My imagination makes me human
and makes me a fool;
it gives me all the world
and exiles me from it.--Ursula K. Le Guin
An Urban Journal Exploring Place,
Purpose, Literature, Memory,
and This Time
June, 2002, page 2
We seem to be living in dangerous times--on a global level terrorism, AIDS, biological warfare, global warming, mad cow disease; on a national level forest fires, West Nile Virus, anthrax; and on a personal level, well, there seems to be no end to threatening things, from suspect levels of arsenic in our drinking water to carcinogenic food additives, from the ubiquitous numbers of chemicals that replicate human hormones in the body to the rise in strange maladies such as fibromyalgia and skin rashes. We can honestly say there has never been a time when the basic elements of life were suspect--water, food, sunshine. We could never have imagined that the most solidly reliable defense against disease, antibiotics, would be at risk of becoming ineffectual. Without history and literature, we might come to the erroneous conclusion that no generation has faced as perilous a time as ours.
As fragile and impermanent as humans are, how could any time not be perilous, how could any time be more perilous than the time preceding it? The human condition is relative. Technology has not relieved us of that fact. It may be said that technology has made life more perilous than safe. Well, a futurist would argue that point. But I am a literaturist, and the point I'm trying to make is that in one respect, we have a decided advantage over past generations, that technology is ambiguous, but literature keeps getting better, and keeps getting better at what it does best, which is (borrowing Proust's comment about memory) lifting us "out of the abyss of not-being." Literature tells us, as countless others have said before me and will continue to say long after me, who we are and where we've been; it tells us, as C.S. Lewis said, that we are not alone, and isn't that a far greater comfort than technology? Read Harold Bloom's book, How to Read and Why; he says it much better than I do.
Now, someone is sure to ask, if I were banished to an unknown planet and could take one great thinker with me, whether I would choose Harold Bloom or Stephen Wolfram, the scientific genius du jour. And I would say, being a realist and a bit of a cynic, but primarily a thing of biology, with genes encoded to survive and which, in the end, don't give a fig for spiritual/intellectual inquiry and solace, "Sorry, Harold, I think you hung the moon, but a body doesn't really have a choice here, does it?