Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Novels: the expression of the human condition

Campbell's Soup I (1968), low-res snapshot so it can (hopefully) be considered Fair Use, via Wikipedia

A couple of weeks ago I read the cover article of the Nov/Dec issue of Intelligent Life, "A One-Man Market," by Bryan Appleyard. (It was excerpted in the Economist.) It's about Andy Warhol and the market for his art.

Warhol is now the god of contemporary art… In 2010 his work sold for $313m and accounted for 17% of all contemporary auction sales.

That shocked me. Seventeen percent of all contemporary auction sales. For one man who made it very clear that he regarded art as a commodity.

But that's just a by-the-bye. What really struck me was part of the last paragraph:

... Prompted by Warhol, conceptualism--art driven by ideas rather than sensuous and emotional engagement--has ruled for more than 20 years. It is a machine aesthetic, a desire to make art that is beyond human, and Andy always wanted to be a machine. But, though all art is in constant, self-questioning flux, one thing never changes--the longing to define, synthesise and express the human condition. In the absence of religion, it is art's job to do this...

Read the last two sentences again. This is one of the bases of my philosophy. Art--more particularly, literature--exists not only to entertain* or to soothe**, but to help us understand ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

Literature is what distinguishes us from every species that has gone before. It's what makes it possible for seven billion of us to breathe the same air. Literature is the great sum and sea of human experience, out there heaving serenely in the moonlight, ready for individuals, when it's their time, to paddle out on their voyage of discovery. Sometimes a whole boatload goes at once (a class, a book club). Sometimes the lone traveller comes back and tells her family and friends tall tales (the child retailing horror stories around the campfire). Sometimes he simply hugs the knowledge to himself (the gay teen exploring forbidden territory). But every voyager returns with added experience, a new perspective, a different lens through which to examine the world.

Literature is what keeps us learning about violence without having to kill, about hunger without having to starve, about fear without having to be hunted. Through books we learn strategies for situations we haven't yet encountered. We try on lives we may never get the opportunity to live. We can learn to walk in another's shoes without depriving him of them.

Literature isn't risk-free because books change us. But it can save us from physical harm in the quest for experience. It can save us time. Books provide valuable rehearsal so that when the big moments and grave decisions come we don't screw up as badly as we might otherwise. And we come back from our voyage, we recognise fellow travellers. I've talked about that in this essay I wrote with Kelley: without books, I'm not sure we would be together. I've talked about it in my paean to reading, "Doing it for Pleasure." And I've talked about it in my promise to run my software on your hardware.

I talk about it all the time. Because I believe it. I believe writers are the shamans who map unknown territory so that you don't have to. I believe writers help create the world, not just report it. I don't always do it well, but I'm getting better. And, oh, there are so very many journeys ahead.

* I'm with Pauline Kael on this. "If art isn't entertainment then what is it? Punishment?"
** A familiar novel can be very soothing. For more on this see "Doing it for Pleasure," linked above.
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