Sunday, November 7, 2010

endless expanses of humanity

When I first began to learn the power of new ideas, I opened myself up to that burning sensation, like peering into a new and more brilliant world and not being quite sure what you're looking at. It is taking the red pill, stepping out of the dark cave and into the overwhelming brightness of sunlight. At first everything was white and I ambled through this state of over-exposure, but as time wore on and I became adjusted to the blaze, it became clear how I wanted to learn.

In this state of immersion, I only wanted to learn about non-fiction. I wanted the plain facts. Tell me the history of fossil fuels, of food consumption, of empires and art movements and how hunter gatherers live and why. I needed to know how people moved from forests to farms to cities and what impelled them to do so. I longed for a basic illumination, a story, a baseline from which to create theories or assumptions about the way the world works.

For example, learning about the agricultural revolution -- when people shifted from being primarily nomadic pastoral people to settling on a particular piece of land to grow their own food -- gave me a basis to ask why did this movement happen? After much searching, I found that it was mainly due to population pressures and this impelled people to try to grow more food than was available as a herder.

Great. So since the beginning of my learning life I have been adding to this narrative. I am just now feeling confident in my basic narrative of reality, enough to share it with others and to feel confident in articulation. 

I spent all of these years proclaiming and insisting that novels were worthless pieces of crap. I would accost people: why read about a made-up reality when our reality is so intricate, endlessly fascinating, and illuminating? What are you running away from? Face the world, the truth of it all. Reading a non-fiction account of the history of all the great ideas in the past two centuries was to me much more interesting and enlightening than delving into the lives of people who have never existed.

But now I am not so sure. It is clear to me that there is a set of people who do run from reality by reading novels. They indulge in the fantasy of another story but their own, and this gets back to my last post on it is not what you consume, but why.  This is not what I want to discuss here.

I want to talk about the value of fiction. Having created my own narrative of the world, I thought I would be more satisfied.  Although I do feel a tremendous amount of confidence, clarity, and assuredness in my thoughts, I am missing something fundamental - the details. I am missing what Milan Kundera calls 'the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood . . . the wisdom of the novel.'

Having just read that line in Richard Rorty's excellent article "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," it became clear to me where I must go next. At the expense of losing clarity (more details in learning always means more confusion), I must fill in the picture. The endless expanses of human (and non-human) emotions, beliefs, behaviors, thoughts; these can only be captured in living a full life which seeks to explore the range of human experiences, or for those that are too difficult of dangerous to access - exploring the novel.

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