By Tim Atkinson
He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry.
Jane Austen on Captain Benwick, Persuasion
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Roy Batty, Blade Runner
Art saves. Escapism is a wonderful thing – make no bones about it. In the worlds we find in books and films, in our wordless absorption of art and music, we affirm our right to dream.
Dreams of hope, of consolation, of visions great and terrible, of futures possible and impossible.
Like many readers of fantasy and SF, you could say with Roy Batty that I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: sorcerers’ apprentices duelling with magic for power and pride; giant sandworms with vacuum cleaner bodies rearing out of the Arrakeen desert; first contact with aliens with names from the minds of heterodox Scrabble players.
And I wouldn’t take any of it back.
But too much submersion in dreams can be perilous – ask any MMORPG addict. We have to live in the present at least some of the time; to cope with its demands, sure, but also to enjoy its sweetness, all those moments that would otherwise be lost in the rain.
None of this was news to Jane Austen, who wrote at a time when the Gothic, the fount of modern SF and fantasy writing, was in its ascendant. Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho) had made her mark just before the turn of the century, and the Romantic poets – your Byrons, your Wordsworths, your Shelley’s M and P – were Regency people like Austen.
There was no shortage of people – in short – swooning at the poetry and literature of the sublime: art aspiring for a vertiginous awestruck feeling, dispensing delight and shivers in equal measure.
Of course, the thing about the epic and the overwrought are that they are great for inspiration, but not so great as a template for everyday living.
As a writer, but of practical temperament, who described herself as a painter of miniatures rather than of broad canvasses, I like to think that Austen understood both the appeal and the danger of too much emotional transport.
Hence Persuasion’s Captain Benway, one of a procession of unsuitable suitors in her books, but depicted much more sympathetically than Messrs Collins or Elton in Pride & Prejudice and Emma.
The good captain is a heartbroken navy man, mourning the death of his fiancée while he was at sea, when he encounters Anne Elliott, a typical Austenian protagonist of good sense and robust character.
Over dinner, she finds that they have literature in common, and out of a shared interest and a desire to bring him out of his funk stems a most interesting conversation.
having talked of poetry […] and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets […] he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely ; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.
Anne goes onto recommend Benway some improving reading – ‘such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering’ – as she deems necessary to re-ground this sensitive soul in reality.
Indeed, Not too long after in Persuasion, he finds a more conducive outlet for his great-souled instincts in caring for Louisa, Anne’s rival in love, following her unfortunate accident. Happiness results, although one hopes that he still got to read some poetry.
So, the moral here is still art saves. But it’s meant to save you for the real world, not from it. The experience lived has primacy over the experience imagined.
A proposition to which both Jane Austen and Roy Batty would, I hope, agree.