Literary Sensibility

A Perfect Day for Bananafish The Open Window Jane Eyre Pride and Prejudice
Notes on Language and Poetry Language and Poetry Perennialist Art   Language and Human Evolution

      This essay explores "higher" examples of literary and motion picture art. By "higher" I mean instances of these art forms which are within or related to Perennialist Art. 1  The distinguishing feature of Perennialist Art is its power to produce psychic upheaval in a prepared mind and transport that mind to a higher dimension. I am using the term "Perennialist art" to include the conscious production or arrangement of words, sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that enables a person to understand and experience Goodness, Justice, Truth, Beauty, and the other Forms in the Higher Realm.

    Within the term "Perennialist art," then, I include those specially created instances of literature (prose and poetry), drama (including screenplays), painting, sculpture, music, dance, or illustration (including illustrated books and Web sites) which possesses the distinguishing quality of empowering a reader or viewer to gain a higher state of consciousness.

    To understand and appreciate higher art, a person must have carried out specific preparation  2 to be able to conceive of new possibilities, understand new concepts, and participate in transformative experiences. To an unprepared psyche, Perennialist art appears lackluster or bizarre.

Essential Distinctions

      An unmistakable and immutable difference obtains between specific higher works of written narrative literature and their embodiment in other art forms such as motion pictures or audio presentations. The difference is similar to that between such "symbolic forms" as myth, art, language, and science which Cassirer explored. Each of these irreducible realms "produces and posits a world of its own," providing a "peculiar way of seeing" and a unique "intuition of meaning."

"Myth, art, language and science appear as symbols; not in the sense of mere figures which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in the sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own. In these realms the spirit exhibits itself in that inwardly determined dialectic by virtue of which alone there is any reality, any organized and definite Being at all. Thus the special symbolic forms are not imitations, but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension, and as such is made visible to us. The question as to what reality is apart from these forms, and what are its independent attributes, becomes irrelevant here. For the mind, only that can be visible which has some definite form; but every form of existence has its source in some peculiar way of seeing, some intellectual formulation and intuition of meaning."

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth

      In this essay we'll examine selected works of "higher" written narrative literature and failed attempts to replicate these examples in other media. We've previously explored the extraordinary phenomenon of specific works of written literature being partially surpassed by their exceptionally creative and original embodiment in motion pictures.

Failed Attempts At Replication

      In our current barbaric era when most persons have lost any understanding or appreciation of higher works of literary or visual art, almost all cultural standards have been lost from common awareness. At times, persons of very limited awareness attempt to substitute one art form for another in the mistaken view that a motion picture of a supposed "literary classic" such as Saki's "The Open Window" provides essentially the same experience as reading the brilliant short story.

      Fortunately, some literary critics are able to see through this misconception.

"I've tried as earnestly as I can to understand the logic behind the notion that it's good that 'teenagers who would have never read a book would at least watch a TV series based on it.' This is also a long-standing justification both for making adaptations of 'literary classics' and for showing such films and programs to students as either a supplement to or an outright replacement for reading the works in question, but it has never made sense to me. It's based on the assumption that 'literary classics' (specifically works of fiction) are stories about characters and that, since these visual media are able to tell stories about characters, if you faithfully tell the stories and present all the characters you've adequately reproduced the book. (Or even if you haven't, it's not a big deal because viewers will still get 'acquainted' with it.) While it's true that some 'literary classics,' especially those written in the 18th and 19th centuries, have stories and characters, surely it isn't the case that they are conveyed to us in the same way from 'classic' to 'classic.' What gets lost in the adaptation is narrative voice, fluctuations in point of view, subtleties in characterization, shades of description. Most importantly, what gets lost is the encounter with language. And this is unavoidably true even in adaptations that are not 'vulgar and simplistic.'

"To believe that adaptations are acceptable substitutes for the works adapted is to believe that the experience of watching a film or television show, even the most intelligent and well-wrought shows, and reading a novel are essentially the same. Or at least the differences are negligible enough that the 'essence' of the work is still getting through. It seems to me an implicit devaluation of what is actually the distinguishing feature of fiction--its status a [sic] patterned prose, as writing--to maintain that it can be translated into visually realized images without sacrificing its essence. A given adaptation of The Master and Margarita may work on its own, visual, terms. It may even be more successful than another adaptation at capturing something recognizably 'Bulgakovian' in the treatment. But it still isn't The Master and Margarita, and viewers of the film who don't become readers of the novel still don't really know what it's all about."

"Getting to Know You," The Reading Experience (Website), November 06, 2007

      In the section immediately below, we'll examine two examples of failed attempts to "adapt" a short story to a movie. I'd suggest you first read these short stories by linking out to them. After reading "The Open Window," I'd recommend you read the comments on how to understand and appreciate the short story.

      It's necessary to develop understanding of the "higher" aspects of art forms (literature, painting, motion pictures, and music) through study of the deeper meaning of specific instances of "higher art." Such training in the higher aspects of selected examples of motion picture and literary art is provided here and here.


1 See the author's book The Perennial Tradition and this essay on Perennialist Art.

2 This Website provides a series of preparatory essays which include exercises providing training in "higher sensibility." At the same time, this essay in itself provides a measure of tutelage in "higher sensibility" so that, for example, you can learn to understand how to appreciate "higher" examples of literary art.