26 December 2011

Being Changed by Literature

Change can be good, but it is not necessarily always easy.  Several changes that a person can experience may be barely noticeable: they wake up one morning and something is different.  Changes brought about by literature are usually not so quiet; at least not in my life.  Some of these changes I have instigated, others have been instigated for me by assigned readings in university, and others are serendipitous.

The changes that I have experienced in reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example, were of the latter kind.  I picked it up on purpose, but simply to distract myself.  It ended up being the focus of my 60 page senior thesis for the B. A. in English Literature.  Because of that one moment, the one choice to read something for the sheer distraction of it, I have stumbled onto the concentration for my future literary pursuits.  I still have more to say about it, lots more.  And, I really hated The Waste Land the first few times I read it; I thought to myself, “How can people call this good?”  But, now, I call it good!

Albert Camus changed the way I look at life in general.  I would say that the changes that have happened in my life since first reading his works were self-instigated.  I purposely and purposefully chose his Myth of Sisyphus with change in mind.  What happened was not so much an actual outright change, but a merging and an upgrading of my thinking.  I found that I already shared several of his thoughts and ideas, but was unable to articulate them and that he had been kind enough to put them in writing.  Others of his ideas were not mine, but I agree with them and now they are.

The reading that I have been doing lately has both intrigued and bothered me.  It is of the assigned variety.  It is mostly philosophical in nature, which I have not had much experience with.  Well, I should rephrase that.  I have read literature that is philosophical, but have not read much systematic philosophy and then attempted to read literature through it.  Some of these works are difficult, and my initial response is dislike or distaste.  The dislike is not because of the difficulty, nor because they are philosophy or philosophical, but because they lack poetry—I am mostly referring to Kant.

I have read many things that are merely good, enjoyable; that I am glad to have read, but that I will most likely not read again.

Then, there are those works that initially I dislike, or even hate; yet, as I read them I realize that I am changing.  In these times, change is not comfortable.  My mind will not stop working on the new ideas.   I lose more sleep than usual.   The Waste Land, as I mentioned, is one of these works.

Soon, if the literature is strong I will begin to let the words become a part of my way of thinking.   But, this is a choice.  My choice.  I will not blindly believe; I absolutely refuse to call something good just because someone else does.  If I did that, I would lose respect for myself as I have often lost respect for others that do this; i.e. call something good because that is the popular consensus.

Some of the works I have been reading lately are not literature, but philosophy and literary criticism.  The professor raves about them and I was initially excited to be introduced to them; that is, until I read them.  I had a strong dislike to a few, but after thinking about them and discussing them, they are slowly moving into my “must read again and again” category.  And, several have given me ideas for expanding my research on Eliot.

Not only will I not call something good simply because that is the general consensus; I will argue, fight, declare my disgust of the work—if I do not like it.  I will, however, usually give the work a fair chance by reading it for myself.  Sometimes, but not many times, the work of literature will remain on my “do not like” list.  More often the work will become one of my favorites, and not merely because of my investment in it, but because of its investment in me.

Investment in literature is not something I take too seriously, nor is it something I take lightly.  I am serious about literature and the part it will play in my future; I will wrestle with a text as long as is necessary, if I believe that it is worth it.  I refuse to take any of it so seriously, however, that I am angered when others joke or have fun at the expense of the literature.  If there is no fun in it, I will not bother.  The day I lose pleasure in literature and its study is the day I find something else to be fill my time.

That does not mean that I will only read silly literature—how much of that is running around in the wild?  What I mean is that I will not let literature become something about which I cannot change my mind.  If it is good, I will read it, enjoy it, wrestle with it, write about it, but I will not let it be my holy text.  I have no holy text and will have none, thank you.  Nothing is sacred unless we make it sacred.

My mind is my mind and I will run it the way I want to run it.1 Literature does have an enormous impact on much of my thinking and my way of being.  However, I have no problem changing my mind if I think that what I am reading no longer suits me, or serves me.  Maybe I am fooling myself.  Maybe I just think I change my mind, when in reality it is another work of literature that has done it for me….

1. At least I think this way; I could be wrong and have no free will whatsoever.  I’ll have to keep reading the philosophers and get back with you on it.

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