December 3rd, 2009

The Overwhelm of Literary Afterglow

I spent most of my Thanksgiving reading The Age of Innocence.

That seems deeply appropriate to me now, as I feel such gratitude for the book I don’t know how to express it in words. It was my second time reading it, the first being in late 2005 or early 2006. I liked it then, I remember, and vaguely classified it in the category right below the category of my “favorite books.” That category doesn’t really have a name/label, but it just means I much liked the book but not quite enough for it to be one of my favorites.

I’m not sure what I was thinking. It seems difficult to me to describe how differently I experienced the book this time. I know I was in a different place then, and perhaps the circumstances I was experiencing at that time really affected how I perceived what I was reading or even distracted me from it, but I feel and felt astonished by the nuance, insight, and implication that I just did not seem to get the first time reading it. Similarly, of course, the circumstances I experience presently likely affected my reading of it this time as well. Such is art and such is life. I simply was/am taken aback by the degree to which, this time around, I found these previously missed nuances and implications stunning.

A few days ago, when I knew I wanted to write this post but felt poignantly ill-equipped to do it justice (as I still do), I mentioned on Neve Black‘s blog my interpretation that The Age of Innocence may be one of the most beautiful products of human creation to which I feel I have been exposed thus far in this lifetime. I miss it. I have been missing it since I finished it, and even as I was reading it I felt a poignant yearning that at some point I would likely finish it, and its immediacy and involvement would be gone from my experience.

One of the things I remember not feeling resonant with when I was pursuing an MFA was what seemed to be the movement away, in the academic setting, from the subjectivity of creativity. It has occurred to me before — I seem to recall it occurred to me even then — that since I have historically experienced a tendency to not recognize and be with feelings, when I encountered something that did allow or even force me to do that, on some level I appreciated it deeply. Art or perhaps the response in me to it has been one of those things for as long as I can remember. So the feeling of that being lessened or even taken away felt particularly daunting/dissonant to me. (Incidentally, that is one of the reasons it makes so much sense to me that others may not find this aspect of artistic academic programs disagreeable or even necessarily experience it that way. They may not have experienced this particular relationship of art/creativity and affect/emotion the way I have. Whereas for me, it felt paramount.)

The way I felt as I read (since I did vaguely remember how it ended, having read it before) and when I finished The Age of Innocence epitomized the overwhelming affect-via-art experience for me. It felt like it broke me open — and in the understanding that I am really one with the Universe, being broken open can be a way of further experiencing and realizing that.

A. H. Almaas says of beauty:

“The more a manifest form expresses and embodies true nature with its timeless features, the more the eyes of the soul behold it as beautiful. Beauty is a reflection of truth, and truth is ultimately true nature.”

So seems to be the beauty that has struck me in The Age of Innocence, and I simply bask now in silence and utter reverence in the afterglow of this experience I don’t know how to describe. It is a book that feels like it has done something unique to me, something no other thing could ever quite have done.

In the beginning of the edition I have, there is an introduction by a noted critic and scholar of Wharton. I did not read it before I started, frequently preferring to read such things after I have finished the work so as not to be affected beforehand by another’s perception of it. Last night I turned to the introduction and considered reading it, and I noticed I still felt hesitation after skimming the first paragraph. At this time I have deemed that I just don’t have an interest in reading it yet.

I was considering why I felt this distinct yet inarticulate feeling. I recalled hearing Wayne Dyer, in an audio version of one of his books years ago, talk about analysis being “intellectually violent.” He said to analyze was the opposite of sythesize — the tearing apart of something rather than the merging of parts into a whole. I remember finding that description so gorgeous it took my breath away.

Historically there has seemed a tendency in me to analyze, which could quite be related to that one resisting emotion and affect. Analysis could serve as a distraction — breaking things down and/or tearing them apart in order to feel more in control or to not let the “whole” really affect me like it does/will on some level anyway. Analysis may just water it down and allow the historical personality structure in me to seem not so affected by dealing with something one piece at a time.

Art, sometimes, has blown right through that no matter what the historical tendencies in me may want to do. And I love it for that.

So it occurs to me that the introduction might analyze the work in a way I feel like I don’t want to be exposed to — as if it will interrupt some fragility, some beauty that is perfect in the form it currently is.

Interestingly, as I was pondering this again today, I went to the Erotica Readers and Writers Association website after reading the newsletter today and read brilliant Ashley Lister‘s piece titled “Broken Rainbows.” I was struck that the topic of his piece is almost this exact subject from a writing rather than a reading/experiencing point of view.

Perhaps the most striking similarity is that Ashley says this:

“There are laws of communication that have to be obeyed to transform an idea into an experience worthy of being called literature. And, just like science [and its explanation of a rainbow], the efforts of examination and inspection offer the dullest explanations and invariably threaten to break the rainbow”

— when it had crossed my consciousness last night that to me reading the introduction right now felt like smashing a prism, taking each color and examining it as a separate flat strip, the glittering whole no longer in the form of its original dimension.

Ashley also says,

“Regardless of the mechanics that create a piece of fiction, whether it comes from a writer steeped in knowledge about the tradition of the novel, or a newcomer with a burning desire to tell a story, the results can be (and often are) a beautiful experience.”

That experience is in what I still feel deeply immersed, so deeply I don’t even know how to articulate it. I feel too close to the work still to feel at all interested in its deconstruction; it seems interruptive of the experience I feel such indescribable gratitude to have been offered.

In short, I am not ready to cut apart The Age of Innocence yet. Its sum is too beautiful to me.


“In a flash it takes hold of my heart; what a feeling…I can have it all…pictures come alive, now I’m dancing through my life…”
-Irene Cara “Flashdance – What a Feeling”

7 Responses “The Overwhelm of Literary Afterglow”

  1. danielle says:

    em, thankn you for that delightfull post..i wanted to read that book since ages but never did…but after this post i think i finally have to get and read it..:-)

  2. I find that as I get older I go further and further from analysis when I read, listen to music, view art or whatever.

    If a book does not draw me in fully, I’m probably not going to finish it (of course, I’m talking novels here.)

    One of my long-time faves is Frank Norris, who had many flaws as a writer, and as a person. His outlook on the human condition is very much a product of his time (turn of the twentieth century.) He was often repetitive in his descriptions, and I could go on. When I read my first Norris novel, my “literary learning” was fully engaged, and I started to pick. But when I got past this initial instinct, my mindset changed.

    His stories and his characters simply draw me in. And something in the way he wrote reached deeper.

    It’s said that the cost of man being enabled to fly is that the wonder in watching birds fly was diminished.

    Don’t cut The Age of Innocence apart.

    Don’t do it!

    There is less to be gained in the analysis than there is from basking in the glow of being part of something you loved.

  3. Emerald says:

    Hi Danielle! Thanks!

    It was funny, I remember when I first bought it (right before I read it the first time) I was at Barnes & Noble standing in front of the classics shelf and just felt led to it. Then a couple weeks ago it crossed my consciousness, and I felt called to read it again. I had and have no idea why, but I didn’t feel I needed to know why. I just agreeably went and pulled it off the shelf.

    If you do read it feel free to let me know how you experienced it. Thanks for stopping by! :)

  4. Emerald says:

    Craig, what a beautiful comment, especially the last sentence. (I keep reading it over again.) It seems obvious to me you understood exactly what I was talking about.

    Thank you so much.

  5. danielle says:

    you know i love stoping by in the green light district..:-)

  6. Neve Black says:

    Oh, Emerald, congratulations for this post, sweetie!

    It’s thought provoking and full of your wonderful ponderings. I love it.

    I think what makes a great piece of work is the simple fact that it can stand the test of time. Duh. You’d think I made that up or something. Ha. To further comment on that statement using my own words: I suppose that means a piece seems to evolve in time, much like the reader is doing. Time doesn’t stand still, and even though the words don’t change once a story has been written, the meaning does. It’s constantly evolving, like us.


  7. Emerald says:

    :: Blows a kiss to Danielle ::

    Thank you so much Neve! What sweet things to say. :) I actually enjoyed writing this post — getting it out there, so to speak. (Know what I mean?)


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