Warping reality

Making sense of the sublime

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Literature has always been an adventure for me. With each page a portal into some other world, novels have taught me about people and places I’ve never known. Words on a page have some mystical ability to bestow truth upon an idea, a person and their reality. But what happens to the people who don’t get their stories told? Or even more concerning, what happens to people whose stories are lies? 

Authors are sneaky practitioners. The ability to tell a nontruth, but to frame it both elegantly and inconspicuously, engages a reader in a truly dangerous game of cat and mouse. The notion of perspective — and its distortion — is what fascinates me the most. 

For the past week, I’ve been hooked on the novel “The Mastery of Love,” by Don Miguel Ruiz. Based on Toltec knowledge, the novel is essentially a guide to love: Ruiz states that we are each living in our own dream worlds, with our own understandings of right and wrong, fear and love. 

The concept of perception as a dream explains the complexity of perspective within literature. We all dream uniquely, with different degrees of fear, love, compassion, hate and so forth. So when an author tells a lie, evades the truth or masks the truth in a mirage of aesthetic decor, their purpose is not always deception — because for the author, or the character they have created, those lies may be their truth.

Another book that, for myself, has long been an intriguing and terrifying example of warped perspective is “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. 

I have read “Lolita” multiple times, both individually and for an English class, and have realized that Nabokov’s intention is to reflect upon literature’s ability to tell lies. The capacity of the novel’s narrator, Humbert, to manipulate the reader is both mesmerizing and disgusting. From the beginning of the novel we are informed that Humbert is an unreliable narrator, as he tells us himself. But his beautiful descriptions of Lolita, his sincerity, his twisting of events and the lack of input from Lolita herself can easily lead readers to feel pity for Humbert, even though he is a pedophile. 

I single out “Lolita” not because it is the only example of literature that communicates a distorted and untrue reality, nor because it is the most damaging novel to do so, but because it is a unique documentation of perspective. Humbert repeatedly informs the reader, who is following his account of events, that he is a criminal and cannot be trusted. But he then goes on to conceal his abuse with fanciful imagery, alluring language and his own, singular perspective. Because of Nabokov’s mindful commentary, “Lolita” is an unusual example of metafiction, as the novel reflects on how easily literature bestows truth upon perspective.

Concurrently, literature can also erase perspectives, people and events. It doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, but by refusing to represent them, an author frames these perspectives as untrue, unimportant or nonexistent. This presents a dangerous worldview to a reader, who is led to believe a singular reality is the only reality, when in fact each person lives within their own dreamlike experience of the world.

I feel it’s also important to understand that perspective is one of the primary literary tools that perpetuates privilege in writing. Literature, especially good literature, has the communicative power to make one person’s reality into the truth. But one person’s reality is not another’s, particularly if they are privileged in their race, gender, sexuality, abilities and so on. 

As Ruiz states in his novel, we are all dreaming separate dreams based upon our individual experiences. There is no universal truth when perspective is involved. So, how can readers and writers hope to resist this warping of perspective? 

Authors must be mindful of whose world they choose to communicate and why. I recently picked up “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, which is not only a beautifully written novel but also a wonderful representation of the ripples that mark events. Our collective experiences are not uniform and unmoving, but rippling with the currents of different realities. The novel retells the same events from the perspective of a lover, a womanizer and a mistress. And with each different perspective, the writer communicates a more full and truthful story to the reader. 

It’s books like these that have taught me how to approach literature. I believe it’s imperative to keep in mind whose reality I’m seeing and whose I’m not, and most importantly, why. Perspective is a powerful tool for writers to communicate a story, an event or an identity, but it is a subjective attribute and therefore must be conceived and delivered with the utmost level of consciousness.

Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].