A Literary Guide to Life: On the Life-Giving Power of Literature

Aurora image
‘Aurora’, painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). Image from ‘W. Bouguereau’ by Marius Vachon (1850–1928)

He was in fact a poet without words; the more absorbed and endangered, that the springing-waters were dammed back into his soul, where, finding no utterance, they grew, and swelled, and undermined.

– George MacDonald, ‘The Tale of Cosmo’¹ in ‘Phantastes: A Fairie Romance’

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is – not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding – the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.

– George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’² in ‘A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare’

What is life?

Is it about trading – or, indeed, prostituting – our intrinsic human integrity and powers to an insatiable appetite for ever more profit and possession … or to an incessant clamouring for ever more socio-political validation? Or, on the other side of the coin, is it just a relentless, barren, and often brutal battle to survive, in obsequious servitude then – or, indeed, as essentially cannibalized human sacrifice – to the same grim and tyrannically gluttonous idols?

If, like me, you know, or suspect, there’s, at least potentially, much more to life, whilst our increasingly inane and image-over-substance-obsessed rapacious consumer culture frequently insults your intelligence and humanity, then I think you’ll want to read this. This article then can introduce you to a profoundly more perceptive, creative, and intrinsically satisfying sort of life than the ever more ubiquitous – and, indeed, too frequently vacuous – socio-politically-driven mass-produced one that’s endlessly idolized and espoused, in various guises, today.

This then is the second post (or the third if we count the introduction) in this series that I’ve entitled A Literary Guide to Life. In the previous post then, we began with marking the literary scope of our theme by considering the meaning and nature of great literature.

And so, in this post, we’re going to further investigate and consider the soul-enriching and life-enhancing value, or potential, of timeless literature … and start exploring the concept then of literary, or literary-inspired, transformation. More specifically, we’re going to consider the potentially life-giving power of literature. And, we’re going to do so by reviewing the central thesis of a book that largely inspired the literary aspect of our Cupid’s School theme.

Through Literature to Life

The literary culture aspect of our Cupid’s School theme then is largely inspired by a little book I first read about eighteen years ago now whilst rekindling an earlier passion for literature. This book then is entitled Through Literature To Life: An Enthusiasm and an Anthology. It’s written by the (unjustly, I think) little known author today Ernest Raymond.

(Based on this book alone, meanwhile, I’d say Raymond deserves a much wider audience today. Indeed, it appears to me we’ve a critically urgent need, right now, for authors and books of this sort of perceptive calibre … and for people that will read and learn from them. That is, at least, if our collective intrinsic humanity, or the remnants of it, are not to be totally devoured by the loveless and insatiably voracious life-negating black hole of the extrinsically-driven, or extrinsically-identified, fear-fed and fear-feeding socio-political ego.)

And so, I picked up a somewhat musty and slightly tattered 1940’s hardback copy of Raymond’s book in one of the numerous, and often somehow delightfully (and, I hasten to add, authentically) shabby, second-hand bookshops I enjoyed browsing at the time. (Oh, for those inconspicuous little wonderlands … of infinite possibility, assorted adventures, and voyages then through time and space!) And, when I read it then, I found it inspiring.

And now having reviewed this book again more recently, it’s inspired me again. It’s a profound little book that serves up an almost endless feast for rejuvenating rumination … or edifying reflection. It’s worth reading then, I think, many times. What’s more, I feel its title neatly encapsulates, or epitomizes, the chief way in which I’ve benefited from literature. That is, the qualitative life-giving effect that good literature has impressed on me and my life – which is, more or less I think, as Raymond describes and the inspiration then for this blog post and review. Although, I fear, without your reading the whole book, I can hardly do it justice.

'The River' image
‘The River’, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

Literature the ‘life-giver’

The chief benefit of literature, according to Raymond’s central thesis then, is its life-giving power, or potential. Literature then, he says, is the ‘life-giver’ through which we ‘may have life, and have it more abundantly.’

This, of course, begs the question, though: What is ‘life’?

Raymond answers this by citing a functional definition of ‘life’ as ‘conscious contact with environment.’ ‘We are more and more alive’, he says, ‘in so far as we are in touch with our larger environment’. Raymond proceeds then to illustrate this by analogy:

A tree is alive because its roots are in active contact with the soil, drawing from its richness a substance that it can transmute into expressions of its own, and because its branches are at the same employ with the transient sunlight and the environing air. But it is fettered to a limited environment. A bird, in contrast, can move and see and sense the wind; daily it can establish communication with new things. It knows what lies behind the hill, and the warm places of the south. It can apprehend the insect on the stream, the love-song of its mate, and the helplessness of its young.

Now, to further clarify the significance of this definition, let’s consult a dictionary. Here then is how Wiktionary.org defines the word ‘environment’:

1. The surroundings of, and influences on, a particular item of interest.

2. The natural world or ecosystem.

3. All the elements that affect a system or its inputs and outputs.

4. A particular political or social setting, arena or condition.

‘environment’, Wiktionary.org. 2016. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/environment (6 January 2016)

Our definition of ‘life’ here then, I think, embraces conscious contact with, or conscious awareness of, our environment in all of these senses – including, I believe, the socio-political and socio-economic dynamics that incessantly impinge upon us and their epistemological bases, or lack thereof, and wider consequences. For further semantic elucidation, meanwhile, you might like to consult other dictionaries too.

So now, let’s get back to Raymond. He goes on to say literature is our most potent means ‘for increasing life’:

And by far the greatest of these devices for increasing life is the written word, whereby he [i.e. man, or humankind] sets up communication with the master spirits, seeing with their keener eyes, hearing with their livelier ears, thinking with their subtler brains, feeling with their larger hearts, and touching God on their wings.

A double process for heightening life

Literature performs its live-giving, or life-enhancing, work then by heightening our awareness and responsiveness through its capacity to move us and awaken us then to our environment:

literature’s work with us is to make us awake and aware; and not only awake and aware, but highly responsive also. It is to heighten our life by a double process, a process of widening and deepening, a process making us not only feel about more things but feel more about them.

This then, I think, is what Karen Swallow Prior alludes to – or, at least, echoes – in her article How Reading Makes Us More Human (which I referred to in the introduction to this series) when she says,

What good literature can do and does do – far greater than any importation of morality – is touch the human soul.

What’s more, this correlation of life with felt awareness is, I think, what the extraordinary lover, adventurer, and author Giacomo Casanova refers to in the preface to his memoirs, translated here by Arthur Machen, and in his sentient counterpart there of René Descartes‘ famous existential statement ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore, I am’):

I know that I have lived because I have felt, and, feeling giving me the knowledge of my existence, I know likewise that I shall exist no more when I shall have ceased to feel.

And, this is not only an existential truth but, I believe, an epistemological one as well, since the feeling precedes the thinking … or the knowing. And so, if the feeling, or the correct cause of the feeling, that precedes a thought is not consciously acknowledged or is repressed, misunderstood, ignored, and thus misplaced or misattributed, the thinking that proceeds from it will, necessarily, be erroneous too. And so, I’m sad to say that, generally, it seems one’s epistemology (theory of knowledge) is not so candid as Raymond’s and Casanova’s consciously sentient-inspired awareness but is frequently dictated instead by what’s simply socio-politically or socio-economically expedient in one’s formative, and present, socio-cultural environment.

But, I digress a little (though aptly so, I think). So now, let’s get back to Raymond’s thesis.

Literature then can help make us more awake to and aware of our environment and thus evoke or educe our intrinsic feelings about it and its elements. By vicariously exposing us then to the minds and experiences of the ‘pioneering souls’, as Raymond describes them, who lived before us and, more or less candidly or accurately, charted their felt interface with the world, and their reflections thereon, literature can awaken and enlarge our latent or, to varying degrees, ordinarily repressed capacity to consciously feel. Thus, through literature then, we can develop and enlarge our sensitivity or sensibility and, thereby, heighten our awareness.

Through literature then we can develop our intrinsic felt awareness and intuitive perception, and thereby begin to employ our physiological senses, as well as our aesthetic and moral, or rational, senses, more fully, consciously, and attentively. And, by enlarging our susceptibility and responsiveness then to sensory stimuli, we broaden and intensify, or heighten, our sensory experience, whist assimilating it then more fully – and, indeed, more truly.

To -- decoration
‘To –‘, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

The cost of life and The Penalty of Love

This, though, leads Raymond on then to the inevitable cost that’s incurred in the process. Like Jesus of Nazareth is said to have warned the crowds to first count the cost of discipleship, Raymond warns us too and highlights the reason so many turn away and prefer to remain but callous and numb, ‘blissfully’ ignorant then, and that so much ugliness then remains:

Well, we have arrived at the issue, which we must not shirk, that if we are willing to come highly alive like this, we must face the price; and the price is that we enter upon new fields of pain. We must be prepared, as Mr. Tracy phrases it, to become “more susceptible to beauty and pain.” With every step forward we must be prepared to meet a bitterer consciousness of that margin between our hungers and their satisfaction, and of the like case in which sit all our friends, who will then be coextensive with the world. There is no incumbence on us to go forward; we may stay where we are, or even fly back; but we shall have no doubt, when we have made our decision, which was the road of manhood.

Raymond then concludes his meditation on, and chapter entitled, Lacrimæ Rerum (The Tears in Things) with a fitting sonnet entitled The Penalty of Love from Sidney Royse Lysaght‘s Poems of the Unknown Way:

If love should count you worthy, and should deign
One day to seek your door and be your guest,
Pause! ere you draw the bolt and bid him rest,
If in your old content you would remain.

For not alone he enters: in his train
Are angels of the mists; the lonely guest
Dreams of the unfulfilled and unpossessed
And sorrow, and life’s immemorial pain.

He wakes desires you never may forget,
He shows you stars you never saw before,
He makes you share with him for evermore
The burden of the world’s divine regret.
How wise were you to open not! And yet
How poor if you should turn him from the door.

As things are then, such sorrow and pain are, to varying degrees or in varying ways, an aspect of life and symptomatic then, I think, of the (socio-political) repression of life. And, as things are then, this, I’d say, is the (ordinarily, I think, more or less subconscious) human condition.

Mermaidens image
‘The Mermaidens’, engraving by M. Weber, after painting by Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901). Image from ‘Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama’ (1892) by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810–1897)

“The essence of life is zest”

The good news, though, is, Raymond says, that ‘the essence of life is zest, and zest is good’:

If I have attained to a creed which henceforth shall be indestructible for me, it is this: Life, in whatever forms and ebullitions you study it, is in its essence zest; and zest is always beautiful. […] When it flickers out, life is no longer life, and death takes its own.

The final chapter of Raymond’s book then is devoted to ‘the literature of zest in life’ and what he calls ‘the joyous overplus’ of the essential life and goodness within us – the experience of which, he says, may allow us a glimpse of a profound and transformational truth:

Have you not often felt, I say, the truth of your essential goodness, and that your hard-set evil parts are an encrustation acquired from without and not grown from within? Perhaps you have felt it on some rare day in early summer, when you have been alone in a wood on a blue-bell carpet, and your eyes, wandering to the hedge-wall, have seen it white with may; all around you there has been a silence – a silence that strikes like a blow; and suddenly it ceases to be silence for the birds are singing, and you wonder how long that music has been there without your noticing it. You are right away from the world, and from such things as covetousness and jealousy and hatred; and, tell me honestly, can you then feel anything but good? Is it only a pleasant feeling, lent to you for a moment by Nature’s peace? Is it only a sympathetic answer to the calm around? Perhaps: but I believe it to be more; I believe it to be a glimmering of the truth that the quietists know.

The joyous overplus and the refining power of literature

It’s this essentially good and joyous intrinsic, or underlying, zest for life within us then, with its felt awareness and perception, that, Raymond says, literature can not only awaken and affirm but, by degrees, enlarge and enhance as well. Thus literature then can help enrich our lives and make them, but not withstanding the aforementioned ‘cost of life’, intrinsically more satisfying:

The overplus of life that surges in us all – this ebullient excess of life over the needs of living – is, nine-and-ninety times out of a hundred, a joyous thing, be we conscious of its joy or not; and literature not only adds to this excess a brim-charging measure, but also refines and rarefies and spiritualizes the whole content, lifting it from life in the third or thirtieth degree to life in the first degree; and since in this exalting process it gives to it a consciousness of itself, it puts us into real possession of our own inherent happiness, and establishes, or should establish (if my thinking run aright), our serene and grateful confidence in the overwhelming credit-balance that will be revealed when the hour comes to prove our estate and audit the long account. It gives direction to this excess, and trues its road; sending it to the four great worthwhile marts, the four places where the trade is in delight; and they are Making, Giving, Intimacy, and Romance.

Israfel image
‘Israfel’, illustration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

The best of life: literature’s life-enhancing gifts

And so, Raymond then concludes his book with these four consequential soul-enriching and life-enhancing benefits of literature’s poetic gift of life: ‘Making, Giving, Intimacy, and Romance – enclose much, ‘he says, ‘and possibly all, of the best of life.’

Refined and purged then of the insecure and compensating ego’s vein quest ‘for applause and profit’ by literature’s soul-enriching and life-enhancing gift, we’re inspired then with a higher purpose to create intrinsically valuable things ourselves … ‘for the sake of the thing itself’ – or, rather, for the sake of our intrinsic need for mutually soul-enriching and life-enhancing creative self-expression. Likewise, we’re purged then of this ignorant imposter’s (i.e the ego’s) frigid miserliness, chicanery, and gluttonous clamouring for possession, power, and position and are spontaneously inspired instead by a more candid and generous spirit of fraternity. What’s more, as we’re purged of this tyrannically insecure and superficial prentender’s ‘self-centredness and unimaginative intolerance’, we develop more understanding of ourselves and others, and with it more empathy, and are enabled then to relate more profoundly and intimately, or at least more prudently.

And finally, empowered with literature’s gift of heightened awareness, Raymond says, our lives are also imbued then with a life-enhancing poetic romance, not to mention our having become intrinsically more interesting:

We have said that we miss the fulness [sic] of life unless we develop a power to respond like a harp to every breeze of thought that blows, and grows [sic] eyes that can catch the romance, the interestingness of every single thing in the world; and that we can only get this power and these eyes by reading and understanding the great writers of the world whose vision has pierced, not alone through the things that are manifestly lovely, but through the tiniest and ugliest things to the beautiful significance and illimitable implications that lie behind.

Romance image
‘Romance’, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

God willing, I’ll be exploring these, or similar, themes further then in subsequent posts. In the meantime and in conclusion, though, we can summarize what we’ve covered here by saying that literature’s life-giving transformational power lies in its capacity to first awaken and affirm … and to then refine, exalt, enrich, and direct the latent, dormant, or repressed consciousness, sensibility, or felt awareness, and the underlying zest for life, that lies within.

And, that’s the life then that, I fear, the tyrannically insecure, intrinsically self-loathing, and life-negating socio-political ego eternally fears and despises.

In the next post then, we’ll consider how we can transcend the life-negating or life-repressing effects of the socio-political ego … by more wisely choosing our mentors and role models, and not mindlessly emulating those who too readily assume social power only to, more or less, ignorantly misuse and abuse it. The next post in this series then is A Literary Guide to Life: On Literary Transcendence and the Transformational Literary Life Odyssey.

  1. The Tale of Cosmo, a story within a story by George MacDonald (1824–1905)
  2. The Fantastic Imagination by George MacDonald (1824–1905)