How Does Great Literature Shape Us?

Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at The University of Nottingham, has a thought-provoking piece titled “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” in The New York Times in which he posits that we need scientific evidence that great literature shapes the human mind (i.e., us):

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.

I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

I don’t think this is something  that will be measured with success for the foreseeable future. I do think great literature shapes us in ways that is impossible to quantify; it is like objectively trying to explain a piece of art. Hence, I don’t disagree with this:

There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence — they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.

But what if one could design an experiment to test for rigor in literature’s impact. I think one NYT commenter makes a great point:

The impact of great literature in developing a reader’s moral or emotional sense, depends on the reader’s current state of moral/emotional development, (maturity), and the reader’s efforts in assimilating the literature. And it would seem to follow that the impact of such literature would also vary in both intensity and longevity, in correspondence with the maturity and efforts of the reader. So, in order to study the effects of literature, one would have to take these two variables into account,
and select a group of people whose maturity and efforts were similar enough to constitute a controlled group, and then test the impact of various literature on them,
in both intensity and longevity.

Another thoughtful comment:

It’s not all that hard, really, even if the particular question is the wrong question– why not ask “Does great literature *change* us?”– or is finally unanswerable. The mind, or the brain if you prefer, does a great many things to get itself through the day, and “literature” represents more or less exotic and alien variants of these (often mundane) activities, which are made recognizable and understandable to us. 

We are the things that cathect, and we are evidently quite happy to invest intangibles– ideas, religious beliefs, emotional constructs– as well as tangible objects with mental and emotional energy. That, simply, is the ground of our fascination with literature.

Literature is a form of communication that asks us to invest in ideas and worldviews that may not be our own, and to act as if they are, or could be, ours for the duration. When done well, it prods at one or more of our many limits and seeds our phenomenological ground, whatever that might mean to you. Whether this means that literature *bestows* something that we might value as “good,” or simply tweaks how our poor brains cope with the welter of information the world throws at them, may vary from person to person, or even from moment to moment within the same person. Aesthetic reward and moral enlightenment are not guaranteed, but nor are they forbidden or mutually exclusive. Literature gives us something in which we can invest, and then some moral or intellectual change happens, or does not.

Thinking about this a bit more, and the reason I didn’t title this post with the word “Better” in the title is because that’s such an elitist view. And so, the best comment I read is this one:

Professor Currie begins with an incorrect premise. The purpose of literature is not to make us morally better – nor does it serve an educational purpose to teach us how to live our lives. Literature is not a how-to manual; nor should it ever be placed in the self-help section of a library or bookstore.

The first purpose of literature – and perhaps its over-riding reason why we tell stories – belongs to the author him/herself. Why else would anyone put him/herself through the agony and ecstasy of creation in the first place? 

And the reason that writers write – or painters paint or composers compose – is to bring order out of the seeming chaos of living or reason out of the irrationality of existence. It is to make sense of what the author sees and chooses to define.

As for us readers, we hopefully can share the author’s vision and gain a better understanding of our planet (or galaxy) and those with whom we share it. 

I don’t believe that gaining an understanding of the confusing world we live in is a moral act. I think drawing order out of chaos is a more basic human instinct.

Worth reading Currie’s take and perusing the comments. I will reflect on this topic in a personal post I’m currently composing.

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