Wednesday, April 22, 2015

George Eliot, Self-Centeredness and Fiction

Not too long ago I received an email from an acquaintance who, knowing I'd written a novel, and perhaps as an apology for being uninterested in reading it, said that he and his wife didn't read novels anymore as such reading material was incompatible with their spiritual journeys.

It may be that this man believed that novels are just entertainment. He may have been one of the many serious people I have met who believe that “truth” means facts and therefore only comes in nonfiction form. But even though my own definition of truth obviously differs from this, I myself have some doubts about the novel as a means of delving into the deeper truths of who or what we are.

Some define a spiritual novel as one about spiritual topics. But maybe it's more a matter of what the underlying assumptions are. In most novels, literary or not, we follow one or more characters over a fictive period of time. Does this not reinforce the idea that the stories we each tell ourselves about our own lives are true? Do we not believe that, like the characters of whose lives we read, we have a true history that reveals what we essentially are?

Perhaps, then, a spiritual novel is not so much about spiritual topics as about challenging this belief in a fictive self as representing a fundamental truth about being human. I've been reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, an unclassifiable book that is part criticism, part biography, and part autobiography. Mead quotes George Eliot as saying, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” (p. 158, quoting from an essay by Eliot entitled, “The Natural History of German Life”).

Mead goes on to show how this attitude is exemplified in Middlemarch: “This notion – that we each have our own center of gravity but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do – is one that is constantly repeated in the book. The necessity of growing out of such self-centeredness is the theme of Middlemarch. In one of the most memorable editorial asides in the novel, Eliot elaborates upon this idea of how necessary it is to expand one's sympathies: 'We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves,' she writes.”

This sounds suspiciously like a Buddhist teacher lecturing her students on the inter-connectedness of all beings.

Those who are really serious about spiritual awakening or enlightenment – especially those who have had a glimpse or more of it – might say that the self-centeredness into which we are all born only disappears when we realize “no self,” and that it is not something that can even be approximated by identifying sympathetically with others. Nonetheless, surely it is worth something to be able to glimpse what the world might look like if we all really knew in our guts what we know in our minds: that our own perspective is only one of a multitude of perspectives – that each and every being on the planet comes from a center known as a “self” and that each of these perspectives is equally, relatively speaking, valid.