In a Russian 19th century literature class I took back in college, a professor, whose name I have since forgotten, drew this simple diagram up on the board:
Life <----------> Literature
When he was done, he turned to face the five or six of us seated around the table, fixed us with a good, long stare, and said:
"These two... are opposites."
That was it.
Opposites? I remember thinking at the time. What the hell?
Isn't all art, including literature, in some sense an attempt at the representation of life? When done well isn't a piece of art said to be a more accurate representation? Doesn't Shakespeare suggest, speaking through Hamlet, that the purpose of art is to hold "the mirror up to nature"? Are we supposed to think that Hamlet is naive when he says this? That Shakespeare was in writing it?
The memory of this experience of sitting in my Russian Lit class and wrestling with these questions came back to me during the past few weeks, as I began reading In Search of Lost Time for the first time.
The strange thing is that, reading Proust, my old professor's diagram is beginning to make sense to me.
Of course it's reductive. Of course it's simplistic. Yet I find that this thought, that life and literature are opposites, rings true to me now. And it comforts me. The imagination stands apart from the thousand natural shocks of experience.
Why did I fail to take comfort in this when I was 20 -- and instead felt troubled by it? Why don't I continue to feel troubled by this divergence between life and literature now?
Does our imagination play a different role for us as we grow older?