By Paul M. Lewis

Nicholas Dames’ article entitled “The New Fiction” in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic magazine explores the modern novel by contrasting it with an older version of fiction, one exemplified first by Cervantes in Don Quixote. That earlier view, amplified all the more by the great nineteenth and twentieth century masters, saw fiction as essentially a way of identifying with the other. Its goal was to provide a space whereby we could step into the lives of someone so different, so removed that the reader would otherwise never have encountered such a person in life. Who could imagine, for example, that they could have come to know anyone as strange as Quasimodo, or even Jean Valjean (to conflate two of Victor Hugo’s most famous works), or Don Quixote, to bring us back once again to Cervantes? Or how could most of us have traveled with the deviant Humbert Humbert other than in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Yet meet them we do, and in so doing, we come to understand at some deeper level what it is like to be them.

In the postmodern novel, however, this empathic “expansion of the moral imagination,” as Dames puts it, is not the goal. Instead, contemporary novelists, who eschew older forms of writing, concentrate not so much on our ability to pass outside the boundaries of our own skin, as on the need to understand and anchor the concept of the self. In a world where we are incessantly interconnected electronically, they seem to be asking, how are we to know who we really are? There isn’t so much a need to understand and feel with another, as there is to delve into and inhabit our own ego identity, which we are in danger of losing, or have already lost. A term that has come into use for this type of writing is “autofiction.” Dames defines it as “denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and the novel.” The goal—if that is not too atavistic a term to use in this context—seems to be to reveal, even to revel in, one’s isolation, one’s aloneness, in our inability to know, or be known by, another. Each of us exists in our own solitude, and that solitary state is essentially unbridgeable, except—and here is the irony—by the very revelation of the singularity of our individuality. Otherwise, if that were not possible, then why write at all? The writer’s separateness can, in some way, teach the rest of us how “to soothe our isolation,” though we incongruously still need the hermitic distinctiveness of our solitary selves in order to understand, and even to appreciate, the individuality of our own humanity.

All this may come across as overly highbrow, as some sort of precious or recherché affectation, almost a kind of faux exploration of life in the twenty-first century. For the most part, those of us who still read at all tend to do so for the traditional reason, that is, in the hope of getting to know the other. Even Pres. Obama noted this, as was reported in the same Atlantic magazine article. Harkening back to that older view of the meaning of fiction, he said that what he had learned from novels was “the notion that it’s possible to connect with some [one] else even though they’re very different from you.” He went on to say he lamented the demise of fiction reading in our culture and said he believed that this pointed to a concomitant loss of empathy in the country and the world.

Still, can it be said unequivocally that all this business about the meaning of literature might just be highfaluting claptrap, a thing dreamed up by critics so as to show off a fancy vocabulary or, more nefariously, by publishers in order to sell books? I think not. The basic notions of identity, of isolation, and of empathy really are important to each of us, whether we think about them in conscious ways, or not. Of course, no one necessarily has to read a novel, of whatever genre or era, in order to feel for another, or to realize their own essential aloneness. These existential states of being come of their own accord in the process of living, in the misery of a bereft childhood, or the toxic stew of an inherited chemical imbalance; or they invite themselves into our psyches by the blunt-force trauma that everyday life can sometimes bring with it. In other words, living can be its own kind of suffering. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great nineteenth century poet, put it, “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.”

A question that each of us ultimately faces in life, whether it be head-on or more obliquely, is how do we overcome what is our essential aloneness? How do we reach out beyond our “bone house,” to quote Hopkins again, that is, beyond the awful—and awe-filled—barrier that is the end of our own skin, and in some way connect with another? Love, of course, is the simple answer. But how successful are any of us at that? How many times do we stumble, fall and go crashing to the ground in our hasty, or confining, or clinging attempts to reach out lovingly? And if love demands a certain kind of selflessness, an overcoming of the all too self-centered ego, how often are we able to achieve that?

Literature, in all of its varieties, can teach us something about these fundamental questions and help the reader, or the watcher/listener if we are talking about drama, attempt the frightening leap across that impassible barrier, out into the abyss, in the hope of grabbing hold of some other frightened leaper. In this sense, the conflict between traditional and post-modern writing may only be an apparent one. In the case of the former, the traditional role of literature, the identity of the leaper is assumed (that is, it’s ourselves), and the reader then can empathize with the character “out there.” In terms of the latter, the post-modern vision, the assumption that we don’t know who we are may simply be the next logical step in the evolution of that outreach. Literary self-exposure is another way of looking into the mirror and saying to ourselves: yes, that’s me and not another; this is my hyper-personal expression of the utter uniqueness that is my individuality. It’s what makes each of us human, or at least what contributes to our understanding, our belief, that we are all different in ways that cannot ever fully be explained or communicated. If love is to be the answer as to how to span the unbridgeable gap, it must assume two (at least two) individuals; otherwise, there is no abyss to be bridged at all. Both love and literature demand separateness. Postmodern writing merely emphasizes the “I,” while traditional literature highlights the “he, she, or they” in the equation.

The answer to the question of whether or not we can honor both solitude and community is that one needs the other. The relentless modern attempt to reach out electronically, to text and to tweet, or to have FaceTime, may be emblematic of overwrought and overworked lives. Even so, it is after all a kind of reaching out. It’s true that we don’t have to read postmodern novels to understand we are alone; nor do we have to plow through Cervantes, or Hugo, or Tolstoy, or Faulkner to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. But it can’t hurt. That’s another way of saying that literature benefits us, that it reflects and explains the parts of ourselves that all too often escape us, as we go about the quotidian business of living. It reveals a deeper level of our being that slips and slides among the shadows and hides from the harsh, revelatory light of day. It grabs at the core of who we are, even when we don’t know—at least consciously—who that is, and flings the pieces of that identity, fragmentary as they may be, across the unbreachable chasm that stands between us.

We may be utterly alone in that no one will ever be fully capable of plumbing the profundity of our inner most being. Maybe we can’t do that even for ourselves. But we live with the hope, even the promise, of connecting with another and, in the end, that may be enough. This is what excellent writing can do, and why storytelling, in whatever form, which is what fiction is about after all, will always be with us.


By Paul

My partner, Andy, always says I’m crazy (probably for lots of good reasons), but in this particular instance because I’ve long had the habit of keeping a stack of books that I am reading “all at once.”  Of course, what I mean by that is I pick one or the other up, depending on exactly what my mood is and what more or less appeals to me in the moment.  I don’t know why this sounds so strange, but people have often remarked that it does seem odd to them, and yet it feels to me like the most natural thing in the world

Here, for example, is a list of some things I have on my reading table right now, with a few comments about each of the books and about what I find interesting in them.  They are listed in no special order:

  • IDEAS AND OPINIONS, Albert Einstein – here is a book for the ages, if ever there was one.  Who knew that Einstein wrote and lectured widely, not only about Physics and higher Mathematics, but about a much wider swath of life’s concerns.  His interests encompassed such wide-ranging topics as Good and Evil, Wealth, Society and Personality, Academic Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Government and Pacifism, the Jewish People, Germany, and Science and Religion.  In regard to the latter topic, here is one of the things he has to say:  “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.  In their labors they have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself.  This is, to be sure, a more difficult, but an incomparably more worthy task.  After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge.”  These kinds of thoughts by the great Albert Einstein are what I read when I am tired of hearing about Vatican power politics, or about evangelical small-minded bigotry, and I want instead to be uplifted by a bit of real wisdom.  Here, too, simply for your enjoyment and edification, are a few more quotes from the great man: (Speaking of Marie Curie) “Once she had recognized a certain way as the right one, she pursued it without compromise and with extreme tenacity.  The greatest scientific deed of her life – proving the existence of radioactive elements and isolating them – owes its accomplishment not merely to bold intuition but to a devotion and tenacity in execution under the most extreme hardships imaginable, such as the history of experimental science has not often witnessed”;  (and of Mahatma Gandhi) “(A) man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.  Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  These are phrases that ring true and remain in the mind.   They are always worth reading.
  • ON THE NATURE OF THINGS  (De Rerum Natura), Titus Lucretius Carus – this is a long poem, written in Latin in the first century BCE* by one of the greatest proponents of what came to be known as Epicurean philosophy.  Stripped of all jargon, and in its simplest form, such an approach to life consisted of living simply and frugally with a contented mind.  However, it must be said that, aside from this contented mind, Lucretius also had a most inquisitive one.  Read his Book I, as an example, for an amazing explanation of what the atom is, and remember that this was written well over 2,000 years ago, without the benefit of any scientific instrumentation.  Basically, Lucretius’s lab consisted of nature, and of his clear-minded, dispassionate observation thereof.  Due to his unparalleled deductive abilities, he was able to speak authoritatively of both matter and space (the void, as he refers to it), as well as the indestructibility of matter.  Not that he claims of course that bodies themselves cannot, and do not, die; rather he speaks about their irreducibly tiniest component parts, atoms, and describes how they are themselves impervious to further disintegration.  As he says, “Now physical things are either first-beginnings/Or what their congresses unite to make./As for the first-beginnings, the atoms, no force can quell them; their tough walls outlast all blows; though at first it seems doubtful that in objects/The fundamentally solid can be found.”  Even though today we know that atoms themselves can be broken down into yet smaller component parts, can you imagine the power of the human mind to discern such information before science and the scientific method had its real beginnings?  Lucretius does, he says, believe in the gods, but only as remote beings who are “withdrawn and far removed from our affairs.”  But note that he says this at a time when blood sacrifice to propitiate those very gods was the order of the day and readily accepted by all.  Instead, his advice to us is that we withdraw our consciousness from the cares and worries of the world, and apply ourselves to “the truth of reasoned theory;” and all this, rather than being “(c)rushed to the dust under the burden of Religion.”  When I, therefore, wish to remember the paramount good in the life of the mind, I read Titus Lucretius Carus, born somewhere between 99 and 95 BCE and died in 55 BCE, and I revel in the simple joys of life, and in the ultimate indestructibility of the tiniest building blocks of nature.

*BCE – Before the Common Era, a phrase often used by anthropologists and other scholars (along with its counterpart CE, meaning in the Common Era), in place of the older, religiously based BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini).

  • A SHORT HISTORY OF IRELAND, John O’Beirne Ranelagh – I can’t help it.  My Irish roots continually show through, whether I like it or not.   And though I may come from a shanty Irish background, yet I can still aspire to learning (whether I ever reach that lofty goal or not), and (dare I say it?) even to sagacity.  Why not, after all, set one’s heart on the highest good, as many times as we may fall and fail in its attainment?   And falling and failing is what happened in Ireland for many centuries.  This book takes the long view, beginning in the seventh millennium BCE with the coming of the Gaels to the island, and goes through the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century CE, to the Viking raids that started at the end of the eight century, the onslaught of the English, with Srongbow’s invasion in 1169, the Great Famine of 1845-1852, when over a million died and another million emigrated, and finally into the modern era.  Indeed, it must be said that much of the second half of the book concentrates on events that began with the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence (1919-21) and the later creation of the Irish Free State (the best deal they could get from the UK at the time, it would appear), going on to the Irish Civil War (1922-23), and finally into the more or less contemporary politics of both the South and the North.  It is not a happy history, as much as the story of few people on earth can, I suppose, be considered altogether happy.  But Ireland in particular seems to have suffered greatly, and for a very long time.  And no one can deny the arrogance, aggression, and downright cruelty of much of what the British have done in Ireland over the centuries, which greatly contributed to, and indeed, exacerbated, that unhappiness.  As a direct result of their so-called Plantation Policies, for example (begun in earnest in the 17th century under Cromwell), Protestant Scottish and English settlers eventually came to outnumber and lord it over native Irish in the North.  The result was that we have the terrible bigotry and inequities that beset Northern Ireland, and which to an extent still remain to this day. It is also true that in the end there have been unspeakable atrocities aplenty on both sides.  Still, it seems clear that none of this would have come about in the first place, had it not been for the direct interventionist policies of a greedy and overbearing England.  Let us hope that cooler heads will prevail, and that both Northern Ireland, now truly and probably forever a part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland will live to see better and happier days.
  • LES FLEURS DU MAL, Charles Baudelaire – Every so often, I seem to need my “fix” of French literature.  Who can deny that, along with Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, German, and now probably American literature, the writings of the French are among the jewels of world literature?  As a young student living in France, I was very taken by the great 19th century poets.  Rimbaud and especially Baudelaire were among my favorites.  And so, from time to time, I go back to my bookcase and dig out my old copy of “Les Fleurs du Mal,” the Flowers of Evil.  I suppose, if I’m being perfectly frank, these poems no longer speak to me in quite the same way they did over 45 years ago now, when I was a university student living in Strasbourg.  In some ways, in fact, reading them is almost a kind of exercise in nostalgia.  Still, I thrill to these enchanting lines, and remember the decadence and eroticism of Baudelaire’s poetry.  Let me quote just one stanza – in French, if you will indulge me, and for those who may speak the language – as well as with the addition of my own clunky enough translation of such glorious words (from a poem entitled “La Crépuscule du Soir” – “Evening’s Twilight”):

Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel;

Il vient comme un complice, à pas de loup; le ciel

Se ferme lentement comme une grande alcôve,

Et l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve

(Here is charming evening, friend of the criminal;

It comes stealthily like an accomplice, on wolf’s steps; the sky

Closes slowly like a huge alcove,

And impatient man is changed into a wild beast)

That last line in particular, “l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve,” is quintessential Baudelaire.  Dark and brooding and verging on the demonic.  I loved it when I was 21 years old, and even today it can make me shiver a little, more in memory perhaps of who I once was, than of what it has to say to me today.  Still, isn’t that one of the things literature, and maybe poetry in particular, can do for us?  Take us back to who we were when we first read it, celebrate that person, and possibly even, to an extent at least, breathe a sigh of relief that we are no longer he.

  • THE GOLDEN ASS, Lucius Apuleius Africanus – It’s not that I’m enamored only of old Latin literature, but here is a novel (the only one to survive in its entirety from ancient Rome) that really should not be missed.  It is a silly, bawdy, picaresque story of a foolish young man who, because of his inexperience and naïveté, to say nothing of his over-inquisitiveness and complete lack of good sense, gets himself changed by magic into an ass.  As with all such works of this type, the overall plot is thin as a dime, but the situations and the characters are hilarious.  “The Golden Ass” (“Asinus Aureus,” in Latin) is the Perils-of-Pauline of idiocy and of humorous situations cum morality tales.  Apuleius apparently took at least some of his story from an earlier Greek version, now lost, but no doubt added his own commentary and hilarity, as well.  He was born in what is today known as Algeria, and lived from approximately 125 to 180 CE.  He had his own tragic-comic misfortunes in life, but today we are mostly glad of the harebrained story he left behind for our entertainment and enlightenment.   Let me quote just a single short passage (marvelously translated by Sarah Ruden, by the way), one of many that could be related, showing the wiles of a supposedly pious wife and the simplemindedness of her cuckold husband.  Here it is for your reading pleasure: “There wasn’t a single fault missing from that dame, who had nothing whatsoever to recommend her; on the contrary, every wicked passion, bar none, had flooded into a heart that was like some slimy privy.  A friend in a fight but not very bright, hot for a crotch, wine-botched, rather die than let a whim pass by – that was her.  She pillaged other people’s property without the slightest shame or restraint and threw money away on the lowest self-indulgence.  She was in a long-running feud with trust, and in the army storming chastity.”  Who would want to be married to such a wife?  On the other hand, we also wind up half pitying her for the gullible imbecile of a husband she’s married to.  Every low trick, every foible, every blemish, and half of the kinky idiosyncrasies humanity is capable of are represented in this rollicking and riotous read.  I therefore pick up Apuleius whenever I want to be reminded of what a foolish, crackpot, crazy, and hysterically funny world we live in.

So, that’s it.  These are some of the friends I have been spending my hours with of late.  Let me know who your friends are, and we can compare notes.  After all, that’s part of the great joy of reading, isn’t it?  Letting each other know what tickles your fancy, who makes you weep, who makes you laugh, who makes you wonder, and who, in the end – let us hope, at least – occasionally may even bring a bit of the light of wisdom into our lives.