Reasons to Live
What does literature do? And why does it matter? I’ve written at length about why Chronicle is important to literature, how reading fiction is a better way to spend our free time. But what often goes unsaid in my posts is the underpinning for why it matters, in a deep and life-or-death kind of way, what we choose to spend our time and attention on. It’s been about a year since we launched Chronicle to the public, and so we’ve been reflecting on why, exactly, we do what we do. And it turns out that my answer has a lot to do with the basics of language.
Think, Thought, Language
How would you describe a thought? What does it mean to be thinking? We often refer to an internal monologue, and this is for a good reason: to think means using language in an auditory way, to speak to ourselves in our heads. Sometimes this is as simple as seeing a car and hearing the word “car” in our stream of consciousness. Sometimes it’s complicated, like trying to grasp a difficult theory or come to grips with an emotional state. Often without realizing it, we utilize language nearly 100% of the time we are awake, even when we aren’t reading, writing, listening, or speaking.
Ferdinand De Saussure, the founder of semiology and modern linguistics, argued that language is the very thing that allows us to experience consciousness. We colloquially know this: it’s a platitude to say that language is what separates humans from animals. But it is also what allows us to categorize, to recognize the difference between up and down, to understand chronology. Without language, raw experience merely parades across our senses with no distinction or definition. It is from our language faculty that consciousness arises.
The Permeable Threshold
Look around you. What kinds of rhetoric do you encounter in your everyday moments? From where I’m standing, at a local coffee house, there is a lot of branding: names of espresso-machine manufacturers, audio equipment, clothing, shoes. Nearer are my personal items: Apple electronics, Autodromo wristwatch, Hestra winter gloves, Michael Kors winter coat, Ray-Ban sunglasses. This type of rhetoric, language-as-nomenclature, has a pragmatic use—we need to know something about what we’re buying, and brand names are a shortcut in doing so. But language isn’t just about naming. It’s also the raw stuff of our consciousness. When we subliminally read, all day every day, marketing messages and brand names associated with empty promises about fulfillment and better lives, that language acts on us. It doesn’t just act on our memories (we now know the name of a brand) but, over time, it affects who we are.
What I’m proposing is that the kinds of language we expose ourselves to matters. It’s the gateway to consciousness, and if we only ever pay attention to advertisements, to social media, to the news, then those things end up becoming our entire world. They end up defining us, whether or not we “buy in” to what they’re saying. The character of our language is at the core of who we are, because who we are is defined by what we can say (not just to others, but to ourselves as well.) If our ability to speak is formed by product names, by the language of buying and selling, by money and class, then that’s who we are. The idea that I am nothing but a buyer/seller, a vessel for product information and smart purchasing decisions, has never really sat well with me. It seems that human beings are more than this.
I had a literature professor in college who would stand up at the front of the class and proclaim, “You’re all in this room because you believe that stories matter!” I knew she was right, but I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why. And the answer is because language matters. Because we don’t just use speech in the way that we use a hammer. Language is the tool we can’t put down, because it’s the threshold through which we access the world outside ourselves. But it’s also, crucially, malleable. On the one hand we use it to act, on the other it acts on us.
Fictional stories matter because the language they employ is that of living a human life. They give us the specific kind of vocabulary that makes it possible to understand the world around us in a deep way. They glorify our short, fleeting existence. Fiction stories affirm the value of humanity, not just by showing us what is great, but also by breaking our hearts again and again. The kind of language they employ is that of empathy, of understanding, and they seek to make sense of a complicated, dizzying world in which there aren’t always easy answers for everything.
The Stakes are High
So what kind of person do you want to be? Chronicle is important because when I say that we can do better with our free time, the stakes aren’t merely inconsequential choices between different types of entertainment. We’re putting the very primordial stuff of consciousness and personality at risk every day, every waking moment. Of course it isn’t realistic, nor would it be healthy, to simply sit around and read literature all day every day. But we live in a world so constantly bombarded from all sides by a certain kind of rhetoric. The risk of being passive, of allowing our personalities to be created by the language of marketing and commodities, or celebrities and sports teams, is a very live and very real problem.
We are building, every day through our choices of what to pay attention to, the very base stuff of our consciousness. With Chronicle, we have the opportunity to turn away from the language of the everyday. We can understand, through literature, our own lives with greater clarity. We can chase away fear of the unknown, bigotry, and anxiety by choosing to expose ourselves to the kind of language that enriches us, that deepens our ability to understand the world around us. Chronicle is important because stories do matter. Because we matter.