Vitality of Literature


This essay (translated into Korean) forms the Introduction to the collection of papers published by former students in celebration of my 60th birthday in 2002.


     In Africa, they are sometimes said to have a proverb, ¡°When an old man dies, a library burns.¡±  Rather than wonder how traditional Africa knew what a library was, we should agree that, indeed, every single human person, no matter how poor, how uneducated, how unknown, is a library, a treasure-house of knowledge, expressed through stories stored up in that person¡¯s memory throughout a lifetime. Each person¡¯s memories are unique, each person¡¯s inner library contains tales that no other person¡¯s library contains. There arises a strong feeling of tragic loss, on the realization that each person¡¯s library of memory is certain to vanish with their death.

     A few years ago, when Rumania was struggling for freedom, some of the agents of the dictator Ceauscescu set fire to the National Library in Bucharest and the accumulated books and documents of centuries were lost; the historical memory of a whole nation was destroyed. The idea of a library being deliberately burned arouses feelings of great horror. It is often seen as the main sign of the wickedness of the first Emperor of China, that he ordered all the books in his empire to be destroyed. It is sometimes said that China has never fully recovered from that act. Moreover, the memory of it seems to have inspired some of contemporary China¡¯s most terrible crimes against humanity in Tibet, where for decades both the living libraries, thousands of Buddhist monks, and the physical libraries accumulated through centuries in thousands of temples, have been systematically liquidated.

Of course, it could be argued that not to read any of the books available in a library is almost the same as burning it. Books are not memories, they are only the records of memory. When we use a computer, we know that it is very easy to lose everything on a hard disk. In order to remedy against that, we make back-ups. A living human memory can have no back-up system; instead, every society has developed systems of transmission, or tradition. Every person has an increasing past and a diminishing future; continuity is only possible if there is effective transmission from one generation to another. Schools are intended to be places for that transmission. Books are the main lines of transmission.

     Books are written in order to permit continuity and communication to occur between people who will usually never meet. Continuity of tradition is a struggle against oblivion; the loss of historical memory is one sign of a threatening darkness. We are living in a time when many people deny the possibility of history, or try to rewrite the past to justify the present; yet as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, the good, the beautiful, the true, are only possible in long historical continuities. The author of a book may have died centuries ago, or live in a distant country; if the ideas and memories a writer put into a book come alive in a reader¡¯s mind, there is transmission and continuity.

     The Gospel of John begins with a tremendous illumination: ¡°In the beginning was the Word.¡± The Christian faith has developed and spread on a basis of Word, the fragile conviction that the words we use are not mere cuckoo-cries. Of course, John was using the Greek word, logos, that does not really mean an individual ¡®word¡¯ so much as a ¡°speaking out.¡± What is important, though, is the idea of a Word, a Speaking, that comes before any other event and is the origin of all events, of all creation¡¯s history.

     This is revolutionary because people usually consider that human speech originates in a need to transmit information recorded in an individual memory after experiences made in the past. The transmission of information without speech already exists among bees, in the way they dance out the position of flowers, and in birds, whose songs are not words in any real sense, except that they are sounds produced in the throat. We certainly often use words for the same warning purpose, but John insists that the Word, the eternal Logos of God, is more: a source, not of information, but of light and life. This light and life, John says are opposed by darkness and absence, the powers of death, of silence.

     The Word, of which our speech-acts are assumed to be a faint metaphor, a symbol sharing some kind of common nature, is creative of new reality. God¡¯s first word to his creation in Genesis is recorded as ¡°Let there be light¡± and in response ¡°there was light.¡± The void or chaos of potential space-time into which God speaks has one latent talent: like each of us, it is capable of imagination, and the word of God it hears provokes an imaginative response, our material ¡°reality,¡± light and so energy, come to be.

     Words have never been simple bearers of factual information. From the very beginning of human culture, people have rightly valued the act of ¡°story-telling¡± in which the human imagination passes lightly beyond the limitations of what normally happens and explores what else might happen, in a slightly different world. There fairies may dance, dragons roar, and heroes rise to every challenge or perish gloriously. Children still demand stories at bedtime, because fantastic tales teach them to dream their lives in more significant ways while they sleep.

The close-knit community found in the farming villages of centuries past was centered in the activities of working, and of story-telling. In Europe, some of these farms turned into royal ¡°courts¡± (Court in English, Hof in German cover both meanings) and the story-telling continued in a more sophisticated manner, to produce ¡°courtly literature.¡± In African villages the ¡°palaver¡± is the main way in which life is given shape, hours and hours of talking, mostly in the form of ¡°stories¡± by which the older members of the village express the forms that life traditionally takes. They tell stories, not to teach them to the young, but because at the end of the stories a decision will have been reached for the future action of the community.

     What we now often call literature has developed out of story- telling, and is a form of it. The distinction between ¡°fact¡± and ¡°fiction¡± is transcended by the demand that literary works, even of high fantasy, should be ¡°credible.¡± Even today, literature offers both instruction and pleasure, when the reading imagination and creative curiosity are alert. A literature that offered nothing for life, except a means of blocking out the invasion of tedium that foreshadows death, would be no literature, but escapist junk.

     In England, with its miserable climate, the traditional place for telling stories has always been around the fireplace; in winter, night comes early there and the weather is often wild, even when summer is near. In the old farm-courts there was a common hall, with a fire in the middle of the room, around which people sat in a full circle. Later the fire was put in a wall and given a chimney, the circle was reduced to a half, the speakers were reduced in number, but the feeling of community and the story-telling activities remained the same until recently, until television destroyed human society.

     In Shakespeare, there are moments when famous characters mention ¡°story-telling¡± as something that will happen to themselves, people in the future will tell their story. Richard II, learning that he may loose his crown, says ¡°For God¡¯s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings.¡± Later, when he has lost everything and is being taken to prison, he meets his young wife, and says:


In winter¡¯s tedious nights sit by the fire

With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales

Of woeful ages long ago betid;

And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs

Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,

And send the hearers weeping to their beds . . . (V.i.40-5)


For Shakespeare, there are two kinds of stories, or tales: sad, and happy. Strangely enough, people like to hear sad tales, to read horror stories, watch movies about Dracula, see violence on the TV. But even happy endings make people cry, sometimes.

     Every person has many tales to tell, the story of their life is a mixture of joys and pains, big or little ones, and deserves to be told once at least. The Korean poet Ko Un has begun to write many volumes of poems under the title Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) in which he hopes to evoke the stories of all the people he has ever known, because in many cases, he is the last link between them and the silence of oblivion. People who lived and died in remote villages, children who died and were given no tomb. Memory, he says, is a human right. Story-telling is the traditional form of collective memory.

             From the beginning of writing, there have been books recording more or less factual information, others expressing speculations, books of thought, and books recording those words that emerge from the human fantasy—stories, songs, poems that today we call ¡°literature.¡± The 19th-century writer Matthew Arnold introduced the notion that what was worth reading ought to have ¡°high seriousness¡± and that seemed to exclude anything that was entertaining, any work that gave pleasure. Literature then became something potentially boring enough to be studied, and the study of literature was often seen as a way of taming and diminishing the works until they lost the name ¡°work¡± and came to be known as ¡°texts.¡± Texts are artifacts, dead and embalmed like the musical instruments seen in some museums, protected by glass, never touched, never played, dumb memorials to dead musicians.

Some of Shakespeare¡¯s sonnets celebrate the way that their written or printed, published words are undying, immortal, while the poet, the fair young man and the dark lady are doomed to be swiftly annihilated in death. By contrast, some more recent approaches to literature seem determined to declare that any text by a dead poet is a dead text. It is a lie, as anyone knows who has ever ¡°found something¡± in a work of classical literature. What we say about that experience is significant; we say that a book has ¡°come alive¡± for us. Literary works that mean something, that are worth reading, have an inherent vitality, they are only dead to dead eyes.

             That vitality is the main reason for inviting Korean readers to explore the whole tradition of English literature, especially that written centuries ago. The writers of Medieval or Renaissance England are infinitely more remote from us than the people now living in tropical Brazil or northern Greenland because we can never go to meet them. Yet generations of readers have felt that they knew them intimately through reading the words they left behind. The entire flow of English literature can be seen as a succession of transformations of vitality. Yet vitality is an ambiguous quality, often akin to the aggressivity that leads to violence. Creatively oriented aggressivity, contained and directed, gives birth to art and to all the accomplishments of human civilization.

             There is an almost constant background of violence and aggression to the finest works of literature written in England. Early in the Christian era, the Roman legions came to Britain, imposed a foreign culture with taxes, towns, laws, then left. The system promptly collapsed; earlier Celtic ways of living began to re-emerge but into the void came people from northern Germany who were soon called Angles and Saxons. No record remains of how they convinced the British Celts to abandon the rich lands of south-east and eastern England so rapidly and completely that barely a word of Celtic reached their memories. Ethnic cleansing was certainly part of the method; enslavement, too. Writing came to this newly named Angle-land through the Christian missions from Ireland and Rome in the late 6th century, together with a message that challenged brutal power and offered meaning to human pain and struggle. The militaristic heroism of ancient Indo-European traditions was assimilated to the spiritual heroism of the Bible and the Christian martyrs, to produce both ¡°Beowulf¡± and ¡°The Dream of the Rood.¡± More remarkable still, Bede was able to combine the stories he had heard around the fires of his youth with written records from established churches to create his ¡°Ecclesiastical History,¡± which for the first time suggested that divine providence had special plans for England.

             Then the second wave of Germanic ¡°Viking¡± invasions, from Denmark and Norway, briefly threatened the newly installed Christian civilization before recognizing its benefits and submitting to it. As a result, in a move later attributed to the wisdom of king Alfred, the vernacular Old English became the language of official documents, of learned discourse, and of story telling. The outburst of monastic life in the 10th century resulted in the writing or recopying of virtually all the literary works we now know from the period, including the extraordinary compendium known as the Exeter Book, where all the Elegies, the Riddles and other poems remain as clear on the pages now as on the day they were written. Likewise, they remain appealing for their liveliness.

             It is hard to understand the historical processes that led to the abolition of this initial literary culture. When Edward died in 1065, William might have come from Normandy, defeated Harold, and quietly continued the old regime with a few of his friends in top jobs. Instead, he replaced every English landowner and churchman with French-speaking Normans and the writing of English in any form ground to a complete halt for two centuries. It is true that the accumulated works of Old English literature do not show a great capacity for growth or renewal. In any case, the significant developments in literature that followed soon after all occurred outside of England.

Put simply, late in the 11th century the poets of southern France known as troubadours created modern poetry and in so doing replaced the martial male heroism of the Chanson de Geste by the complexities of heterosexual love as the central topic of literature for centuries to come. A few years later, in mid-12th-century northern France, the success of the tale of the hopeless love of Tristan for Iseult led to other stories originating in the Celtic Welsh regions of Britain being transformed by the genius of Chretien and a few others and put beside the classical tales of Thebes, Troy, and Aeneas, to produce the Arthurian romance, that then achieved its highest development when Chretien¡¯s unfinished tale of the Holy Grail was combined with apocryphal Gospels telling of Longinus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the relics of the Last Supper and Passion to produce the sublime legend of Christian chivalry fulfilled in the holy knighthood of Galahad. All of that, and more, was done in France and spread to Germany and Italy in translations. In England, the educated and wealthy classes were still more or less French-speaking; translation was not deemed necessary for the English-speaking peasants, who continued to tell tales around their fires.

As the 12th century drew to a close, universities were established across Europe, students traveled, drank, sang, and grew radical. Towns expanded, the merchant class developed a money economy; scholars learned Greek, philosophy, medicine and mathematics from the Arabs. The 13th century saw Thomas Aquinas formulate a new systematic expression of Christian doctrine on the basis of Aristotelian methods. In every part of western Europe, vast new churches rose using a rapidly evolving technology by which the walls were eliminated in favor of ever broader and taller expanses of glass. In Italy, Francis of Assisi changed the legalistic forms of Christianity by declaring that the proper human response to the love of God is joy. In the following years, Dante loved Beatrice, found in her beauty the revelation of the mystery of God, lost her to death and composed the Comedy in which she acts as his guide to the glories of Heaven. It was an extraordinary evolution, marked by intense vitality—intellectual, poetic, literary, spiritual.

England remained almost untouched by most of it. The English language was the language of daily life, and of fireside tales, but not of books. Latin was the language of knowledge, of law, of the Church. French was the language read by the privileged classes who could afford books. Yet slowly the old language asserted itself by sheer weight of numbers and when the time was right, when the new pragmatic business classes of the cities had mingled long enough with the aristocracy, a literature in a very changed form of English began to appear. The first works are nothing to boast of; they cannot compare with the great works of Europe. It was not really until the later 14th century that Chaucer, Gower, and Langland laid the bases for future development, and brought the vitalities of continental writing into England in English. Of the three, Chaucer is clearly the incomparable leader. His vitality is such that his works are still read with at least partial enjoyment in almost every part of the world. It is perhaps ironic that the most popular work after his is not by one of the other two familiar ¡°names¡± but by the anonymous author of ¡°Sir Gawain and the Green Knight¡± and ¡°Pearl¡± whose Green Knight embodies a vitality that seems rooted in the nature myths and fairy tales of the rural fireside.

Yet when Chaucer went to Italy in the 1370s, Petrarch and Boccaccio were already nearing the end of their careers, deeply marked and inspired by Dante who had died 50 years before. The word did not exist, but the Renaissance had begun. Chaucer¡¯s achievement served as the basis for a consolidation of English identity throughout the 15th century, and many paid tribute to him without rising to his level. The comparative lateness of the development of English literature is most clearly manifest when we recall that Malory¡¯s 15th-century adaptation of the main French romances, usually known by its last section, La Mort Darthur, is the first English romance to have been written in prose. In France, prose had been the medium for romance since the early 13th century.

The 15th century was bad for England, at least superficially. First it lost all its possessions in France, then it was ravaged by the Wars of the Roses as various branches of the royal family fought for power, slaughtering each other. Yet the economy flourished and social mobility was the norm. The Tudor family¡¯s rise to power in 1485 and reign until 1603 coincided with one of the most dynamic moments in European history. It would be hard to decide which has been ultimately more significant, the introduction of printing in the 1470s or the discovery of the American continent after 1492. The sudden expansion of written forms of expression multiplied by printing coincides with the abrupt economic changes caused by increased wealth created by international trade, plunder and piracy. The dynamism of Christian Europe, expressed as brutal greed, gave rise to the destruction in a few years of all the cultures that had developed across the Americas over centuries.

As if to stress the way unjustifiable violence and intense creativity often coincide in history, we find ourselves in the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Erasmus and Thomas More. The first book written by an Englishman to have had a lasting, universal impact such that it is still read with real interest, is Utopia. If that work is designed to stress that humanity is its own worst enemy, another proof followed within a few years of its publication, with the enormous cultural revolution known as the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The universal Church that had been a sign of unity among all the different cultures across Europe found itself split, fractured, divided for largely political reasons, virtually paralyzed in its proclamation of a universal justice and transformed into the helpless servant of narrowly nationalistic, regionalistic, or dynastic ambitions. England fared better than some nations in that there were no actual wars of religion; the Elizabethan Settlement ensured that a relatively unified church continued to support royal authority in England for most of the following 400 years, but with little freedom to proclaim a universal Gospel.

In 1564, Galileo Galilei was born in the glorious renaissance city of Florence and William Shakespeare saw the light of day in a modest cottage of Stratford upon Avon. Italy was already waning from its renaissance heights and Galileo had to pay a high price for his revolutionary vision, although he escaped the worst. In England, the renaissance too came late, if it came at all, and Shakespeare was growing up by the time Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser with their friends and supporters set about modernizing the literary enterprise in England. They would have been amazed and dismayed if they had known that the name that would be remembered for centuries, and celebrated everywhere in the world as one of the finest writers of all history, would not be theirs, or of a highly educated, wealthy courtier, but that of an actor-turned-playwright without university education or social rank.

In the popular imagination of England, the age of Elizabeth is mythologized as a time of great national pride, of vitality and joie-de-vivre. It marked the end of the middle ages in many ways; the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English fleet and a powerful storm was seen as a sign of God¡¯s support for all things English. Insularity became a virtue and everything continental was ignored for centuries, until today, by the great majority. Shakespeare continued to manifest that creative vitality beyond the death of Elizabeth and in the decades following her death in 1603 the theatre in England remained the place where literary creativity triumphed, while lyric poetry declined and no one seemed able to follow the example of Sidney¡¯s Arcadia and develop new forms of prose fiction. John Donne¡¯s revision of the poetry of love still comes alive, but it is a last gasp.

Ironically, the 17th century was another time of intense vitality, but not in literature. English society had always shown a strong flexibility, an ability to adapt and compromise. When king John agreed to the terms of Magna Carta in 1215, he could not have realized that he was signing the death warrant of royal power; but the implied submission of the king of England to the will of the people of England expressed by it, and the solid tradition that no king might make laws or raise taxes without the consent of Parliament, meant that the despotic tyranny that James and Charles Stuart tried to impose could never succeed. The Civil War, the execution of the king, and the Commonwealth, were extraordinary events that provided many of the paradigms for later revolutions across the globe. The great literary name is John Milton and yet his actions as Latin Secretary for Cromwell and the Commonwealth were ultimately pointless; still, he gave England its only epic, Paradise Lost, the only epic we know to have been composed by a blind man—someone whose entire life¡¯s project had just been demolished. That too is a kind of vitality.

English society seemed to have experimented with republicanism and libertarian social models in vain when the Restoration brought back a dissolute (though charming) king, a house of lords, and bishops. Fortunately, in 1688 king James took the initiative of leaving the country without a king. He was promptly replaced by rulers (his daughter and her husband) appointed by Parliament and as a result England lost the last vestige of medieval culture, a powerful court where literature was encouraged.

The rise of interest in scientific, experimental methods during the 17th century, largely thanks to Francis Bacon, and of the freedom to propose multiple solutions to problems in free debate encouraged during the Commonwealth by Milton, were both provoked by the negative radicalism of Hobbes¡¯ Leviathan. Out of that came the greatest English thinkers—Isaac Newton and John Locke. But the real triumph of the 17th century was not that of individuals but of a class, the moneyed class of the cities, especially of London.

By the end of the 17th century, the London businessmen were beginning to meet and discuss business deals in coffee houses, reading newspapers, asking about what was new, while their wives met in each others¡¯ houses, compared dresses, furnishings, discussed manners, read magazines and yawned with boredom. As capitalism, imperialism, slavery, and the industrial revolution progressed, so did the novel and it exploded into the midst of that painful violence with its own new vitality. Defoe¡¯s works were early harbingers—Robinson Crusoe was the second English book to become a European bestseller, Pamela figures in literary histories, but when Clarissa died, all Europe wept. Still, the English have always mostly preferred Tom Jones, who was a rather naughty boy but still got to marry the girl he wanted after an epic voyage.

The brutality of much of what followed in world history continued to provoke literary vitality in England. The English novel reached its sublimest heights in the 1790s and 1800s while France was reeling from its disastrous revolution and preparing to launch into the even more disastrous Napoleonic era. It did so in a small series of works that tell of petty misunderstandings between middle-class young people in provincial houses and end with a prospective wedding that makes everyone happy. Jane Austen¡¯s vitality is of a very English kind. As is that of William Wordsworth; Byron, Shelley and Keats were more radically ¡°Romantic¡± and all ended their lives far away from England. Sir Walter Scott¡¯s work was of a more solid kind, and today lies in the shadow cast by the sacred monsters that followed—Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence. Victorian vitality was followed by 20th-century uncertainty and the literary enterprise continues today, although much compromised by changes in world culture.

Today, the extreme commercialization of the book trade, and the priority given in book stores to rapid sales, make life difficult for writers of challenging work. Fiction is still vibrant, though, with a number of awards designed to promote wider interest. Contemporary British ¡°serious¡± fiction shares the worldwide fascination with multiple narratorial voices and a likewise widespread preference for tales set in the past. Poetry is read by a limited readership but enjoyed by many more, thanks to the development of ¡°performance poetry,¡± among the Afro-Carribean community especially. While T. S. Elliot favored the idea that poetry should be difficult and elitist, Philip Larkin and many others looked beyond him to Thomas Hardy for more accessible kinds of writing. If Geoffrey Hill is sometimes hailed as the greatest living poet, that is in spite of, and not because of, his extreme difficulty. Vitality today has as many forms as it ever had.


The most important thing in each person¡¯s life, too, is vitality, ¡°really living,¡± taking the time to be truly alive, vibrant with vitality. Deep within each person, there is a thirst for life, that ought to be guiding us at every instant. That essential thirst for real life yearns inside us: I want to know more, I want to love more, I want to be more. It is a voice that can drive us in many directions, not all of them good—Faustus takes us to heaven or hell, depending on whether we read Marlowe or Goethe. Personal ambition that ignores other people, the thirst for success or wealth, fame or power at all costs, is a misunderstanding of the inner voice, a failure to understand what being human really involves. For us, real life is never achieved in having alone, but only in giving and sharing all we have.

     In many languages, people use the same word for knowledge of facts and knowledge of people: ¡°I know that¡± and ¡°I know her.¡± In reading books, and in meeting people, we are driven forward and given energy by a fundamental thirst, the thirst for knowledge. A good word expressing that thirst is ¡°curiosity,¡± which all the time says, ¡°I want to learn more, I want to know more.¡± That is why Faust is such a powerful myth for the modern age.

     Yet in recent years, there has come a vast crisis, a loss of confidence in human life; instead of daring to want to know, many people deny the possibility of knowing, never read any challenging books, or intelligent journalism, and spend as much time as they can gazing at the TV. You may go into a coffee-shop, and find people watching a show where people are sitting in a coffee-shop; visit a beer hall and see people watching a TV film where people are arguing in a beer hall. Into a hotel room, people watch a film showing people in a hotel. Nothing challenges or disturbs the boredom of a life where imagination and curiosity are kept turned to minimum. For what? To save energy?

     Even some quite young people in Korea as elsewhere seem to have lost their natural curiosity; has it been killed in them by cruelty? Or despair? The worst thing a young person can ever say to themselves is, ¡°Why bother? What¡¯s the point?¡± Education has failed if it has taught them to say such things, if innate curiosity has been crushed by the obligation to learn by heart a lot of things they did not understand or feel any desire to learn. True study is always to follow that flame of curiosity burning in the heart. People have different personalities, different curiosities.

     If we are guided by our deepest curiosity, our own thirst to know more, we will never be bored. The highest form of vitality is ¡°enthusiasm¡± because that means having a god in your guts. What are we fascinated by? What fire of longing is burning in me? Literature, like life, mostly becomes exciting when it is rather difficult. I get very sad when I hear of students whose only concern is to find courses that are ¡°easy¡± and who try to avoid subjects that are ¡°difficult.¡± They are ruining their life.

     This takes us back to the two kinds of stories that people tell beside the fire: sad and merry, tragedies and comedies. Every comedy is a victory over potential tragedy; the only way to happiness is through struggle, hardship, and pain. Christ¡¯s Resurrection is only possible because he died; there is no real love without suffering. Happiness in life involves overcoming all that can cause sorrow and despair; nobody can do that for another, each person is responsible for shaping their own life.

     To love life, to love learning, to be fascinated by all that we see, is a gift from God. It is a shadow of the way in which God sees everything. As Jesus might have said, even the death of a sparrow causes Heaven to shudder. One of the many things in English that don¡¯t seem to have an equivalent in Korean is the question ¡°Don¡¯t you care?¡± I sometimes think that many people in today¡¯s world are trying to become blind, not to see anything around them. So many people really don¡¯t seem to care about anything. Why?

     Of course, there are many ugly things, the degradation that alcohol, prostitution, exploitation, violence, meaninglessness, bring. But every human face is an image of God¡¯s face; every human life is potentially a tragedy and a comedy, a challenge of hope or a victory of love. Every life is a masterpiece, and if we read books, it is because they give the open eyes we need to see the real meaning of life itself.

     Nothing has any meaning in itself, all is offered for our own interpretations. No two people see the same person or, read the same book, in quite the same way, and the meaning to each one is completely different, in any case. Our understanding, our knowing, are ¡°readings¡± of the book called reality; ¡°realism¡± is not closer to reality than ¡°fantasy¡± because all ¡°reading¡± is the work of the individual imagination. Every word is metaphoric, and our dreams are closer to the real than almost anything else in our life. That is why learning to read well is so important, because we read not only books, but also TV films, events, people, and our own lives with the same imagination, the same curiosity, the same interest.

     A person who has read and loved the stories written by Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Chaucer, Dickens, Dostoievsky, Milton, Dante, and all the others, hundreds of thousands of others, knows infinitely more, and is eager to learn yet more, about the meaning of life, the possibilities of human existence, the depths of human tragedy, and the wonders of the human comedy. That person will never take an exam in all that, luckily, but will read all human life as a story full of echoes of high vision. Hope is the key, love is the path to meaning; the meaning itself is Peace, because it is God¡¯s will for each of us, and we shall only know that when we have done it by becoming what we were eternally meant to be, the secret of the Thirst murmuring deep within our hearts, ¡°Come to me, I will be your Rest, I will give you life; I am your Life, for all eternity.¡±

Much of that is contained in a passage written over 350 years ago by a man who, falling sick, thought he was going to die but recovered and wrote down the visions of his pain. John Donne¡¯s Meditation 17 offers some difficult themes of joy, inspired by the sorrowful sound of a bell ringing to announce that someone in the village had died:


¡°all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . And God¡¯s hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. . . No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the main . . . Any man¡¯s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.¡±


If you want to find the meaning of your life, do not look for it beyond yourself, in other people¡¯s opinions of you, or in your social position. Instead, remember St. John of the Cross, a Spanish writer who once wrote that ¡°when the sun is setting on your life, the only thing that remains will be love. Love is all that counts.¡± Love is what we hope to experience; nothing else is human. Heaven is only love, because wherever there is love, there is God. A book is nothing so long as it stays shut. For a book to become meaningful, it has to be opened and read, its words have to become life by the imagination. The human heart is the same. So long as a heart stays closed and unread, it is useless; but if we open our hearts and offer them to others, for them to read what has been written there by our life, then each in turn becomes a living word, source of life and light, for many others. ¡°No man is an island,¡± and no book is a mere book, if we find the way to read it into life.