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Reading and the meaning in life

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Our sphere of the real was riddled with simulations, yet was the world at hand. Or the simulation was riddled through with the real. […] The world was ersatz and actual, forged and faked, by ourselves and unseen others. Daring to attempt to absolutely sort fake from real was a folly that would call down tigers or hiccups to cure us of our recklessness. The effort was doomed, for it too much pointed past the intimate boundaries of our necessary fictions, the West Side Highway of the self, to shattering encounters with the wider real: bears on floes, the indifference and silence of the climate or of outer space.

– Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City

A recurrent pattern in our approach to the world is the search for meaning, which definitely sounds like a trivial observation but one I hope to show doesn’t have to be. Let me just also right away promise that the point of the following article will be nothing as crude as a correlation between the meaningful life and the life of a reader, nor will it argue that since meaning is subjective and the objective search for it thus inevitably doomed, we might as well spend our time reading books, as that is as meaningful as anything else. Nor will it even suggest that a certain kind of almost gleeful meaning can be found in spending time on exactly what contemporary neoliberal society deems useless. What I wanted to suggest with this ambitious-sounding title is not a causal link between reading and meaning, but rather a thematic one, and if you’ll be so kind as to follow me just a little further into the article I promise all will be made clearer.

In one sense of the word fiction is a radically different mode than reality, existing on a diametrically opposite set of premises. Approached from another angle, however, reality and fiction appear remarkably interwoven

As Anton Chekhov argued with the rifle above the mantelpiece, everything that you put in a story needs to have a purpose, which is to say meaning. In literary fiction everything that happens should serve a greater purpose linked, somehow, to what the book is trying to achieve. This means that when a character goes through shit you can rest assured that she is being put through it for the sake of the story. When you go through shit it’s just pretty shitty, is how it feels.

So meaning would appear to be inherent in fictional universes like it isn’t in our own.

But this is probably not a fair representation of the situation, as this difference might better be explained in terms of the relationship between narrator and reader. In fiction character, narrator and author are theoretically, if not practically, distinct as seen from the vantage point of the reader, while in life protagonist and narrator coincide and the author is absent. Expecting the same degree of meaning-saturation from life as there is in fiction could, from this perspective, be seen simply as a failure to properly distinguish between these levels. In other words, meaning is apparent from the point of view of the reader and not from the point of view of the character, and so the difference is not the fictional character of the universe but the vantage point from outside it. The absolute meaning of fictional worlds flows vertically from the reader, not horizontally among its characters. Perhaps the meaninglessness of our own is due to a similar lack of horizontal distribution; meaning is not discernible, or at least not ultimately confirmable, from inside first-person existence which is potentially problematic as we tend to talk about meaning from a third-person view.

We’ve now managed to reason ourselves into alignment with a good portion of the world’s religions. Here we have fictional worlds sort of floating on a parallel axis just below our own, similar to our world’s position relative to that of God, or some branch of the divine, plodding along up above ours somewhere. Meaning, in this metaphor, trickles intuitively from high to low. So far so good, but let’s maybe not set up camp here for too long. I will also remind you of my promise to not claim that reading is a way to find meaning in this otherwise meaningless existence.

Continuing on from here the path winds through a recent favorite reading experience of mine, that of Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Slight spoilers ahead.

maninhighcastle1The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate universe in which the Axis powers won WW2 and Germany has assumed title of world leader in much the same way USA did in our own post-war timeline. The Man referred to in the title is an author in the book who has written a novel detailing an alternate timeline in which the allied forces won WW2. The man is seen as a subversive by the German government and is actively sought for ‘interrogation’, hence his need for a High Castle in which to hide. Throughout the novel is littered a number of similarities between Dick and this man, most obviously of course the fact that both have written a book about a world in which WW2 ended differently.

In the final confrontation between protagonist and the man in the high castle, Dick weaves his own presence into the universe, stopping just short of overt meta-commentary. In a conversation with the protagonist, whom he seems almost disinterested in, the man in the high castle nonchalantly suggests that their world could be fictional. By casually remarking on the possible fictionality of his world the author, uncannily mimicking the voice of Dick, gains agency; the fact that he knows that he could be made up is a weighty argument that he isn’t. At this point it’s hard to tell whether it’s himself or his fictional character talking, and whether it is directed at the protagonist or at you, the reader. But Dick’s meddling in his story is handled with an adept sleight of hand that, rather than emphasizing the fictional character of his story, ends up merging all three realities—our own, the book’s and the book within the book’s—collapsing the three universes formally babushka-stacked one within the other into a single intertwined entity. It was as if fictionality rippled outwards from the book, enveloping me and everything else around and completely co-opting my role as reader. Like the kid pointing out the king’s lack of clothing, the author points his finger out at the reader and exclaims: “hang on, he’s got nothing on!” With that, what just a second ago seemed an unquestionable fact of reality is suddenly revealed to be an incredible act of self-deceit. It didn’t take long for reality to crash back down, but for a brief moment I felt distinctly made up.

Dick pushes his reader from the vantage point outside of the book, plunging her into fiction, dizzyingly blurring the lines between life and fiction. If you think of fiction and reality as completely separate you severely limit the vocabulary with which you can talk about this kind of experience, and so I think based on the way we interact with fiction that we need to conceive of the two as more connected than that.

Reading fiction allows an expansion of your repertoire of imaginable shapes for reality; it isn’t escapism, then, but exercise in noticing your own stories, reminder that you too are firmly lodged in narrative.

Ben Lerner, in his book Leaving Atocha Station, has a recurring theme of what the real or authentic is as opposed to the fake and inauthentic. In the book he recounts a conversation he has with a friend who’s out traveling with his girlfriend. Together they witness an accident that results in the tragic death of a young woman. Talking about about it with Lerner’s protagonist, the friend notes with obvious distaste the way his girlfriend deals with the experience; she seems almost excited about it, claiming it was the first ‘real’ thing she experienced on their entire trip. Her reaction clearly unsettles her boyfriend, as he feels it somehow cheapens a very real tragedy by turning it into something she can use.

23benlerner-videosixteenbynine1050Following this conversation Lerner goes on to ponder what a real experience, an event, is, and how we tend to string our lives together from series of them. Throughout the book he deals with the concept of events as those experiences we single out over others, and how they easily end up being the lens through which we see our life. Life is also what happens in between, but we are so primed by our constant exposure to Hollywoodesque narratives that emphasize the importance of events, that we’ve begun to look for the same eventfulness in our own life. When the friend’s girlfriend feels that this death is an event that affected her, she transmutes the death of the woman into anecdotal material in her own life story, much in the way a character in a story would be importantly shaped by the various traumas she experiences. And it’s as if we can sort of sense Checkhov’s spectre floating around in the background here, eyebrow raised as if appraising a short story not to his liking; “don’t put anything in here that doesn’t have a purpose”. Except this is life, not fiction (except, yes, this is actually fiction but you know what I mean) and so her attempt at extracting meaning from the death comes off as the reaction of child, too long spoiled by authors spoon-feeding her meaning. A fun twist of this story is revealed when the boyfriend, angered by his girlfriend’s reaction, caustically remarks that the death would probably make “good material for her novel”; fun because it implies that she is repurposing the woman’s death, the ultimate proof of life’s lack of meaning, into material for fiction in which meaning is assured.

We know from experience that of course we are as much a product of all the periods unmarked by events as of the events themselves, but Lerner’s point is that this is easily overlooked due to the workings of human memory and our sense of self: we narrate. And narration is, per definition, about prioritizing some information over other; we are finite beings incapable of containing the infinities of information available in the universe. So we sort, sift and select only specific parts of it to deal with, to remember, to talk about, to write about.

In one sense of the word fiction is a radically different mode than reality, existing on a diametrically opposite set of premises. Approached from another angle, however, reality and fiction appear remarkably interwoven. That human reality is continuously crafted is a fact that is rarely keenly felt. The entire point of reality is that it feels like the most real, the least fabricated thing there is the vast majority of the time. So how are we to think of the way fiction seems to have infiltrated reality? Far be it for me to challenge the robustness of reality – but what if we do the opposite? Maybe we bolster the ways we think of narrative and fiction by lending them some of reality’s punch. We humans use narrative to interact with the world, to whip it into something coherent and comprehensible, so maybe fiction doesn’t undermine reality as much as it co-constitute it.

Reading fiction allows an expansion of your repertoire of imaginable shapes for reality; it isn’t escapism, then, but exercise in noticing your own stories, reminder that you too are firmly lodged in narrative. My experience with The Man In The High Castle was a very direct collision between fiction and reality, and while most literature tries to avoid such overt clashes, I think something similar happens in all interactions with other’s stories.

Art by Jeff Drew
Art by Jeff Drew

It’s easy to compare life to that of the characters’ in books, but rather than discard the ensuing potential disappointments as the simple misunderstandings of a spoiled mind, I think it makes sense to see them as a not entirely illogical consequence of the way we find and establish meaning in our own life.

In stories the world comes pre-sorted by an author, all information having already been reviewed and deemed, in some way or other, useful, but this is not so different from how we experience reality. The very shape of consciousness is narration; sense-impressions and thoughts are picked, sorted and experienced linearly, the now brushing over one thing to the next in much the same way your attention moves across a page in a book. In between selves flow words with which we forge common worlds, external reference and basis for any mutual understanding. Outside of the now we store memories in story format and it is through constant juxtaposition of these that we narrate coherent selves and a consistent world to inhabit.

Reading is locking Reality alone in a room with Fiction for the duration of the book, and I find that when I reemerge, stumbling on legs weak from inactivity, eyes squinting against the light, both concepts have been, in some way, changed.

Somewhat sceptical of short biographical texts but has always wanted one of those snassy black-and-white author photos, complete with piercing gaze and turtleneck, that often accompany them. He is made up almost entirely of the people around him so if you’re that interested maybe you should go read their short biographical texts for a change.

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