Novels and the meaning of things

Ever since I had read some of the great works of world literature I increasingly came to the view that it was through such reading that I learned most about human psychology. Later my basic understanding of the motivations, values and conduct of people was enhanced through the unique courses of study offered by the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey. But without such courses I still continue to be educated through the provision and presence of the often acute insights and characterisations of people that are intrinsic to good literature.

In the last few months I have been developing a particularly personal museum which features 20 objects all of which, in various ways, have special meaning and significance for me. As I developed my ‘museum’ project I noticed that a basic aspect of what I was trying to do was expressed through the genius of the writer Elena Ferrante. Ferrante pinpoints the way intelligence and the use of language combine to heighten our engagement with the materials and phenomena of the world – including the actions of people. Thus,  in her now famous novel, ‘My brilliant friend’ (the novel that I happened to be reading) she tell us that her protagonist the young Elena Greco comes to a realisation about her similarly young friend Raffaella Cerullo; the two girls had just experienced, as Elena puts it, ‘wonderful conversations’ and, as a result, Elena ‘looked’ at Raffaella, thought about their friendship and the special intellectual powers of Raffaella and concluded:

It seemed to me … that … she was developing a gift I was already familiar with; more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts, and in a natural way, charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realised, with pleasure, that as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same …” (Ferrante, E. 2020: 130) 

The first time I read this part of the text I did what I usually do when a piece of writing appears to speak directly to me and at the same time seems to herald something basic to enhancing my (our) consciousness. I stopped, I closed the book, I found a quiet space and thought about what she had written. I applied her observation to my own work and experience:

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘It’s true; reality  – the things, the objects of the world can be readily and easily passed over or, by contrast, intensified and injected with energy. It’s this latter process that makes the world an endlessly fascinating ‘place’ in which to live.’ 

And then in relation to my project I could see more clearly that, in a similar way, my museum of seemingly disparate entities had taken a number of objects, objects already charged with meaning, had focused upon them a narrative – and, as a result, they have also, as in Elena Ferrante’s acute observation, had taken on a kind of tension and an injection of energy. 

The tension has been a kind of vibration between the personal-and-emotional and issues of philosophical reflection.  

Reference: Ferrante, E. (2020) ‘My brilliant friend’ London, Europa editions

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