A good imagination can be swifter and safer than any known means of transport today. Pleasant platitude as it is. It can jettison you to a limitless expanse of foreign lands, exotic beasts and adventure which lay just beyond your synapses and round the corner. After puberty, and all the tumultuous trimmings that go with it, the ability to invent such places is lost to the majority of us. Vivid pictures of animals we can’t name and outlined borders to spaces we can’t control erupt from our hearts but fall just short of the brain and tongue. Here, books graciously take the mantel of our daytime creativity and provide us with ready-translated images we can interpret for ourselves. In an afternoon we can travel to and from continents and back and forth in eras whilst never having lifted a nuzzled buttock from a cushion. This is the joy of literature! And yet, not even the most gifted writer can manage to overhaul our imagination completely. Despite being undoubtedly beautiful, Dumas’ Mercedes resonated with different resplendence in his mind than in mine, Le Chiffre filled me with a slightly different repugnance than he did you. The world of the book may begin with the author but it ends with the reader.
However, what if the author’s dogged pursuit of rigorous representation holds merit, not in the way that it suitably places readers in an imagined area, but in the way that it creates a desire for the readers to experience the envisioned for themselves. What if this is the real purpose of books? An “in,” to use an American dictum, to the refulgent reality that is out there but requires nuzzled buttocks to firm up and flit away to far off places.
In seven years of studying ancient Greek history, rustling dog-eared pages of Homer and Herodotus, I could never once have afforded to make the four-hour flight to those islands in person but I traversed the mountains and sailed the seas with warriors and philosophers regardless. Now I’m living in that very same land and the reality has opened my mind as well as my eyes.
Whilst giving a lecture at Emory University, Georgia, Umberto Eco revealed that when he writes he diligently and painstakingly manufactures a world the majority of which his readers will never truly ‘see’. He drew overly detailed plans of his fictional library in Italy and the labyrinthine publisher’s building in Milan was more complex than he ever disclosed in Foucault’s Pendulum. He humbly explained that he was left perplexed by Hollywood producers who praised his “perfectly timed” dialogues because, he said, he took into account the exact dimensions of his setting and ‘just’ directed his characters accordingly. Quite obvious when you think about it. However, the producers’ admiration cannot be ridiculed as it was Eco’s literary mastery which translated the physical dimensions in his mind to diagram, and then to prose in such a way as to run like a film in the minds of his readers.
The 5th Century BCE historian Herodotus ushers the reader from political discussions in Athens to requests for divine justification 150km (93 miles) away in Delphi, in the turn of a page. Yet, it was only when I wound the two and a half hours of mountainous passes from Athens to get there myself and stood on the grassy plateau of Mt. Parnassos that the world started to seem a lot bigger than before. Craggy mountains imposed a crushing concave effect on my solar plexus and instilled a sense of unworthiness which silently resonated the reverence I could picture in the hearts of the ancients I’d, so lovingly, read about. No ancient author had ever managed to instill in me the real dimensions of the journey. Perhaps they felt no desire to. Looking out at the serpentine valley in the cleavage of mountains I was overawed by the distance the fawning and the faithful traveled from my adoptive home, not to mention the Ionian patrons in Turkey, to this real, tangible place. And they didn’t even have my banged-up Toyota!
The clichéd majesty of Athens’ vaulted religio-political zenith is talked about at length by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Pausanias, just to name a few, and they were certainly right to eulogize it in its heyday. However, like that moment in C.S.I. where they magically zoom onto the reflection of a spoon, which shows the reflection of a window in which the killer is stood looking menacingly for a jury to see, we appear to be looking through a long lens into the deep past. The words are clear but remain restricted by individual agendas and, like stationary monoliths too fixed to circumrotate our perspectives, we must rely on views from different angles to piece together an idea of the reality of its environs.
And this is certainly story enough to warrant telling! To clumsily paraphrase a well-trodden quote, “if the Acropolis didn’t exist the Athenians would have to create it”. Beneath the flapping blue and white of the Modern Greek flag atop the Acropolis, I can turn my scorched neck and the azure sea, the sprawling white plateau of the city and all her mountainous entrances instantly come into view. To think in ancient times this jutting position would have seemed starker and the tactical benefits of its rocky crow’s nest even more salient, is to shed invaluable light on the words I once read in relative ignorance.
Like Borges’ cartographers the writer’s El Dorado is the ultimate imitation of reality. “Make the reader feel they’re there with you” is the axiom of fiction and all writers, ultimately, fall short of utopia. The true reality is that imitations can never be duplications. Representations can never truly mimic reality as they’d have to, inevitably, re-create every atomic aspect of it, and who’s got time for that? Does that, then, make this less a pursuit of an ‘El Dorado’ than of a ‘White Elephant’? Perhaps, though I’d hate to dismiss the pursuit out of hand. I can’t think of a more noble cause than spending a lifetime in pursuit of perfection, yet I would like to, if I may, employ another American dictum to this treatment of literature. Literature must, absolutely must, be used as the “gateway drug” to reality. As I stand in the Acropolis museum, closer to the Parthenon’s metopes than any of the lauded ancients could ever have dreamt to, I’m reminded of the privileged age we live in. The age of witness; of exposure; of experience. The age of travel. Choose your favourite character from a novel and cycle, drive or fly with ‘budget-air’ to inhale sweet and acrid aromas, listen to tintinnabulations and feel the air of the place you’d imagined most, caress you with giddying indifference. Experience. Experience. Experience. Take your beloved books with you if you like but don’t, under any circumstances, neglect the narrative you’re in. There will never be a greater adventure than that.