On Festivals and Philosophy

Stephanie Honor Convery is one of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s official bloggers. In a special guest post for us in the lead-up to MWF 2012, she reflects on the relationship between readers and writers – and the way in which festivals create spaces for the two to meet.

Stephanie Honor Convery

Stephanie Honor Convery

Jostein Gaarder visited the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2010, and I, waiting in line for him at the signing table, clasping my just-purchased copy of The Castle in the Pyrenees, had a small epiphany.

I’m not in the habit of being starstruck, and rather than jabber excitedly when confronted with someone whose work has had significant impact on my life, I tend to grow silent and watchful and hide at the back of the crowd. The truth is, I find the experience confronting and a bit confusing, and I am quite convinced that the only dignifying behaviour in those situations is to firmly bite one’s tongue. But standing in line at that signing table, I thought: this person’s writing is important to me. What’s the harm in saying just that?

I was in primary school when I first started reading Sophie’s World, Gaarder’s novelised primer on the history of Western philosophical thought. I’m sorry to say I didn’t finish it then: I sped through the first few chapters because I wanted to know what happened to the character of Sophie but then I got stuck. The ideas themselves didn’t bog me down, but the intrusion of lessons on the primary narrative did. I now understand their significance to the story as a whole, but at age 11 I was so invested in Sophie and her story that all those pockets of history felt like enormous narrative speed-bumps. I never had much tolerance for books that seemed to idle, and I felt at the time as if this one had stalled.

Nevertheless, those opening chapters were enough to spark a whole new kind of mental life for me. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea of questioning my own being. How can I be sure that the things I think I know are true? What is the relationship between perception and reality? Why do I even exist? In the first few pages of the novel, Alberto Knox asks Sophie, Who are you? and Where does the world come from? And with such seemingly innocuous prompts, Sophie is thrust out into a realm of ontological uncertainty and isn’t sure if she can ever return.

As for me, I have never quite been able to shake that initial recognition of the space between perception and reality. Sometimes I understand it as a link or a joint, sometimes it seems to be a fracture. Whatever its nature, it is not seamless, and I find it both fascinating and terrifying. I have Gaarder’s novel to thank for that. When I finally came back to the book as an adult – and finished it – I had a major in philosophy as part of my arts degree. It frustrated me, actually, that I had to wait so long to study it properly. The ideas I was pondering at age 11 while reading Sophie’s World were exactly the same as the ideas I was asked to critically examine in lectures at age 20.

The fact that children are fully capable of examining their own realities and engaging with complex and confronting ideas about the nature of being has always struck me as peculiarly undervalued. For instance, why do we not teach philosophy in primary schools? Perhaps we are afraid of what children might question, or worried we cannot control the answers they might give.

The relationship between writer and reader is a difficult beast to negotiate because it’s conducted, crucially, at a distance. Two people engage in separate, isolated, essentially solitary and meditative past-times, and seemingly forge a connection without ever actually coming into contact.

There’s an intimacy between author and text, and an intimacy between text and reader, and sometimes those are so striking that as readers we conflate them – mistaking intimacy with a text for intimacy with its author. Thus, to approach a writer and say, ‘Your book changed my life,’ – even if it did so in very real and profound ways – risks making the poor soul not only feel embarrassed and awkward but intruded upon.

Still, I decided that day in the queue at the MWF that if there was any space in which it was all right – acceptable, encouraged even – to tell a writer that their work was special to me, this was it.

It’s one of those things that writers’ festivals can do for us: they allow us to engage with people who once dove headfirst into those ideas that interest us, that compel us, that shape us, or change us, or help us grow. Not just the text, but the people.

They give us the space where we can say to the human being behind the work of art, whatever that might be: ‘Your writing is important to me. Really, it is. Thank you.’

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