Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tyranny without literature

“Literature is a realm of freedom,” I wrote yesterday. Perhaps I ought to have said “fiction” instead of “literature,” that old bore, although every kind of writing affords the writer at least some conceptual freedom. After all, writing enables you to modify the way things are. To paint every blade of grass in creation a bright shade of pink would take an eternity, if it were possible at all; but in writing you can accomplish the feat in a sentence. In writing all things are possible. This is not to suggest that writing is not also subject to necessity, for it is the process of a human mind, which is captive to all the limitations of human existence. The best writing knows as much, and provokes a conflict between freedom and necessity.

Consider this uncollected sonnet by Philip Larkin written when he was thirty-one and perhaps on holiday from his library post at Queen’s University, Belfast:

Autobiography at an Air-Station

Delay, well travellers must expect
Delay. For how long? No one seems to know.
With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
It can’t be
long. . . . We amble to and fro,
Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
And tea, unfold the papers. Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends? No: in the race for seats
You’re best alone. Friendship is not worth while.

Six hours pass: if I’d gone by boat last night
I’d be there now. Well, it’s too late for that.
The kiosk girl is yawning. I feel staled,
Stupefied, by inaction—and, as light
Begins to ebb outside, by fear; I set
So much on this Assumption. Now it’s failed.

The hoped-for ascent into the heavens, the success of holiday, depends upon indifferent despotic time, which turns anticipation to “inaction.” The conventional wisdom (“travellers must expect Delay”) is not reassuring. There is, in fact, no consolation or pastime to be found—not in cigarettes, sweets, tea, or the papers. In the stupefying limbo that every traveler has experienced, when no one can explain the delay nor estimate when it will end, even ordinary human contact becomes menacing. A glimmer of possibility appears after six hours: if he had taken the boat he’d be there by now. Gary Saul Morson calls this “sideshadowing” in contradistinction to “foreshadowing”:

By contrast, sideshadowing admits, in addition to actualities and impossibilities, a middle realm of real possibilities that could have happened even if they did not. Things could have been different from the way they were, there were real alternatives to the present we know, and the future admits of various paths. By focusing on the middle realm of possibilities, by exploring its relation to actual events, and by attending to the fact that things could have been different, sideshadowing deepens our sense of the openness of time.[1]Larkin’s peculiar genius is to make even the admission of real possibility into cause for groaning. But that does not change the fact that the poet visits, however briefly, with whatever dissatisfactions, the middle realm; the realm of freedom. In truth, the poem itself is a testament to that realm, because it exists—with its humor, sharp observation, and ironic self-pity—over against the actuality of delay and failure. It insists, in the quiet fact of its existence, that the present moment, with all its unhappiness, is not the only time that matters.

Without the freedom to do otherwise—to be otherwise—the human being is a slave. And it does not make a whole lot of difference whether he is enslaved by the color of his skin or because of the color of his skin. The conviction that actuality is the only dimension open to a man is the final tyranny.

[1] Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 6. Italics are his.