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WIM 2: What Literature Is For, Sort Of

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Robert complains that he didn’t actually mean to say that any reader’s interpretation is as good as any other’s, and I knew that.   And I agree that his points in defense are well taken, and that I did mean to get them them eventually.   The problem of readers–of good readers–is even more complicated than he suggests.

For the moment, though, I’m on a roll, and bad readers are not only a big problem, they are the primary problem in literature as an art form.  In some very fundamental ways, it doesn’t really matter what the viewers of paintings know, or what the listening audience thinks the music means.  Painting and music and sculpture go into the world in their self-contained little packages. We think of them what we will.  They remain what they are.  The closest thing these forms have to the interactive, relational role of literature in the life of a culture is the way conductors and musicians interpret music in performance, and that tends to have only minor ripple effects across the culture at large.

Which is not to say that we don’t misinterpret what the artist meant to convey in his paintings, or what the composer meant to convey in his music.  It’s just that the ways in which we do this with literature, and the uses to which we put our misunderstandings, are vastly more significant for society at large.

I want to point out something about the next class of bad readers, the ideologicall fanatical, before we start:  it’s almost impossible to be a bad reader of this kind without also being a stupid reader.  A stubborn inability to actually understand what the work is saying is practically a prerequisite for trying to use it to further your ideological ends, or for condemning it as “bad art” when you think it doesn’t.

That said, though, unlike the simply stupid reader, the ideologically fanatical reader is actually an extension of a legitimate response to literature, rather than a complete denial of any legitimate response to it.  

We started all this by talking about morality, and I think I mentioned, back there somewhere, that although we are used to morality being derived from and delivered through religion, it was not always that way, and it was never only that way.   The Greeks and Romans approached morality philosophically, not religiously.  To the extent that they allowed religion into their moral discussions and their moral codes, it was to ratify what their philosophers were already teaching them.  Aristotle, then, thought there was something called “the gods,” which watched over the moral architecture of the universe, but the content of that architecture was the morality he had discovered by philosophical reasoning, and not the pronouncements of Zeus on  Olympus.  Nobody sane ever looked to the Greek Gods for moral example.

In all periods and all places that we know of, however,  including ancient Israel, which had a moral code that was distinctly and unequivocably grounded in religion, there has been literature as well as scripture, stories as well as parables.  And in all periods and places that we know of, these stories have had at least some moral content.   They have been attempts to teach moral law, or to illustrate the dangers of violating moral law.

Sometimes this relationship to morality has been direct, as in Aesop’s fables, or Medieval morality plays.  More often, literature–stories, narratives, outside scripture–has tried to teach us something about morality by teaching us something about the nature of human beings.  

And as literature expanded its scope, as it reached the nearly unlimited range of the nineteenth century novel, it was able to introduce more and more of us to more and more of us.  We all live limited lifetimes.  We can only know so many people, and only so well.  We can only go so many places.  We can only absorb so much knowledge, and some we can’t absorb at all.

What literature does is to introduce us to the people we could never meet, the circumstances we could never encounter, if we had to set out into the world and learn about people first hand.  Really good literature tells us not only that people unlike ourselves exist, but what goes on in their heads, the way they think, the way they understand the world.   It does that by letting us get inside them and watch them be.

And this is not inconsequential information.  Robert complains that he doesn’t understand what Colonel Brandon sees in that little idiot Marianne, but  I think Jane Austen saw it, and I think I see it too:  the need of the strong man who has looked the reality of the world in the face and yet not abandoned his ideals for his counterpart, the idealistic and the innocent and the pure.  No matter what their quarrels with each other, down to this day, the Enlightenment needed the Romantics who rebelled against it, but made it whole again.  And without the Enlightenment, the Romantics were a one-way ticket to the Terror.

I read an essay on the web once, an essay I can’t find my link to, of course, that said that literature provides us with the full range of human possibilities, from good and great to the worst kind of depravity.  And although that’s true,  I think it’s more important that literature exposes the moral foundations, and consequences, underneath the small things we do day to day. 

Most of us will never get a chance to storm the walls of Troy or hide Jews behind a bookcase on the third floor of our house in Amsterdam.  Who and what we are will be made up of small decisions in seemingly trivial matters:  what we do when we find that the grocery store cashier has forgotten to ring up the container of ice cream we still have in our grocery cart as we unload into the car; how we feel about our cousin Melissa who gets straight As and a scholarship to the Ivy League; the way we treat our children and spouses and pets when we come in after a long, hard day.

What’s more, literature introduces us to the reality behind the facade:  the dark corruption that is the truth about Colonel  Pyncheon behind the magnificence of his countenance, his wealth and his position; the moral greatness, unbowed and untarnished, under the fumbling silly facade of his fussy old maid descendant Hepzibah.   God looks into the hearts of men, the scripture says, but so did Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Even literature that was not written with any moral intent performs this function, and even readers who have no interest in anything but “entertainment” become involved in this function when they read.  I used to go crazy when people would say to me–looking at the books I have all over my house, which do not tend towards the printed equivalent of sitcoms–“Oh, I don’t read any of that heavy stuff.  I read for entertainment.”

I read for entertainment, too, I wanted to say.  I just don’t find crap entertaining. 

I know what they meant, though, just as I know what Cynathia Ozick meant when she said once in Esquire (in one of the most flamingly obtuse essays on detective fiction ever written), “I am not entertained by entertainment.” Some readers do not want to have to think when they read.  They want to read the way some people watch television, passively, lying back and “enjoying” whatever the book shoves at them in the way of “surprises” and “action,” until the last corpse falls to the floor and the last building explodes.  At that point, they’ll wander away and do something else and forget they ever read the book to begin with.

Except, of course, they won’t.   They won’t really forget the book any more than they’ll really forget the sitcom, or the movie, or the music video.  Narrative creates a moral universe and makes you live in it for a while.  It creates boundaries and assumptions, about your behavior, about the behavior of other people, about what happens to human beings who behave in certain ways.  The moral universe you live in is different if every book you read and television show you see portrays thieves as thuggish low lifes with no redeeming social value, than it is if you enjoy George Clooney’s Danny Ocean movies.

It’s not that enjoying Ocean’s Thirteen will turn you into a thief,  or even make you more accepting of theft.  It’s that it will expand your definition of “thief,” and that definition will include good, decent, civilized, educated people with high levels of competence and pride in their work.  Whether there are any such people in the real world is another question, and one that brings us back into the territory I started in.

Literature constructs a moral universe and makes us live in it for a while.  Literature tries to give us the full range of human possibility, both internal and external. 

And literature can lie. 

Ken Kesey said that something is literature if “it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”  The reality, however, is that literature is successful if it draws readers in and makes them believe, and some of the most successful literature makes us believe things that are absolutely, flamingly, unquestionably untrue.

It is the confluence of these two things–that literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it, and that the moral universe it creates can be false to reality–that lands us with the second kind of Bad Reader, the Ideologically fanatical. 

Which was what I was going to write about today, and then I got off on this stuff.

I’ll write about it tomorrow, because, wonder of wonders, I actually have the day off.  My son’s private school hasn’t ever given Columbus Day before, and neither has the place where I teach, but here we are, and I have nothing to do tomorrow but drink tea, read The House of the Seven Gables and try to get various articles of clothing away from my cats.

But no alarm clock.

Written by janeh

October 12th, 2008 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'WIM 2: What Literature Is For, Sort Of'

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  1. My apologies for going of to a “Non-literary” path.

    Jane wrote

    “What literature does is to introduce us to the people we could never meet, the circumstances we could never encounter, if we had to set out into the world and learn about people first hand. Really good literature tells us not only that people unlike ourselves exist, but what goes on in their heads, the way they think, the way they understand the world. It does that by letting us get inside them and watch them be.”

    Yes, perhaps that explains why I like military fiction. I have a physical handicap which means I’ve never been eligible for military service.

    The good war novels are written by authors who have served in combat. The good side wins BUT commanders make mistakes, characters you like die or are crippled and everyone suffers.

    I think I have a good understanding of “War is Hell” and “No battle plan long survives contact with the enemy” and the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All without actually experiencing war.


    12 Oct 08 at 1:30 pm

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