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2. The Writer and the Reader

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: The Writer and the Reader

Author: Abdalhamid Evans

Publication date: 7/9/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the second of 12 sessions which make up the Society through Literature module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

Society Through Literature - Psychology

The Writer and the Reader

In June last year, the British Psychology Society held a public event, a debate between the author Ian Rankin, recent recipient of the OBE for his services to literature, and creator of the Inspector Rebus series… and psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, specialist in self-help, illusion, persuasion and luck…a teacher, author and apparently the most followed British psychologist on Twitter.

The topic? Who understands the mind better: psychologists or crime writers? The debate, according to the audience, was a draw, and deserved a re-match.

They explored literature as a way of ‘trying on different guises’ or as Rankin said, ‘playing God’. Guises and disguises perhaps, different dimensions of possibility. 

These different possibilities and dimensions come from the writer, but they are not the writer, not entirely. Not at all him in many cases. He is being someone else at the same time, trying on different hats, new ways of speaking and acting, new attitudes, new relationships…with himself, with others, with the Other, even with the One.

The writer spreads his psyche across the page, he paints a landscape and invites you in to inhabit it, inside a world that is his and not his. Your presence helps it all to come to life.

And this new landscape also becomes yours…and at the same time not yours. For the reader also it is about trying different guises, inhabiting a different world, getting someone else’s take on things, stepping into someone else’s life. 

You enter, you identify, you follow, you empathise. You laugh, you cry, you are mesmerised, you give up sleep…ah, what the bleep, it will all be OK in the morning…and you enter a world where everything is done for you. All you have to do is keep turning the pages.

And while there is an infinite number of permutations and possibilities of character and plot, lives and relationships, there are always these recurrent themes, the archetypes and Ur-forms that we come back to again and again, bothe the reader and the writer. Our writers cannot leave it all in their heads, these characters must walk out onto the paper, they have to be read, their need for existence is like a demand for their creator, and sometimes, for some writers, it is more like a torture. There is the pain of giving birth to a character, nurturing him, keeping him alive, vital, relevant. There is the creeping despair, hiding behind the writer’s chair, that he might leave and take the muses with him…and what then? 

So who needs whom? The writer needs the character, the character needs the writer, and we the reader, we need them both, don’t we. We need the fruit of the writer’s lonesome journey, we need him to bring us these characters. We all know the sorrow at the end of the book that we hoped might go on forever.

And we readers, we need to know these characters with their amazing lives, we have always needed them. From the dawn of our spoken lives, stories have always held sway over our imaginations. From Jack and Jill on their ill-fated journey to get water, Humpty Dumpty, Winnie the Pooh, Just William, Biggles and Dan Dare, on into Narnia, past the lamp post and into the Shire and Middle Earth. 

Open the door and let me in…

As much as the characters need to be born, we need to open the cover, turn the page and meet them, travel with them, see their mistakes, sometimes even before they do, to feel their suspicion, fear, rage, longing, excitement, love, lust and disgust. We get to learn their lessons, reach their goals, solve their riddles. We wonder, we care, where they will end up…and will they come back?

The reader and the writer…we need each other. Together we can go anywhere, we can become all things and all people, and still, at the same time, remain ourselves.

And some writers come to define their times. They fit exactly, like a hand in glove, there is a perfect match, a spark that burns deep into our collective imaginations. Their written thoughts end up belonging to the society. And they get passed on through the generations and become archetypical and then timeless. And we continue to drink at their fountain, to go with their flow, down the stream of their consciousness. We let their minds unfold into ours, we meld and blend…it is all psychology, a blending of psyches. As the poet said, ‘I’ll let you be in my dream, if I can be in yours’.

And after that initial sharing, some of them stay with us. They move in, take up a space somewhere over in the corner, popping out at times to join the conversation, that dialogue that plays out in your head.

So we can ask…Do they become part of us? Medard Boss stated that we live in our relationships; we are in the world in our relationships, all them, with God and the world, with ideas, and dreams, with other people, with ourselves, with the things, and the natural world. This is where we are. This is where we live.

And so some writers come to live with us, they take up residence, the echoes of their stories murmuring like an undercurrent beneath the narrative of our own lives. And perhaps they even meet up with one another, the different authors…one says one thing, another says another; they agree and disagree with each other, in our world, or sometimes they say the same thing in totally different ways.

For in as much as the scientist analyses, defines, manipulates…the writer may tell a story that makes a similar statement. Certainly, Henry James would agree with Medard Boss that we live in our relationships, that our psyches are not inside us, but rather ‘out there’ in the world, in our relationships, in that shared awareness that hovers in and around us. He just states his case rather differently. But there is a distinct harmonic resonance between their ideas, even if we don’t really think about it. They just get along…and we like it.

As we read, we see what they, the writers, mean. And if we think about it, we can see that they already know that, they are aware of us long before we ever pick up the book and decode the printed letters. They know we are reading. They can hear us reading while they write. They hear us listening to them, going with them. We take them on trust…and they take us away. Away to Treasure Island, away with the bees, gone with the wind…they call us away from our own lives…Let me take you down, ‘cos I’m going to….Strawberry Fields. 

Sometimes we even go against our better judgement, against our will even. Can’t stop, won’t stop, one more page, one more chapter. We go along for the ride…into…into what? Intrigue, suspense, fear, relief, escape, pleasure, friendship, love, lust, sorrow, remorse, surrender, enlightenment…to death even. We go along for the ride, again and again and again.

The writers who ride the wave of the zeitgeist, who capture or are captured by its spirit, they can influence an entire generation or give the ultimate definition of a particular aspect of our culture…and even give their name to the language itself. Chaucerian, Shakespearean, they can become the benchmark, the high water mark against which others are measured. 

For some writers, their words, their thoughts fit the age like a hand in glove. They mould the psyches of their times, like water rippling in the wake of a boat, taking the shape of that which passes through it. They shape us.

Sidi Ali al Jamal observed that the self is like the bee; the place where its stops to take its dinner, it takes home with it on its legs.

Oh yes…Reading is all about psychology, like football is all about feet.

And their characters defined the archetypes of our age. Their eyes saw through us, and projected onto the wall of our psyches the resonating images of their minds.

Like the sleuth, the detective, obsessed with finding the answer, following the clues, cracking the code, breaking the case. We know the feeling. Defender of morality and justice even when he does it the wrong way. And each one so different…Sherlock, Miss Marple, Poirot, Philip Marlow. They never give up. They solve the puzzle for us, pull together all the disparate facts and details, and reshuffle them so that they all make sense…revealing at last the villain’s greed, lust, hatred, revenge, and his mistake. We watch from the ringside, involved but unattached. We cannot get caught in the danger, so we are safe to lean forward and watch with undiluted attention as the action unfolds.

Or like the adventurer, the one who finds King Solomon’s mines, who gets the treasure, gets the girl, wins the war, scores the winning goal, buys the winning ticket, makes the dream deal, makes our dream real. He finds the puer aeternus, the eternal boy within us, the Peter Pan…he calls us, Hey! Lets go out and play, let’s have an adventure!! We don’t need much persuasion, we take his hand and run into the woods, into the desert, up the mountain, down to the South Pole, off into outer space, out into inner space. We run, trip, get scared, get caught, get tough, get lucky…but as long as we are with him, we win, yeah, we win!!

Or the lovers, star-crossed or otherwise, Romeo and Juliet, Jane and Heathcliffe, Gatsby and Daisy, Humbert and Lolita, we share their meetings and partings, their joy and pain, the hunt, the chase, the capture, the betrayal, the revenge, the heartbreak. We feel for them, and they in turn feel for us as they ride the highs and lows of love’s rollercoaster. They fall and we fall with them. How many of us weep more readily at the tale than we do at real life. Ah well, they know so well how to play tunes on our heart-strings…after all, it is what they do.

Or like the criminal…our shadow self, the one who hides on the dark side, just out of the light, watching. He is scary, but we also kind of like him, we envy him that he does not care, that he is willing to pay any price to get what he wants, even when he knows that it might destroy him. Will he get away with it? Does he really want to…? Maybe we want him to, because we also want to get away with it, sometimes…sometimes as much as we can. And after all, maybe he has just cause, perhaps he has a bit of the Robin Hood about him, maybe he is not all bad. Maybe he is just misunderstood. Like us.

And look at how the heroes have changed with the shifting times, as our common awareness morphs with the passage of time, and our collective imaginations pull them along with us, even, as we shall see, pull them right off the page.

Our heroes were clean cut, upstanding, decent and good. They represent Us, the Good Guys. The white hats. It used to be all straight forward and clear cut. But as a society becomes corrupted, its decay forms the compost for the appearance of the anti-hero, the flawed protagonist who straddles the split in his being while he takes on the mission, battling as much with himself as with his enemies. His own dilemmas are interwoven into the plot, so the inside gets exported to the outer world, each clue has a counterpart deep in his psyche, the unfolding events are his own inner journey, his tightrope path to redemption…or so we hope. We understand him, his flaws match our own.

And as the social decay deepens, the anti-hero darkens. The crack in his being becomes a maze, the injustices he battles become more complex and ambiguous, the plot unfolds like a dark fractal pattern with the same endless degrees of detail at every level of focus. Down and down we go into depths that we did not dare imagine until we were invited in. Now we are scared…but just a few more steps, yeah?

And as nihilism creeps in, it matter less whether the hero’s cause is moral or not, whether he really stands up for good. It becomes more important that he has style, that he has great lines. Both on his face and coming from his mouth. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn…Here’s looking at you kid…Make my day…Find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes…

But wait, what is happening here…?

Without my really being aware of it. 

Of course it was inescapable, inevitable. 

I see it now…

The water must follow the course of the river.

In the end, the gestell, the enframing, has done its job. Technique has intervened. The story has been taken by technology. Literature is no longer about paper and ink, it has little need of it now. It has been swept along in the digital wave of our times, a pixel for every atom and every atom a pixel. Our stories have been pixelated…so our heroes, our villains, our friends and family, our lovers take on the super power that enables them to be seen by everyone at once, they have become a collective vision.

When we read, we engage our imaginations. Reading, we see mental images with a kind of inner vision that has more in common with our dream life than our waking reality, except it’s better, we can choose when to stop and start, we can escape at will…we can go both in and out at will. And everyone’s vision is unique. Each of us had our own Hamlet, our own Doc from Cannery Row, our own Flem Snopes or Oliver Twist…until one day there they are, in the flesh…or so it seems. So that is what he looks like! But we secretly prefer the one in our heads, after all, he was our creation…or a shared creation, something created from the union of writer and reader, new with each reader, new each time, recreated with each turn of the page.

But imagine if we all saw the same Sherlock Holmes…oh, but we do now don’t we? Well, it just depends which series you prefer. Do you like the fellow with the deer-stalker and pipe or a recovering junkie with an iPhone. Now we all see the same thing. And there is a generation, and possible even two, who are more used to seeing what they think they imagine than to imagine what they think they can see. 

Once it has been pixelated, it is actually someone else’s imagination that we are seeing. Or if we go back to Boss’s worldview, we are caught in the psyche of the other. For a time, we think their visions, their plots, their dilemmas, their values are our own. Maybe they are…but maybe they are not.

Has our imagination somehow been stolen? Or invaded? It is like Inception, and that thought is itself a kind of inception…who planted it there…? What is this doing to us…what has this already done to us? Are we now like a people who have lived for so long with street lights that we do not know what the night sky looks like in the dark. That is now the privilege of the adventurous, very rich and the very poor. But what does it do to us if we are no longer aware of the stars? If we no longer see them, how then are we reach to for them?

The story has become an audio visual experience. Literature is a download. Books are an app. Sometimes it feels as if all we read these days are instructions. Walk, don’t walk. Username. Password. Click.

And if we lose our own imaginations, then what happens to our expectations? Are they still our own? Especially in our relationships with people. We know we are unlikely to sail the seven seas, break the bank at Monte Carlo or come in from the cold. But we do all expect, to have family, to have friends and neighbours, (oh wait, aren’t they TV shows…?) we expect to have our hearts broken, to fall in love…but will falling in love be like that? Suddenly, we already have an expectation, we have already seen how it goes, even if we do not actually expect it to be like that. There is already something there in that place, in that space, in that scene…and possession is nine tenths of the law. Ideas, once visual, are like squatters. Once they are in, you have to really do something to get them out. You may have to get an eviction order, or bring in the heavies.

So who is now telling our stories. Are they ours anymore…? What are stories. What exactly is constitutes literature now. Is it the same as it always was, or is it keeping pace with our changes, because being part of now is part of being literature? Literature is by definition something made with letters… fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose…or a collective body of work on a subject, or a period, or a place. Literature also carries the implication that it is worthy of our attention, that it has some intrinsic excellence.

So does it have to be written? Is the screen play literature? Surely. So what about the movie, or the TV series that results, that is the final appearance of the writer’s vision...or at least someone’s version of it, the one that becomes all of our versions of it.

The old definitions blur and crumble as meaning bleeds across the line, and into the next door space. If literature means ‘the classics’, then it is an endangered species. There is an entire global generation who can say, sincerely, and without irony, when asked if they have read the book…No, but I have seen the movie. It was cool.

And so the written word, once the natural carrier of meaning, now seems to have lost its place at the head of the table. It has been displaced by this pixel, the stream of consciousness has become a stream of images, a waterfall, a deluge, a tsunami. We somehow all stand in danger of being swept away, of drowning in everyone else’s pictures and words.

So what about literature? If it is not just about books and writing, if it has somehow, legitimately or not, gone past that guard post…then how about its inbuilt element of excellence, that it is worthy of our attention, that it will improve us, help us to grow and change. Surely we can learn from literature, regardless of the medium that conveys the message. Meaning can still be shared, indeed meaning is made to be shared…if you see what I mean.

So the Good Story lays like a riverbed under all the flotsam that is driven by the tide. It still offers us a place to stand, and to keep our footing, while inviting us to share some stories that matter, inviting us to remember and to learn.

Before we wrote our stories down, we told them to one another. Old men and women passed on the traditions, the wisdom of their collective memory, under the tree, around the fire, beside the bed. The story can often tell the things that we cannot say, other meanings glisten from between the lines, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be recognised.

For it is a matter of recognition. Why does one story engage us, while another does not? What is this re-cognition that we experience, that allows, that triggers a dawn of awareness within us. What happens…?

Heidegger commented that the role of the poet, and here I am paraphrasing unashamedly, is to dig deep, deep, and to bring to the surface those things of value that we have forgotten…and not just forgotten, but things that we have forgotten that we have forgotten, so that we might learn them again.

So the poet, the writer, the story teller can teach. And what is it to learn? The Last Philosopher tells us that the teacher is the one who is best at learning, that his job is to bring the student to the ‘place of learning’, and he is not talking about a building. Here, in the place of learning, in that illuminated clearing of shared awareness, the teacher makes an offering, and the student accepts it. But this, he tells us, is not yet learning. If the student just takes the offering, he has not learned anything. If, in taking the offering, the student finds something new within himself, that he did not know before, but that he recognises belongs to him…then he has learned something.

Think of the Greek Tragedies. We are not supposed to copy them. We are supposed to learn. We watch the unfolding drama to understand it…and not just intellectually, it is not an abstract understanding, it is live, in front of you, in your face even. There is a physical aspect to our understanding, our grasping. There is catharsis. It means purification or cleansing in Greek. Our emotions are purged through the witnessing of the work of drama, steering us, inviting us to renewal, to a restoration of balance. You learn from the drama so that you do not repeat the tragedy. You understand it because it could…so easily perhaps…be your own. You watch, you learn, you see what it means, and you are restored.

You take the offering, and more than the offering, and you recognise something within yourself that is new and old at the same time. It is new, but it was already yours in some way. That is how you could re-cognise it. Do you see what I mean…?

From the Hadith literature we have the statement that ‘the fortunate one is the one who can learn from the experience of another’. That is indeed worth a fortune.

And what does this require from us, what state or state of mind do we need to bring to the drama, to the lesson, to the place of learning. We are absorbed, and yet we stand back. We are engaged, and yet somehow still remote; we ride on the flow of the narrative, and yet we are able to analyse, at least afterwards, to see the patterns of the self, the archetypes of our societies. If we learn the lesson, we can bypass the drama.

We have to be lost in awe at the dawn as it happens, and at the same time see that as it is created by means of the interplay of the orbiting planets, it will happen tomorrow, and the day after…that seasons of days and nights will pass as our own story unfolds.

Will we see those patterns in our own lives, in the narrative of our own days? Do we see our own story, the one that will end up as Our Book, that one that we write, instant by instant, imprinted on the time-space of our lives and in our cells. Like a Divine creation that we can scarcely understand, but that we, at the same time, have written ourselves. 

You could not invent it.

God tells us stories so that we might understand, so that we might become oriented, balanced, knowing; and we pray that we might be among the fortunate ones who learn the lessons, and earn His favour.

The story is sensory; the lesson is meaning. The story is outward, the lesson is inward; the lesson if learnt, becomes action. 

The wise man wrote, ‘Knowledge calls on action and action answers…if not, knowledge moves on...’

If the lesson really goes all the way in, then it will come out again.


And the language of the story becomes interwoven into the narrative of our lives. The characters, the scenes, the dynamics of the relationships, the dilemmas, they become our own metaphors.

Parts of my childhood were like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

The big house on the hill was right out of Wuthering Heights, but some days it seemed more like Gormenghast to me.

When I first saw Kuala Lumpur at night, from the 25th floor of a hotel, it was pure Blade Runner.

And sometimes it is too much, the warped mirror gives too real a reflection of the strange places we sometimes find ourselves. I remember my father telling me, before he stopped drinking and before he got divorced, that he walked out of the Burton and Taylor version of ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?’…it was too much like real life, he said. I knew what he meant years later when I lived in the remote mountains of West Cork, and on a rare trip to the cinema, I walked out of The Shining. It was too close to home, I did not even want to see how it ended.

The story becomes our new meta-language, the story-board of our lives, the soundtrack plugged into our ears. Just you…and a supporting cast of millions.

Some of them on the outside, and some of them on the inside; some real, some not so real, the living and the dead.

Now, it is as if the Unseen is being poured out into the visible kingdom, as if the flood barriers have been breached, and the silicone induced images stream out, all the hopes and fears, the nightmares and the twisted tales, characters warped and wonderful jump out at us from every dimension.

And yet, even now, perhaps it is no different than it always was. Perhaps it is just more visible. The truth is still true, the lie is still the lie. The truth comes and the false is banished. Perhaps there is just more to read, words call out to us as we walk down the street, there are invitations everywhere, most of them to people, places and things we do not want or need. Discrimination does not change; there is just so much more to sift through. 

Like panning for gold, most of it can be discarded.

But not all.

Our own reading is also a journey. Jack Kerouac took us out on the road, and nihilism starts to turn. If it’s all nothing, then it might just as well be something, right? Boots and beatnik cool, cigarettes and a wandering soul, not quite sure what he is searching for, but let’s go anyway, who knows what we might find…

Ken Kesey, maybe, over the cukoo’s nest and onto the bus, Further, with no left turn unstoned, further out and further in, you are either on the bus or off the bus, with Mountain Girl and the rest, Cassidy at the wheel, going down the road flipping a two pound hammer in his hand. Further indeed…

Herman Hesse takes us on a different road, in the company of the ascetic Bramin, lured into the lights of the city, the delights of love, and into the despair of the material world. He leaves it all behind, he dies before he dies, sitting, watching the river flow, within him and without him.

And then along comes the Keeper of the Archives. He takes our hand, the stranger leads us past the gates of the city, out through the keyhole of fiction and into the vast blue truth of the desert, the shahada, the zawiyyah, the fuqara, the shaykh, the sama’, the moment, the reality… and then gives our lives back to us, here, now, it is in your hand.

Where do words and stories take us? In the end the messages lead us to the Messengers, the ones who bring God’s letters to us…Alif, Lam, Mim. 

Literature…Things made with letters…our letters run dry, our words run out on us. 

God’s letters remain. God’s Pen, His Tablet, His Words, His Names. His letters are a cosmology, an alphabet of creation, meanings appearing as forms, declarations of Unity in an appearance of diversity. We read, we have been designed for that purpose, to read, to reflect, to understand, to praise, and be thankful.

Read, in the name of your Lord

We read the signs on the horizon and in ourselves.

We write our deeds as we go.

We are pens that write on the time and space of our days, 

on the subatomic parchment of our cells. 

We write our story, the one that we will get back in our hand.

We are all of us our own book.

And God knows best, and may He have mercy on us all.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. The subject of our next lecture is Intuitions and Enthusiasms on Language & Poetry. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.