Friday, March 9, 2007

Why Literature?

So after a conversation with my sister and brother-in-law last weekend, I've been thinking about one of those questions that literature students always get and never, I think, know exactly how to answer. Basically it asks why literature is so elliptical, and therefore elitist.

Let me qualify. My sister and brother-in-law are both well-educated, especially in their fields of IT communications and geology, respectively. They're smart, well off, and entirely satisfied with where their education has gotten them in life.

My brother-in-law likes to maintain that, other than being kind of nice, literature is pretty useless, and literature professors are doing everything they can to dupe universities into thinking the opposite. My sister just says she doesn't "get it."

We were arguing about religion the other night, which we do frequently, and which really gets all of us thinking on all cylinders. I brought up Tess of the D'Urbervilles, one of my favorite novels, to talk about agnosticism and the feeling of being abandoned by an imperceivable God who, in Hardy's words, "must be either limited in power, unknowing, or cruel." The allusion seemed to catch my brother-in-law's attention (I think he thinks that all of nineteenth-century literature assumes the omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness of God without question), and as he was intrigued by the psychology of agnosticism, we kept talking about it.

Within a few minutes, though, the conversation turned to literature. Why did Hardy need to write the novel, my brother-in-law asked, if that's what he was saying in it? Why didn't he just come out and say it? Putting it in novel form seemed like just another conspiracy to keep the wrong people from "getting it" and thus maintaining that they had something to teach.

One answer, I suppose, is that this is my interpretation of the novel; whether or not it's what Hardy meant to write is another story. We can get into these is-the-author-dead conversations, but it doesn't help with my brother-in-law's primary, rather Marxist, question: why is what's said through literature impossible to convey directly in a manner that a "layperson"--that is, one without a strong education in literature, or a strong background in reading it--would understand? These are people for whom irony has little resonance; of "he was not the least of men" and "he was the greatest man" they would see the latter as more laudatory (the author of Beowulf would argue with that, I fear); and you can't tell them that they are supposed to feel the opposite because that's just not how literature actually works. If I can say "being an agnostic makes you mad at God," and a list of other statements about what the novel is "saying," why bother writing the novel and then having to teach people how to make those interpretations?

I know all of the arguments for how literature evokes emotion rather than telling you about it (though again, it just doesn't seem to evoke those emptions in precisely those people who are questioning its value); I know that we all have different interpretations, new ones every day; I know that when kids analyze literature they learn critical thinking skills. But in my brother-in-law's ideal, practical world, all those things could be done away with (though it would be rather like 1984, perhaps). Maybe all we're left with at the end of the day is literature's beauty: that's the reason that it has triumphed over Newspeak as a better way of communicating. Maybe they believe there's a version of 1984 that actually works and doesn't degrade the subject? But Orwell denies that possibility. But I can't use that argument: they don't want literature to justify its own existence; they need outside proof.

My great worry here is that as education becomes more specialized, especially at the big state schools, a whole segment of the population will be skeptical of literature to the point of thinking about conspiracies and such. Which isn't to say that there haven't been large portions of the population who were not exposed to a literary education before this time. Especially after the institution of public education in the nineteenth century, there was a growing divide between those educated persons who were given a liberal, classical education (upper classes), and those given a much more practical education in the sciences (middle classes). And part of the reason that public education was even begun was that upper-class voters feared that the newly enfranchised middle classes would "vote wrong." But the fear of those upper-crusters then looks like it might be coming to pass now: practical education is overtaking an education in the humanities that I believe still has immense value. I don't like that such thinking places me with the upper-crusters, but there it is.

This is turning into a class debate, but I want to keep literature itself in the picture: how can literature and the study of literature continue to justify its existence if the growing majority of people cannot understand it, or choose not to bother? What makes literature so great? Why literature?

1 comment:

S said...

Nice post, Ania. (I just came across this blog from your Facebook page.)

I think the debate goes beyond literature, and extends to art in general. I guess everyone ultimately decides for themselves what they get from art, and what art they connect with. As Marshall McLuhan says, "the medium is the message."

Well, I was going to post something about the kind of art that moves me or gets me thinking, but I think that would take too long. Instead, I'll just paraphrase that woman from NASA that tries to convince Josh Lyman to fund a "Mars Or Bust" initiative in The West Wing (Season 5). When told by him that there were hungry mouths to feed, she asks "What about feeding the soul?"

Why literature? Maybe to feed souls.

Oh yeah, and congrats on graduating!