January 16, 2011

One of my favorite passages about reading is from Saul Bellow’s short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness.” In the story, Zetland, a brilliant young philosophy student with a fellowship at Columbia, is sick and bedridden. He asks his wife to hand him Moby Dick, and

“After reading a few pages he knew that he would never be a Ph.D in philosophy. The sea came into his inland, Lake Michigan his soul, he told me. Oceanic cold was just the thing for his fever. He felt polluted, but he read about purity. He had reached a bad stage of limited selfhood, disaffection, unwillingness to be; he was sick; he wanted out. Then he read this dazzling book. It rushed over him. He thought he would drown. But instead, he floated.”

Earlier I wrote a post about the difficult kind of reader’s empathy, the kind that weighs a reader down and darkens a good mood. But Zetland has the opposite experience: he is overwhelmed, consumed even, by the beauty of Melville’s story. Is it escapism?

I have floated before… reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes or G.K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday… But I didn’t feel like I was escaping into a fantasy world as much as glimpsing into a world that sometimes seemed truer to me than reality. I was not living vicariously through the narrators of these stories merely for the thrill of it: they were teaching me, reminding me.

Last year, I attended a lecture on Plato’s Timaeus a few weeks after I had read the work. The Timaeus dialogue was the most difficult work I read all semester, and though I only understood bits and pieces of it, I distinctly remember our lecturer explaining Socrates’ view on poetry. Socrates believed that true poetry* was a shadow of the Form world**, not the world we live in. And since our world is also only a shadow of the Form world, then true poetry is just as true as what we call “reality.” In other words, Narnia is as real a place as Chicago.

(Interestingly, many scholars have emphasized the idea of shadows within the Bible, particularly the book of Hebrews: the sanctuary is “but a shadow of what is in heaven” [Hebrews 8:5], or the law is “only a shadow of the good things that are coming” [Hebrews 10:1].)

After finishing Moby Dick, Zetland tells his wife that he no longer wants to study philosophy and must leave Columbia. She is confused by his hasty enthusiasm, and he explains himself:

“Oh, Lottie, it’s a miracle, that book. It takes you out of this human world… It gives you elemental liberty. What really frees you from these insulating social and psychological fictions is the other fiction, of art. There really is no human life without this poetry. Ah, Lottie, I’ve been starving on symbolic logic.”

Zetland’s statements are complex, but it is clear these are the words of a man who has discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) the power of story to nourish, to remind him of the life he had forgotten somewhere along the way to getting his Ph.D. What a beautiful moment.

*Socrates’ criteria for “true” poetry is much different from most people’s—he calls Homer and his contemporaries “enemies of the truth,” and thinks their work harmful.

**Socrates asserted that our souls resided with the Forms before we were born. There, the most fundamental realities exist; everything we see on Earth merely mimics the Forms. For example, anything we call “beautiful” is really just a reflection, or shadow, of the form of Beauty.