In search of elsewhere in literature
Elsewhere in Literature
On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one. It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now. Then, it positively looms. It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced. By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing. On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover. Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness, a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.
Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)
The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres. After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow. Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him. He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect. He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.
The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)
Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all. The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry. What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.
Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,
Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)
Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.
Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852
The exquisite Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style. Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)
Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored. While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away. His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.
ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)
a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon
(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)
my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;
i am a shape that can but eat and turd
ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,
a coward waiting clumsily to cease
whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;
a hand’s impression in an empty glove,
a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.
I have never loved you dear as now i love…
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927
Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished. He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square. The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949
Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954
The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.
Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973
Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.