A Serious Game: The Ethical Dimension of Literature, Part 1: A Personal Reflection

Howdy, friends and neighbors!  This is the first post in a series of six that will encapsulate A Serious Game, my final senior essay on the power and nature of literature.  It’ll be a long read but I hope it will be worth it.  Tune in every Friday for the next section — if there have ever been posts I’ve made that deserve the “i hope you like text” and “limitless literary pretension” tags it’s these.  I hope you enjoy them!

“Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chessmasters, not of angels.”

– Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

When I was a child there was a monster called Old Hickory that lived in the woodwork of my grandparents’ house.  It was not uncommon for this creature on occasion to reach out and attempt to grab me, my siblings, or my cousins.  Though Old Hickory never succeeded — each failed attempt to abscond with me or one of the other children simply ended with a solid thump of wood on a head, knee, or elbow, with the related sobbing one might expect — I spent a significant portion of my childhood absolutely and absurdly terrified of my grandparents’ furniture.  Old Hickory was described to us many times, though always with the same grotesque humor, by my grandfather, who had imagined the creature as a sort of joke to explain the normal rough-and-tumble bumps and scrapes children acquire when they are playing in a home filled with a few decades’ worth of accumulated furniture.  Whenever one of us blundered face-first into the corner of the couch or the wood paneling of the living room during a game of Red Rover, we would fall down bawling, and my grandfather would chuckle to himself and say, “Old Hickory almost got you.”

I offer this story because it serves well as an introductory metaphor for my concerns in this paper.  It is appropriate not because it speaks specifically of literature but it at least sheds personal light on why I concern myself with literature’s study; in broader terms, my anecdote about Old Hickory speaks of narrative and storytelling, of which literature is a primary form.  Wayne C. Booth argued that all narrative is a form of rhetoric; narratives ask the reader or listener to understand a certain situation in a certain way.  They require us to give assent, and by listening to them, we do.  We come to narratives expecting an “efferent transaction” — that is, we are motivated by “a search for some practical guidance, or for some special wisdom, or for some useful ‘carry-over’ into non-fictional life” (Booth 13).  We approach even acknowledged fiction as if there is some grain of truth to it, some way it speaks — no matter how elliptically — of the world in which we live.

These truths, when we find them or think we find them, can have serious ramifications on the ways we view and interact with the world.  Old Hickory certainly wasn’t real, but my thinking about it was; I responded as if it did exist, I believed in it, and so in that sense, Old Hickory was quite real to my five-year-old self.  Not until I grew older did the idea of a terrible creature living in the woodwork of a house become obviously impossible; in retrospect it was clear that my grandfather was simply telling a joke.  He’d exaggerated reality, personified the furniture I was constantly slamming my elbows and forehead into, to amuse himself.[1] But my reaction — because I was a child, and prone to magical thinking, and because he was my grandfather, and therefore a direct authority on all aspects of life — was not one of amusement, but fear.  What was a game for my grandfather was something dreadfully serious to me.

But I think it is this sort of tension that has drawn me to literature.  My earliest memories of stories all involve people close to me — my grandfather, my mother, and my older sister — telling me stories about strange or bizarre entities and events.[2] As I grew older it became obvious that a great number of these stories were improbable if not impossible, and yet I still enjoyed them.  Learning to read (and of the obsession with reading that soon followed) seem to intensify the feelings I had while listening to people tell me stories — except now I was in control of what stories were told and when.  Even though the things that happened in most of the stories I consumed never factually occurred, or in some cases could never occur, there was an innate pleasure in contemplating the possibility of these worlds and how they were or were not like the one I knew.  Reading, and by extension literature, was a game, something I did for fun and personal amusement.

My classes at college stressed the capacities in which literature is a social force — the ways it gives or takes voice, the way it implicitly approves or disapproves of social currents, and so on.  This critical atmosphere presented a problem for me.  On one hand, I wanted to be able to look at a text and merely play my game with it, interrogate its plausibility, its structure and consistency; on the other hand, I was intrigued by the way in which various people found methods to appropriate something wholly imaginary as a tool to speak about the real world in ways much more direct and diverse than I’d ever envisioned.  For instance, was Paradise Lost an epic, a religious apology, a liberal political manifesto, a reactionary conservative apologia, a valuable tract in the fight for women’s rights, a tool of patriarchic oppression, or a dramatization of imperialist economics?  Somehow my classes managed to present me with theorists and critics who argued all of these points — and all of them seemed, in their own ways, to make sense.  How could I reconcile all of these compelling readings of a poem that I, on my own terms, had read as a simple adventure story?  More pressingly, how could something so obviously fictional be of so much evident real-world importance?  To understand this, I had to comprehend on a more conscious level the efferent nature of reading, and the way stories influence our lives.

This paper’s epigraph comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a cadre of intellectual luminaries conspires throughout the course of human history to imagine and disseminate a fictional world by way of false encyclopedia entries and misprinted history books.  I read it at 17 and thought it was a neat piece of speculative fiction; when I read it again at 20, after two years of a serious study of literature, the tale’s actual significance broke through to me.  It helped put into perspective the issues I’d been facing, but could not articulate.  In the story, the fabrication of the world of Tlön is so extensive and intricate that by the time the conspiracy is discovered, the human race becomes enamored with the uniqueness and complexity of the fiction their brightest minds have imagined.  As the story ends antiques from Tlön — clever forgeries, of course, but no one cares — are starting to appear in markets, and the languages of Tlön are being taught in schools.  The narrator intimates that, in time, our world will for all practical purposes become Tlön.  The game of imagination has enchanted humanity so that they forget they are even playing a game; the creators of Tlön are thought of not as the planners and chessmasters they are, but divine angels.

Before intensive literary study led me to see things otherwise, I had focused chiefly on the ways in which fiction presented worlds that were not the one I inhabited.  In so doing I overlooked the fact that even this was a way in which fiction defined my inhabited reality.  The multiplicity of readings my literature courses exposed me to were methods of refining and focusing that definitional power, attempting to draw my attention to a single aspect of the world and the way in which a text invited me to understand or think about that aspect.  Though fantastic to the extreme, Borges’s story put this into perspective on my second reading.  In the tale, fiction is used to effectively draft a new world.  It is a disturbing development, as the narrator seems convinced that nothing good will come of unquestioningly embracing this new reality — or rather this new way of looking at and interpreting the old reality.  That was the key for me: fiction is, partially, a device for the interpretation of the real world.


[1] And maybe he meant to amuse me, too.  I am amused now, anyway.

[2] Highlights include: a nameless monster that kidnapped little boys who caused a fuss when they had to get haircuts, a race of extraterrestrials who traveled through to space via mirrors rather than starships, and a seven-foot-tall Kentucky dentist who used whiskey as anesthetic.

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