fiction writer does not try to reach conclusions, he simply presents the many facets of human relationships and dilemmas. This is the truth of our lives: there is no absolute truth. I can't imagine anything more off-putting than a self-righteous "moral of the story" in a work of fiction. A writer should respect his readers enough to let them think and decide for themselves.

I also believe in the limits of prose. Words are like rays of light flowing from our reason, hence I find it redundant to try to use them to break into the opaque world of emotion. The result would be melodramatic. Emotions are to be felt, not read about or understood. Poetry, music and cinema can evoke emotions, but prose can only point at them and rely on the readers' memory and imagination.

A reader puts his trust and faith in a writer when he starts reading them. He is after that second-hand joy of discovery, understanding. If the writer hides the meaning under too many cushions, he robs an open-minded reader of this reward.

Many readers, including myself, are too ready to underestimate their knowledge and abilities when faced with complicated prose. We are used to not understanding and find this quite normal. Sometimes we may really be ill-equipped to understand something. We may understand at another time, or we may never understand. But opaque language should not stand in the way of meaning. I started to detest being told that something is too sophisticated to be told in simple terms. I am not convinced of the value of a work of art unless I see it for myself.

As I said, I feel vulnerable when I share my thoughts, but even more than that, I fear false enlightenment. (Besides, it was me who wrote this, too.) I would appreciate comments very much.

1 comment:

lightcapsule said...


8. We refuse to be each other
A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. And I don’t care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks; I don’t care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family; I don’t care if it refuses to use the letter e or crosses five continents and two thousand pages. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen’s prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton’s; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.

A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec. Great styles represent the interface of “world” and “I”, and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides. Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry – we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing – great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

Zadie Smith, 2007, "Fail Better"