“If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”
Signs of atrophy and decay are inescapable these days. The coarseness of mass entertainment, the malignancy of political discourse, the creeping alienation affecting young and old alike which swells up and all too often releases itself in violence — all point to the realization that we have lost our way.
Before we can propose a way back, we have to figure out how we got lost.
I’m reminded of a flash of insight from one of my favorite nature writers, Charlene Spretnak. In The Resurgence of the Real, she noted that in our frenzy to reconstruct the world to cater to endless consumption and personal gratification, we have become our own Frankenstein monsters:
Ten years ago, I attended an all-day presentation by two of our finest writers on the natural world, Barry Lopez and Richard Nelson. A love of language and nature–and a humility before both–permeated their comments, but one observation in particular lodged vividly in my memory. After speaking about the ways in which wild animals are so acutely aware of minute events in their considerable range of attention that their consciousness extends far beyond their fur into the sensate forest, Lopez observed that a bear taken out of its habitat and put into a zoo is still a form of mammalian life, but it’s not a bear.
It’s not a bear.
It’s not a human if its felt connections with the unfolding story of the bioregion, the Earth community, and the cosmos are atrophied, denied, and replaced. It’s not a human if it can no longer experience awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of life, seeing nothing but resources and restraints. It’s not a human if it is socialized to be oblivious to the unity of life, so lonely that it is vulnerable to all compensatory snares.
The destruction of community connections is not an accident. So-called “liberals” want to free the individual from social constraints, while so-called “libertarians” seek to free the individual from government constraints. But rather than feeling free, the individual is left psychologically isolated, aware of no obligations or duties, but insistent on his growing list of rights.
No wonder so many are resentful and distrustful of others. Meanwhile, the cultural ideal is individual differentiation as an end in itself. One who isn’t sufficiently differentiated is not authentic. Authenticity, however, is available on the retail level. We are what we buy.
So what can be done to break the barriers we’ve erected around ourselves? Literary critic Gary Saul Morson proposes a process that can be described as literary therapy:
It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior.
In other words, sharing a character’s joys, fears, and triumphs nurtures our natural impulse to empathize with others, thus breaking down the solipsistic illusion that none but the One True Self thinks, feels, and exists.
Is it possible to rediscover our humanity by freeing ourselves from our addiction to iPods, iPads, and shoot-’em-up video games, and instead spend our precious free time with good books? I think it’s worth a try.