What makes literature work is the same secret that makes any endeavour work. This is why English Literature or Comparative Literature should still be considered valuable pursuits, despite the tendency in university administrations these days to look at us like the annoying, unsuccessful family members at the table full of more promising cousins — the science and the engineering people, for instance. The computer and the robotics and the math whizzes.
But we lovers of lit have something very great and very profound to contribute, so listen up.
What Possible Use Can Literature Be to ‘Regular People?’
Sure it might seem like a difficult and unrewarding task to wade through a difficult book when you could just as easily be binge-watching something fun on TV.
But there is something that a classic work of literature gives you that a TV show lacks, even in this supposed golden age of television with all its quite compelling and engrossing narratives. TV shows lack intimacy with the genius of the author.
With a book, the author is there so close to you, right in your lap. Not across the room on the TV screen. And the author is quietly sharing his secret with you and you alone. This is a private meditation, where for the period of your relationship with this author, his or her muse — his inspiration — becomes your muse.
In other words, it is a divine, transcendent and sacred experience because, as you will see, to create the world of genius the author has transcended his own psyche and let the vision lead him. A book brings you very intimately close to that transcendence…as a Catholic communion leads you very intimately close, let’s say, to the sacrifice of Christ, or as an Ayahuasca ceremony lets you see what the shaman sees.
This can leave you more inspired than perhaps you even recognize at first, but then as that work stays with you through a period of years and decades, and in fact shapes the way you interpret experience, you learn that you have at the depths of your soul been touched by the muse.
But What Practical Application Does Literature Have?
I can make this promise: if you learn this secret you will be able to apply it to all of your life, and I mean all of your life — your career life, your hobby life, your social life, your marital life, your spiritual life, your community life and everything else.
If, after spending the next five minutes with me, as I attempt to deliver you the fundamental jewel of the gift of literature, you do not see your own endeavour and experience in a new and more empowered way, I will give you my personal apology.
It will look something like this: I am terribly sorry that I have wasted your time.
I doubt that I will need to deliver that apology to many, though. You see, this secret is very great and is really only understood by a person long after he has graduated from his interminable course of study and only after he has begun to actually teach literature. But all who teach literature eventually understand this truth. It is a very happy moment. For they realize they have stumbled upon the gold.
And that is the treasure that I am going to attempt to transmit to you. If I am clever enough to distil it down to its essence, so that it can be understood in five minutes, then you will grasp it and never look at life the same.
Good. So am I. Let’s begin.
The Secret to All Great Work
The secret to every work of genius in literature is that it remains faithful and true to its core inspiration and genius throughout. Somehow the author, despite his probably best intentions to muck it up, has managed to stay out of the way of that core inspiration and allow it to speak through him or her or them.
This truth comes to the professor after teaching great text after great text and noticing that they all have this brilliant coherence around their central inspiration. Suddenly, to the learned professor, teaching a text and understanding a text becomes much easier, because he/she/they realize every great text follows this pattern, and this pattern becomes easier and easier to distinguish. In other words, in time, a professor can understand the central core of the text within reading just one page of it.
Because this pattern is fractal, which means in the leaf of the tree the structure of the whole tree itself can be seen.
Another way of saying this is that the author starts the work of genius, but that the work completes itself, almost automatically, and almost in a pre-determined way that leaves the author very little choice in the affair. The author becomes more or less a bystander.
This truth was revealed to me twenty years ago, when preparing to teach Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which is about a man who has turned into a cockroach, I had the strangest thought.
“Kafka had the idea, but the story itself was written by the cockroach.”
But a Cockroach Can’t Write — He Doesn’t Have Fingers
That’s exactly right. The only purpose Kafka served after being inspired to write The Metamorphosis was to lend his fingers to the cockroach.
Let me explain it again. Every work coheres around the possibility of a certain expression that is contained in that core inspiration, and like a black hole at the center of a galaxy, that core provides the gravity and the power to keep the work from being torn asunder by chaos. In this case, the core gravity of The Metamorphosis was that a man has turned into a cockroach, but he still feels like a man. And he needs to make some plans.
Of course, if a hundred people had this inspiration for their story, there would be a hundred versions. But that’s because Kafka’s cockroach is different than your cockroach. Kafka, after all, was living as a Jew in an antisemitic country which in a few years would exterminate millions of human beings adjudged not much better than insects and summarily squashed. Your cockroach will have a different tenor — a tenor of your time and your place. But it is your cockroach who will write your Metamorphosis, not you — if you want to be a great writer anyhow.
How Does This Secret Help Me?
No matter what our endeavor is, in some way we must get the hell out of the way of it and let it create itself. This can apply to any undertaking, from accounting to basketball. If you are in your own way while running down the basketball court, debating with yourself whether you should shoot, pass or dribble, by the time you look up you will have lost the ball. Any athlete, carpenter, motorcyclist or pest exterminator knows that at some point you just have to get into flow. Flow is defined by me as letting your cockroach write his or her own story.
Or Shakespeare letting Hamlet write his own story. Or so on, and so on and so on, right through the canon of great works.
And in the canon of your own life, it would look like this — let Aaron get out of the way and let his vision for his start-up create Aaron’s company. Let your vision speak, Aaron, and you just shut up and listen.
How Do You Know the Cockroach Wrote His Own Story?
Because stories not written this way are tremendous failures.
The failure to get out of your own way is catastrophic to literature, as evidenced by authors who often fail in the work that comes after their masterpiece because they make the mistake of trying to imitate themselves, rather than operate from an inspired core spark. Jack Kerouac while on amphetamines typed out On the Road without punctuation over a period of just a few weeks. The inspired goal here was to communicate the radical authenticity of these poets and crazies who would later become known as the beats. The idea was that we could all go on the road together and by reading it we would feel the same uncontrived spirit of the intensity of the real, not the contrived, that they felt. However, after that book’s huge success, Kerouac only succeeded in failed imitations of On the Road. He never achieved one jot of any authenticity again, tragically, as everything that was written afterward seem contrived in order to capitalize on the success of the so-called beat movement, while ironically the idea of “not being contrived” was the very thing that made On the Road possible in the first place. (Why did Salinger stop writing? Because obviously he had become as phony as the phonies in his hymn to authenticity, Catcher in the Rye.) (Another terrific example of this problem — Harper Lee, who only in her senility agreed to release the pale imitation of her own genius in the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird). The abject failure of Kerouac to ever achieve anything cohering around another true inspiration was undoubtedly a factor in his self-inflicted alcoholic death. If only I could’ve gone back in time I would’ve said, “Jack for your second book you need to not be a beat anymore.”
(How do I know that was the answer for Jack — or for J.D. for that matter? Because it worked for Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel prize winning author, who instead of continuing to write “Knut Hamsun” novels, began halfway through his life to write something quite different, inspired and extraordinary, that bore absolutely not one whit of resemblance to what people expected out of Knut Hamsun. Unfortunately, he also decided to become a fascist. Oh well…)
How Do I Know if My Own Cockroach is Writing My Story Or If I am Getting in the Way of the Creative Process?
How alive do you feel?
Our own lives become dead and uninspired when we start imitating this year what we barely managed to struggle through last year. How do we avoid this drudgery and trudgery? We cannot do too much with our grand “selves”, alas. They are empty shells with names. We need to keep finding that core spark, people. Every year, every month, every day. There’s no faking that spark. It’s either lit or it’s not.
But I Am Me. I Do Have a Self. Why Should I Deny It?
Yes, of course you have a self. We all sort of agree that the author does have a little bit to do with his texts, so we keep the name Shakespeare on the folio of his plays. And in real life, whatever you do, certainly you’re going to put your name on it, but in many other ways it’s going to create itself. This is what I call the invisible yet all-pervasive presence of the author. Flaubert, the great French realist of the 1800s, came up with the aesthetic ideal that the reader should be completely unaware of the authorial voice as he’s experiencing the story — that the author be invisible. Yet of course, Flaubert’s authorial voice is so distinctive that we can recognize it in a second — that’s the paradox. It is invisible and all-pervading.
What Is So Great About Becoming Invisible in My Own Life?
Writing (and living) on this level achieves a lightness, unburdened by the ego of the author (or the person living). Think here of Jane Austen. Her work often seems to be precisely as light and melodious as a piece of music by Mozart (remarkably, they were for a couple decades on the planet at the same time! What a lucky planet!).
A Jane Austen book is a mystery or a puzzle that the main character is trying to solve: how can she reconcile her own apparent and intrinsic self-worth with the strange social structure around her that says her worth is the only dependent upon her social class and her ability to marry? That is that tension that we all can still relate to today — men and women — because our own intrinsic worth it sometimes at odds with what the external world is telling us is our value.
Do not mistake — I am not speaking about a “theme,” which is a word I’m sure some of you must’ve heard a million times in the very hideous English classes that you’ve been forced to endure. First of all, a theme is not a term that will be of any use to you and your endeavour. Let’s say it’s an accounting project. What is the theme of an accounting project? None. But you accountants certainly do have a core central coherent inspiration — that you will make order out of the chaos of these financial statements. The numerical order will make itself apparent through you but it has only one goal — the truth of the numerical order. If you look at a text, there could be many themes. But there is only one coherent inspiration at its core.
What I’m talking about is more like the writer’s goal. We call it in the biz, the author’s “purpose in writing.” But it is best and most aptly described by the ancient Greek concept of muse. We must have a muse, an inspiration that speaks, sings and dances through us.
What if I Can’t Find My Muse?
When I see a person floundering in real life, outside the world of literature or academia, I have often noticed that they seem to be unsure of what the core inspiration of their endeavor really is. Or what their goal is. Or what their purpose might be. I mean, they do have one, but they just don’t seem to be aware of it. They have a kind of blind spot that keeps them from seeing it, and one cannot show it to them because the act of showing itself is a “getting in the way” of this vision.
Only when they see it for themselves AND SURRENDER COMPLETELY TO IT! will they become a genius in whatever they are doing with their short and numbered days.
For example, the personages in our current “great man” theory of looking at the world did not really do that great thing we celebrate them for. Steve Jobs did not really do anything other than have an idea — a personal computer for everyone — and every action he took thereafter was pre-determined and perfect and had more to do with that vision than it did with Steve Jobs.
Same with other beloved billionaires. Warren Buffet did nothing but let the inspiring core principle of value investing speak through his body, his mind, and his financial portfolio. In this sense, there is no Warren Buffet, or he is as much a meaningless brand name as his company, Berkshire Hathaway.
We have names, we have egos, we have desires, thoughts and feelings. But the thing that must guide us, that we must let drive us, is vision.
Our vision can only be made smaller by our personal, individual cares, concerns and worries.
But not by our ethics. Our vision, in its inception, brings with it the possibility of an ethical stand.
Even in anti-heroic texts like Ulysses, or experiments with profanity like those of Marquis de Sade (it is a subversive ethics, but nevertheless, an ethics), the ethical urge always accompanies the vision.
Vision, combined with ethics, minus your puny personality, is what will lead you to greatness.
And ladies and gentlemen, literature and English professors are the only people in the university who know this truth. This is not something taught in Engineering 101.
Take an English elective, students, and witness this great dance of vision. Or, if you’re already done with your education, pick up a book of classic literature. Turn off your iPhone, and listen instead to the music of the spheres.
Literature will help you succeed and thrive in life — once you glimpse its invisible and all-pervading mystery, once you embrace and surrender to your own muse.
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