Every work of art is akin to a virus intended to change the architecture of the mind. This is Richard Dawkins’s original concept of the meme: a unit of culture that, over time, will pass through a culling process like natural selection. The evolutionary victors are the works best able to change our brains.
At the most basic level, this is obvious. After all, good art is memorable, and in order to remember that we have seen a painting, heard a song, or read a book, the network of connections among our synapses must be different after experiencing the art than before. Unless a changed self exists after experiencing the work, we will always feel ourselves Memento-style to be encountering it for the first time.
But, honestly, that whole preceding paragraph is just the idea “good art sticks with you” gussied up in some scientific language.
Art can change us in ways more meaningful than simply remembering that we have encountered it before. A piece I always loved at the San Francisco MoMA is Gerhard Richter’s Two Candles. There is a slight strangeness tied up in contemporary photorealistic painting – we can print actual photographs on a canvas that size, so why put forth the effort to paint it? – but each time I stood in front of Richter’s work it seemed a triumph of the human spirit. Seen in person, it feels incredible how much warmth and motion is captured in the piece. The painting helped me not give up on arduous tasks in my own life.
And I think that books – composed in the very language of thought – have a still greater potential to alter our minds. In his memoirs, D. Watkins relates his own transformation after he encountered the writing of bell hooks. For me, reading The Idiot shortly after I began freshman year of college taught me to be a nicer person. Until The Idiot, I was a jerk.
My favorite authors – Dostoyevsky, Bolaño, Doctorow – all sought to create works of lasting beauty and change the way their readers lived. Honestly, this is why these authors are my favorites. Why bother choosing between style and substance if you can have both?
A Naked Singularity demonstrates that Sergio De La Pava aims to join these authors’ ranks. The book is magnificent – the first 400 or more pages are among the best writing out there – and deeply meaningful. De La Pava is deeply pained by injustice in our world. Just reading his novel made me feel proud that we share a planet. If you haven’t read A Naked Singularity yet, please, click the link & buy a copy, or browse away from here to your local library’s catalog and reserve it. You’ll thank yourself later.
Would that every artwork were a weapon.