Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Literature?

I'm at the University of York Library now, sitting across from Ali, a man who emigrated from Turkey to the UK in the 80's, and after a couple decades in London, is now at York earning his MA in Social Work. Ali talks with a wide smile, laughs often, and after a few minutes, we connected about our common love of the Russian novelists.

"Dostoevsky!" Ali shouts in a whisper, above the construction noise from three floors below us. We sit at opposing desks by a window that opens onto a panoramic view of the upper portion of campus.

"What was your favorite novel of his?" I ask.

"Crime and Punishment, definitely Crime and Punishment. I read it three times--and every time Raskolnikov's inner life is more and more rich, more complex than the time before!"

I remember reading the book a decade ago when I was in England for a year abroad. My professor gave me one week to read the thing, and--as a slow reader--I spent about nine hours a day reading. I was enthralled by Raskolnikov's mental premise that God does not exist, and that truth and love, therefore, are imagined notions whereby no absolute actually justifies or negates any of our actions. Instead, Raskolnikov posits, how we think about things is what makes them so.

So Raskolnikov commits an act of murder against someone towards whom he feels no hatred. If his premise is substantiated, then he will be able to continue on with his own life and feel no deep remorse, no inner turmoil.

He cannot.

Raskolnikov's every move becomes more and more laborious, his very heart is ripped inside of him, and it is only the love of Sonia--a woman who sees the very depths of his violent action and loves him nonetheless--that "saves" him from being forever lost to his own notion of nothingness.

In short, Sonia, thorugh action, shows Raskolnikov both the power of love and the power of grace--and that our words, our actions, our lives matter. Nothing is for nothing. God exists, and Dostoevsky writes his soul out to prove love in a way that no research, how-to, scientific, or analytical book can.

In short, literature proves love.

Ali asks me what I'm working on in the library, and I tell him about the novel in progress, Fortress, about a Palestinian boy and a Jewish girl--both of whom have emigrated to America due to violent attacks on each of their families near Gaza. They become friends through an unlikely encounter at the high school, and through a  run-down movie theater in their town, a Grandma with Alzheimer's and her precise recollections of 12th century York, England, and a court case, their friendship creates something neither of them could have expected.

Ali nods, explains that he is from Turkey, and says that we need literature that aren't often popularized in the mainstream.

When I ask him what purpose literature serves, he looks away for a few moments, then looks back at me with a broad smiles and he laughs. "Novels show us voices and stories we might never have known."

As Ali continues working on his essay for his Social Work class, and I work on the novel, every once in a while we look up and talk over the small end-boards on our desks. I ask him what the essay is about, and he says it explores mental health care in the U.K. He asks me why I type so fast with my pointer fingers. I can only laugh for a reply.

Working across from Ali, the world feels small. In a good way. Not only is literature a bridge for compassion and understanding of other characters and situations, it is also a way to enter into the life of another--however brief that entrance might be.

And when a man from Turkey and a man from America can meet in a library in Britain and talk about their love for Russian literature, it the truth of Dostoevsky's claim feels pretty dang solid: literature proves love. And maybe that's why we get lost in a truly great novel: because as we read, something about us is found.