Last week I wrote about what literature knows, about the things fine literature can teach us through form and style, aesthetic excellence and splendor. The knowledge transferred to us can seem ineffable yet realizable, a slight rearrangement, a miniscule clarification of the self that extends into a vision of our random reality. Though we often try to demystify our reality (and our literature), a reflective receptiveness to mystery and the aesthetic residues within reality can help us recognize confounding parts of ourselves. As Wallace Stevens tells us, “…A more severe, / More harassing master would extemporize / Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory / Of poetry is the theory of life,/ As it is, in the intricate evasions of as…” Though the best writing addresses our own buried conjecture (Emerson’s “rejected thoughts,” and their return), it is always through a kind of irritable feint. As Stevens says, though poetry is a theory of life as it is, life “as it is” remains a fluid illusion, and poetry defies, through “intricate evasions,” all definitive qualities of the word “as.” In other words, life is impossible to theorize through a simple reflection, through an “as”-operated dictum, but poetry still communicates to us life’s polymorphous mystery.
Literature converses with this great shimmer, not to delineate its exact physical or emotional properties (it does not have any), but to briefly allow us a glimpse of its texture. Like a picture flashed before our eyes, we assimilate, almost unconsciously, a kind of residual afterimage into lived experience, plowing intricate uselessness into subtler consciousness.
But how does this process occur? What do the spontaneous cries of life sound like? Do they come from assiduous searching or unplanned involvement? One answer would be through literary enchantment, “the state of intense involvement, a sense of being so entirely caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter,” Rita Felski says in Uses of Literature. This sort of loss is often associated with children’s books, or Harry Potter, the fantastical as a transportive device for naïve or infantile pleasure. “Serious society” considers enchantment to be a breed of conservatism, distracting from oppressive systems and political reality. Obsessed with social or economic utility, we condescend towards these books, or towards these sentimental experiences, because of their inability to remedy socio-political ills.
But even the most serious literature can enchant us. The power of Shakespeare comes, in part, from his ability to rhapsodize us into oblivion, literally, and any work of literary merit maintains the distinct ability to create loss, to remove us from rational spheres and beat us back with waves of aesthetic enchantment. Terry Eagleton, preeminent Marxist critic, unwittingly defines the benefits of literary enchantment in his equivocation of Jane Austen’s novels, claiming they offer “an analogue of knowledge,” or “something approximating knowledge.” Here, I think Eagleton is speaking of the buzz, the general aesthetic whir of an enchanted literary experience that transmutes intensified looking into a kind of residual knowledge. The hypnosis of great novels does not disallow for any sort of reward aside from pleasure, or bliss; it creates an electric unconscious, animated and enraptured by the pure aesthetics of reading. This unconscious is not passive, but actively absorbing details in a preternatural state. It is a paradoxical deep attention, at once divorced from reality but soaked in human ooze. The shimmer, mentioned above, transfixes us, but also re-layers vision.
If we could mechanize existence into a predetermined (not overdetermined) progression, we would. Our efforts to do so are legible enough. But we cannot. Our recursiveness demands something deeper than reasonable qualities. Literature smacks those metaphysical, mystical joints of life, and through enchantment, alights them to create a sort of ephemeral vision, revealing latent rhythms. Poetry’s inciting incident, Aristotle told us in Poetics, comes from “an instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, until their rude improvisations gave birth to poetry.” Poetry articulates the dynamism moving behind reality, the rhythm of lived experience, the intense, unregistered concatenations we can only see through enchantment. In other words, life as it is, “in the intricate evasions of as…”