A student of mine wished that Coleridge could read On the Road and that at once became my wish as well, so long as Coleridge had already written Kubla Khan and the Conversation Odes so that there was no risk he would write his own Beat novel instead of, rather than as well as, the poetry. It is hard to imagine what writers from centuries ago would have been able to make of contemporary literature, whether the narrative forms or aesthetic values could make any sense at all, poetry without metre, with gaps on the page, the tilde as a tonal marker, the novel with its fictional first person narration, its interior monologues, or, perhaps even stranger, the third person narration from nowhere at all: what would it be like to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall actually in the time of Cromwell, or to read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls after the Trojan War, straight after it, that is, not three thousand years after it? Stephen Greenblatt would be sure it would be unreadable but then, he believes the literature of the past is unreadable to the contemporary reader except as a storehouse of historical power relations we can reconstruct through our study of literary texts read alongside other texts, whether shopping lists, account books, travel logs, it makes no difference. For Greenblatt, the pleasure readers take in the literature of the past is a theoretical problem: “Pleasure as a category is extremely elusive for historical understanding… Its apparently transhistorical stability poses a problem for any theory that insists in a strong way upon the historical embeddedness of literary texts....The supposed continuity of aesthetic response seems to lead most often to a notion of the inherence in the text itself of the power to produce aesthetic pleasure.” But don’t worry! “We can argue that the transhistorical stability or continuity of literary pleasure is itself an illusion; we can suggest that there is little reason to believe that the pleasure generated by The Tempest, say, was the same for the Jacobean audience as it is for ourselves.” Like Greenblatt, I like to hold on to a sense of the strangeness and difference of earlier times, it is what makes it exhilarating to be given such intimate access to how lives were lived and what was valued, how differently societies could be ordered. But I am also exhilarated by how inextricable these constructs are from the aesthetic work literature does, and I do believe Coleridge would have responded to the aesthetic power of On the Road, even as he marvelled at a society in the America he dreamed of travelling to in which men could abandon wives from one side of the country to another as they sped about in motorised machines, and how would he have imagined jazz, I wonder? And what would he have thought of the stories of Grace Paley, or Sylvia Plath? Perhaps he would have been less startled by David Eagleman’s Sum, which instead of portraying the world in which we are living imagines forty different possible afterlife scenarios, including one in which life at first seems oddly like it was when you were alive: all the people you love are there, even friends you haven’t seen for years, cousins, every one you’ve ever chosen to spend time with, you know everyone and feel oddly popular at first, as if you have finally arrived at a party where everyone knows your name. But there is no one you didn’t know in your life when you were alive and after a while you begin to feel forlorn, you miss the presence of strangers, and no one sympathises with you, because after all, those were the people you didn’t choose to meet while you were alive. The scenarios for all the afterlives Eagleman comes up with are inventive enough but the real effect of the book is to make life as it is newly startling, to draw attention to all those strangers we do not think about, all the people we do not know who are alive right here at the same time we are! And now here we are in lockdown, living in a scenario as strange as many of the Sum scenarios: what if we could only live in the houses we live in and never go out, what if we could only live with the people who are in our house now? What if we only had books to take us out of this world, and into the worlds and lives and stories of other people, real and imagined, living now or long ago?
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.