I would like to first thank the invitation to be a guest here at Mormon Mentality – I am unsure what led to my name being brought up, but I am flattered that it did. It was suggested to me to share some thoughts on art, aesthetics, or literature. I do not propose that I am an expert in such matters, just simply an opinionated observer with a passion for the subject. I hope my thoughts are coherent and interesting enough that I may be invited to guest post again in the future.
My pet area of concern, when it comes to literature, is the form we commonly call “the novel,” usually a long prose piece that narrates a fictional story. Simple enough. But over the years the novel has revealed slowly to my own experience to have greater possibilities that may not initially be brought to a reader’s mind. Usually, but not always, we turn to a novel to be entertained – in which there is nothing wrong with that perspective, but the novel has the capacity to do more than what some may expect.
These greater possibilities of the novel ask the question, “What can novels do that other forms of literature and books usually are limited in doing?” Basically to put it another way, why spend hours on end reading a made up story, when you could be reading something more practical, like the scriptures, self-help books, history, news articles, general authority addresses, or nutrition labels? I hope to approach this question and offer one out of many possible answers, however scant. And in doing so, I hope that how we approach novels will create a richer interaction between reader and novel.
First, let me tell you where I am coming from. When I sit down to read a novel, I hope that it will be an experience that will have a lasting affect on me – whether it is a classic, genre work, or post-modern text. I want to be entertained as well, but I always hope for the aesthetic experience that will tear away my staid perceptions and offer a greater view of life across this world.
Unfortunately, I have seen many friends who will only approach a novel if they know beforehand that it will “uphold” their belief system and reinforce their values. Or they will only read “safe” literature that is deemed only as “entertainment” for the sake of avoiding the very appearance of evil. This is actually quite reasonable, since most people don’t want to have their comfortable lives messed with. But comfort is not always the best thing.
So where does this bring us? I have lately been reading a new work of criticism on a theory of the novel by Milan Kundera called “The Curtain.” Kundera, the Czech-Franco writer of such classics as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” offers some fascinating insight in what the novel and novelist can accomplish in exploring the lives they write about, and what this means for the reader.
Kundera explores this question in regards to Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” which on its release was and still continues to be a controversial book. Flaubert does not “use” the story of Madame Bovary to present a morality lesson or focus on the “uplifting” parts of Bovary’s life. An early critic, Sainte-Beuve, said of the novel, “My objection to his book is that the good is too much absent.” Kundera says:
Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire. He does not write his novels to communicate his judgments to readers. He is after something completely different: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things” (60).
In developing this line of thought, Kundera continues on the next page about the “exclusive” doorway that the novel accedes to that is different from a musician or poet. One of the purposes of the novel, among several, he describes:
. . . the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral; thus “getting into the soul of things” and setting a good example are two different and irreconcilable purposes (61).
You may already be thinking, I am supposed to just lay back and accept “unsafe” literature for a Sunday afternoon? Are we only to read about the terrible and bad things that go in the world? Can’t I just read something that will make me feel better? You can, for there are plenty of books that do just that, but you may be relinquishing your power as a reader to engage in the questions and issues that a novel can explore. From Kundera:
To emphasize: novelistic thinking, as Broch and Musil brought it into the aesthetic of the modern novel, has nothing to do with the thinking of a scientist or a philosopher; I would even say it is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does no proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs, its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful; and mainly it never leave the magic circle of its characters’ lives; those lives feed it and justify it (70-71).
What Kundera is getting at here is that an author’s focus should be to illuminate existence, to get at the soul of things. It is not the author’s job to teach lessons, give good examples, or tell us what to think. That is the job of Sunday School teachers, sacrament meeting talks, and General Authority books. What novels can do is explore and plumb the knowledge of people and experience, in which it then becomes the reader’s job to engage with the story and make their own judgments and conclusions, after “living with” the characters of a novel.
After you have experienced great characters from a novel, you begin to understand the complexity of human life and how choices and fate are sometimes not what they seem from the outside looking in. It becomes easy to judge people in our daily lives and the choices they have made, but the novel offers a way to experience, perhaps only intellectually, what it means to be someone that is different from you.