Literature too Literally

I have an odd habit of the mind. I don’t know if it happens to you, but certain random situations provoke me subconsciously to act out, whether actually or in my head, something from a book I’ve read. The tendency is stronger in some circumstances. I’ll give a couple of examples.

In the past year and a half or so I’ve committed to read through George Orwell’s body of writing, as well as books on him. Last summer I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, that harrowing account of statism gone wild, primarily in the form of Big Brother, thought police, and telescreens. One of the means that Orwell’s fictional—but all too real—government keeps tabs on its citizens is through the use of Black Helicopters spying from way up in the sky. A proof of the longevity of Orwell’s legacy is the way that the events and people of this book have wound their way into culture. For me, when I walk down the street and see a helicopter up in the sky, I get the strong urge to duck under a tree. It’s especially strong if the helicopter is from a news broadcaster and is hovering over one spot with its camera in full view.

Now I have two more quirks to add to my roster of personal idiocy. Last week I finished reading Arthur Koestler’s likewise harrowing account of statist atrocity (notice a theme here?) in Darkness At Noon. This short novel is based on Koestler’s own experience of Russian communism, and the witnessed change of the Revolution’s character from Old Bolshevism to straight-up Stalinism. While no historical characters or events are directly cited—Stalin is only referred to as “No. 1”—Koestler’s characters are nonetheless based on real people. The protagonist is an Old Bolshevik leader named Rubashov, who finds himself imprisoned for having an “anti-revolutionary” mentality. The book is brilliant for its understanding of the Moscow Show Trials of 1938, but it is just as brilliant as a prison psychology. Anyways, back to me. Koestler feeds my bizarre habit by making his character have two imitable personality traits. The first, Rubashov’s nervous habit is to take his pince-nez glasses and rub them on his sleeve. This he does frequently while under interrogation by the cold Gletkin. So now, when I take off my own glasses and clean them on my shirt, I immediately get the mental image of Rubashov sitting under a blinding light being mentally brutalized by his interrogator.

The second instance has only happened once, and it came about when I couldn’t get my son’s arm into his shirt sleeve. Early in the book Rubashov recounts a recurring nightmare of Gestapo banging on his door to arrest him. In the dream, he is sleeping soundly and does not hear them come in his bedroom. He awakes to the ghastly sight of the fascists looking down him. As they get him out of bed, he struggles with the sleeve of his robe, which makes the situation tense. Then he wakes up. A few days ago, as I struggled to get Jack’s shirt on, my mind went right back to Rubashov’s dream, and I wondered if anyone might be outside our door.

Though I sound as though I should be institutionalized, I rather like that this happens. It shows the depth that literature affects me, and it also allows me to keep those scenes of deep impact fresh in my thinking. It also further instills in me a healthy suspicion and awareness of government! I’m interested to see how this dumb case of taking literature too literally will further manifest itself in my psyche. Who knows what’ll happen after I read some Virginia Woolf!