The Art and Literature Gland

David Stark / Zarkonnen
2 Jan 2017, 1:09 p.m.

I've been devouring Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, which I was given as a Christmas present. The book ties together foundations of computer science, Sanskrit, and the writer's own life experiences. It does not stay up in the clouds creating clever equivalences and brain porn moments but also examines the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, the remembered and the forgotten.

And so Sanskrit is a beautiful language with a rich legacy, but it's also a tedious rote subject inflicted on countless students in the name of shoring up social ideas of purity and hierarchy. Code is amazing, but much of it is promulgated by strutting jerks who see themselves as the new masters of the universe.

One thing the book mentions that I particularly like is the Indian aesthetic theory of rasas. Originally formulated in the context of theatre about two millennia ago, the idea is applicable to all forms of art and literature.

Why do I like it so much? Because it describes a precise mechanism by which art and literature actually work.

We all get literature inflicted on us in school to a greater or lesser degree. And I do mean inflicted. We are given these Very Important Works to read, but none of the background or tools to engage with them. It is implied if not outright stated that there's a specific deeper meaning to each work, and that sufficiently educated and sensitive people can find and enjoy this meaning. This utterly rigged game only succeeds at making most of us hate literature, as the only message it imparts to us is that we fall short, that we are too dull to participate in Real Culture.

For my high school final French exams, I read The Plague by Camus. I read it carefully, enjoyed it reasonably well, and thought about it a bunch. During the oral exam it became clear that I had missed the really important bit of context: this was about World War II, not about the bubonic plague at all. Each question the examiner asked I was able to answer in good detail with reference to the text, but not the context. After ten minutes of this, she relented and explained what I was missing. The rest of the exam went much better.

In German class, we slogged our way through most of The Tin Drum by Günther Grass. The entire class hated this book, with its weird and ponderous and frequently disgusting writing. Again, as a bunch of Swiss people born in the 80s, we did not have the historical or emotional context needed to engage with the book. No complex German postwar trauma rested within us. Our teacher brimmed with frustration and disdain at us failing to appreciate this Great Work of Literature.

At the end of this kind of education, I pretty much concluded that there was some kind of Art & Literature Gland that I - and most people - were evidently born without, and which was required to properly digest literature. So I just went back to science fiction, which to me was far more accessible and stimulating. What if there were aliens? What if the only aliens were giant self-replicating interstellar robots? What if we could genetically modify people? What if we could travel in time?

I mellowed a bit over time and realized that there were works that touched me at some level beyond "this is pretty" or "this is intellectually stimulating". Perhaps my Art & Literature Gland was not entirely absent, just choked with bad nourishment. I encountered the idea that reading was a collaboration between the reader and the writer. With paintings, it occurred to me to engage with them by observing where my mind went while looking at them, rather than trying to puzzle them out directly. I stopped needing to quantify every experience in precise language.

With literature, I still railed against much of its needless obscurity. If you have something to say, why not say it straight out? Literary games where something becomes only comprehensible if you have read the right kind of books - and by extension are the right kind of person that the author approves of - still broadly disgust me. But I understand now that there are other reasons why you can't always plain state what you mean.

Some expressions are plain censored. If you wanted to criticise the Pope in the middle ages, you could hardly do it by saying "the Pope is bad", and so you wrote a little fable with animals to create plausible deniability.

Other thoughts are too painful to directly engage in. Both The Plague and The Tin Drum fall into this category, I think. What actually happened in the war, in places more ambiguous than the battlefield, beyond the official story of the good guys beating the bad ones.

And finally, some thoughts and feelings cannot be expressed in concrete language because there are no exact words for them. At this point, at least half my readers are probably twitching with frustration going "yes, yes, of course, this is lit 101, why are you even bothering to say this".

This is not something that was ever usefully communicated to me in more than a decade of schooling. All that arrived at my end was: "This is art, this is literature, if you are a complete, sensitive, ensouled human being you will somehow understand and appreciate it. If you don't, you are a dull person, and you should either learn to fake it or concentrate on the other side of our two-cultures divide, you morlock."

And if art is something that happens between the work and yourself, and if it's actually different for each person, then some art will work for you, and some will leave you unmoved, and that is normal and fine. (Your Art is not my Art and that's OK.)

The canon is no longer an unapproachable monolith - but a less impressive one, which is probably why this was also not really mentioned in my schooling.

So, rasas, how do they work? The really short and mostly-wrong version is that they are your appreciation of the emotional states produced by the resonances in a work.

So the surface text or image or performance produces a set of related thoughts and impressions in you, based on your existing thoughts and experiences. This produces a particular mood that goes beyond an immediate reaction to what's happening on the surface. You don't just feel hopeful because there's a hopeful situation in a book. You experience hope.

You then simultaneously experience that mood and also appreciate it in a detached way. That appreciation is rasa. For example, if something makes you feel sad, but at the same time you appreciate this sadness for its complexity and universality, that's rasa.

And that makes sense to me! It's a clear process that I can observe within myself. My teachers were simply too busy shoring up social ideas of purity and hierarchy to actually teach me anything.

There is plenty of room for sophistication and growth in this. As your experiences extend, there are more resonances, and the moods created in you become more full and detailed, and your rasa can grow and change as well. But it's no longer a binary, you no longer either "get" literature or you don't, because each reader has a different set of resonances that cannot and do not need to be compared or ranked.

Rasa is something you can find within yourself and cultivate, be it from the ending of The Shawshank Redemption as seen on Netflix in your underpants, or from sitting in a glitzy concert hall listening to Haendel. Dubious Art & Literature Gland not needed.