On redemption and art

by Jess

I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of redemption in literature — that is, the evocation of redemption, the truthfulness of redemption, the finality of  redemption (is it the final chapter or does the story continue?), and the necessity of redemption in our literature and, by extension, in our lives.

I realize this is rather a jumble, but this essay about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, by Benjamin Kunkel in n+1, caught my eye when I read, “If dignity were possible or impossible, if we were trapped or free, or redeemable or not, this could best be proved by citing Wallace.” It’s a beautiful example of the ways in which that book has changed people’s lives.

Kunkel briefly discusses the psychological novel (I wish he’d gone on longer because I enjoy his viewpoints), and it just so happens I’m halfway through Within a Budding Grove, and I suddenly see the correlation between Proust and DFW.  It’s as though a door has been opened in my brain. Kunkel says, “What novelistic introspection ultimately discovers is not the local truth of some neurasthenic named Marcel or depressed person named Dave. At the bottom of the self is not the self. Common truth is there.”

I’m getting jumbled again. Perhaps it’s because I’ve taken a break from Proust to read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and, as Lev Grossman noted in his Time review, “2666 is not a novel that any responsible critic could describe with words like brisk or taut.” He adds, “This is a dangerous book, and you can get lost in it. How can art, Bolaño is asking, a medium of form and meaning, reflect a world that is blessed with neither? That is in fact a cesspool of chance and filth?”

Which brings me back again to the issue of redemption. I hesitate to suggest that perhaps art itself redeems the world. I would like to think that is so. As Nietzsche said, “Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest,” and another time, more poetically, “We have art so that we may not perish by the truth.”

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