What do I want literature to be like?

Two-dimensional, sensorial, and beyond time and space

When I think about literature, I imagine a certain type of literature because this literature touches me. There is other literature, of course, but it does not touch me. Why does a certain type of literature touch me? What does this literature do differently from other literature? The answers to these questions provide me with the following perspective: literature and art should be two-dimensional, tentative and sentient, and beyond time and space.

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Depicting things in a two-dimensional way

What does “two-dimensional” mean? I remember watching an Indian film where key scenes, in which two friends are locked in a long-running dispute, had been filmed in front of a steep grassy hill that filled the entire background of the picture. This “flat canvas” was very effective in focussing the viewer’s vision on the inner conflict the two people were experiencing.

That is the way one painted in the Middle Ages, when a person’s physical life always hung by a thread: two-dimensionally, without perspective. Today, life in rich countries more often hangs by a mental thread rather than a physical one, but three-dimensionality, colour and perspective are still something rather useless in themselves: they distract from the essential. Essential things are simple, concentrated—often with a squeezed perspective.

The European Renaissance, with its strong desire to produce three-dimensionality, did, however, spawn touching pictures now and again,. As I stand before the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, I see my own life: proportions that are thrown out of joint, strange perspectives, and much more that does not seem to be real with regard to pictorial representation. I find the “Resurrection” scene of the altarpiece much more lively than the „Mona Lisa“. When I view the “Crucifixion” or “Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons” on the Isenheim Altarpiece, I think of contemporary life; when I view the “Temptations of Christ” by Sandro Botticelli from the Sistine Chapel, I think of art history, architectural theory, humanism, and weighty, dusty books.

These objects of art are, of course, over five hundred years old. The gilded, kitschy porcelain sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons from 1988, on the other hand, touches me with a certain contemporary fascination; it does trigger something. But it has been designed in a much too complicated way. Kitsch actually does reduce the distance between the viewer and the viewed object, as Walter Benjamin critically commented, but that is not the problem. Though kitsch is supposed to provide instant emotional gratification without intellectual effort, in art this has been turned on its head nowadays: the colourful cheerfulness, and the crass transgressions and irreverence of kitsch art, ultimately, and despite all its sexualisation efforts, only present a cold object, which even with a maximum of mental effort can no longer provide emotional gratification. The garish realism and the surfacing technique of kitsch art, with a surface that is constructed in a complicated and strained manner, prevents the viewer from immediately feeling the deep pain of rootlessness that the object should normally trigger. Inner pain is a faithful companion of love—and of a burning love of life also.

Describing things sensorially (sentiently and tentatively)

What does it mean to describe things sensorially, i.e. “sentiently and tentatively”? Whenever human beings are humiliated, kept down, beaten, raped, hurt, or simply disappointed or robbed of their faith in people, these occurrences—and especially the way these occurrences are remembered—do not always lead to the formation of a monolithic bedrock of feeling that might consistently be described as being made up of “negative” or “painful” feelings.

The history of our feelings rather conceals a universe which—even though we are fortunately able to subject this universe to an objectifying social criticism—should not be reduced to such a critique. If one spends a lifetime struggling against “bad” feelings and “bad” memories, one will never find out that badness is an unalterable part of our world. If one lives in opposition to badness, or hopes for a final victory over badness in this world, one will be living a life of painful emotional denial; one will be living an illusion that will always fail to provide a sense of direction.

The most distinguished mission of literature and art is to draw the map of human development and deformation. Once this map has been drawn, the quest for one’s own situational truth can begin. The way in which an event deposits itself in a person’s feelings (how the event is experienced at the time is not of particular importance) is not a foregone conclusion, and it is not stereotypical. We do not know very much about the different ways in which different people experience a very similar event in their “emotional bodies”, and why this is so. More knowledge would enable us to change more things. Diagnosing an illness is often the most difficult thing for a physician, not the treating of it.

Provided one does not armour oneself emotionally, one may ask the following question with reference to any event a person has experienced: how do the feelings created by the event contribute to the formation of a large and animate “pain body” within the person’s mind? And the next question would be: what is the exact physique of this inner, mental body?

From a social and spiritual perspective one can further ask whether people may succeed in decoupling their pain body from their self. To achieve this, one needs to know where the pain body starts and where it ends; one needs to know its outline and its shape. And once people have become acquainted with their pain body, they might even additionally try to dislodge their ego from its dominant position.

Nowadays, we like to tell stories about heroes and victims. In reality, all humans are small, weak, and vulnerable, both children and grown-ups. If a decision has to be taken whether a person is more of a hero or more of a victim, most people will end up on or near an imaginary half-way line. Humility and a sense of community would be a better attitude than forcing oneself to choose between heroism or depression. It has to be said that humility does not mean living a life under the yoke. Humility means looking at any person, alive or dead, and accepting, “had I been in their shoes, I would have acted in the same way.” Humility means accepting the law of cause and effect.

Why not use the term “sensitive” for “tentative and sentient”? “Sensitive” suggests something like a “softened and conditioned” emotional stance, a keynote of passive empathy. But such an attitude does not contribute to illumination. In order to explore the emotional map of the world, one rather needs an adventurous spirit and detached courage.

Why not “impressionist”? Although the self (or subject) is unstable, and a person’s “pain body” is relatively changeable, in everyday life self and pain body are often more hard reality than subjective impression. In the case of real human beings, viewed both individually and collectively, “self” and “pain body” are often the only subjective reality to which they cling.

Immersing oneself in the world in a timeless and spaceless manner

What does it mean to immerse oneself in the world in a “timeless and spaceless” manner? A significant part of today’s production of fiction and stories locates its action “in another time or world” or “within the historical big picture”. Some stories are set in the past—for example in the Middle Ages, the Stone Age, or among hunters-gatherers—some are set in the future, for example in a futuristic world of interstellar travel, autonomous robots, and sophisticated technological social control.

Other stories are set in a fantasy world that consists of clichés gleaned from human history. Such stories try to describe the “big picture” of contemporary society in a way that epically “estranges” or “distances” us from the way we usually see society. However, the basic principle of all these literary and narrative aesthetics closely corresponds to the ideology of our current society, which can be summed up as “Development, Progress, Future”.

Another school of storytelling dedicates itself to reworking the partial doubts that people have about this great narrative of human development: “Horror and Suspense”, however, do not really lend themselves to putting the human intellect into a prolonged and productive state of doubt. At the end of such stories, we usually witness the triumph of normalisation, again.

This colourful carnival of storytelling tends to act rather like a system of “smoke and mirrors”. In its fundamental dynamics, human society does not change at all, even though profound changes may seemingly occur and changes that do occur often have great outward force. On the face of things, such significant developments really do take place. But humans “never experience anything new, be it through the pursuit of knowledge or the events of the temporal world”. Within itself and in a dormant manner, the soul of each human being already accommodates everything one is able to know. This knowledge is immutable, eternal.

Great things are revealed in small things. It is unnecessary to create an exact image of the big wide world or of the totality of society’s structure—it is unnecessary to put up the big silver screen. The small image of a well-intentioned, guileless child, for instance, that puts out its hands in a friendly manner, only to have an angry adult smack them, contains all the drama and all the analysis and all the criticism and all the art the world requires.

But things will not make a turn for the better if, in leaving the colourful, adventurous world of knights, robots, and psychopaths, we turn back towards a world of fictionalised moral tracts. It would actually be a good idea if reading a story made the reader involuntarily pull a cigar from their pocket in order to reflect on the story in great tranquillity and detachment. The age of literary “distancing” or “alienation” has nevertheless come and gone. Readers or members of an audience should neither intellectually “understand” things after extensively analysing them nor should they be critically instructed on how and where to “take sides”.

Any impression they receive should rather be immediate. If one really wants to perceive an object, one cannot approach it from the outside. Any approach from the outside will be doomed to failure. Such a doomed approach may be attempted in a negative sense as well, for example by engaging in intellectual criticism or by approaching things with an ironic stance, because feeling emotional or naive “empathy” with a character, on the one hand, and critically or ironically observing a character, on the other, are both ultimately acts of (sometimes negative) “identification”. Approaching an object will only be truly successful if one approaches it from within: if one fuses with it. The goal of fiction should neither be empathy nor alienation nor irony, but rather immediacy.

Why is that so? In the event that one wants to “identify” with someone or something by approaching them from the outside, of necessity one has to be different from this other. That is the nature of “identification” (to consider something as being the same as something else). Two things that are different are not “identical”, and they can never be so. On the other hand, a certain thing, for instance a human being, is indeed identical with itself, but one does not learn much from this fact, because it would be practically impossible to say what the other object is that a person, seen as the “original” object, might be identical with. “Fusing” or “becoming one” is not the same as “identifying”.

By identifying with an object—contrary to what one might expect—one is unable to approach the object via a steady process of convergence: if one employs a process of identification, this will always lead one to contemplate the object immovably from a distance. One may question, of course, whether one’s wish to “become one” with someone or something else will ever achieve its goal. But at least trying to be absolutely close to someone inwardly, to share everything, has a higher level of energy than the wish to side with someone.

If I were one with someone else, I would experience the other’s experience as if it were directly occurring to myself. In order not to go mad or become depressed, one additionally needs a patient attitude towards the fact that the world will always contain badness, which one will then to a certain extent also experience oneself, in an unmediated manner. Preserving a sense of humour will help in this context. A prominent feature of the literature of Germany over the past 250 years is an especially persistent lack of humour; an absence of humour is a characteristic of authority, however. Ireland, a kind of “perennial loser”, went done a different path.   One incidentally does not have to conceive of a direct relationship with an object as a one-sided, hierarchical relationship. People are always searching for the true meaning of life. However, one does not find the true meaning of life in this manner, because one cannot find it. The true meaning of life seizes one from the outside, without one being required to do anything, except surrender to this seizure.

The audience of a work of art should not stand opposite an object, examining it, and then “take sides” or “ironically reflect on it”; rather, immediate perception, in which there is no distance between perceiver and the perceived, is essential. Compassion and sympathy are good things in themselves; but you do not need art for them. Anyone who solely stands up for someone else is solely acting as a representative; they can resign their mandate at any time.

Distance leads to separation, and separation is the problem or our age. One should approach an object to be perceived “in a spirit of oneness, not in a spirit of sameness”. That is what “immersing oneself in the world in a timeless and spaceless manner” means: the absence of distance and separation.