Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is literature and what constitutes salvation?
So I'll begin with a brief surface definition of the terms, since we probably all have our own and various ideas about what is contained in the phrase. We know the word literature comes from the Latin plural litterae, which means "letters." And we know that the meaning of salvation is almost as various as the kinds of people we may encounter. I believe the sense I intend will become evident as we proceed; but I should say at the beginning that I am not talking about salvation from near or present dangers, or threats to our safety. At least not directly. Emily Dickinson says we should "tell it slant," and so this is what I will attempt to do.
There is a form of imaginative genius present in every act of mercy. I believe that if the person who has the power to destroy another life can be given the ability, the gift, of seeing the reality of that life beyond abstraction, of making the leap of imagination that gives forth a sense of the other completely, free of concept, then killing can stop and peace can begin. I know that I'm not the first to say that violence steals not only the life of the victim but the life and being of the killer as well. Yet violence is more than the violent act itself; that is only a result, and paradoxically, like beauty, it belongs to the world of effect. Violence is more than the moment of its eruption; it exists like a fog through which we strive to see each other, in the air and in the breathing and dreaming and speech we are born and raised in, and it is having its impact on us long before it becomes the actions we see in the world.
For me, the greatest hedge against that evil has always been the power to imagine the other. To enter into the reality of the other. And literature is, isn't it, an exploration of and confrontation with the other. My father had a thing he used to say to us when we were growing up, and it is so simple: "Everybody, one at a time." He explained that the idea was not to make any assumptions about the people we would come into contact with in our lives — not to believe or be influenced by the stereotypes and prejudices of life in the world, but to see each person first as an individual someone: everybody, one at a time.
I think this is the basis for all good fiction, no matter who produces it.
I believe that the thing that connects every writer who is interested in the truth, every writer who is determined to tell truly not just what it is in his own heart, but what he sees in the heart of experience, is that the emotional truth and felt life that he finds in the writing of a good story breaks down the walls between people, obliterates the assumptions and falsities in how we see the other. Flattens the barriers of culture, and closes the divide between young and old. He knows that if the story is good, it will have this effect. And though he can never know whether or not it will find its way into the general mind, he hopes it is good enough to always have this effect for who ever may come upon it, wherever they may be. In any case, trying to be clear, and to be truthful, he partakes of the great miracle that defines all of us as human.
All other mammals care for their young, and seek warmth, and surcease from pain or suffering. We are the one mammal, the one creature, that can seek comfort from the long record of our journey in the world, through this defining miracle — something so common to our experience that we barely notice it. But it is a miracle: the linguists call it a triadic event. The simplest human transaction: two minds communicating about a third thing. We see it everywhere around us as gossip, or news, or jokes, or anecdotes, or entertainment. But think where it leads, where it has led. It has given us literature. Here is an example: Greece, 700 BC. Dayton, 2009. Hector, tragic Hector, in Homer's great poem The Iliad, dressed in full armor, about to battle Achilles; and Hector's little boy fails to recognize his father — cries in fear at the sight of the big armored figure dressed for battle. And so Hector removes his helmet, so that his son may recognize him. And when we read it, we are moved by it. And the mind that created it was dust 700 years before Christ walked the earth. It was an ancient story in the time of Christ. The moment, as described, is at least 2,700 years old. A father and a son. Their reality. And we respond to it out of our own reality, millennia and fallen empires and wars and space journeys and countless lived lives and many countries away. Across the chasm of Time and times and even of death itself. That is the miracle of writing when it is done well, and when it is grounded, as good writing always is, in the personal, in the life and fate of the individual. We know that it is out of the abstractions, and in the name of them, that we kill. Yet love, mercy, hope, are all abstract words. Love, John Updike said, resides in the particulars. And I am aware that in stating all this, I am using abstractions. But that is why I would never use anything of the kind in a story or a novel. There, in the blessed occupation, as William Maxwell once called it to me in a letter, we seek the human truth. And so, for every writer you read or happen upon, the acts of creation are acts of peace — of seeing through the abstractions, of achieving real being, real imagining. This is a truth that in the age of pure sensations and light entertainment is too often missed: that good writing, writing with the aim of discovering the truth of experience, is the one human activity that has the best chance of defeating violence; it stands so powerfully against the forces of destruction and murder that the bad governments of the world have always feared and despised it. In that sense, then, all serious writers are partaking of an act of attempted salvation, for anyone and everyone who may happen by. And every serious writer is then manifestly part of Shakespeare's sweet tribe, the one's whose ways he describes so well in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, earth to heaven, and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing a local habitation and a name."