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On the Powers and Limits of Literature

So yesterday Teju Cole posted this reflection on how the President’s reading habits influence, or rather don’t influence, his political and military decision making.

I responded with this comment:

It’s so strange to me that there is still anyone anywhere who think that there is any connection whatsoever between a given person’s reading preferences and his or her moral stature. There is no “civilizing function of literature”; people will only benefit morally from reading literature if they already have a strong moral formation. As Terry Eagleton wrote many years ago about the deeply cultured officers of the Third Reich, “When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” Cole mentions this uncomfortable fact, but, reluctant to draw the obvious conclusion from it, remains puzzled that the President’s political and military decisions could somehow be at odds with what Cole imagines that a reader of Derek Walcott’s poetry would be likely to do. This is misbegotten in more ways than I can even list.

The idea that the reading of literature is somehow intrinsically ennobling is something I have been fighting against for a long time, but people always find this strange, and invariably, when I have popped off on this subject, someone says “Well, why are you a literature professor, then?”

I could simply say that I find literature immensely interesting both because of its aesthetic qualities and because of the insights it yields into the cultures from which it arises. And that would be enough. But in fact I do believe that literature can have a significant role in a person’s moral and even spiritual development: it just is highly unlikely to have a leading role. It has an ancillary role in character formation: what readers can get from literature largely depends on other, more powerful forces.

I’ll repeat here, with some emendations, something that I wrote to a friend last night. For most people literature has limited power to do character-shaping because of the limited range of ways it involves the person. (There are of course exceptions to this rule — I think of William Cobbett, for instance, whose whole life was, according to his own account, altered by reading Jonathan Swift. But even then I can’t help thinking that that could only happen because a whole range of complex experiences had prepared him to receive precisely what Swift had to say.)

Various forms of ritual enactmentYoni Appelbaum is working on some of these matters in his dissertation-in-progress, and I put the point this way after corresponding with him — seem to me to have much greater power because (a) they engage our sensorium more completely and (b) they benefit from repetition. One of the things that interests me about Judaism, especially Orthodoxy, though I am too ignorant about this, is how it incorporates these features into the very act of Biblical interpretation, something that Christians rarely do — though those of us from liturgical traditions are shaped in so many ways by those repetitions. Thus the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a massive multi-volume treatment of what he called Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory.

The complex social and cultural forces that find their embodiment in rituals — family rituals, educational ones, religious ones — are what determine how we read literature, how we are able to read literature. Literature in itself has, comparatively, very little power — but in conjunction with those forces, and primarily in their service, it can indeed help to change lives.

Or so I think. As G. C. Lichtenberg commented long ago, “A book is like a mirror; if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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