Whether intended by the author or not, I like to look for deeper meanings when I read. I like it when I can apply aspects or ideas from a book to parts of my life—it brings a little more to the experience of reading a book; it makes it more real. Now as to whether the meanings I find are intended by the author or not, I can’t say for sure. But I will say that, as an author, I place meanings in my writing; it actually drives why I write most of the time. I want to find a way to convey something that is important to me through a plot and a character.
In AP English in high school, I always wondered if we were reading more into a text than the original author intended. I suspected that we were—we were placing words in their mouth, so to speak. Now, though, I think I was wrong. Authors know exactly which words they use and why. They agonize over tiny things to make sure what they say is what they mean (and also that it is well obscured and has to be considered, not just blatantly thrown at the reader). So with that in mind, I want to say what I learned from Vango by Timothée de Fombelle.
This is not a novel of incredible and profound writing, but it is complex and speaks of serious things in a very unassuming way. The story itself is well designed and interesting. The themes are well laid out. It took me a little while to fully comprehend what became for me the underlying message. It is one that every person alive asks of themselves at one time (at least one time) in their life. If they like the answer, perhaps they don’t ask again.
If they don’t like the answer, perhaps they bury the question far down within themselves with the hope that it never surfaces again. Some people, maybe more than I think, take that answer and evaluate themselves against it. They wonder if the answer is what they desire it to be. And if not, they do something about it. And perhaps if it is what they hoped, or close to it, they might still make changes to improve upon it.
Who Am I?
The question they ask is: Who am I?
That is the question posed by Vango, page after page, in a most unobtrusive and clever way. Unobtrusive because it is given to you from the outset, but the writing is so good that the reader does not even realize how universal the question is, nor does the reader quite comprehend that the question has been posed. Vango’s circumstances are so unique that it took me about 200 pages before I finally said to myself, “This is not Vango that he is writing about, it is me.”
Who am I? Who are you? Who is anyone?
Vango does not know his origins, his family, his progenitors, or his destiny. He does not know who he is. His only connection to his past is a nameless woman who has forgotten everything about him that she apparently once knew. The rest of the story is Vango’s search for his identity (somewhat Bourne-esque you might say, but with less violence). The reason Vango was interesting for me was because of the universal nature of this basic question.
We all wonder at some moment who we really are. And I don’t mean our name or family history so much as our inner self—our soul. We wonder if this person we are, the person we have become over years of living, is in fact who we wish to be. We might ask if there is something else we might have done that could have taken us down a different path to somewhere else. Jean Valjean asks this question (in song) in the musical Les Misérables when he sings “What Have I Done?” In this song he states “If there’s another way to go/I missed it twenty long years ago.” I think we might all think that at times.
Your Choices and Your Identity
The truth is, there was another way to go, there always will have been, no matter which way we have chosen. But yet, we are where we are and have done what we have done. That cannot be changed. We will never know for sure what would have happened if we had followed another path. We might guess, and be pretty close to a good guess, but we will never know for sure. We never know what might have been. We only know what is.
There are two avenues I would like to explore that come from asking this question. The first is: “Why do we care?” Why does it matter to us who we are?
The second is: “Who should we be?” How can we possibly be unhappy with the answer to the question of who we are? And yet, there are many who are.
The First Question: Why Do We Care?
We care because we want to be something that matters. We want to be more than just a speck of dust on a speck of a planet in a universe so vast that our own insignificance is incomprehensible. We care because we can think of incredible things but yet cannot imagine our own nonexistence (I’ll explain more about what I mean by that in a different post sometime). We care because deep down, we believe we are something and that we mean something.
In my opinion, humans are a dichotomy. And by that I mean we exist in a world that tells us by all its evidence that we are nothing. We are a blip on the timeline of the earth, which is in turn a microblip in the timeline of the rest of the universe (maybe less than a microblip). We are not the strongest creature that we know of, not even close. We are not the biggest, or the fastest, or the longest-lived. We are not a lot of things.
And yet, we do not accept our standing in such terms. This is the dichotomy: we think we matter when all the evidence says we do not. The laws of thermodynamics clearly indicate that eventually everything we have created including our line of biological entities will be reduced to individual particles suspended in an undeviating soup of equal temperature and pressure that can no longer change because all unequal forces will have been resolved and neutralized. What we make and our legacy will mean nothing in such a future. So why do we make a future and cling to it and care about it?
Do we matter or don’t we?
If we are destined for thermodynamic equilibrium, then we do not matter. Our specks of lives on our speck of a planet for our microblip of existence is nothing but wasted energy that serves to only lengthen by negligible amounts the time before complete nothingness.
Fortunately, we are not destined for that. There are many people who do not ascribe to what I am about to say. That is fine with me. But in an honest introspection (a truly honest one), I think the conclusion is inevitable: we do matter. We matter not because of our physical presence or our physical legacy, but because we are more than that. We are dual creatures. We are physical and spiritual. Our minds and our consciousness is real, and will exist beyond the death of our physical selves.
This is a concept well-established by religion. It is not so well-received by the philosophy of modern science (although actual science has nothing to say about spiritual existence, there is no proof or disproof of it).
However, outside of religion, and outside of scientific philosophy, I think that the nature of ourselves as more than just a collection of matter that will one day crumble must be accepted if we also accept that our physical world is real. Unless we are only a consciousness experiencing a façade of life interpreted by our mind alone with no true sensory input, then I believe we must accept that we are more than what can be seen and tested. We are more than physical beings. If not, then we would not care what happened beyond our death, neither care what happened before it. And yet, we do.
The Second Question: Who Should We Be?
How can someone ask themselves who they really are, arrive at an answer, and then be disheartened, discouraged, unhappy, disillusioned, or angry? You are who your are and that is who you are. And yet, all of those other emotions and many more follow such introspection (if it is honest). How can that be?
If you’re still reading, perhaps you will stick with me to the end. Depending on what your preconceived opinions are regarding this topic, you might or might not like the ending. I’ll give it to you straight so that you won’t spend any more time reading if you don’t want to: it’s because there is a God. That’s why you might not like what you see when you look at who you really are.
If you’re still reading, perhaps you will stick with me to the end. This is a long discussion, which I will not delve all the way into here. I’ll just stick with the most basic of tenets. It’s essentially this: for us to compare or measure our standing in any way, there must be a standard that is ideal. There must be something that is considered “right” if we are ever to arrive at a conclusion that there is a “wrong.” If there is a right and a wrong way to be, there must be something that defines such a state. And we cannot invent the right and the wrong ourselves—it can’t come from within. There is no such thing as hot or cold if there wasn’t a place to compare. Temperature only has meaning because there is a standard. Right and wrong are the same.
I didn’t invent this line of reasoning, others have written far better things about it than I will (C.S. Lewis for one, Arthur J. Balfour for another). They are what are called Theists, in metaphysical or philosophical terminology. I suppose I’m one too.
There is a drive inside of humans that makes us want to be better, and not just better than each other, although that exists, but also to be better than we were before. We want to improve. If there were no higher standard with which to compare ourselves, we would hardly know that we were not exactly as we should be, or that there could be anything better than we are. Neither could we possibly evaluate what is better or worse. In order to even understand “better” or “worse” there must be some absolute “good” that shows our progress toward or away from it. And that is God.
As I mentioned before, this particular topic could fill pages and pages. I am not going to do that here. I have said enough to at least get you thinking if you are interested in doing so. There is a lot to think about.
When I started reading Vango, this is not where I thought I would end up. But that is true for a lot of things in life, I guess.