catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 9 :: 2004.04.23 — 2004.05.06


Wrestling with "Why?"

East of Eden has opened up cracks in me. Of course, cracking the soul is what literature is meant to do. It’s why we read the stuff. It’s what makes literature important. In literature—good literature—we meet men and women who share with us a restless humanity. Their lives aren’t tidy; neither is mine. Their lives aren’t easy to comprehend; here again I join them. Their lives might not even be successful. But each life is struggling toward meaning—or fleeing the fear that theirs hasn’t any.

Good literature, I believe, hosts a colossal wrestling match with the word “Why?” It struggles to pull the disparate threads, shreds, pieces, and points of a single life or of several lives into a meaningful order. We could easily continue with the age-old comparisons of writing to painting, to weaving, to building or to numberless other arts with which it shares much in common. But these comparisons cannot tell us why we write literature nor why we read it any more than comparing these arts the other way—weaving to writing—can tell us why some people weave. That the reasons are similar, I admit. What those reasons are needs searching.

Out of chaos can come order, not the order of recognizable pattern but the order of purpose. This statement, to me, explains literature best. Out of the chaos of living erupts an eternal “Why?” The author and reader together attempt to answer that “Why?” Whether by force of creation or force of discovery, they struggle toward order. No single piece of literature provides a final answer to the question posed by chaos. Perhaps the question is too big, humans having asked it for millennia. I suppose, too, that no single writer can grasp enough of human history, of human misery, of human longing, of human beauty to give a full and final answer to this question. Perhaps we do not want a full and final response. Maybe we would die of boredom if we found one. This colossal question, infinite in its scope, as big as God, posed to us by God himself, a question planted in our hearts at creation, the answering of which takes the full living of our lives: Why?

The struggle to answer this question can take us in any direction because it is a question we must answer by living, not alone by thinking. But literature, because it studies humans living, can, more than many other worthy intellectual pursuits help us in our struggle with “Why?” No author, I am certain, ever became an author without first learning to ask the “Why?” of all he saw around him. No reader, I am convinced, ever searched deeply the literature of any people until that question had burned long in his or her heart.

In the murkiest of books, written by authors who despaired of anything meaningful, we can hear, echoing sluggishly, the question: “Why?” Why live, why die, why peace, why war, why good, why evil, why love, why hate, why be? Some writers, Thomas Wolfe for example, work over one small part of the question until they get an answer that satisfies them. Like a man wrestling with an eight-armed monster, they stop exhausted when they manage to subdue, for a time, one or two of the arms. Others, like Steinbeck, tackle the beast whole, their souls taking a furious beating in the process.

So what, finally, is the benefit of reading literature? What do we gain from it? Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude has reflected that books serve to bring us into contact with great souls, men and women who shared fully our common humanity, persons whose hearts were deeply cleft with the wounds that bind the experience of all people.

But does it help us live?

A yes to that question gives, I believe, the best defense of literature. We need not ask if it makes us smarter, nor if reading it will develop in us greater sophistication. Its value cannot be found in any power it gives us to earn more money. Nor should we read it to produce intelligent conversation, good literature being notoriously difficult to discuss. Rather, we read literature because the deep and reflective reading of literature opens for us vaults of understanding that make our daily lives meaningful. Out of chaos, order. We glean from our reading some indication of what is rich and full, good and lasting. Then we build these into our lives.

East of Eden has opened up cracks in me. Some sort of divine light has poured through these cracks illuminating a bit more the interior of my own soul. And it has opened up cracks all around me. I see people, God, and myself a bit differently. I hope I see more clearly.

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