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Why read Great Literature: the guide to a good life

Three books I’ve benefited from reading lately: Why Read? by Mark Edmunsdon, What Good are the Arts? by John Carey, and On Criticism by Noel Carroll. Here’s my take:

Most of us, through a combination of personal experience, education and advice from others, cultivate and try to follow as best we can, a set of values, ‘final narratives,’ beliefs, or central convictions about politics, love, sex, money, religion beauty, justice… in order to live a life we deem worth living. Great works of literature, when read seriously, can help. They can shake beliefs and change lives, provide solace and give direction. Some narratives reflect and conform to our own lived experience, many contradict or differ from it. The process of absorbing, accepting and/or rejecting these competing visions, ideas, world views and life maps constitutes an essential benefit of reading. 

The best reader admits, with Socrates, that he is lost. This isn’t easy in a culture filled with know-it-all punditry, sound bite certainty and pre-digested knowingness. Everywhere, the ‘authoritative’ spew forth: talking heads, hired to impart wisdom, partial often in impartial guise,  complicit in the consumer con-game we call society, where the mediocre is hailed as great!

So, literature, and the kind of reading that looks for irony, tension, ambiguity, and paradox, after Keats’s negative capability, which embraces " uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason." provides us with a break from the canned wisdom and spoon fed opinion that daily dominates the minds of many Western world inhabitants. Great literature encountered by a curious mind, offers up near infinite avenues of interpretation and meaning. The ‘indistinct’ nature of language is what great literature exploits in order to activate our imaginations. As John Carey puts it in What Good are the Arts? “Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures in literature are all indefinite compared to photographs or symphony concerts, but this means that they are reader-adjustable”.  Blinkered schools rob great writing of its diversity and richness.

Much that passes for criticism is in fact thievery, where this ‘meaning’ is stolen, hijacked, buried. It baldly transforms and re-casts original texts in light of: Foucault, Marx, feminism, Derrida, Queer Theory, whatever the cheer might be. Each may reveal valuable truths, but often at the expense of author intent. If these re-writings hold any inherent value, much better the critics themselves be studied as authors in their own right.

Once the often monumental difficulties have been scaled, the work of most theorists tends to repeat the same thing over and over again. Schools of criticism typically turn contingent literature into circumscribed philosophies which sanction one kind of happiness, one map, one version of the good life. This is wrong. "Theory" does not, and cannot, stand above the individual’s encounter and experience of Dante, Blake, Shakespeare and others in the canon.

One critic, Stanley Fish, has said that his goal as an interpreter is not to find ‘the truth,’ but to be as interesting as possible. Another, Paul de Man, says writing that matters, culminates at points of ‘undecidability’. The capacity to affirm and deny simultaneously is, according to de Man, all of consequence that literature yields.

Authorial intent is often very difficult to apprehend. Good criticism interprets work in ways that it deems would best meet with authorial approval. Achieving this means entering the author’s world, adopting his values, thinking, as closely as possible, her thoughts, using his language. Fearful Symmetry does this. As Mark Edmunson puts it in Why Read? Northrop Frye re-lives, recreates Blake’s vision. Not by perfectly reproducing intention, that can never be done, but through ‘inspired ventriloquism.’ By offering a persuasive version of what is most vital in the writer. Teacher merges with author, becomes creator, thereby making the past accessible to the present.

Art is defined by Noel Carroll in his recent book On Criticism as the intentional production of the artist; the artist as an individual creator of value. Criticism, he says, is about the discovery of value, not the clinical dissection and interpretation of various codes, or signifying systems or regimes of power. Description, contextualization, classification, elucidation, interpretation and analysis all contribute to the articulation of what is most important in criticism: the reasons upon which evaluation is based.  

What should one ask of a major work? Is it true? Can I live it? Put it into action? Does it show me how to live better, without fear, more joyously, exuberantly? Can I use it? What aspect of life does it illuminate? How can I translate its words into action? How does the author’s vision compare to my own narrative, my own experience in the world? What possibilities exist for intellectual and or emotional change? Writers, if they want to produce enduring work, need to answer our questions about how to live, or how not to, and provide guidance on what to do.

The test of a book lies in its power to transform life. It may charm, divert, teach something of the wider world, but if it can’t help at least some to imagine a different, better life, then it probably isn’t a major work. What determines a work’s longevity is the degree to which it serves as a successful guide to achieving the true, good, beautiful life; the degree to which it serves as a sort of Bible, one there for you to read for yourself, without the nervous attention of hovering priests telling you what it means.

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