Wednesday, December 21, 2016


My disappointment with literature is often related to its inaccuracies, which, depending on how you define art, may or may not be permissible. As I see it, fiction may distort reality in order to create certain effects or emphasize some aspect of life, but I begin to find it unsatisfactory whenever it strays too far from the truth. Problems become apparent to me when an author doesn't seem to understand people and produces inadequate representations of them. Thus, a writer such as Krasznahorkai, whose characters are ordinary and are not idealized, doesn't readily get himself into trouble with the kinds of distortions that annoy me. He has made his task somewhat easier by avoiding the sophisticated characters who often show up in fiction. I thought I would say something about how a poor understanding of human nature results in bad fiction.

As you may have gathered, I tend not to idealize people and prefer to think of them as complicated animals. In fact, they are so complicated that they confuse themselves about what they are, and this is why I try to resort to dispassionate observation when assessing anyone. Recently I have been thinking about what it means to be feral, whether you apply the term to cats or to people. In ordinary usage, a feral cat is one that did not become acclimated to humans during the window in its development that would have made it more trusting and less afraid of them. Biologically, both feral and domesticated cats are wild, and their behaviors overlap significantly, since the differences are superficial. I think a similar phenomenon occurs among humans who have had little exposure to other humans during a critical developmental period, and later, for example, have difficulty adjusting to social expectations. As in the case of cats, feral people would in most respects be the same as normally socialized people, but they would be socially dysfunctional in the absence of therapy. A feral cat might face certain disadvantages compared to a domesticated cat, such as a shorter lifespan, but in terms of its native catness it would not have lost anything. A feral person, in contrast, would fail to develop skills that he or she has been biologically adapted to develop, such as language and the ability to socialize, and this would be a significant loss.

Like Henry David Thoreau, I think that, at the extreme, social environments have the capacity to distort native humanity in ways comparable to the environmental distortions experienced by domesticated cats. Although we are an adaptive species, we are not adapted, for example, to automatically consider all humans to be the same as us. We are adapted to absorb the social norms in our immediate environment even when those norms have no basis in reality. When you grow up in an environment where everyone believes something that is incorrect, as an adult there may be nothing to prevent you from maintaining the same bad idea. To continue the cat analogy, it might be as if you were a cat whose owners thought that you shouldn't hunt because you were a house pet. In this instance the owners would be using an inappropriate paradigm and would be misunderstanding their cat. I think that an underlying cause of world conflict today is a clash of paradigms, many of which, if not all, were somewhat arbitrarily invented before the modern era by groups whose cultures formed independently.

What this means for literature is that if you live, say, in North America, and you are writing for and about college-educated, upper-middle-class people, you may have to make assumptions about your characters that imbue them with a belief system that would be unrecognizable in, say, China. Your characters may all have unknowingly adopted the social views that first formed under Christianity, were later shaped by the Enlightenment, and, in more recent years, stressed democratic values, capitalism and social equality. Far from recognizing the universal truth of these ideas, someone in China might well be baffled by them and would certainly not consider them self-evident. I run into problems with literature because I find that it is one thing to describe a peasant in his native environment while retaining a healthy skepticism about the merits of his worldview and another thing entirely to describe an upper-middle-class American in his native environment with no skepticism whatsoever about the merits of his worldview. When a writer writes about peasants, it is a given that they may be limited by their lack of education and hold erroneous beliefs, but the belief systems of the educated are rarely brought into question in literature. I noticed this while reading Proust, who is good at describing the details of bourgeois Parisian life but doesn't often question what I consider to be the stupidity of his characters, and he therefore seems to condone the petty social climbing that occupies most of their time. I thought there were glaring questions in Proust's fictional world that never came into consideration. Under an alternate view of literature, some may find Proust perfectly satisfactory, but in my view, literature isn't of much value if it doesn't have anything to say about the human condition, and that can't be done when an author becomes so entrenched with his subject that he or she is unable to think outside of the box inhabited by his or her characters. This isn't an easy thing to do, and perhaps fewer writers should attempt it.

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