Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tracks Leading to Various Aspects of Existence That are Inaccessible by Any Other Means: Why I Teach Literature

"Aesthetic concepts only began to interest me when I first perceived their existential roots, when I came to understand them as existential concepts: people simple or refined, intelligent or stupid, are regularly faced in life with the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comical, the tragic, the lyrical, the dramatic, with action, peripeteia, catharsis, or, to speak of less philosophical concepts, with agelasty or kitsch or vulgarity; all these concepts are tracks leading to various aspects of existence that are inaccessible by any other means." —Milan Kundera, from The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts

"Whatever the art object does, it does not do it to us, actively, like a headmaster with his cane. . . . The art object does not teach, exhort, arouse, aid, and so forth. It does not ‘help us to see’ like an optometrist; it does not ‘make us realize’ like a therapist; it does not ‘open doors for us’ like a butler. . . . The art object does not do to us; rather, it presents to us." —Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction

[this post is a response to MKH’s “The Why I Teach Literature Meme”]

Like Mary Kate, I am also beginning to develop an “instinctual urge to cringe” when it comes to the subject of the so-called “value” or “use value” of the humanities, although, unlike Stanley Fish, I have not arrived at the conclusion that the use of the humanities is “none whatsoever.” At the same time, I can almost see the possibly admirable intentions behind Fish’s argument, for if every defense we’re likely to formulate [and God knows more than thousands have been formulated at this point, including by me] can ultimately be shown to ring philosophically hollow, or to be historically bankrupt, or to not be able to stand up to any kind of social-scientific test or analyzable “outcomes,” then why give critics of the humanities more ammunition to prove that we can’t “prove” our hypotheses? It really is, on one level, a zero-sum game, and so, there is a part of me that would love to embrace, as Fish does, the non-instrumentality of literary studies, and to claim the humanities as a sort of “beautiful” end in themselves, a haven for lovers of the pleasures of art for its own sake. After all, even in the pure sciences, there are practitioners who have a difficult time securing grants for work that is purely experimental, purely for its own sake [work in experimental physics often falls into this trap].

Nevertheless, the pursuit of seeking something novel that cannot be fully hypothesized in advance nor connected to a practical, real-world end, but which, nevertheless, counts as knowledge, counts as an addition to the storehouse of what humans know versus what they don’t know—this has, historically, been valued, if not always funded. At the end of the day, no one really wants to argue that a society can do without, or outright dispense, knowing certain things it is capable of reaching after [whether those “things” are the rate of acceleration of a particle hurtling through an underground tunnel or a satellite defense system or a cure for AIDS or the mind of God or the architecture of an anemone or Beethoven]. But that is also the rub, for when funding is not adequate to the end of each singular or collective desire to know something, and to practice a study of developing a particular knowledge or set of knowledges, then something has to give, and what is viewed as practical will always win out over what is seen as esoteric, and those given to a fatal love of the esoteric, the artistic, and the literary will find themselves working overtime to reframe what they do in pragmatic terms, and two things will happen: 1) some will start to really believe their own arguments, as a matter of self-protection [and this calls to mind a great line from a story by Amy Hempel: “Who cares whether or not it’s true? In my head there are bath towels swaddling this stuff. Nothing else seeps through.”]; and 2) some will choose, as a matter of survival, to navigate the cognitive dissonance between the non-utilitarian pleasures of what they do and how they explain their work in their tenure and promotion evaluations and in opinion essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

However, it is not really the uselessness of the humanities [or, the fine and literary arts] that I want to argue for. Rather, I want to say that I teach literature because I simply believe that it has meaning, and I do not think it is wise to argue for either the usefulness or uselessness of literature, when instead, we could simply argue for the meaningfulness of literature, or, following the thinking of Annie Dillard, for the ways in which the art object “presents to us, in a stilled and enduring context, a model of previously unarticulated or unavailable relationships among ideas and materials,” and “[i]nsofar as we attend to these art objects, these epistemologically absurd and mysterious hot-air balloons, we deepen our understanding” of the world [Living By Fiction, p. 184]. In this sense, paraphrasing Dillard, literature holds up the universe while also remaking it. While science will reduce the universe to a formula or a principle, literature will multiply the world into an infinite number of possible worlds—none of them real, but all of them, somehow, sustainable and sustaining in different ways. The study and teaching of literature has something to do with imaginative world-making, and committing a certain amount of one’s time and resources to consorting with fictional persons and traveling to imaginary places whose resemblance to real persons and real places is only ever tenuously tangential, but which nevertheless have real meaning, and real worth, all their own. To articulate what this meaning might be is the real work of the humanities, and its relation to reality—or what I prefer to call history—is that art has its own history, its own telos, and professors of literature are watching over that history, helping it to endure, and they should be very careful about giving up on the idea that the value of that endeavor cannot be articulated. But what we should likely aim for in our articulations is something like Stephen White’s “weak [or felicitous] ontology,” where our deepest commitments can be seen to be both “fundamentally important and contestable.” The idea, too, would not be to argue for the kinds of positive effects the study of literature might have on particular persons’ lives [which is not to say it has none; it does, but it’s never guaranteed], but rather to keep affirming that literature possesses ontological weight—it takes up real space in the world, has existence—and the job of literary interpretation is important because, again following Dillard, it helps us “to extend the boundaries of sense and meaning” [Living By Fiction, p. 132]. You see, it’s possible that the universe has no meaning whatsoever, or perhaps has too much of it, and literature professors are part of a diminishing tribe who are foolishly clinging to the ideas that: 1) meaning must be imparted; 2) some meanings are better than others and worth arguing over, endlessly even; and 3) the reservoir of any meaning or sense in a culture is in its arts.

I do not teach literature to make students better persons, or even to help them be better critical adjudicators of the various discourses that flow over and by them every day—of the world, which is all text, which is all around them—although I used to think this was a big part of what I was doing and I often make endless arguments to that effect. It may be that, in some ways, these things happen in direct proportion to something I do in a classroom, but I am no longer pinning my hopes there. I am also no longer certain that the study of literature aids students in developing certain capabilities of empathy and compassion [see Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life for the most succinct and impassioned defense of this viewpoint]; if anything, empathy and compassion are prerequisites for the successful study of literature and no amount of reading “great” books will “fix” a student’s lack of feeling for others [I think this has more to do with brain circuitry and lived experience, affective contact with others in childhood, general well-being and happiness, etc.]. It may be that so many professors of literature want to argue that the study of literature helps us to develop a capacity for deep feeling because we were born with deep feelings! And we were drawn to literature out of a need to give those feelings a wider purchase and more expansive field of imaginative play, and our sensibilities—both aesthetic and more practical—were hopefully strengthened, in positive fashion, as a result [and in the worse-case scenarios, some of us became those sorts of persons who weep more over books and operas than other persons]. I teach literature because, for reasons I will never fully be able [or want] to explain to myself, it means something to me: it enlarges my sense of hope for what might be possible in any given world, and somehow it thickens the real world I walk and sleep through every day by adding to my life, paraphrasing Milan Kundera, the beauty of sudden densities. As a teacher [and I’ve had many years to think about this], I can only see that my job is to model for my students my wonder at this beauty and to hope that it’s infectious. It has something to do with happiness.


the rebel lettriste said...

thank you for this fantastic post, which spurred me to write my own, in some gesture of affiliation. In all the tendentious talk about whether literature matters, you are right, nobody has pointed out that the most pressing concern is that literature means. That literature persists in meaning, despite everything. And that we end up devoting our lives to it because it means, for us and to us and hopefully some day to somebody else.

Nicola Masciandaro said...


I think you have given us a wonderful account and defense of meaning's being in the world, the way it is always inside and outside of it, and of the value of that existential 'opening', beauty, which does not lead elsewhere but to the reality and actuality of things and beings. Sometimes I think the study of literature functions as a check or counter movement to modernity's de-worlding or aestheticization of art and that it can do this precisely because texts are not quite in the world the way other artifacts are but, since they must be spoken to be read, are like durable traces of the 'how' of the world which is as Agamben says outside the world ("How the world is -- this is outside the world").