Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.


A different kind of difficult book

Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.

André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.

Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy.

Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.

I’ve been posting about books that I love in spite of–or because of–their challenging material in terms of philosophical thinking or complex scientific explanations. It occurs to me there are other forms of “difficult,” and that topic is yet another challenge for the reader to encounter. These are books I found hard to read because of subject matter, events, descriptions of things I cannot imagine, or maybe can imagine, facing.

Sometimes a book seems difficult for me on these terms because of where I am in my life; it might not be difficult to read at another time. An example of this sort of book is Franzen’s The Corrections, which features among other characters a family patriarch in serious physical and mental decline. My family is experiencing something similar right now, and I cannot quite bring myself to open the book lying on the nightstand.

On the other hand, reading can help me get through tough situations. Maybe I’ll get to The Corrections soon after all if I recall how fiction and poetry–especially the latter–have often been tools for coping or “processing.” It was immensely difficult to read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do close on the deaths (by AIDS) of three friends, but I felt understood when I read her work; I can’t explain it any other way. This exchange is almost magical to me: I do not necessarily feel I understand the writer, but I feel the writer has understood me. Without knowing me. Without knowing a person like me would ever stumble upon and read the pages…yet the text makes me feel understood.

I love that feeling, even though the rational side of me cries “Magical thinking! Coincidence! Self-delusion!”

So that’s art.

Some tough books to read: Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue, Chana Bloch’s Mrs. Dumpty, Donald Hall’s Without, Heidi Ann Smith’s The Carol Ann Burns Story, Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat & Spirit Plan, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Gregory Orr’s Gathering the Bones Together…and these books, mostly poetry, do not include the more traditional memoirs and non-fiction accounts of difficult events that are available to the reader. You could spend your entire life reading about the Holocaust, and some readers do just that.

Why would I willingly subject myself to disturbing reading? I kind of wonder about that myself; it’s not the same impulse that makes me want to read a thriller or mystery novel. In those cases, there is a promise of entertainment in a voyeuristic form and the outcome usually promises a kind of satisfaction that these other books do not always offer (read: hope, redemption, solutions…)

But I will hearken again to something I heard Marilynne Robinson talk about (see my previous post on AWP). She suggested that literature teaches us compassion. Good art of any kind opens up a new kind of perspective, one that thrusts us out of our own comfortable, individual points of view and therefore allows us–in the safety of our own homes, secure in the knowledge that this is only a book and is not happening to us–to engage with the “other.” When we feel empathy for a problematic character, when we feel we understand another person’s plight, even a fictional person, we move away from narcissistic isolation and into engagement with other beings. And that is compassion.

And that is also art.