Fiction Completes Us, Mutilated Beings Burdened With the Awful Dichotomy of Having Only One Life and the Ability To Desire a Thousand

C. S. Lewis? Mario Vargas Llosa? Louis L’Amour? George R. R. Martin?

Dear Quote Investigator: Although each individual is limited to a single life on Earth, he or she may vicariously experience a thousand lives via novels and movies. This notion has been expressed by some prominent writers, e.g., C. S. Lewis, Mario Vargas Llosa, Louis L’Amour, and George R. R. Martin. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1961 noteworthy fantasy and theological author C. S. Lewis wrote the volume “An Experiment in Criticism” which included a passage about inhabiting many fictional selves. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

In July 1984 Mario Vargas Llosa published an essay titled “El arte de mentir” (“The art of lying”) in the Spanish newspaper “El País”. 2 “The New York Times Book Review” printed a translated version in October 1984. 3 Below is an excerpt in Spanish followed by an excerpt in English. Llosa argued that the thoughtful reader of a novel achieves a transference to a new identity in a different realm:

El traslado es una metamorfosis: el reducto asfixiante que es nuestra vida real se abre y sialimos a ser otros, a vivir vicariamente experiencias que la ficción vuelve nuestras. Sueño lúcido, fantasía encarnada, la ficción nos completa, a nosotros, seres mutilados a quienes ha sido impuesta la atroz dicotomía de tener una sola vida y la facultad de desear mil. Ese espacio entre la vida real y los deseos y fantasías que le exigen ser más rica y diversa es el que ocupan las ficciones.

The transfer is a metamorphosis—the asphyxiating constriction of our lives opens up and we sally forth to be others, to have vicarious experiences which fiction converts into our own. A wondrous dream, a fantasy incarnate, fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand. This gap between real life and the desires and fantasies demanding that it be richer and more varied is the realm of fiction.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1989 Louis L’Amour published a memoir titled “Education of a Wandering Man”. He eloquently expressed a similar idea: 4

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

In 1990 Vargas Llosa’s commentary caught the eye of quotation collector Jon Winokur who included it in the compilation “Writers on Writing”: 5

A wondrous dream, a fantasy incarnate, fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand.
Mario Vargas Llosa

In 1996 the compilers of “The International Thesaurus of Quotations” included an entry for the remark of Louis L’Amour: 6

For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.
LOUIS L’AMOUR, EDUCATION OF A WANDERING MAN (1989)

In 2011 George R. R. Martin published “A Dance with Dragons” which is part of the fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. One of his characters highlights the multiplicity of lives accessible via reading: 7

Bran did not understand, so he asked the Reeds. “Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

In conclusion, these four creators crafted distinct valuable expressions that overlap in meaning. C. S. Lewis’s comments were published first. Yet, QI believes earlier instances of this sentiment exist.

Image Notes: Illustration of book opening to reveal a fantasy world from Iván Tamás (thommas68) at Pixabay. The image has been resized, retouched, and cropped.

(Special thanks to Eugene Heller and Jonathan Weinberg. Heller told QI about the Mario Vargas Llosa quotation in “El País” after he saw the QI entry about the George R. R. Martin quotation. Weinberg told QI about the C. S. Lewis quotation from 1961 after he saw the initial version of this article which began with the Vargas Llosa quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 2012 (First published 1961), An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (Clive Staples Lewis), Section: Epilogue, Quote Page 140 and 141, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with Google Preview)
  2. Website of Newspaper: El País, Newspaper Location: Madrid, Spain, Article title: El arte de mentir (The art of lying), Article author: Mario Vargas Llosa, Date on website: July 25, 1984, Website description: Major Spanish-language daily newspaper in Spain. (Accessed elpais.com on March 2, 2019) link
  3. 1984 October 7, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Is Fiction the Art of Lying?, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Translation by Toby Talbot), Start Page BR1, Quote Page BR40, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 2008 reissue (1989 Copyright), Education of a Wandering Man: A Memoir by Louis L’Amour, Chapter 3, Unnumbered Page in Preview, Bantam Dell: A Division of Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 1990, Writers on Writing, Compiled by Jon Winokur, Topic: Fiction, Quote Page 124, Running Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1996, The International Thesaurus of Quotations, Compiled by Eugene Ehrlich and Marshall DeBruhl, Revised and Updated, Topic: Books and Reading, Quote Page 63, Column 2, HarperResource: HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2013 (Copyright 2011) A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin, Series: A Song of Ice and Fire, Quote Page 495, (Mass Market Paperback), Bantam Books: An Imprint of Random House Publishing Group. (Amazon Look Inside)