How Literature Saved My Life


Against death, what consolation, if any, is art?” David Shields asks himself in his latest work, a highly intimate meditation on the ways in which literature saves and does not save his life. The book is an autobiography of sorts: a raw exposé of the inner workings of Shields’s mind that places personal vignettes alongside reflections on great art. It blurs the line between life and art by reflecting on books and films in a way that ultimately circles back to the author himself.

Shields is famous for his rejection of a single authorial identity (as in his Reality Hunger), but in How Literature Saved My Live he sets out to tear down the wall between writer and reader as well. He seeks nothing less than a “transfer of consciousness,” a downloading of one person’s interiority into another person’s mind. He declares that he wants writing to be so intimate because, “I want to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else, I know someone—I’ve gotten to this other person.”

Writing and reading literature is Shields’s attempt to assuage loneliness. After briefly summarizing William Vollmann’s Butterfly Stories: A Novel, he concludes, “Reading this extraordinarily intimate book about the butterfly boy’s incapacity for ordinary intimacy, I couldn’t identify more closely with him if I crawled inside his skin.” He is drawn to the self-awareness and self-reflexivity of J.D. Salinger’s voice because it reveals that his own self-consciousness “isn’t a deformation in how [he] think[s]; this is how human beings think.” Because he has always felt adept at holding himself remote from things, he identifies with people who have difficulty getting “past oneself to anything at all,” a problem that he believes everyone shares to varying degrees.

The irony is plain: One finds comradeship only to return to solitude, armed at least with the meager comfort that others are alone with you, as well. Art provides “a framework to contemplate otherness and at least imagine a collapsing of distance.” Like sexual intercourse, it provides a momentary illusion of complete union, after which we retreat back into ourselves, never escaping the reality that our interactions are conducted in “utter epistemological darkness.” Shields ruminates on an incident when his wife and he witnessed a car accident together but held opposite views of what had happened. For Shields, then, we are solitary knowers. “We are all so afraid,” he writes. “We are all so alone. We all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.”

At the end of the book, Shields concludes, “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness. Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.” The traditional novel genre, for Shields, does lie about the reality of the human condition, for its straightforward narratives imply an implicit belief in a deity who orchestrates neat narratives. Novels offer only nostalgic escape and do not help in solving the problem of how to live in the reality of a narrative-less world. In order to faithfully capture the “shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world,” Shields sets forth the messy collage essay that has no clean narrative arc,but instead is a hodgepodge of various art sources and personal reflections.

But even the best writing is a Promethean task whose creation of illusionary meaning does not change the nothingness that death inaugurates. Language—life itself—is ultimately futile, but in his resignation to this bleak fact, Shields has grown into a certain fondness for the darkness. He recalls the truism that “irony is the song of a bird that has come to love its cage,” and he readily admits that he is at least half in love with his cage. To dare to hope that perhaps our restless, frustrated wings are an indication that we were never meant for cages, would be, as Shields quotes Nietzsche, a resolution of “objective contradictions in a spurious harmony.” The narrative would be too tidy and nice and thus untrue.

Such a dismissal reveals a romanticization of despair and hopelessness, an untested presumption that if something is bleaker it is probably truer. Despair can become comfort—in our comfortable resignation, we tell ourselves that there is nothing beyond the bars, and that because our desires for meaning and intimacy find no human satisfaction, they must be evolutionary accidents. If a bird began to believe that there is nothing beyond its cage and that its desires for flight and freedom are delusional, sooner or later its wings would shrivel into useless appendages. It would morph into something less than a bird. But the very presence of its wings might indicate that perhaps birds were never meant for cages, and that the key to unlock our cages is not composed of human words, which always disappoint, but the Word Incarnate Himself.

Sarah Ngu

Sarah grew up in Malaysia and California, and is now a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. She is an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University.