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Against Sanctity

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This month on the Ark Review, taking inspiration from Mark Grief’s recent book “Against Everything”, we are going to try and write against everything. Collectively though, and one subject at a time. So really more like Against ________. As in, fill in the ________. Today, Toke Wichmann Larsen has some advice for those intimidated by all those big ol’ important books.

Literature’s not a holy text. To qualify that statement: literature, whether classic, modernist, experimental or asinine, does not know you left it next to your Hello Kitty!-poster or your box-set of Friends for years. Just like the text doesn’t know you wrote sarcastic comments in the margin or doodled a portrait of your professor in drag. Tear it down from its pedestal and you can start seeing the book for what it is: a human artifact with all the drawbacks and genius that entails. The advantage of this approach is that understanding literature as a fallible project permits you to let go of the anxiety and disappointment that sometimes occurs when you read an acclaimed literary work. Namely, the fear that if you’re not enjoying it, something’s wrong.

One of the most useful aspects of working against sanctity is that it peels away at the classical status. No one can escape history, but you can make sure that you don’t let a book decide what you think of it a prori. Remember, people dislike literature for reasons like “The number of temporal adjectives was stifling” or their unbearably long-winded narrative structure (I’m not pointing any fingers, Walter Scott, but footnotes?).

Yet the most common thought is probably: Why am I not enjoying this, it’s obviously a Great Literature™? Tadeusz Borowski’s short-stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen are seminal pieces of literature that interrogate and expose the complete wretchedness and ambivalence of being a Kapo in Auschwitz. It’s not going to leave you riveted or giggling away (with anything but the madness found in despair). But you don’t have to enjoy it, and you don’t have to like it, even if it is a classical work on Shoah experiences. Working against a text’s sanctity is to allow it to be unsettling or uncomfortable, the least of which is to allow yourself not to like it and be at rest with that feeling.

By extension, someone wrote that book, spent hours laboring over it, days, years, probably. They pored over it, put their heart and soul into its very words. But did they let their love for a phrase get them to damn their editor’s advice, or did they come up with a character arc that goes off a cliff? Probably, they’re human. You can respect an author’s immense abilities and still think they could’ve edited out that exposition or description of a woodland creature. Faulting them for including inane detail—like how the protagonist opens the fridge—opens the book up to a critical viewpoint you may not allow yourself to pursue if you hold on to the sanctity of the text as a completed whole.

Perhaps most efficiently, don’t be afraid to jot things down in the margin or in the middle of a paragraph. Be bolder: use a pen. Make fun of the authorial voice or paint a fat stache on their lofty authorial lips. The very physical process of putting your thoughts and ideas onto the page of the text that spurred them makes it a much more personal experience, rather than relying on the testimonies of lauded critics or famous authors elsewhere.

Part of that personal process can be to establish connections with the text, both intertextually and personally. If you approach it without prejudice and with a healthy dose of skepticism, you open the text up to further investigation from without typical boundaries. For instance, is there a really close resemblance between Darth Vader and the behavior of the antagonist? Or is the internal dialogue reminiscent of a particular impressionistic painting you glimpsed on a family vacation in France? No one says you must use this for anything but your own benefit. Keep it interesting. Even more so, the text may resonate with events in your own life. Does the absent father figure remind you of your father? Better keep reading to see if he at least comes back. Does the protagonist remind you of yourself? Maybe s/he won’t become depressed.

Finally, make of it what you will. Literature can compel and inspire great ideas and thoughts, vast trajectories of academic work or your own writing, but you can finish a book, close it, sit back with a conceived sigh, strike a thoughtful pose and come no further than “Huh”. But it doesn’t have to be a revelation: it’s just a text.

Cover image from Semiotic Apocalypse.

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