Tag Archives: English literature

Immortality – Mortally Stupid

I’ve been silent here for a few months for two reasons. One is that I’ve been struggling to find something to say. The other, that I was too busy enjoying the sunshine enjoyed by the otherwise rain-sodden isles I live in this summer. I’ll leave it to you to decide which factor was overwhelmingly dominant. Either way, I’m back at university – thrust back to thinking ‘intellectually’ if that is at all possible. What follows was sparked off by a lecture on Joyce.

I’ve put (into Ulysses) so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

(Joyce, Ulysses Annotated).

Joyce is right, professors will be busy for centuries over what he meant, but not that he’s ensured his own immortality. I’m not going to leap in and say everything we do, ultimately turns to dust. That’s a given, and an easy way out. That argument takes time in its entirety, it doesn’t recognise a span of time, just that it will happen in the vastness of time.

The flaw with Joyce’s idea here, is that he can hope to achieve literary immortality. When it comes to reading, there have been plenty of shifts in thinking that deny Joyce his immortality, but the main one is a change in the way we should read a text. Instead of trying to think what the author meant, we read the text purely as a text. It’s reader response, and personally, it’s a great recognition in literary and academic circles that what the reader thinks, and interprets, is important.

But Joyce has some sense of immortality. We’re talking about him. There’s no smoke without fire – and there is smoke here, but I’d say it’s more smoke and mirrors than a blazing pyre.

We’re complex,

Let’s consider death differently. It’s change epitomised. The ultimate change, the transition from life, a sea of constant changes, to death; a change that is such a paradigm that there is no change for those that experience it. Each present moment passes one after the other. Each moment is a passing; a death. I am not the same person, if you want to be really technical, as I was when I wrote the previous sentence. I’m not the same person I was yesterday. Stasis, in that sense, is impossible. Thus, since mortality is change, immortality is stasis. And that isn’t possible. Of course, we don’t change radically from day to day, but it accumulates. We’re not the same person we were ten years ago. Things have changed, we have changed. So how is it possible to preserve some immortality, when change isolates it?

Dreaming of immortality is ultimately, so stupid, because it ignores a clear lexical message. The word itself gives you the clue. Mortality cannot become immortality. Really, I think the ancient Greeks got it right. In classical mythology, Achilles chose to die and become immortal through kleos instead of returning home; nostos. Kleos is not immortality or living forever; it is simply to have great renown, enough that people still speak of him. What survives is the Kleos of Achilles, not Achilles himself. Regardless, Achilles is now a shade anyway. So when Joyce speaks of his immortality, his boast that scholars would be still trying to figure out what he meant, I’d say that’s more Kleos too than actual immortality. We’re not going and seeing a living Joyce when we read his works, or debate ‘him’ critically. We’re talking about something detached from the actual person that lived. What has survived so far to us is the work, not the author. Joyce hasn’t achieved that immortality. He just has renown.

Challenge ‘Literature’ – Write in the Margin

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I think you can learn as a writer isn’t one of technique, or how to come up with ideas. It’s something more subtle, but it affects how you approach writing, and how you feel about it.

Chances are, if you are a writer, or reading this, you love books. For some reason or another, you love books. Bound in leather, paperback or hardback, perhaps even an ebook. You have an appreciation for the written word. The worst thing then, is to be in awe of it. I’ll explain.

I’m a writer, and studying English Literature. I scribble in the books I read. I underline things. I write in the margins, and make notes inside the text itself. Other students give me strange looks. They don’t want to make a mark in the books. Some wish to sell the books on once they’re done. Others, for lack of a better word, think it’s sacrilegious. If you respect a book, if you love literature, you revere it by keeping it free of marks. You don’t write in it, you don’t bend the spine back, you don’t fold pages back. You try and keep it pristine.

However, I think this only creates a barrier between you and books. You can end up making the written word become something sacred. And as such, you unconsciously see it as something untouchable, and unobtainable because you won’t mark a book. Scribbling in margins de-privileges literature. Instead of having a work and solely bears the author’s words, you place your own voice in it. You end up demonstrating that your voice has a place in the bound text, that you have an legitimate right to comment upon it. It is no longer untouchable.

This is important when most fears about writing centre around your writing not being up to par, that your writing is not worth reading.  Writing in a published book breaks down the barrier, the idea that what’s in print cannot be challenged, and what isn’t in print is worth nothing. It challenges your thoughts about literature. It’s no longer authoritative. What’s bound doesn’t dictate how literature can be. You’re free to challenge it.

Literature and Science

One of the strange things about being a writer is that you become sucked into having a stance upon scientific endeavour, and its relationship with literature. As far back as primary school, you’d become aware of the tension between these two schools of thought and be forced to pick a side. Yes, it’s the typical Literature versus Science debate. What I find amusing, frankly, about this argument is that firstly there is no need for there to be an argument, and secondly, that scientific endeavour has a great habit of exposing people’s insecurities about their own paths. This whole topic I’ve found is brought up more by writers, English Literature students and other affiliated parties than those with a grounding in or an actual career in scientific fields. That tells you something in itself.

As a writer, I’ve got the worst history I think you could possibly get. Instead of starting writing early and being fascinated with stories, I actually spent most of my childhood interested solely in science. In school my best marks where always in the sciences, I always enjoyed doing science, and I hated doing English and creative writing. Ironically, I simply couldn’t write creatively and at that point I was convinced I wanted to do something in the sciences for a job. Now things are totally the flip side – I’m studying English Literature at university and I spend my time writing. I fit the mould for being a writer better now yet the thing is, I’ve sat on both sides of the camp for this topic. Quite honestly, this whole issue is a laugh for me because it’s not an issue at all.

In several of my lectures so far, I’ve been bombarded with a bit of literature propaganda as I’d like to coin it. I’ve had Shelly’s quote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” repeated more times than I care for (even though that number is one – its such a vain quote) and lectures dealing with the issues of scientific enquiry, each with the veiled implication that literature isn’t pointless. What strikes me about the tone of these lectures is the implicit self-justification, the underlying tone that seeks to reassure both the speaker and the vested interested of the students listening. The message varies, but the overall trend is the same, that literature has a point in the face of science.

What’s interesting is how the perception for such arguments is that science is hostile to all other modes of thought, that it is trying to prove all other schools of thought wrong. That’s an entirely unjust categorisation. The goal of science is to learn the truth about things (a huge generalisation), but the crucial distinction to make is that it seeks to understand and arrive at what can be proved as truth. Thus, it only deals in the physical and the material. Issues of belief and thought are not it’s concern, because no test can be determined to prove a thought true. Therefore, it is not out to prove other modes of thought wrong. Ironically, those knowing in the operation of language should be savy to this distinction. In scientific enquiry, it is determined that a theory can be tested and by confirmation of test results, proved to be correct beyond reasonable doubt. It therefore operates in the psychical world, not the world of ideas. A great example would be that science is not out to prove religion is false, because there is no test that can be devised to prove the existence of deities. The conclusion is that science is a way of determining the properties of the physical world, but it is not in the same realm as philosophy, art or literature. Philosophy deals with thoughts, mostly questions of why. Art and literature cross into philosophy, but they’re also about aesthetic pleasure. Studying English is simply learning a mode of analysis and thinking – just with a different subject matter.

In the end, it becomes clear that Literature and Science are on two obviously different paths, aims and fields. They could not be more different, and thus more separate. One cannot transgress and try to disprove the other because they have no overlapping currencies. This means that yes, arguing that one field is more important than the other is irrelevant. What it only reveals, as I said in the introduction, are the insecurities of individuals. Science can determine what cake is, while language explains what cake is. One is about what it is, the other is about what it means. Both however at first deal with what it is, and it’s the small distinction in what “is” or “being” can mean that you must remember.