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What is Literature?

Literature, at first thought, explores the meaning beyond basic facts required by a story. Reportage demands the who, what, when, where, how, and why; literature demands the meaning behind them. Why, then, isn’t news analysis literature? Is Time magazine literature?

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, essentially, that while he couldn’t define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. Perhaps that standard is aplicable to literature. Why don’t we compare two examples?

My articles for Rock&Gem are travel pieces. I go to certain locales, collect rocks or gemstones, and report on them. As the editor mandates, it’s all about the rocks. I never stray far from that edict as doing so would be a disservice to my editor and my readers. Here are a few sample paragraphs:

I returned to Sharon Artlip’s store for directions to Hidden Treasures. Her place is, again, Goldfield Art & Business Services, sometimes called Goldfield Art & BS.  It’s one of four businesses you check in before visiting the Gemfield claims. The store is right on Highway 95 at Fifth Avenue, the actual address 306 Crook Avenue. You’ll see a large wooden sign out front that proclaims “Official Gemfield Headquarters.”

Outside, Artlip has plenty of rock from the claims. Inside, if you ask, she’ll pull out a tray of polished stones which have been worked up from Gemfield rocks. Sharon now directed me to Bryan’s shop which is several blocks off Highway 95, at 489 Bellvue, near Bellvue and Oasis. Pick up a map at the City’s Chamber of Commerce to guide you. Or just ask someone walking around. Goldfield’s 200 souls all know each other.

Goldfield is a sprawling ramshackle of a town, its size befitting a place that once claimed 20,000 citizens. Grand stone buildings remain, along with rough hewn houses, traditional homes, and singlewide trailers. Make sure to slow down as you look, you’ll find something interesting on every corner. Art cars worthy of Burning Man? An aluminum giraffe named Cosmo? It’s all in Gemfield.

Now we turn to completely different travel writing. In 1934 Aldous Huxley wrote about his extended trip to the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, in Beyond The Mexique Bay. But it wasn’t a mere travel book. It explored ideas as well as the countryside. After a difficult journey to another remote village, Huxley contemplates Esquipulas, in eastern Nicaragua:

Esquipulas is the home of a Black Christ of such extraordinary sanctity that every January pilgrims came, and still come, from enormous distances to worship at his shrine. It seems that in the eyes of all the aboriginal American races, black is traditionally a sacred colour; so that what draws the worshippers from as far as Mexico in the north, and as Ecuador in the south, and even as Peru, is probably less the saintliness of the historic Jesus than the magical sootiness of his image.

With us, black is symbolical only of grief. The black uniform of our clergy is a kind of chronic mourning that is meant, I suppose, to testify to the essential sirieux of their official character. It has no magical significance; for on all ceremonial occasions it is discarded for a praying costume of white linen, or of cloth of gold, or of gaudily embroidered silk.

But though black is not with us a sacred colour, black images of exceeding holiness are none the less fairly common in Europe. The reason, I suspect, is that such statues have a somewhat sinister appearance. (The Holy Face of Lucca is very nearly black and, with its glittering jewelled eyes, is one of the strangest and most terrifying sculptures ever made.) In Otto’s terminology, black idols are intrinsically more ‘numinous’ than white. Numinosity is in inverse ratio to luminosity.

Numinosity is in inverse ratio to luminosity? I understand that after several readings. Several. Each of those paragraphs deserve rereading. I may not be able to define literature but I know what it is. And that is literature.

Not all writing can be literature, of course. A 650 word newspaper article barely allows basic facts to be presented, let alone anything beyond. Exceptions exist. Mark Twain bordered on literature with almost everything he wrote, including newspaper columns. And Hemmingway’s dispatches in World War II, when he drove with Allied troops through France, show literature can surface in only a few words in the hands of great masters. We should be as talented.

To be continued . . . .

Rudolph Otto (external link)

Beyond The Mexique Bay — image file of the entire book (external link)

The Holy Face of Lucca (external link)

The Black Christ of Esquipulas (external link)

The Black Christ of Esquipulas by Roberto Urrea [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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