Over the past several weeks, I have noticed several blogs that have talked about why they love "genre" and why speculative fiction is important to them. On the whole, these posts interested me, mostly because I gained some insight into their authors, yet I found myself thinking, "Well, that's nice, but isn't there something else besides one literary grouping that can be discussed as giving the reader pleasure?" So I dwelt upon this for a while, perusing through several shelves of books idly, lost in a sort of haze.
What I found when I looked at titles such as Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics was a sort of captured conversation. What Plato (through the constructed Socrates) proposes, Aristotle refines, sometimes ejecting material that seemed deficient. Then I looked around and saw Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (in Italian and English) and I remembered how part of that excellent novel references Aristotle's thoughts on comedies and tragedies. Speaking of such, the memory of Shakespeare bubbles up to the surface now, with his keen insights into human psyche.
Shakespeare's Memory, of course, is also the title of Jorge Luis Borges' last, slim volume of short fiction and it is along the garden with the bifurcating paths that I find myself recalling the first time I read Don Quixote in Spanish and the greater pleasure it gave me to "get" more of the allusions there. Pierre Menard would be proud, no doubt. Then other, darker pleasures came to mind, such as Octave Mirbeau's Torture Garden. There is something about the French Decadents and Symbolists: whether I read Lautréamont, Gourmont, Gide, or Huysmans, I found my thoughts wandering twisted paths. Doubtless a more existential approach, perhaps something by Camus or Sartre, might be more beneficial at times, yet I found myself going on.
Graham Greene, especially in The Power and the Glory, reminds me of faith, even if his prodigious narrative power might be eclipsed by Flannery O'Connor's devastating Southern Gothics. Speaking of my native South, Thomas Wolfe, particularly in You Can't Go Home Again, spoke to me again and again in my young adulthood, during my peripatetic days. Wandering in mind, body, and soul has led to introductions to William Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (which I may revisit soon, now that I'm older), Dickens' oevre, to Nabokov's delightful wit and prose, among others. Learning Spanish in order to communicate with students of mine nearly 10 years ago has introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez, Horacio Quiroga, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Rulfo, and a whole host of Latin American writers in their original tongue. I have not had such a surfeit of experiences since I learned enough Latin to read Vergil's epic in the original.
There is something about the interplay of image, metaphor, and sound that appeals to me. Poetry has long attracted me, even though I am not the "maricón" or "marica" type referenced in Roberto Bolaño's recent posthumous novel, Los sinsabores del verdadero policía. Maybe it began with reading Samuel Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and pondering on the albatross, or maybe it was later, reading an excerpt from The Epic of Gilgamesh my first week in Honors Western Civilization my freshman year at The University of Tennessee. Whenever it began, there is just such a delight in reading (and later, cursory translation) poetry that it never fails to make me dream, if only for a moment, of other times, moods, and locales.
I majored in history and earned an MA in European Religious and Cultural History (emphasis of study on late Weimar-early Nazi Germany) in large part because people fascinate me and the ethos of various times/places enchant me. Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, read first in the above-mentioned freshman class, forever has endeared me to studies of why fairy tales vary in shape, form, and moral while retaining a sort of kinship. The Great Cat Massacre, by Robert Darnton, is still a favorite over 15 years later.
Dramas performed in theaters move me more than virtually all movies. Seeing George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman and Georg Tabori's Mein Kampf performed during my time at UT developed in me a greater appreciation for how the body aids the voice in telling a story. Although I have yet to see it performed, part of me finds myself desiring to see Goethe's Faust (both parts) performed on stage. Perhaps I'll relearn German to the point where I can appreciate it being performed in its original tongue (reading it in German, with some aid from English translations, was a delight).
All of these encomiums do not mean that I do not appreciate speculative literature. Far from it. Without the conversations these authors above have had between their works and with their societies, it would be hard to imagine the weird and fantastical fiction that I love ever existing. I cannot see the "New Weird" being anything without the influence of the Decadents, among others. While I distrust Positivism, I can't envision science fiction, especially during its "Golden Age," taking such a form without its influence (even when it was to cause a reaction in some writers). But while I will eagerly read what a Brian Evenson, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, M. John Harrison, Peter Beagle, or any other of a host of outstanding speculative writers will produce, I cannot place their works into a hermetically-sealed shelf called "genre" and expect their narratives to move me, enrage me, seduce me, or transform me without being aware of their own contribution to the larger literary "conversation" that expands over millennia of time and space to envelop all human societies in its multilingual, oral/written/printed forms. The symbols that we decode from these texts ought to be much more than just an "escape" from something/into something; it might be best to view this transmitted learning as an engagement that allows us to insert our tiny little selves into this wonderful, delightful interaction of emotions, thoughts, and dreams.