Thursday, April 7, 2011

Elif Batuman's "The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them"

The impetus for writing springs from reading. Reading and writing are part of the same process. Robert D. Richardson in First We Read Then We Write quotes Emerson:"There is then the creative reading as well as creative writing.Emerson's method of archaeology devolves from first choosing the word and then constructing the sentence. In choosing the word, 'a writer needs to get in as close as possible to the thing itself.' Emerson insisted that 'words do not exist as things themselves, but stand for things which are finally more real than words.'(Richardson 49) This belief, of course, is a form of idealism; an idealism that flows from Plato through the German Idealists to Emerson.In idealism ideas alone are real; man thinks the world; man is the center and nature is a form of dream or spirit of man. Emerson wrote: 'the Universe is the externalization of the soul.' When the poet writes he/she creates soul which gives birth to Nature.But first there is the reading and Emerson was a voracious reader, consuming anything and everything that fell within his reach. As Richardson notes he checked more books out of the library than he could read in the allotted time and we have a record of his charges to Boston Athenaeum, the Harvard College Library, and the Boston Society Library. From these records he read hundreds of books and of those books he re-read a favorite few over and over again.

I found myself thinking of Emerson and Richardson as I read Ms Batuman's book of essays about her adventures in reading, writing, and studying--first at Harvard and then at Stanford University. What becomes obvious is that she is passionately committed to language and reading and that her writing interests arise from her reading. She seems to be one of those persons whose reading becomes as important as everyday experience and colors and dominates the quotidian.As Cyril Connolly wrote: "Words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living." My sense of Ms Batuman is that she has purposed to focus her attention on a deep reading of books and life rather follow what she calls a path of mimetic desire. She explicitly states her theme at the end of her introduction: "instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs. . . .what if instead you went to Balzac's house, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him--and then started writing? That is the idea behind this book."

And a very good idea it is, too. As she leads us through her studies of Russian literature, we discover increasingly interesting connections that prove that real life is indeed stranger than fiction. Two examples illustrate her project's purpose: in her chapter entitled "Babel in California," she recounts a find in her reading and researching of Babel's documents of a reference to a captured American pilot named Frank Mosher. Frank Mosher was an alias used by Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, the creator and producer of the film King Kong. In the 20s he fought on the side of the White Russians and Poles against the Bolsheviks. With this information she finds a wealth of information that informs the making of the movie and its politics. In her final chapter, entitled "The Possessed," she uses her reading of Dostoevsky's Demons to explain one of the central ideas of the book: that desire for the other is the impetus behind our need to be the other. She uses this psychological phenomena to explain certain writers' choice to not only write but the manner and method in which they write. "Don Quixote, it turns out, doesn't really want any of his ostensible objects; what he wants is to become one with his mediator: Amadis of Gaul." (264) She continues by quoting René Girard, author of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, who believes "mimetic desire is the fundamental content of the Western novel." And who also concludes that this mimetic desire in fiction leads to conflict and ultimately transcendence. As Girard concludes: "The hero sees himself in the rival he loathes; he renounces the 'differences' suggested by hatred."

Girard's thesis controls and supports the thesis of the book, which explains the conclusion. She writes:"If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find it."

If you like literature and traveling, this book is for you. However, there is much more to this collection: there is an almost metaphysical examination of writing, reading and their impetus. There is also the beginning of a trend; a whiff of the zeitgeist, signaling a change in the wind. In the world replete with escapist fiction and film, I feel a turning--a shift toward more serious subjects and a call for closer reading. As Coleridge once explained, there are four types of readers: the hourglass, the sponge,the jelly-bag,and the Golconda. Ms Batuman is obviously the latter; a Golconda is the reader par excellence--a person who, like a "high-grader," the person who goes through a mine and pockets only the richest lumps of ore.

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