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read literature to learnThe other night I testified (via telephone) before the Alaska state legislature, on the standards their public schools are adopting for classes in English. I’d read the standards but didn’t have them in front of me, so I was taken aback when one of the representatives plucked a directive out of all the verbiage and asked me whether I had a problem with it.

If I remember correctly, the directive he read was this one, for high school juniors and seniors. It is the Prime Directive for classes in literature: “Cite strong and thorough [sic; can evidence be weak and thorough?] textual [sic; what other kind of evidence is there going to be in a text?] evidence to support analysis of [sic; meaning: to show] what the text says explicitly as well as inferences [sic; is “inferences” another object of “cite,” or of the infinitive “to support,” or of the preposition “of”?] drawn from the text [sic; as opposed to “from thin air”], including determining [sic; what is doing the “including”? Who in the sentence is “determining”?] where the text leaves matters uncertain.” Translated into English: “Discuss what the author says most clearly, what he merely implies, and what he leaves uncertain.”

Anyway, the gist of the solon’s objection to my criticisms was that we want students to be able to cite evidence when they make a claim about anything. My objection to his objection, as I was running out of time, was that, as worthy a goal as that might be, that’s not what a literature course is really about. He was thinking about tests, and I was thinking about David Copperfield. He was thinking of technique, and I was thinking about the imagination and truth.

Now that I have the benefit of some time for reflection, and for looking at the page in question, I see that I missed an opportunity to make a crucial point. It has less to do with literature, to which I’ll return in a moment, than with the whole aim of an intellectual life—even of a human life. That aim is to behold the truth, and to love it for its beauty.

It’s hard to keep that foremost in mind, when we are met at every turn with a barrage of ugliness: expensive, deliberate, programmatic ugliness, such as that of the prose from the Alaska standards for reading and writing; and when the eyes of the soul are washed in the carbolic acid of relativism; and when truth is reduced to what is demonstrable by means of some measurement; and when reason is but a clever tool for procuring what will sate the appetite.

In our world, then, the only arguments considered valid are those that come primped up with academic studies, footnotes, graphs, and, to quote the perspicacious Mark Twain, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” To teach students to respect only the canny marshaling of pieces of purported evidence is not to teach them to think. Old Socrates dealt with this folly long ago. It is to teach them instead to submit to the sophists, just as Socrates’ young friend Phaedrus was about to do, when he encountered Lysias’ plausible self-serving argument that it is better to give your favors to an older fellow who is not in love with you, than to one who is.

Alas, I should have said, in the hearing of those Alaskans, “Truth sometimes comes to us in a flannel shirt and denim trousers.” But only if we set our hearts upon the truth will we suspect that the farmer over there, who does not have sociological studies at his fingertips, is speaking it. The trick is to raise people who will not give the field over to the academics, the experts, the well-heeled recipients of grants for discovering what they knew they had damned well better discover in order to justify the grant. Academe is a cauldron of eels. It is stuffed full of poseurs and liars. The trick is to raise people sagacious enough to distinguish between a falsehood even if propped up by sophistication, and a truth even if naively or poorly expressed.

You won’t do that, generally, by raising up people who will pore over somebody’s charts and find where the question-begging crept in, or how the sample was skewed, or what the important questions were which the researcher never bothered to ask. Yes, some few people will have to do that sort of thing, just as we need some people to clean out our septic tanks. But most people will have neither the time nor the inclination for it. That is where, for them, the humanities come in.

The young person who is steeped in history will be armed against the latest fashions in What Everybody Knows. He’ll understand, if but intuitively, that a study conducted by an eel, in the pot of eels, on the habits of the other eels, is going to be of limited applicability to raccoons foraging freely over the woods.

The young person trained by good books to look at the reality of things will be armed against the sophomoric skeptic. If you say to him, “Where is your proof that children are better off growing up with a married father and mother?” he will look at you, and rightly, as if you were a color blind person demanding proof of the existence of green. He might reply, “Do I need to wait for a sociologist to do a study to prove to me that children should play outside?” Of course they should grow up with a married mother and father. He sees in his mind’s eye Oliver Twist and the Dodger and the rest of the rabble of boys, huddling in the condemned building with Fagin, who teaches them to steal, and who secretly turns them over to hanging when he’s through with them. He sees Jane Eyre, and Esther Summerson, and Tom Jones.

You read good books to join in conversation with people who see farther or more deeply than most of us. You enter the quiet room with Jane Austen, who says, with a sly smile, “Is it really true that we understand our own desires? How often rather do we conceal them from ourselves by clever names? Didn’t young Emma do that, when she nearly spoiled the life of her young friend Harriet?” Robert Browning laughs from the corner, beckoning you to come near. “Miss Austen is surely right about that! But have you ever stopped to think that some people do evil by owning up to their desires and revealing them, at the right moment and to the right person? Allow me to introduce you to my Duke, and the painting of his last Duchess.”

“Yes,” says a slender, sober man in a tunic, who looks as if he’s spent most of his life listening and not speaking. “The Queen of Carthage was once a noble and pious woman, until she was seized by her dreadful desire. It spares no one.” He seems as if he were about to add something, but falls silent again.

“But there are two loves, and not just one,” says a man with a bishop’s miter, “and two cities, each built upon the foundation of one of those loves. The one city is called Babylon, and the other is called the New Jerusalem.”

“That first city’s name is Florence,” says a sardonic poet with a set jaw and an eagle’s beak for a nose. “I should know, because I lived there.”

“And they threw you out of the city,” says Browning, coming over to Dante to throw an arm around his neck. “By the way, that painting you said you were making of Beatrice, what happened to it? I would give more for that painting, just because you were not a painter, than I would for another fifty of your love poems, as highly as I esteem them!”

“But doesn’t my thought shine more brightly in the poetry, in which I’m skilled, than in a painting?”

“I don’t want your thought. I have that already. I want the human being in all his ordinary glory and weakness. I wrote a poem about that painting, you know. It was a love poem for my wife Elizabeth. Have you met her?”

You do not read good books so that you can scramble up some tricks, so that you can write clever things about them, so that you can do well on a test and secure a prestigious job and then die. You learn about the language and about what writers do, so that you can read good books and learn to love them, because they are companions who will tell you what they have seen of the truth, and they tell you it in a way you will not soon forget.

This essay originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is republished with permission. 

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6 replies to this post
  1. I am reminded that it is the poor peasant who is so excessively concerned with immediate ROI he misses the benefit to his soul. But then, those who are obsessively consumed with the cash nexus and “practicality” are not capable of understanding.
    I am also reminded of (sigh) Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds”, and have great sorrow there are no surviving records of those sessions.

  2. Dante could have replied to Browning: “I decided to wait for my namesake Rossetti to paint the portrait. Check out his ethereal ‘Beata Beatrix’. It’s perfect. And the model was his own wife (also named Elizabeth, like yours).”

  3. The defense of the humanities is a standard parlor game now, but no one seems willing to admit that literature is more than just a conversation. Literature is the key to how we think — it gives us that space beyond the rationalization of logic where emotion and reason come to terms.

    But this space is ill-served by what seems to me, in this article, to be too rabid an anti-intellectual stance. Too much playing to the crowd here in my opinion. Yes, the day-to-day grind gives us insights that most academics cannot see, but it can also, in itself, be just another form of specialization, another route to myopia. Reading can take one out of that myopia partly by way of conversation, but mostly by creating tension in our own thought — seldom can it do so by standing testimony to settled opinions, and never can it do so if one has no ability to challenge one’s own thoughts, to become the worried hero or heroine if only in terms of the damning humility of balancing between unsettled extremes.

    The example in this essay of whether a child is better off growing up with married parents, aside from amounting to the worst form of pandering and being a question that allows no intelligent nuance, is belied by that brash upstart, Tom Jones, who did quite fine without a pair of married parents watching over him. For all her problems, Esther Summerson attained a unique wisdom that seems largely the product of her dislocation from a normative family upbringing. If you come to literature wanting simple confirmation with no interest in nuance or the sad untidy realities of life, be prepared to lose your faith in a humanity that you have under-estimated and over-simplified.

    Going to literature and expecting it to give you your favored answers is more than absurd — it is almost an admission that one does not want to think. To be in the conversation means to challenge your own thought — to find answers with nuance — to find answers that do not fit on a bumper sticker — right or left.

    In other words if what you find is politically correct — right or left — then you’re not reading literature, you’re reading propaganda. Literature should unsettle you. If it doesn’t, then either the literature failed you, or you failed the literature.

  4. I think a more accurate heading would have been: “Read literature to confirm your prejudices.” So-called “truths”, presented as natural, common-sense or self-evident, are nothing more than opinions, unless supported by argument and evidence. One should always be suspicious of these claims, and understanding the rhetorical devices of writers enables one to see them for the artificial, historically- and culturally-contingent constructions that they really are.

  5. Mike A,

    My apologies, but had I to choose between Anthony Elson’s approach to literature and yours, I would take Elson’s — and I have already addressed, in my comment above, why I think his approach is wrong. But he, at least, respects literature; so many post modernists, and your argument is, as I’m sure you know, a rather unimaginative reversion to post modernism, lack respect for literature.

    I actually agreed with what you said about prejudice and truth until you gave us your opinion of opinions. No, argument and evidence don’t stop an opinion from being an opinion. They can, however, add weight to an opinion and make it more likely to convince others. The process of doing so is called rhetoric — it is a good process despite having been rejected to some degree of late by an academy oddly afraid of its own authority, indeed, of afraid of authority in general, so much so that what authority it has (much more than it realizes) is too often spent on damning authority.

    Now let’s discuss this awkward triumvirate of yours: “artificial, historically- and culturally-contingent constructions”. And the alternative is…? I mean, can you actually produce zany writing for which those three adjectives would not apply? How about your own paragraph? Is it made up of “artificial, historically- and culturally-contingent constructions”? And, if not, how did you achieve this small wonder? How did you side-step history and culture? How did you make your paragraph without the artifice of making? And if you are outside history and culture, where, pray tell, are you standing?

    You see what your argument does is suggest that artifice — from which we get both art and artificial — is reducible to the empty, plastic qualities that we associate colloquially with artificial. Deconstruction is a parlor game for literary critics who, for whatever reason, hate literature. But it has never really proven its nihilism; it has shaped a rhetoric of nihilism — of which yours is a minor example.

    I, honestly, believe that a large measure of the error of deconstruction comes from a an inability to understand the subtle relationship between the concepts of certainty and uncertainty. Yes, the problem with Elson’s argument is that he confuses the truth of literature with certainty. But you, and post modernism, fail because you think uncertainty is the exact opposite of certainty. Epistemologically, it cannot be. To be uncertain I must possess some knowledge, even if I am unsure of how certain that knowledge is,— and along with that knowledge, some doubt (doubt I could not possess had I not, at least, some knowledge on which to found my doubt). In other words, epistemologically, uncertainty is a middle ground. What is the opposite of certainty? Well, it is complete and absolute ignorance.

    Post modernism erred in thinking it had to sit 180 degrees out from positive certainty. Without realizing what it had done, it willed itself into ignorance.

    Uncertainty — that is never empty, because it is historically and culturally contingent, because it is engaged, because it is the exciting place where minds either sink or swim, because it is the space we inhabit when we walk toward the future, because it is where we fashion our brightest artifice.

  6. My apologies — I seem to have altered the author’s name from Esolen to Elson in what I wrote above. It is one thing to disagree with someone, another thing to mutilate and render unintelligible the name of that person. My sincere apologies to Dr. Esolen.

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