Monday, January 20, 2014

The Improvers of Mankind

Emrys Westacott:

Here we come up against an embarrassing paradox lying at the heart of so much literary criticism. According to the most common species of critical analysis, a major part of the significance and value of much great literature is moral; the works communicate moral insights, moral truths, and moral warnings. But if this were correct, one would expect those who read most–that is, professors of literature, high school English teachers, editors, publishers and authors—to exhibit at least some of the supposed benefits that extensive engagement with literary texts is supposed to bring. But who would ever suggest that this is the case? Are the people who have swallowed shelves loaded with Milton, Goethe, Austen, Tolstoy, James, Shaw, Proust, Kafka, Marquez, Solomon, and the rest typically kinder or more trustworthy than people who are unversed in literature?  Do they tend to be more insightful about people and relationships? Are they less prone to self-deception? Do they make better parents or partners? Are they typically less self-centered or selfish? On the nation's campuses, are English departments little oases of moral sensitivity and self-awareness? My experience has been that there is zero connection between how much a person has read, or how able they are to offer clever insights into literary texts, and their exhibiting any sort of enhanced moral awareness or commitment. The argument here is admittedly crude, but it still needs to be met. Anyone who thinks good literature is morally beneficial needs to persuade us that there is a causal connection between certain habits of reading and certain kinds of virtue.

...There is, in fact, a rather simple explanation of why no such causal connection exists. Most of us, most of the time, read literature for the same reason that we listen to music, watch films, visit art galleries, and so on: not for edification but for entertainment. This does not imply that we are shallow philistines compared to higher-browed aesthetes; the enjoyment we derive does not have to be simpleminded, thoughtless, or superficial. This is a crucial point. We can take pleasure in all sorts of things: in vivid sensations, aroused emotions, intellectual challenges, virtuosity, accuracy of representation, being surprised, being shocked, sheer beauty, subtlety, power, irony, wit, the capturing of a mood or feeling, cognitive insight, learning, enlightenment, moral deliberation and metaphysical reflection. But the value of the experience, and our motive for opening ourselves to it, lies overwhelmingly in the pleasure we experience rather than in any self-improvement we supposedly derive.

The first paragraph is important, because barely a week goes by without someone offering us a bite-sized, chocolate-coated, frosted sugar snack of an empty-calorie news morsel purporting to show that reading books justifies your narcissistic self-esteem (thankfully, there are usually fresh fruits and vegetables available as well). Lawd knows I've made the same point a few times myself. But I think the second paragraph brings up another point which deserves more recognition (one I may likewise have expounded upon). Westacott is right that we have a lingering sense of guilt over activities which are "merely" fun, amusing or enjoyable, and Lawd also knows I'm getting awfully tired of my inner sanctum of books and music being disturbed by people barging in, desperately looking for a place to escape the baleful glowering of John Calvin's ghost. If you truly have anything profound to offer, it will express itself whether you listen to synthpop or chamber music, whether you read modernist fiction or detective novels. Stop looking to surround yourself with signifiers of profundity and just embody it.