09 March 2010

On Literature

Before I came to Oxford, I said I wasn't going to get a bicycle--at least not for a while. I had a few reasons, and in my humble opinion, they were all good ones. First, for personal safety reasons (and the safety of those around me), I thought it would be best to at least figure out where I was going before hopping on a bike. Poor/rusty bike skills plus trying to navigate in a new place sounded like a recipe for disaster. (These are similar reasons to why I was only allowed to drive on certain routes when I first got my driver's license. I don't know if this indicates that I affirm the inherent wisdom of my parents' plan--I am still too stubborn for that--or that i have just been highly influenced by it.) Seconldy, I thought it would be difficult to take in my surroundings if I was blurring by on a bike. I knew there would be a lot to see here an figured that the best way to appreciate it would be to move at a slower speed between destinations. I was probably right. But the logic of these reasons was soon overpowered by my need for efficiency and time-management (Or, you could say, "my need for speed.") I polished my bike-skills by necessity (or more accurately "trial by fire") and was soon whizzing past ancient buildings, crumbling walls, and spire-filled towers. The breath-taking became familiar, and who can appreciate anything in frequent drizzles and rain storms, anyways?

Last week, I attended a presentation by the guy who lives across the hall from me. 40% of the presentation was in Welsh, which while lovely/strange-sounding, was, well "Welsh to me". I think the 40% that flew over my head (ok, here were lots of parts in English that flew over my head too) just sharpened my attention during the 60%--ok 20%--that I actually understood. At one point he started talking about literature and its value and purpose in society. My ears perked up because, ironically, despite a degree in English and a relatively strong background in the humanities, I find myself frequently asking, "What's the point?" Sure, I think art is a great form for personal expression and is aesthetically pleasing, but to me it is a hobby, not an academic pursuit or life's calling. Yes, I think literature is valuable, creates interesting discussion, and provides an opportunity for reflection, critical analysis, and connections to the world around us, but, if I were to be honest, I struggle to read fiction. Despite my enjoyment of it, I struggle because there is so much non-fiction tob e read. Despite my enjoyment of it--or maybe because of it, I feel guilty getting absorbed into the other-worldliness of fiction when i could be sharpening my knowledge or skills to impact this world.

But he talked about how "as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic", and that as we see things over and over again we stop seeing them at all. Thus, he argued, the role of literature and of art more broadly is "to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception"--essentially it is to make us see things anew.

I think he is right. I think he is right about literature, but maybe more importantly, I think he is right about an approach to life where we are able to continously "see things anew". A few times now, I have gone for a run, ended up at the gym, and then walked back to my house after a workout with nothing "to do" except listen to music and see. It has been amazing what I have seen anew when I have not been on a bike, motivated to get to point B as quickly as possible while constructing a mental list. (It is amazing what you can see when you don't have to have your head down to shield yourself from the rain or aren't blinking your eyes rapidly to keep out the hail, but that is another blog post). Today, on the slow walk back, I noticed crumbling cobblestone walls complemented by chimneys set sharply against a blue sky. I saw ivy growing out of aged colleges, ancient and modern buildings harmoniously juxtaposed, and an egg-shell sky cracing open to reveal a yoke of bright dusk-sunlight mirrored off of side-street coffee shops.

I need to get off my bike and "literature" my life more often. Maybe I'll even read a piece of fiction.

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