Monday, June 19, 2006

Pens, paper, religion

So I was commutting to work today and reading Mishima's Thirst for Love and thinking that it was really an astoundingly wonderful book. A rich, living, vibrant novel. I think of my brain as increasingly inert, but this book, which I've read at least twice before, animates it.

I find nature beautiful and many paintings beautiful, but nothing makes me feel whole the way a well-written novel does. I'm reminded of one the aspect of the world I most value, which is the existence of things-in-themselves (apologies if this sounds philosophical or if I'm abusing a philosophical concept). This is why I love trees. They are such strange and absorbing things when you clean out all the language in your mind and let them expose their nature to you, through your eyes. What pleases me about this is that there's nothing transcendent about that perception. When I encounter something artificed in this sort of frame of mind and it manages to be--perhaps its an illusion, perhapse not--as strange and unique as a tree or a city or a mountain or water, I'm filled with a white light of joy. The feeling is never so strong as it is with novels. I think that's because novels are so quotidian. They encourage us to pour out our sense of the ordinary, of unvarnished, prosaic reality, in a way that poetry, or music, which are much more about their own form, do not. This impulse to catalogue the banal is a burden, I think, to many novelists, but when it works, when something important and true, but nonetheless ordinary, is represented in a novel in a convincing fashion, there's a powerful thrill to it.

And this is what I felt on the train this morning. As I was feeling it, I glanced over to my left and there was a man, maybe in his late thirties, scribbling away in a small notebook. He had almost used the thing up. His notebook rested on another book, which was sitting in his lap.

He's obviously a serious writer, I thought. Funny that there would be two of us on the same train so devoted to consuming texts and making new ones.

I went back to Thirst for Love. When we reached my stop, I looked over at the man and saw that the book he had been responding to in his notes was some version of the bible.

My opinion changed. He was now, to me, a totemist, a babbler, somebody hysterically pouring himself into communion with something whose meaning is ultimately sterile, somebody speaking in tongues, but on a page, with a pen.

Of course, it occurred to me that our textual impulses, his to commune with a religious text, mine to feel more real and alive by crafting something sharp and seamless out of the flotsam of my existence, were perhaps the same thing at bottom. The objects with which we had chosen to fullfil our impulses might have been different, but the difference was arbitrary. Anything will make you rapturous if you believe it should.

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