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. 

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