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Only literature could reveal the process of breaking the law - without which the law would have no end - independently of the necessity to create order. [From Literature and Evil]
Reading literature is radical. Why do you think people burn books? Because books tell people how to be bad, and being bad is good for your soul. Reading about scandalous, awful things releases the ideas that live inside people's heads. Sometimes those ideas cause people to do crazy stuff. Society wants to have power over people, so it scares them and tells them certain things are evil, like sex and killing and stealing and saying weird things.
Now, as you may know, telling people a thing is prohibited often just makes that thing more exciting. So killing, hooking up, dancing inappropriately, cussing, and peeing in public all become taboos that get more and more exciting the more laws and customs tell you not to do them.
This is why we love murder mysteries and novels about scandalous love affairs, abused children, thieves, or decapitated monarchs. When we read a novel, it's like we are reading a manual for how our lives can be freed from an oppressive society. We may not go out and commit a double homicide, but we'll do it in our heads, and that's just as helpful.
Reproduction and death condition the immortal renewal of life; they condition the instant which is always new. That is why we can only have a tragic view of the enchantment of life, but that is also why tragedy is the symbol of enchantment. [From Literature and Evil]
You have your prince or your princess, and you live in a beautiful castle on a majestic mountain surrounded by a thick green forest. You call your life enchanted.
Now, why would you call your life enchanted?
Because there are nasty things and nasty characters out there to remind you of how bad it could actually be. The evil queen or the wicked witch, or the sorcerer, or the dragon—these are the true symbols for a charmed life. They give you something to compare your enchanted life to. These are the permanent, evil, fairytale family members who never go away and always bring the rotten fruit salad to family gatherings.
Evil characters are not bad; they're just reminders that the good life is good only because it's short, and one day, it will be gone. So have fun while you can—you're going to die sooner or later. And that is a beautiful thing.
The certainty of incoherence in reading, the inevitable crumbling of the soundest constructions, is the deep truth of books. Since appearance constitutes a limit, what truly exists is a dissolution into common opacity rather than a development of lucid thinking. The apparent unchangingness of books is deceptive: each book is also the sum of the misunderstandings it occasions. [From "Reply to Jean-Paul Sartre"]
Frankly, I like to keep my options open; I never fully commit to this or that meaning. I've got a pretty short attention span when it comes to figuring out the purpose of language and storytelling.
But here's what I can say. I think that reading is like bringing the dead back to life. When you read, you're like Victor Frankenstein stitching together severed limbs to make new monsters out of used language. As a reader, with new surgical tools of literary analysis, you can also tear apart the corpse of an old work of fiction and come up with new ideas. (I love dismemberment analogies.)
Books are not holy relics with singular meanings. They are misunderstood creatures that beg to be hacked open, stitched back together, and then shocked until they move again.
These studies are the result of my attempt to extract the essence of literature. Literature is either the essential or nothing. I believe that the Evil—an acute form of Evil—which it expresses, has a sovereign value for us. But this concept does not exclude morality: on the contrary, it demands a "hypermorality."
Literature is communication. Communication requires loyalty. A rigorous morality results from complicity in the knowledge of Evil, which is the basis of intense communication. [From Literature and Evil]
Hypermorality isn't about doing good things as quickly as you can. What I mean by hypermorality is that good and bad are both desirable, and real value should be recognized in both.
Literature wants you to know evil—like, really know it. That's its main purpose—to show you how to wreck the systems of thought that are making you miserable. Evil is sovereign; good is relative.
Real, hardcore, blood-sucking, soul-destroying evil is the most compelling part of literature. Analyze the bad guys and girls, and you can analyze the tone of an entire novel. The more evil there is in the literature, the more truth there is to be found there. The devil is in the details—the dirty, nasty details. You become truly moral when you can read about awful things and realize their value in human life.
Think of it this way: without a villain, you'd never be able to reach catharsis, because nothing bad would happen to the characters you're reading about. Without evil, there would be no art—there would just be cookbooks and travel guides.
Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose, just as if a wound were bleeding away inside us; we always want to be sure of the uselessness or the ruinousness of our extravagance. [From Erotism: Death and Sensuality]
Our heads would explode if we didn't have literature. We vomit our thoughts and secret desires and disturbing dreams onto blank pages, and them other people read it all and find out they're not alone in thinking about killing people and driving cars off a cliff.
All humans have excess everything—too many thoughts, too much sex on the brain, too many plans and goals, too many responsibilities. What we really want to do is dump it all into a pile and set it on fire. Let it burn, baby. I know you're thinking about it right now. Feels good, doesn't it?
I love reading stories about people losing everything. Take The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, or Oedipus the King. We love to experience loss—vicariously, that is. The greater the loss, the better it feels. It's better than sex. (Actually, I think sex is all about loss.)
Experiencing useless emotions is the ultimate human activity, and ultimately, literature is just as useless. Once the novel is out of your head and on the page, it's time to burn it—if you're the author, that is. Crazy, right? But that's just how we are.
Aristotle and I agree that loss is cathartic, and I believe that loss is the essence of literature. We're scared to experience loss in real life, so literature does it for us. Literature helps take out our excess psychic garbage before it starts to stink and attract flies.