Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learning from Literature

Stephen Law asks a set of fair questions:

[I]sn't literature, in many ways, profoundly misleading, providing the illusion that real life has a clear narrative structure, a plot, a moral, is driven by psychological principles, etc., that are actually rarely if ever present in real life?
Of course. Literature distorts real life in this manner and surely in others, but what it represents faithfully -- when it's good, anyway -- are the mental tricks by which humans interpret the experience of life.

Which is to say, literature at its best is a faithful guide to the way people make sense of the flow of life, and that feat of sense-making -- whether it takes place within the space of the individual cranium or enters the public via recitation or publication -- necessarily involves oversimplifications, omissions, and assorted cognitive shortcuts. Law further asks:
Isn't the "psychology" it presents, often as not, mythical, rather than actual, reflecting what an all-too fallible individual, the author, thinks makes people tick, rather than what actually makes them tick?
Absolutely. This is why not just anyone can write an enduring literary work, notwithstanding the seeming ease with which the best writers carry out the task.

Law goes too far with this one, I think:
[B]ecause people always say that learned this profound stuff from novels, but seem rarely if ever to provide an actual example of something they learned, that actually the profound truths and insights contained with novels are largely, if not entirely, mythical.
No, they aren't mythical, they're just difficult to articulate, because (but not only because) the lesson took the form of example rather than precept. An apt analogy to "I learned profound stuff from literature" is "I learned profound stuff from watching my dad trudge off to work day after day" or "I learned profound stuff from watching my grandmother struggle with illness." The difficulty of reducing these lessons to definite, coherent declarations is in no way evidence that the lessons do not exist.*

Someone with literary talent can, however, convert such lessons to words. Not to words as precepts, perhaps, but to words as narrative.

* I do not mean to issue a blanket excuse. I am sympathetic to the idea that a lesson one cannot articulate is a lesson one can't truly claim to have absorbed.


Ian McCullough said...

When someone asks me what, say, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is about I give a plot synopsis. It's a great work of speculative fiction. If someone asked about Moby Dick all I can really say is it's great. It is a rollicking tale of sea going adventure (this isn't irony, parts of Moby Dick are real page turning action), but it's not shelved in Nautical Adventure at Powell's. To ask about the plot of "great literature" is to fundamentally miss the point. Life is a series of decisions, informed by the past with an eye towards the future. The moment, that slippery thing that just slid by, is difficult to consider normally. Literature does that, creates the environment of a moment and pins it down. Being able to consider why Ivan tells himself he is a scoundrel as he goes to Moscow is the reward of reading Brothers Karamzov - to see someone in a complex moral dilemma. But what fool thinks they are going to get concrete examples for dealing with their own dysfunctional family? The texture of every life is different, for which we rejoice, but this means we extract personal truth at a very oblique angle from literature.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Dale,

Well put. I have to admit I only read this because Larry linked it to his own post. No doubt you're aware I left a couple of comments of my own on Stephen's blog.

You make a very similar point to The Atheist Missionary, about the inability to articulate how we are affected by stories.

But I appreciate how you delineated between where you agree with Stephen Law and disagree. Well written and well expressed.

Regards, Paul.

Dale said...

Paul, thanks for the comment. I'm a little behind in blog-reading but I look forward to reading LarryNiven's post and the comments.