In the first part of the prologue to Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books, the story of his grandfather Chimen’s life and the countless books that filled his English home—books and manuscript collections of socialist literature and Jewish history—he tells the reader that these works “provided protection from the madness of the world outside—or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos,” and that “theories and philosophies, words and books provided structure to [Chimen’s] world; they staved off the chaos, the anarchy, the fearsomeness of daily existence.” Reading these words, my heart and mind were struck, for, as all good literature is meant to do, I found myself in them; I could relate to the sentiment the language conveyed.
Since the age of seventeen I have been preoccupied with art, literature, and religion. Once I was an English major who minored in art history and philosophy, I became further embedded in the worlds of art and literature, as well as those of philosophical ideas and religious belief systems, east and west. But my true love has always been literature. Literature, I have said often enough over the last several years, saved my life, and being a writer along with it.
What has been remarked upon countless times about truly masterful pieces of literature is the almost supernatural way in which they draw the reader in, casting a spell on them, in which the world outside the covers and pages of the book temporarily does not exist, while the world inside them alone does. You may not be a character in the fiction or the memoir, but you are very much an integral part of the text, as you are interpreting the language, the narrative, and responding to the characters, whether positively or negatively. You are giving the story the breath of life, of creation, by engaging with it, by reacting to the plot and the players. When you find the situation of the story mirroring your own, or you discover yourself identifying with a character, you are enacting the truth of E. M. Forster’s desire that we “only connect.” The suspension of disbelief when we open a book and fall down the rabbit hole of its language and story is something that will never cease to amaze me.
When I find life a bit too stressful and overwhelming, and succumb to depression over the state of the world, such as in times like these with the coronavirus running rampant and keeping all rational individuals indoors until further notice, I yearn to stop all work and run to a thick novel, or a long imaginative work of poetry, wherein I can lose myself and forget the reality that faces us each day. I want to enact the cliché we all know: curl up under a blanket next to a warm fire for a few hours and read a good book. I want to escape, which is what literature helps us do, alongside the even more important thing it does: teach us. When I first became enamored with literature it was because I found myself connecting with protagonists of novels and dramas. I realized I was not alone in the world, that other human beings, though fictional, thought and felt as I do. They had similar experiences to my own. But then again, a suburban gay white boy doesn’t have much experience now, does he? But I digress. Eventually, I became more invested in what literature can communicate to us, having learned how to read a text when I studied literature in college and graduate school, and taught it as well.
Because works of fiction, drama, and poetry are full of characters in worlds of the author’s making we can learn from their thoughts, emotions, and actions, and the consequences thereof without being directly affected by them. We may empathize with or feel disgusted by these characters, but since we are not inside their world we do not experience what they do, or the consequences of their acts. By temporarily escaping inside a work of literature we are protected from the madness of the real world, as Sasha Abramsky noted concerning how his grandfather’s books made the latter feel. But even more important, for him they were a way of piloting through the chaos of existence, his and that of the world, of making sense of the instability and flux that is the core and extension of all life. The nature of life is anarchic, and humans are creatures whose level of consciousness forces them to lay down laws and develop institutions so as to ward off that which can and will put their lives in danger if they encountered it. Humans, like all animals, are rooted in the natural objective of self-preservation.
I read literature, and study philosophy and religion, in order to better understand human nature, and thereby myself. I often think that no matter what, we never can and never will be able to know ourselves. I think this is true because we are always changing, always morphing and mutating like nature and the cosmos. We can, at best, only make sense of the moment, and follow through with that sense to where it inevitably takes us. But again, I digress. The world and our place in it is an endless, remorseless tumult that often makes us nauseous as we steer the ship of our lives across the restless seas, but literature, like all art, aims to try to calm and control how we respond to the moments as they come and go, through the high tides and the low. Art urges us to explore ideas and feelings, to engage with and unravel to the best of our abilities the timeless dilemmas we have faced as individuals and as a species since before history began to be set down. We are not alone. We are human. We are flawed and destructive, but we are also magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures when we let our hearts and imaginations run toward and embody the divine edict of others before self. When we work together as one, the unity of communion creates the most wondrous works of art and architecture, science and technology, human innovation and ingenuity.
At first, I read literature because it battled the loneliness and the despair, the chronic state of depression I was in as a friendless gay teen in the nineties, and so I had no path outside literature and writing poetry and semiautobiographical prose to keep me from ending things prematurely. There is no wonder, then, as to why Edna Pontellier, Mick Kelly, and Hamlet were the first literary characters I found myself relating to and empathizing with, grasping exactly what they were thinking and feeling.
Now, though, I read literature in search of answers to the great conundrums of life, to escape into a world for however many hundreds of pages from the incessant confusion and catastrophic turmoil that has begun to devour humanity, all of its own making. I read literature, and more nonfiction than ever before, for knowledge, for a vast estate of knowledge because as I get older I am more and more distraught over the shape of things and wish and hope to ascertain how we got here, because though I may understand the fundamentals of human nature thanks to my earlier years of reading and studying literature, philosophical treatises, and religious scriptures, the details of how human nature got us to this moment are rooted in historical events, the dance to the music of Time of which I have spoken incessantly, and political history, both domestic and international, and I am not as familiar with these as I want to be. I have built a library of books, read and unread, in my endeavor to locate facts and truths that will help me make sense of all that has led us to this ever-widening gyre of apocalypse.
My mind and soul have been the beneficiaries of the knowledge and understanding of all the reading I have done over the last twenty-five years and will surely benefit from the next twenty-five years and more of the same, but all this knowledge has had its drawbacks as well, as it has made me all the more lonely, in not just its possession but in how I feel about and perceive the world and its human inhabitants because of what I have learned. Books and what I have gleaned from them have been a fortress, a bulwark, for me against the pandemonium of the increasingly crowded yet disintegrating world and the order that appeared to have been imposed on it to give it some semblance of peace and structure, but I understand well now the artifice that this appearance was, its contrivance, and I have seen, as Hamlet has, the rot and decay, the greed and hunger for power, that has lain hidden at the hollow core of this illusion, and the service to which it has been put for the luxury of the “elite.”
Another way in which this deeper grasp of human nature and this knowledge of a fantastic array of subjects has been a disadvantage, and a disconcerting one at that, is the ivory tower in which it has walled me. I am akin to Faust, and see myself in Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado,” trapped due to my own grotesque vice—an escalating and intensifying ravenousness for knowledge, for a way to find a more equanimous route in this fragmented and incoherent world, as futile a task as I know it is.
All this knowledge has gravely disconnected me from other humans because, as a poet and a scholar, smug as it sounds, I see with a clearer eye and mind than many, and I find myself tortured over what has become of the human race and the world it has created. My quest for an infinite storehouse of knowledge has left me an isolated and yet wildly unknowing soul in the grand scheme of all things considered knowledge, tormented by not being able to share what I do know, what I have uncovered through all my years of study and searching, about human nature and reality, about civilization, society, and the cosmos, because man does not want to know, as he would much rather live in a state of ostensibly blissful ignorance in which his ego is the alpha and omega, the be all and end all.
My education and thirst for knowledge, the method through which I have attempted to pinpoint who I am and assert and maintain a steady and productive course through the mutability and unrest in the world, has come to nothing, for as with all navigational tools, they have been powerless against the sturdier and fiercer forces of life, that are natural and endemic to it, in a way that knowledge is not and never can be, because like all things produced by human activity, it is insubstantial and meaningless when the God’s-eye view is taken. We are, it is true, as such stuff as dreams are made on, and so it seems is our knowledge and all that ever has and will come from it. As I have gotten older and my consciousness has expanded, I have essentially been in search of peace of mind through the acquiring of knowledge, wrongly believing it could aid me in not losing my sanity because I am not psychologically strong enough to accept the world and man as they are, as they constantly assault my romantic idealism and punish me for having the vaguest outlines of hope for a better future for the human race. In the end, because I wish to keep my sanity against the juggernaut that is the real world and the ugly nature of human beings beyond my door, I have made of my mind an inescapable tower in the midst of a desert of useless and no longer desired knowledge that spreads out farther than mortal eye can see in all directions. It is too late to go back, to make a heaven of the hell of this aging, knowledge-consumed mind, and yet there is no plausible reason to go forward in this particular pursuit either. Where I go from here, I do not know. Perhaps it’s better not to.