Monday, October 17, 2005

As I get more and more involved in political activism, I find that sometimes I question the relevance of literature; stories can feel like frivolous and selfish luxuries when I think of the real work that needs to be done in the world. Two articles this weekend helped remind me why I love stories with all my heart, and why they are indeed important as we try to understand the world both around us and within us--

Literature, now more than ever, by David Ulin in the LA Times (the article is limited to registered members, but you can get registration login info at BugMeNot.com, a great resource for free passwords to registration-only sites. They offer this one up for the LA Times: email: kos@dailykos.com, password: dailykos. DailyKos.com is a great site in its own right!)

Ulin interviews Jane Smiley (on the occasion of her new book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, which I am excited to read):

"We don't connect with literature in the intellect," Smiley says. "We connect to it where we attach to dogs or boyfriends — at the deeper level of the self. The desire we have for long narrative forms is intrinsic; it's a natural human thing. A lot of people worry about the future of the novel, but I don't. It's a part of who we are."

The novel, even when I question it, is definitely a large part of who I am. I feel so lucky to be able to read novels, to be able to write them, to be able to learn from them.

The New York Times review of Helen Vendler's new book, Invisible Listeners, also affirms the relevance of literature, and literary criticism. And the review even mentions Whitman!

Anyone who has felt himself directly addressed by Whitman in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," as if the poet were present on the page and looking at us, will know what Vendler means by "intimacy" and be grateful to her for describing the sensation. That is one thing a critic can do for us - verbalize our experience of great writing. It doesn't undo the effect, but deepens it, as when Vendler explains how Whitman brings "his future surrogates" - that is, us, his readers - into existence by imagining our future moment in the present tense, and casting his own present in the past: "Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, / Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd."

I love the thought of us being "future surrogates" of Whitman. I am refresh'd by the gladness of his words.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gayle,

I can see where the conflict might occasionally rear its head in times like these. I occasionally get lost in the day to day heartbreaks of this life, and then come home, see the news, and feel what borders on shame for wallowing in what seems to be so petty on occasion. But life is big, and being human is complicated, and this big life is made up of many small and fantastically beautiful and equally horrible parts, all of which are valid, all which make up the whole. Stories, literature, and fiction, in my opinion, give us the opportunity to validate our humanity on an attainable level, to learn, to grow, to hopefully see bigger pictures, other sides, to connect to faucets of life that we may otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience. Literature reminds us that we are connected, and in times like this, that is the beauty of it. At least in my humble opinion. So please, keep writing and wrenching those stories from your heart. Humanity is waiting :0)

Donna said...

Political activism is temporal, but literature can outlast individual actions.

gayle said...

Thank you so much for your beautiful comments, anonymous (I wish I could call you by name!) and Donna. I agree with everything you said. I think sometimes I need to fall out of love with literature a little so I can engage fully in the world, without pages in front of my face (which I worry I sometimes hide behind). I always fall back in love with literature, though, usually even harder than before. I agree that stories create such beautiful opportunities for connection (and such intimate connection at that); they create such beautiful opportunities for us to see beyond ourselves, for us to develop a deeper and broader compassion. Thank you for reminding me of that. Sometimes I get frustrated because I can't go build a million houses and feed a million people and dig a million people out of the rubble, but I can use what's at hand, I can use these hands, and create stories with them, and maybe those stories will help pull someone out of their own despair. I know poems and stories have certainly pulled me out of despair time and time again. And I know the stories that come through me are bigger than me, and have the potential to reach farther than my limited armspan. I need to honor that. Thank you again for all of your generous words...

Anonymous said...

Gayle,
Wasn't it you that said "words are not invisible"? Truer words are rarely spoken. Your thoughts, your compassion and your obvoiusly gigantic heart are a pleasure to interact with. I wish there were more like you...

gayle said...

Ok, now I'm blushing again. Thanks so much for your sweet words. And now I think I know who you are (although there may be more than one recent "anonymous" out there). If I'm right, I want to let you know I really enjoyed your website--beautiful photography! I look forward to working with you...

Anonymous said...

Curses, foiled again! I am very much looking forward to working with you, and anxious to know about your next book. Also looking forward to continued correspondence and reading your thoughts on life, your spirit is inspirational. -T

gayle said...

:)

Anonymous said...

Obviously a woman of superior intellect :)