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More adventurous than the average bear

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Poverty of Literary Rhetoric

"What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens." - Benjamin Disraeli


While literature can be fun to read, one has problems when extracting ideas and theses from it and applying it to the real world.

Since the context of literature is itself, there is no external check on the validity of the morals we can draw from it.

This is showed up when you have 2 quotes which sound equally nice but which have diametrically opposite messages. Independently, both would seem compelling but juxtaposed, there is no way to adjudicate which one should prevail.

For example, we have everyone's favourite quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

‎"Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

And he was distressed that in a situation where a real man would instantly have known how to act, he was vacillating and therefore depriving the most beautiful moments he had ever experienced (kneeling at her bed and thinking he would not survive her death) of their meaning.

He remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural.

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.

Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, sketch is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the
sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all."

And now we have another (much less well-known) extract, this time from Tony Parsons's One for my baby: a novel:

"Everybody wants one more chance."

"What's so bad about that?"

"It makes a mockery of the past. Can't you see that? It chops your life up into these little bite-sized morsels. If you have endless goes at getting it right, then you will never get it right. Not even once. Because constantly starting again turns the best thing in the world into just another takeout. Fast love. Junk love. Love to go."

"Don't you want one more chance, Alfie?"

"I've had my chance."

As a side note, literature's romantic obsession with extremes (as embodied in both extracts) is not just fallacious but perilous. The unexcluded middle is where we must all live in reality.

See also: A Point of View: Why books do not prepare us for real love (previously featured in this space)
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