Friday, September 23, 2005

tunnels and mockingbirds

If literature can give new eyes to human beings, it is because the thing held in common is separately imagined. Utter "I would prefer not," and out of these few words Bartleby materializes, your Bartleby and my Bartleby, a mutual Bartleby: yet the seeing differs from mind to mind. And at the same time a tunnel has been dug from mind to mind, and an unsuspected new current runs between them.

- from Cynthia Ozick's essay "Saul Bellow's Broadway", an introduction to Bellow's novel Seize the Day, also published in the essay collection Fame & Folly, p. 174
The other day Lydia wrote a comment to my post on Nicole Krauss' Man Walks Into A Room, referencing another amazing novel about human understanding and empathy, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. I was going to keep my reply to a brief comment on that post, but I had so much to say about the comparison, it would fit much better in a new post of its own!

I also haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird for many years, but those characters and ideas still have a particular resonance, like Bartleby and his "I would prefer not to", which leaves a lasting impression. You have only to mention the names "Atticus" or "Boo Radley", or the title of the book itself, and all these seemingly abstract notions about dignity, empathy, and compassion for the others' humanity come flooding back. This is the tunnel that Cynthia Ozick is describing in the passage quoted above, and it is a sign of the strength and nobility of Harper Lee's tunnel-digging that so many people who read her novel at age 12 continue to make frequent use of the currents that run through it!

I think this in a way is the purpose of all arts and culture, and the source of its relevance - it opens up passageways and dialogues between people who otherwise would have very little real basis for understanding. Sharing common symbols, mythologies, and characters can be as important as sharing a common language when it comes to real communication - one reason why joining a conversation between two old friends can sometimes seem like an exercise in futility. The words they are saying are only the surface level, while underneath lies a whole other dimension, formed from the memories and stories they both know.

This explains partly why the premise of Nicole Krauss' Man Walks Into A Room - a man loses his memory of his entire adult life due to an undiagnosed brain tumor - was so terrifying and so fascinating to me. He has lost none of his abilities or perceptions, and yet he only has the memories which formed up to the age 12: he can't recall meeting his wife, or seeing his mother die. His most meaningful relationships, his students and friends and his wife, are now merely strangers, and his life is robbed of much of its meaning as a result.

Maybe that is why after reading a great book like MWIAR or TKAM, I feel so powerfully compelled to share it with others. No matter how wondrous the tunnels a work has excavated, they are of very little use until we can open connections into other minds. Even a somewhat pedestrian book (I am thinking of Da Vinci Code for some reason) can have great value if it allows for a common reference with a vast population of readers. I don't know if that justifies the existence of the Oprah Book Club, but it means the books it chooses can't be entirely ignored!

Man Walks Into A Room is a book about the struggle for connection, and about an intriguing scientific "solution" to this struggle. I think it is a common impulse today to look to science for solutions for questions which might once have fallen to a philosopher, or a monk. The scientist Ray in MWIAR is a curious combination of those three callings:
"People---physicists, whatever---will tell you we're all tuned into the universe, to something greater than ourselves. What I say is, why can't we try to share, at the deepest possible level, that distant connection? What I'm saying is, why can't we get inside each other's heads? From time to time, to get out of ourselves and into someone else. Simple idea, but the ramifications are extraordinary. The possibility for true empathy---imagine how it would affect human relations. It's enough to keep you awake at night." Ray grinned. His teeth were perfect. "Or to send you out to the desert."
-Man Walks Into A Room, p. 105-106
In the end, though, the scientific solutions only serve as a stark reminder of how lonely we really are. It is a fascinating paradox of our times, I think, that even as technology facilitates ever quicker and niftier connections, we become increasingly alienated - a short recent New Yorker article captures this dilemma nicely. If we want to overcome this state of affairs, I'm afraid we can't just wait for technology to provide the answers: we have some serious tunnel-digging of our own to do - and more than that, we may have to follow some of those tunnels to wherever they might lead....

1 comment:

LSL said...

Matt- I have so much to say about the topic(s) you are contemplating... let's see... I used to think that books that weren't classics were books that were terrible, and not worth reading. Not just for me, but for the whole population! I completely believed that everyone should be walking around reading Faulkner, Austen, Aristotle, and Homer. Then I realized that just because I thought these books were so sublime, does not mean that other people can handle these so-called 'heavy reading' books as well. In that respect, perhaps many of the people out in the world can only be reached by more "accessible" literature like the "Da Vinci Code" for example. That is the format in which they can more easily explore the truths found in novels. And while that truth may not be a great amount in comparison with the works of James Joyce, at least these novels do touch upon some very great issues in that which is human existence.

Also, I like hearing your thoughts on memory; I have been realizing some things along those lines as well. Of course Umberto Eco's new book (Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) deals with the same sort of premise as N. Krauss's book: the loss of specific memories that cannot be retrieved, yet are supposedly very dear to the protagonist...