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The Joy of Literature

Reading is a form of human adventure that removes us from our daily toil. Regardless of the objections of some misguided, malcontented souls who insist in ascribing an extrinsic, coerced purpose – often a social/political role to literature – the heart and soul, the raison d'être of literature continues to be a form of human amusement.

Man is a storyteller.

Ironically, because we are capable of telling stories, we frequently find ourselves doing so about situations that remove us from what is too often our top-heavy human predicament. This is a good thing.

A sincere, free-spirited search for understanding always culminates in the conviction that truth is a fundamental tool of human existence. Ortega y Gasset is correct in his assessment that knowledge is only one of many tools that we embrace in order to live and prosper in the world as dignified persons.

Consider William Wordsworth’s wisdom in his majestic poem “The World is Too Much with Us,” where he beckons the reader to divest our vital, mortal energy from the trappings of the world:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Absent from these lines of poetry is that now pathological call to utility that is such a staple of our time. If we tally the many hours that we devote to menial tasks - concerns that the great world of social/political organization deems important - we might come to regret the number of frivolous hours that we waste away in our lifetime in the pursuit and management of pointless tasks. We ought not to forget that our time is limited.

Stated in simple terms, Wordsworth’s poem is a reflection on leisure, on the glory and curse that is the passage of time, and our handling of the latter. For, what joy is there in discovering the meaning and purpose of our lives when we are old? That belated realization seems a fool’s game. This is one sure road to regret. doesn’t it?

Literature satiates our mind and soul with everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Literature also helps close the gap that informs these seemingly opposing poles. Isn’t this what we learn from Aesop’s Fables?

We should not be afraid to embrace the ridiculous from time to time. In doing so, we learn to laugh in the face of all those forces that we cannot comprehend or control. The road to humility is often paved with a discriminating hubris and cultivated with laughther.

I remember being struck by Cabrera-Infante’s notion that literature is the only thing that he consistently places faith in, in our troubled and confused world. The Cuban writer admitted that there was no greater pleasure for him than that which he got from literature. Sincerity still goes a long way regardless of our current penchant for pretense and phoniness.

Cabrera-Infante’s Delito por bailar el chachachá is a fine example of the heights that literature can achieve. Much has been written – by some seriously humor-depraved sourpusses – about the seriousness, often angst-ridden heaviness of literature. These are the same types who are intent on converting literature into social/political fodder.

It seems that twentieth century literature became drown by the excesses of this fashionable heaviness: Kafka, Brecht, Bernard Shaw and Pintor quickly come to mind as being kings of the very moral/spiritual sickness that affected many self-loathing intellectuals in that wretchedly violent chapter in human history.

Fortunately, for most writers, literature still remains a vocation with no face. The great hope of most sincere writers is to be heard without being seen. And, for those for whom this is not enough, there is the practice of veiling their identity with pseudo names, a nom de plume.

Cabrera-Infante’s Delito por bailar el chachachá is a raucous romp through some of the pretenses of intellectuals in the twentieth century. In fact, all his work achieves the end of being a spirited corrective to this totally corrosive disease of our age. The writer of this work takes the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Mark, along with all the hacks who relish intellectual violence, and turns their fallacious logic on its head.

Cabrera-Infante unmasks the dreadful, bread and circus, pseudo science farce of the aforementioned intellectuals by introducing no other than Groucho Marx and his brothers to his discussion of literary and social/political pretense in mid-century. Cabrera-Infante’s narrative is moved along by whimsical laughter. This is literature in its purest, most spontaneous form. His readers are refreshed, as if reading a possessed, late twentieth century Aristophanes.

Cabrera-Infante reminds us that literature is created and enjoyed by free men and women. And, as for those who must ascribe a social/political purpose to it…such wretched souls…well, they are quickly sent packing.

We can think of literature as being another form of appropriating joy, for as Sinatra sings, “let us be happy while we can.”

How can one not take delight in Albert Camus’s sensuous description of sunlight? His inspired sentences have no difficulty in making the reader visualize "blue umbrella skies," as this is reflected in the chalky and dusty streets of Oran. This sensual exuberance is no less than a celebration of life.

As vast as the Algerian sky, is Georges Simenon’s focus in crafting criminal motivation in the roman policier. The conception and execution of his novels is vigilant of the psychological backbone of twentieth century crime. What Chesterton’s Father Brown finds to be a spiritual malaise, Simenon encounters as the moral excesses of an insipid age.

Literature needs not apologize for making us laugh, cry, and cleanse us of our maladroit stupidity. Hubris in literature is always less devastating and costly than in life.

I imagine Ian Fleming still laughing, rollicking, as his worldly character - the venerable agent 007 - inspires the chevalier fancy of his readers. In the late 1960s, Kingsley Amis, writing as Robert Markham, published a first-rate Bond novel entitled Colonel Sun.

The James Bond novels take us on such flights of fancy – remember we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the fanciful – that in the 1980s Fleming’s literary executors invited the talented writer, John Gardner, to resurrect the dormant secret agent. Fourteen Bond novels and two film novelizations later, Gardner satiated his quest for creating popular literature like only a few writers will ever experience or enjoy.

With the proliferation of endless cheap thrills, limitless debauchery and an abundance of twenty-first century mindlessness, reading – literature – still seem a healthy way to embrace and celebrate life.

Books by Dr. González

Dr. Pedro Blas González is a Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami, Florida and is finishing a book on Ortega's The Revolt of the Masses. Professor González's professional interests include the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-knowledge, personal autonomy and philosophy; ancient Greek philosophy; the thought of Schopenhauer, Albert Camus, Louis Lavelle, Karl Jaspers and the relationship between form and philosophical vocation. He blogs at Castle to Castle.

Published: May 10, 2012

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