“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Welcome to Reading Subtly
Literature too is an epistemology. We understand best what we can imagine to be otherwise: the universe needn't have been riddled with black holes, the earth needn't have been drowned in water, humans needn't have evolved to walk on two legs. "Spin multiple hypotheses," Carl Sagan admonishes in Demon-Haunted World. Not only does each prospective solution hold the possibility of being closer to the truth, but each attempt primes the mind to abandon those farther away, and opens us to new discovery. Literature, the imagining of other lives and other consciousnesses, opens us to discover a more encompassing humanity. It is set diametrically against the believer vs infidel tribalism which is too often catalyzed by religions. And it is absolutely essential in this postmodern, dangerously overpopulated world.
Reading subtly is about slowing down. Too many of us go about desperately trying to find our next entertainment fix. We seek out gorgeous celebrities jumping out of screens to escape big explosions. And we fixate on narratives of tribal war and revenge. Is it any wonder that worldwide tribal wars and honor killings consume so many lives? What if instead of the elitism of wizards and vampires and super spies and super cops we learned to control our craving for entertainment? What if we could sit back and appreciate the nuances of thought of people who could exist or have existed in the same wizardless, vampireless, superheroless world we all inhabit? What if instead of mass cult followings for J.K. Rowling, there were followings, outside of the vitiating pseudo-theories of academia, for Proust, or Bellow, or Munro? Reading subtly is about getting practice getting to know others, real or fictional, so that we can better know ourselves and better know our world--the better to live in it.