Although I have very much enjoyed being a professor over the last several years, I have also realized with a certain sadness some effects that these years have had over specific faculties of my mind. Perhaps these effects are due to the highly technical nature of the job which often tends to dominate other parts of the brain; perhaps it is simply a manifestation of the process of growing older. I am, of course, thinking about the ability to look at one's life from a very broad perspective, one within which its beginnings and ends are sharpy punctuated like two bookends and the importance of its aims and goals and pleasures and purposes are accordingly cut to size when it is placed in the greater scheme of things. I am distinctly aware that half a decade ago, I had internalized this point of view to a greater degree than I do now. The result of this attitude then was to engender in me an amalgamation of detachment from and curiosity about the world around me. I could at once be fascinated by the stories of mundane lives (since no life is really mundane) and unburdened by what happened to them. This attitude extended to the world in large and allowed me to be detached from any noble causes and any great communal goals. In a few words, I simply did not care. But I did not did not care in the same sense in which a selfish person does not care. I did not care because the idea that it is all meaningless in the end was always front and center in my consciousness. The world was ridiculous and pointless and that people did not seem to realize this was endlessly fascinating to me.
I think reading literature of a certain kind had something to do with the development of this attitude. A steady diet of stories from those nineteenth century Russians is guaranteed to instill in the mind of an impressionable young man the seeds of a hard-edged realism. The mellifluous meanderings of Proust and Flaubert are sure to inspire an enchantment with the mundane, with the grand stage of life itself upon which the pathetic and inconsequential drama of individual lives are played with an endearing self-importance and a charming delusion. I had a chance to relive it all recently when I read Madame Bovary again. When I first read the book, Emma to me was so much more than the main character of an exceedingly well written story. She was a lens with which to see and understand the world. She, with some moderation, was a metaphor for the average joe you could sympathize with. A person living a truncated and unfulfilled life, eternally caught in the currents of destiny which are too strong for him to affect and too inscrutable for him to comprehend. Every move that he makes to counter his predicament only serves to lodge him deeper into the morass, thus setting up a delicious example of the human condition if one were to be a little heartless in one's descriptions. There are other characters in the book which are less useful in this sense than Emma. Homais is eventually irritating because he ends up succeeding. What must surely be an inner life in Homais which is monstrously ravaged by insecurity and conflict is too little comfort for me as a reader and as an observer. Charles, Emma's husband, is a useless idiot (as opposed to a useful idiot). He does not have the intelligence or curiosity to understand that he is doomed and, consequently, does not have the sensitivity to make something beautiful out of his predicament. Even in his eventual grief he is entirely unoriginal, copying directly from that great master (mistress?) of cosmic tragedy -- his deceased wife Emma.
This was a bit of a digression but it goes on to show what good literature can do to the brain. Such delicious morsels of thoughts, such interesting perspectives do not emerge in vacuum but are easily germinated in the fertile grounds of a master storyteller's words.