Saturday, April 23, 2011

Landscapes of Ambiguity

Cultural life produces recognizable fields of activity easily linked to physical things, but pondering them I see strange landscapes of ambiguity. Literature is an example. Literature is letters, writings, books—but, literature as such is only a narrow subset of such things. That word, for instance, excludes the Congressional Record or written forms of scientific discoveries, philosophy, etc. The word embraces imaginative writing about experience: narratives, poetry, plays. But only a subset of that category ranks as literature. To merit the name the product must have a certain structural and aesthetic quality fused with a certain difficult-to-pin-down profundity, feeling, intuition. Letters on paper, plot, rhyme, beat, story, and theme are accessible to objective valuation. Such things are either present or not; if present, they are capable of analysis, comparison. But what really matters is much more difficult to detect. Literature therefore tends to be defined by small but influential groups some members of which may be, but the majority are not, themselves creators of art. The mass of readers is also excluded. Literature has its elites, and the majority of them are neither poets nor storytellers. Rarely, but here and there, critical writings, writings about literature, also rise to the status of literature: they are unusually, creatively insightful and deep. Literature, finally, is dynamic. It has schools, movements, conflicts, camps—in which, among other things, elites compete and declare other schools, movements, or camps as producing trash. Literature also has its revered ancient forms some of which are dying of neglect, others of which enjoy brief renaissances, and so on.

The ambiguity arises because higher forms of human achievement are impossible to break down into manageable bits in order to grasp them—and their recognition by others is also impossible to discern: it depends itself on a higher function.

The analogy to another great landscape of ambiguity, Religion, is tempting. I yielded to that temptation decades ago and view Literature as the religion of the secular age. In religion the creative force arises from saints and mystics. Piety as such does not suffice. Something more must be present—and is difficult to pin down. Piety is accessible to objective valuation, the saintly state escapes it—but we know it when we see it. Religion has its priesthoods, and the majority are neither saints nor mystics. They elevate some of the saints and canonize them, ignoring what the masses of the ordinary people feel; they work by rules. And the same dynamisms apply in religion as in literature where the old is sometimes selectively revived, the new is opposed as heresy and declared as beyond the pale and Satan’s own handiwork.

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