July 08, 2011

Literature is a social defense mechanism

Can you remember when you first started to read? Doubtless you thought that some day you would find in books the truth, the answer to the very puzzling life you were discovering around you. But you never did. If you were alert, you discovered that books were conventions, as unlike life as a game of chess. The written word is a sieve. Only so much of reality gets through as fits the size and shape of the screen, and in some ways that is never enough. This is only partly due to the necessary conventions of speech, writing, communication generally. Partly it is due to the structure of language. With us, in our Western European civilization, this takes the form of Indo-European grammar crystallized in what we call Aristotelian logic. But most of the real difficulty of communication comes from social convention, from a vast conspiracy to agree to accept the world as something it really isn’t at all. Even the realistic novels of a writer like Zola are not much closer to the real thing than the documents written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are just a different, most complex distortion.

Literature is a social defense mechanism. Remember again when you were a child. You thought that some day you would grow up and find a world of real adults — the people who really made things run — and understood how and why things ran. People like the Martian aristocrats in science fiction. Your father and mother were pretty silly, and the other grownups were even worse — but somewhere, some day, you’d find the real grownups and possibly even be admitted to their ranks. Then, as the years went on, you learned, through more or less bitter experience, that there aren’t, and never have been, any such people, anywhere. Life is just a mess, full of tall children, grown stupider, less alert and resilient, and nobody knows what makes it go — as a whole, or any part of it. But nobody ever tells.

Kenneth Rexroth - The Reality of Henry Miller

From a Rexroth archive, including a good later piece that is [somewhat] more critical of the image Miller and his disciples created after fame and fortune hit.

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