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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, June 16, 2008

surprise!

In my last post I raised the topic of what the experience of literature, the experience of reading, actually is. To the extent that we read for pleasure or at least on our own initiative, we must feel we're having a positive experience from it, maybe several positive experiences. Can these be identified?

At some basic level I sense the interplay here of the Familiar and the Strange. Words, in order to communicate, must be familiar--we have to know them. But in order for them to tell us something new, something we didn't know before, they must, in their combination, present us with something strange: a new idea. There is something mysterious about this ability to combine familiar things in new ways to present us with things that are not only strange and new but also relevant and illuminating. The source of the power of literature lies somewhere here.

I think about something I read in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, something that he mentions in passing: that in Shakespeare we find, for the first time, the phenomenon of the character discovering new things about himself in the course of a monologue. We watch a character following a train of thought and coming to novel insights about himself and his world. As I recall, Bloom was saying that the character discovers or forms himself through this process. It's like the old saying, "tell me something I don't know", but applied to ourselves: I tell myself something I didn't know.

Thus the basic experience of literature, the fundamental emotion, if you like, associated with reading, is surprise. My Webster's gives this as sense 3 of the verb surprise:

to strike with wonder and amazement esp. because unexpected

All right, so surprise itself is not the emotion, but rather the trigger for the emotions of wonder and amazement.

Here I'm using wonder and amazement as general terms that have degrees of intensity. I'm referring to our reaction to novelty of all kinds. Novelty attracts our attention and sparks our interest; it engages us. I think about Paul Holinger's assertion in his book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: that we are born with nine forms of emotional expression hardwired in us. Three of these he calls "signals of fun": interest, enjoyment, and surprise. (The other six he calls "signals for help": distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and "dissmell".) I'm saying that a properly functioning literary experience evokes surprise in us, leading on to interest and enjoyment. We may not gasp and gurgle and raise our eyebrows as we did when we were newborns, having learned to internalize our feelings and not let on so transparently. But nonetheless the impulses to do those things are still there, and, I say, can and should be triggered by reading.

Friends, there you have it. The experience of literature is (potentially) the gateway to the full suite of all our positive feelings. What more could one ask?

Back to creating mine...


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