Thursday, February 28, 2013

Toward an Enlightened Aesthetic 2: Fact vs. Fiction

Ask writers of literary novels -- as opposed to genre fiction or potboilers -- whether fiction is "truer" than nonfiction and they will inevitably say yes.  Granted, what "truer" means might differ from writer to writer.  For some, it means that serious fiction portrays emotional truth in a way that non-fiction cannot.  Others might maintain that fiction presents truths about life and death through the stories it tells.  While non-fiction tells specific truths based on specific facts, fiction portrays universal truths.

But if fiction does all this, why, then, is it losing popularity in contemporary culture?  Many people -- some of them very intelligent --think of fiction as a way to escape, not as a way to learn about themselves, others, and life itself.

This has to do, I think, with the literal nature of contemporary thought.  We want to see facts and figures: these are the "truths" we can trust.  Many educated people think they are wasting time when they read fiction.  "Maybe when I retire I'll have time for that," they think.

Spiritual awakening does away with literalness because one understands once and for all that language -- both natural and symbolic -- is just invented by the mind.  And then the time comes to look for deeper meaning, beyond language.  That is where art, including fiction, makes its contribution.

Good art gives us the sense of the essence of life:  What are we doing here?  What is life really about?  What do we really crave?   What causes us to become this or that kind of person?  And we learn compassion, for ourselves and for others.  We glimpse a world in which we are not really separate from others -- we know our oneness because we recognize ourselves in the characters we read about who have very different lives from ourselves. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Toward an Enlighted Aesthetic

Enlightenment means realizing our nature as vastness, limitlessness, and, yes, emptiness.  Emptiness, I realize, has a bad name, but it is the source of all creativity.  When we move into the space where we are empty of our own egoistic concerns, our own ideas of right and wrong, our own cultural prejudices, we can find empathy with others who do not share our perspective.  Good fiction and poetry can do this for us, but first, the creators of such work have to come from that place themselves. This is why truly great literature is, by definition, spiritual. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Fiction and Unconditional Love

"The nonfiction writer has to express the spiritual message in a structure and style that satisfies the demands of artistic integrity while the fiction writer struggles to enfold a nonintrusive  message within a believable narrative." 1

Really?  Is this what a fiction writer does?  Not the best ones, anyway.  And maybe that is why, even though I help edit the Buddhist Fiction Blog, I wonder about whether a work of fiction can or should teach Buddhism, Christianity, or any other "ism," however "nonintrusive" the message aims to be.   

When I think about really good literature, it taps that in me which understands what it is to be human.  It taps the universal love we all share by making us feel that the characters are like us -- even though, if we met them on the street, we might want to walk the other way.  But with a good book in hand, we can suspend our needs for safety and status and allow ourselves to empathize:  even if we are in a loving relationship, we can know how it is to love in a hopeless way; even if we have never been to war, we can know how a soldier might feel; even if we have never been hungry, we can know how that man who hasn't had a decent meal in a month might be suffering.  And we can also know joys we have never experienced.

But the total is more than the sum of its parts.  We can know all of this because we tap into the unconditional love we all, at bottom, are.  A novelist helps us to understand the message of Christ or the message of Buddha by giving us the experience they point to -- an experience for which religious "messages" are a poor substitute.

1 Philip Yancey, in Introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing 2012, ed. by Philip Zaleski.