When I was a kid, I used to love to climb a particular tree in my backyard and lose myself in a book. That is until we discovered that I was allergic to said tree and no longer allowed to climb it. Then I would tuck myself and my book in some corner of the yard with the cat that I was also allergic to. From the ages of 8-12, I don’t think I stopped sneezing. But every page read made it worth it in my little pea sized brain. Like most kids, I had an ability lose myself in my imagination, reading a book, watching and rewatching a movie, creating elaborate worlds out of little bits of plastic. But at certain point, the “real” world intrudes, and usually the life of our imaginations gets put on a back burner, maybe pulled out for a few minutes when we read before falling asleep or a few stolen hours in a movie theatre on a Sunday afternoon. And of course this makes sense. After all most of us don’t have the luxury of climbing a tree to spend the day with a book. There is stuff to be done. And we assume that that’s the real stuff of our lives.
In David Adams Richards novel, Mercy Among the Children, he suggests that reality is something very different, or least much more complicated – a reality in which chances of “success” are greatly heightened by a sincere and ongoing immersion in the world of ideas made available in great works of philosophy and, particularly, literature.
After his father dies when he is just a teenager, Sydney initially begins to drink as a way of forgetting the pain of being human. Eventually, however, he turns to read instead and finds in a greater solace. Towards the end of the novel, a young man asks Sydney what reading is good for, and Sydney responds that, “it is good enough in itself and reason enough in itself.” The young man then reformulates his question, asking what he might get from reading, and Sydney answers, “That you are not alone—even along this broken tractor road. You need know nothing else”(343). The pain of being human, Sydney suggests stems from loneliness, the sense that one is isolated in both trials and joys, with no one to turn to for commiseration or celebration. Reading, Sydney says, reveals both how this isolation occurs and what one must “imagine” to overcome it.
At the beginning of the novel, Sydney explains to his soon-to-be wife, Elly, how in the world of books, he rediscovered himself or what he takes to be his true nature, claiming that “in reading one is reminded of the truth man is given at birth”(38). Sydney, suggests like Plato before him, that truth is perfectly present to us at the moment of we are born, but that our participation in the “real world,” obscures what we originally know. The act of reading allows us to recollect our original natures and seek to craft our own lives along the lines of a great book, seeking what is real and enduring.
As Lyles notes, “my father knew by heart the Book of Job, where the world is not a certain place, where anything man has can be taken from him, leaving him to sit in stunned acceptance … Only the young think there is freedom from that book”(350). The reality of our material lives, the ones we place such emphasis on and so much hope in, is all subject to change and decay. Nothing, Sydney, understands, in the material order is sufficiently stable to place any long term bets on it, nor is it sufficient to fulfill our infinite desires. Placing one’s emphasis on this “reality” results only in disappointment, loss and strife. In the finite world, we are easily pitted against each other, just as Job finds himself pitted against his “friends” as he tries to discern the reason for his suffering. This is the stuff at at the heart of the pain of being human.
While the suffering of Sydney’s family seems particularly acute, by means of his imagination, Sydney realizes that this is the condition of everyone. Recognizing that the same yearning for mercy is is shared universally, encourages Sydney to act accordingly. The finite world might indicate to us that we are in competition and thus, in some real way, enemies. Looking past, however, what we take to be daily slights, to seek or imagine the true intentions of others, Richards’s suggests should inspire mercy. Mercy, Richards writes, is truth (129).
The work of the imagination, Richards suggests, is not to indulge in fantasies, but rather to discern our true selves. To craft a great work of fiction, an author must piece together the most compelling or truest chain of events. The number of variables are as infinite as our imaginations, and yet among all of these particular details, an author chooses exactly the right permutations, crafting a world that is so life-like that one finds oneself totally immersed, not lost in the story, but finding oneself therein. This ability to create from the infinite something finite, in Richards’s novels at least, suggests a kinship between the human and the divine. Our imaginations in this regard are not, irrational, instead, we might think of them as super-rational, granting us a glimpse of the the infinite itself and the nature of its love, a love such that it instantiates the truth of its being in the particular form of the world, and even more strangely, in us, so that it might be known. Mercy, Richards writes, is truth.
Of course, when I was 10, I was reading Sweet Valley High. I also confess an early and on-going love of the soap opera General Hospital. But what if rather than discounting the life of mind and the realm of the imagination, we were to take it seriously. As though it were the “real stuff” of our lives?