On finding less existential literature.
Thank you so much for an article that resonates with me 1000%. I feel that we badly need advance scouts leading us out of the intellectual/literary killing fields of the last 100 years. (Could two of the most traumatic events in world history WWs1&2 have anything to do with that long Dark Age?)
I wonder do you know Henri Bergson, French philosopher born 1859, "known for his arguments that processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality"? His thought brightened the philosophical terrain for so many. And Pierre Teilhard de Chardin whose brand of theological/philosophical positivism turned the lights up even higher. William James the American philosopher wrote in 1908 of Bergson: " So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy." And then there was Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement in the US. And Mary Baker Eddy who lit up all of Christendom with her new understanding of "matter" and the allness of God. All of this revelatory work done around the turn of the last century now seems almost invisible.
My simple theory is that the horrors of the world wars drove the development of philosophical and theological thought underground and prevented or delayed the Bergsonian tendency from prevailing.
Maybe the new tendril of happiness or well-being based StoryMind that we are starting to recognise and desire is part of a resurgence...or a re-emergence into a line of light.
I highly recommend Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and its sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. They’re pretty much exactly what you seem to be looking for: well-written, deep explorations of being alive right now, with an eye to what’s next. There’s a strong focus on being Very Online that feels relevant for a Substack writer.
This resonated with me so much. Our culture is saturated with darkness. From our news to our politics to our social media. It is hard to escape. Darkness prevades our entertainment also. Must every television character be "troubled?" Must every show have a social agenda? Must life be a constant battle? Must every thing be so bleak and dark and sad?
I don't want my entertainment to be "gritty realism." Isn't the real world tragic enough? Do we need to rehash it as entertainment. I don't find it very entertaining. I find it depressing.
Can't we have adventure, love, and happiness along with the gloom and doom (and zombies.) I want to be inspired and entertained by entertainment, not depressed and discouraged. I will freely admit it. I read (and watch movies) for escapism. I want to be transported to better places, to new worlds. To have adventure, and heroes (not anti-heroes), and happy endings.
We all experience tragedy. But tragedy and darkness shouldn't be the entirety of our outlook. We need hope also. A rare commodity these days.
I think that is why I rarely write entirely sad stories. I would rather be a small ray of light in the darkness. I would rather bring a smile with my writing. Despite some opinions, there is nothing wrong with happy endings.
Another thoughtful newsletter. Thanks, Elle.
Yes yes yes. Looking forward to our upcoming chat. But some beautiful and hopeful books that don’t shy away from the existentialist quandary:
-Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
-The Overstory by Richard Powers
-Farewell Cowboy by Olja Savicevic
-Everything Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote
-The White Album by Joan Didion
This was a nice read, Elle. Have you read Kurt Vonnegut?
Good post, Elle! I had no idea there was a pandemic section in the bookstore these days, or maybe I just blocked it out. But yeah, we do pile on indeed. I wish had some suggestions for happy literary novels to give you, but I agree, it's pretty bleak out there these days.
I really enjoyed Humankind, so I was glad to see it on your list. I've always thought people were basically good, so it was fascinating to read a book about how we engineer society with the exact opposite premise. Also, I felt seen by his take on Lord of the Flies. Never a fan of that novel.
There is an awful lot to digest and reflect on here, and I am already a couple of thousand words into writing a response which will appear in my newsletter once I have a chance to finish it. But for now, a book recommendation that may seem to come out of left field. It is not strictly a novel, but a kind of parody of self help books written by a novelist. It is Walker Percy's _Lost In the Cosmos_. It is a strange concoction, but brilliant, and I think it bears very much on the questions you are asking here. I'd be interested to know what you make of it.
Yes, to echo Mary Louisa, Hopepunk -- and also Solarpunk.
Also, I just read a book called Progress - Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016) by Johan Norberg. It convinced me that, however bleak the present might appear, it is way better for a whole lot more people than any period in the past. So there's that.
I think you might take a look into the subgenera of speculative fiction called hope punk. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hopepunk
Then I would look at this series of posts on hope punk by Susan K Quinn https://susankayequinn.com/2022/05/hopepunk-musings.html see if anything inspires you. Certainly felt like she was coming from a similar place to where you are at in this point of time.
Good luck on your journey.
There's so much that's so great in this essay, Elle. Just, wow. It's like you and Erik Hoel have been reading my mind. So, so much to chew on.
This paragraph, especially, was so spot on:
'I think we needed that “fight” to overthrow oppression, to form new governments, to establish equal rights and personal freedoms—there are things to fight for still—but I think we’ve reached the end of what fighting will do for us. At some point, I believe humans need to evolve beyond “fighting every wrong” toward “working together to create something right.” From “there’s a plank in your eye” to “here’s where we see eye-to-eye.” Canceling someone over one word they said on the internet seems proof we’ve taken the fight too far.'
I have been VERY much feeling this lately. I used to love talking about, thinking about and discussing issues and politics and current events, but I must confess I find a lot of it exhausting now. Not the issues themselves, but the way we discuss them -- the same song-and-dance gets played out every time, among the same players, to the same tune. I'm with you! We need new ways forward. (And, that's exactly where I want to go -- the future, and not to endlessly replay the past.)
Darkness is easy. Light is hard. Inspired light is very hard.
I'm blown away by your reading list and have to think about it
more. I find solace in reading Gary Snyder, but like all humans
he has his problems. Folks like Hemingway drive me nuts with
their "poseurness." Thanks for a amazing post.
"I’m also very over existentialism. How long can we continue to pine for meaning—and let that pining ruin us—before we accept that there is none and live happily? "
I think you've stepped in the great struggle. If there is no meaning, around what does a group of people cohere? On what foundation morality? I agree that fighting is a terrible metaphor for the struggle to make things better, but you've got to have a definition of "better" to struggle for.
Without meaning, why would you plant trees the shade of which you will never get to sit under? Why don't we build Cathedrals? (by that I mean massive, beautiful things for their own sake)
I don't presume to have the answer. But I think part of it is found in Christopher Booker's "Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories" The title is fairly trivial for what is a monster of a book in both size and erudition.
I think what you are looking for can be found, often, in children's books. The Robot and the Bluebird by David Lucas is an amazing allegory.
I also think a Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin is incredibly uplifting.
As far as I can tell, modern literary fiction seems to be bent on self-destruction.
Books that have felt like utopian breakthroughs to me:
Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle
Lorin Roche’s Radiance Sutras
TJ Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea
Jenny Offil’s Weather
Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April (love the film, too)
Groundhog Day the film
This is definitely an idiosyncratic list and isn’t necessarily all literary fiction, and not all fiction at all. But reading these, I felt hopeful we could do better. These were spread over the last decades, but they stuck with me, FWIW