What Good is Literature, if you please?

images-1I know of few accounts in the press that make sense of a commitment many of us feel to sustain the arts of reading and writing we were taught were the heart of a humanistic education, and near the heart of a culture we could embrace. We have writers who cite the benefits of critical thinking and writing skills for those entering business or the professions. We have scholars who should know better – Stanley Fish, for one – announcing that the only justification for reading novels, in or out of college or the university, is that they give pleasure.

A former Dean in a prestigious university, Fish writes:

. . . the humanities don’t do anything, if by ‘do’ is meant ‘bring about effects in the world.’ And if they don’t bring about effects in the world, they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure of those who enjoy them. To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’ the only honest answer is ‘none whatsoever.’

It’s as if, after we subtract utility, pleasure is the only remaining good. We are entrapped by a devastating dichotomy: either something in the arts or literature has obvious instrumental value, benefiting our business, political, or professional ambitions, or it is just a pleasure, like a good Cabernet or a flashy new dress or sweater.

But there are many non-instrumental goods, intrinsic goods, besides money, social esteem, power, or personal pleasure. For instance, it’s good to get to know people, to discover friendship, to learn how to weather adversity. It might be good to learn how to transcend our troubles. There aren’t “how to” manuals here, but I think literature and the arts give us clues.

Here is an excerpt from a recent New Yorker essay that strikes a note of high seriousness:

In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

So far, the benefit of reading seems to be progress toward self-knowledge, by losing a bit of self-important egoism or narcissism. If I “lose all sense of self” that seems like a preparation for accepting myself on different grounds.

The writer goes on to cite Virginia Woolf:

As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

images-2In a previous post, “Love and Self-knowledge,” I explored the thought that it takes another person for me to get to know myself. I can’t do it solo. Others unveil me, letting me know myself as I am without the veils that lubricate social routines. Perhaps that is the model at hand.

If we make ourselves sufficiently available to literature’s alternative selves and their worlds, then absorption in reading strips away, at least for a time, narrow self-preoccupations, and the veils that are social facilitators. If this is a moment of secular transcendence, it’s a horizontal transcendence away from a constraining, veiled life toward another universe, another self’s world – the fictional self’s world.

Reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence.

This transcendence can serve, then, as an opening to alternative lives, as a release from self-veiling through allowing another to unveil us. Perhaps characters in fiction become friends that help us become our next and better selves.

 —Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Citations: Ceridwen Dovey, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” The New Yorker, June 9, 2015. Stanley Fish, “Will the Humanities Save Us?,” New York Times, January 6, 2008.

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