Literature makes you weird. Its gift is the uncanny.
In a previous Teeming Brain post (one that has received a steady inflow of visitors ever since I first published it in 2009), I talked about the magical/alchemical power of language in general and poetic language in particular:
[T]here’s a positively magical power in language, particularly in the poetic use of it, since language enables each of us to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace … It’s a veritably alchemical moment, since the poet acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else.
– “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Alchemy of Language,” July 2, 2009
In an essay published just today in The Chronicle Review from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric G. Wilson, professor of English at Wake Forest University, provides a beautifully realized illustration of and meditation on this same idea:
I…tell my disgruntled students about the first time I read, as an undergraduate, these lines:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
I had often witnessed beams of dull December light with a melancholy I didn’t understand. Dickinson’s flash clarified my feelings: In the impoverished glow of the cold time were heavy reminders of brightness I desired but couldn’t possess. But this affliction had fever, intimations of future heat that was luminous, like hymns.
Dickinson’s verse spelled out the abstruse, made the strange familiar. In this new intimacy, however, was a novel astonishment: The chilly light from that day onward exposed the enigmas of longing, both tormenting and radiant. Her poetry left me amazed — caught in wonderment as well as labyrinth.
Other epiphanies followed. What I had taken for granted was shattered; the marvelous erupted amid the fragments. In Whitman I saw ordinary grass morph into the “uncut hair of graves.” In Eliot’s “Prufrock,” I watched twilight transmogrify into “a patient etherized upon a table.” The grass, the evening—in these metaphors, they grew more lucid than before, and more cryptic.
This is all wrapped up inside Wilson’s overarching thesis that the purpose of literature is to “make you weird,” something he says he first realized when he spontaneously blurted it out to a father and son when, having been tasked with the job of manning the table at a weekend college recruiting fair for high school seniors, he showed up “irritable, hung over, and resentful”:
A father and son immediately appeared, in virginal Wake Forest T-shirts and blond crew cuts. They smiled at me as if I had just praised their promptness. The younger looked up at dad, and father nodded to son, and son blurted: “Sell me the English major!” Through my brain’s murk, I searched for the hype. Failing to find it, I confessed: “It makes you weird.”
After a confused “OK,” the two looked down, backed away, and were gone. They shouldn’t have been so hasty. I had revealed to them, though I didn’t know it then, the great payoff of literary study: It estranges us from our normal habits of thought and perception, nullifies old conceptual maps, and so propels us into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where we must create, if we are to thrive, coordinates more capacious, more sublime than the ones we already know. The uncanny — not truth, beauty, or goodness — is literature’s boon.
– Eric G. Wilson, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 10, 2012
Trust me: Go and read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.
Also worth noting, although unrelated (or perhaps not?), is the fact that Wilson is the author of several books touching on subjects of direct interest to Teeming Brain readers. These include 2008′s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, in which he argues that, contra America’s addiction to happy talk and positive thinking, “melancholia is necessary to any thriving culture, that it is the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation,” and 2012′s Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, in which he explores humanity’s apparently ineradicable fascination with evil, morbidity, gore, and horror by “drawing on the findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists … [A] lifelong student of the macabre, Wilson believes there’s something nourishing in darkness. ‘To repress death is to lose the feeling of life,’ he writes. ‘A closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies.’”