An ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us

imaginationThe New York Times continues to offer age-old questions that can be answered in as may ways as the wind blows. This week it was Should Literature Be Considered Useful? This, of course, begs the question of whether we should consider this question useful, let alone ask what we mean by literature. I suppose no one would even consider asking if art was useful (a good painting can hide those pesky nail holes left by the not-as-good painting you gave to the Animal Shelter for their annual fund raiser).

Doing a mind dump about literature I know that it generates many jobs—writer, publisher, editor, bookseller, etc.—and has a huge secondary market in the folks that purchase the books, read the books, and study the books in school (not to mention the billions and billions of reading groups on the internet). But what do they say in Bookends?

Adam Kirsch suggests:

To reduce literature to its usefulness is to miss the verbal texture, the excess, the sheer pleasure of word and sound, that make it literature in the first place. The idea of literature as equipment for living seems puritanically utilitarian — as if you were to listen to a symphony in order to sharpen your hearing, or look at a painting to improve your vision.

Yet there is a persistent impulse in our culture to offer such pragmatic excuses for art, as if only something that helped us gain an advantage in the struggle for life were worthy of respect. …

The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to “getting and spending,” but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who do not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.

That seems to resonate with me, but what does Dana Stevens have to say:

The very notion of measuring literature’s efficacy as a tool on the order of the wheel or the loom — a technology that, considering the human propensity for storytelling, enables the progress of humankind — points, in its absurdity, to the uniquely slippery relationship between whatever we’re (provisionally) calling “literature” and whatever we’re (even more provisionally) calling “life.” It’s impossible to imagine human civilization without stories, whether recorded in writing or passed down orally in the form of ballad, epic, legend or myth. Indeed, it seems fair to say that it wasn’t until Homo sapiens became Homo fabulans, a creature capable of verbally transmitting an account of lived experience to its fellow creatures, that human life as we know it began. …

Tristram ShandyLiterature is life’s long-lost twin, its evil double, its hidden velvet lining, its mournful ghost. The relationship between the two can be expressed only as a metaphor, permanently equivocal and impossible to pin down … Literature may not be in a strict sense useful — may even, by its nature, mock “usefulness” as a category, allying itself first with pleasure, idleness and play — but its necessity seems self-evident from the mere fact of its continued existence, so inextricably bound up with our species’ own. …

Literature is the record we have of the conversation between those of us now alive on earth and everyone who’s come before and will come after, the cumulative repository of humanity’s knowledge, wonder, curiosity, passion, rage, grief and delight.

Stevens gives an even stronger response. One might say that literature IS life and, as so many philosophers suggest, it’s all fiction.

(Now the scientists are considering the entire universe to be a two-dimensional hologram. I think it’s actually an illustration inTristram Shandy.)



One thought on “An ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us

  1. I have that Kafka quote you refer to in the title on the wall in my classroom along with this one from Rudyard Kipling: “Fiction is truth’s older sister.” Excellent post.


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