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Wouldn’t lose myself in that book if I were you…

By Eva Rana
07 October 2021

By Eva Rana

As overstimulated creatures of this century, we seem to have convinced ourselves that ‘losing oneself’ in the pages of a book is a sign of meaningful engagement with its merits. After all, any analogue object that manages to focus our fickle attention spans must warrant high praise. Guilty of similar proclamations myself, I’ve recently discovered that they carry a certain artistic disrespect.

Art isn’t escapism. It isn’t distraction. It rather resembles a ‘line of flight’ (as conceptualised by the offbeat philosopher duo of Deleuze and Guattari) – an oasis from which spring myriad fountains of thought, shooting off into dimensionless realms. So, when a text remains limited to itself, when it can only be ‘understood’ in self-referential terms or within an arbitrary genre category, its artistic merit remains somewhat limited.

When debating what makes good art, we tend to mistake relatability for universality. The former demands very little reflection and only superficial recognition – a mere nod, so to speak; much like the way you’d nod in the direction of a casual acquaintance passing you by on the street, in mutual assurance that you’d be allowed to go about your day without the disruption of ‘small talk’ and other trivialities.

I don’t deny that relatability has a place in our collective conscience, but it is frivolous by itself. In the grand scheme of things, such texts offer few enduring pleasures. Art is essentially disruptive, disquieting – really quite inconvenient if your idea of bedtime reading is to ‘unwind’; instead, it floods your dreams and runs over into waking life.

Fiction shouldn’t try to make you forget your surroundings but heighten your awareness of it, until you are moved to slash the cobwebs. Words that ‘grip’ us are shackles then, and to rave about the writer surely a symptom of Stockholm syndrome?

I am reminded of Iris Murdoch’s BBC interview where she declares that “[while] philosophy aims to clarify, literature mystifies”. At the risk of disagreeing with a great novelist in her own right, I do believe that literature can often ‘clarify’ concepts more insightfully than academic distinctions. Of course, Murdoch’s opinion arises out of analytic philosophy’s notion of an objective ‘truth’ to be discovered through methodological discipline. Literature, on the other hand, employs entirely different tools that don’t readily lend themselves to formal inquiry.

I’ve personally found that the best writers are a gust of wind that doesn’t let its essence be ‘captured’ or summarised neatly in a New York Times review. This draught (or draft, if you’re one for puns) has no alibi – yet its ‘crime’ is palpable.

Art isn’t escapism, nor is it purely functional. It is life itself – lived through experience, revelation, and creative involution…

Or maybe I’ve been overindulging in pedantic continental gibberish. You be the judge of that.