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On Reading Literature

My bride said to me one day, “By the time I get to the end of The Road, I feel cleansed.” We immediately agreed without further words that The Road is awesome, that Blood Meridian is a bit much, and that everyone should read Cormac McCarthy. Then in the back of my mind an interfering little question popped its mischievous head to interfere with our unifying thoughts. Why is that book so good? Because my interfering questions tend to grow rapidly, a bigger question tromped in to ask why any work of literature is good, and then the grand matriarch of all these questions told me I was really asking what literature was at all. And I didn’t have an answer. This was distressing. I sat down and wept for the loss of innocence. Once all my weeping was wept, I determined to seek out the answer, even if it lay beyond the sunset and all the western stars. I ran into some interesting monsters along the way, and found my way to a delightful rest, and another mind-meld with my bride. I hope to be able to recount my adventures here in a pleasing manner, but it gets abstract, and the ending is a long way off, so this prologue is to beg your forgiveness. 

Making Distinctions

The ability to discern differences between areas of study is crucial to the growth of any learner. If unable to discern, we begin to see one thing as unimportant simply on the grounds that it isn’t something else. Presumably we should not ignore history because it isn’t theology or to dismiss theology as negligible because it isn’t physics. But this presumption is only valid if each area of study provides something uniquely formative to a human being, something without which we remain incomplete, like cookie dough without an ingredient or a house without a window. What makes literature unique? Defining literature is difficult. The root meaning, literature’s overlap with other disciplines, and what I’ll call “the relegation policy” contribute to this difficulty.

The word “literature” can be used as a general term referring to any kind of writing in a particular discipline. This is usually within an academic or journalistic context, e.g. “The literature on 13th-century iconography”, or “the literature on the development of the brain in hormonal teenagers”. The linguistic basis for this generic use is strong: the root word (the Latin littera) can mean anything from “document” to “letter” or the more expansive “learning”. Most often, though, the word denotes written imaginative works, usually taking the form of a novel, short story, or poem. This is the sense employed here. We have evaded our first monster. Easy, right? On to the overlap problem.

These works of imagination invariably overlap with other fields of study. Literature overlaps with history (A Tale of Two Cities, Catch-22, The Book Thief), philosophy (Frankenstein, The Plague), psychology (Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon), theology (Perelandra, Silence, The Chosen), or all of the above (Brothers KaramazovDivine Comedy, Speaker for the Dead). And science has a genre of fiction all its own. This overlap is a fog obscuring the boundaries of the literary field. In an attempt to disperse that fog, some enact the “relegation policy”. This policy relegates literature to the position of vehicle for some other, more important discipline. Two disciplines (though not the only ones) to which literature often is subordinated thus are philosophy and history.  

Literature Subordinated to Philosophy or History

In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius says that poetry is the sweet honey on the bitter cup of philosophical study. In other words, it is designed to get a person to start loving wisdom under the mistaken assumption that it is sweet and delightful. A bitter surprise, indeed. If in fact literature is just the honey on the bitter cup, then it is a deception of the student, demeaning the learner and disrespecting the actual goal (in this case, philosophy) by dilution. Lucretius, intending the great good of leading his students to wisdom, leads them astray in this respect. It probably didn’t help that he also had experienced religion as a binding rather than freeing experience, and was trying to draw his students away from that as well. This meant that he was able to see poetry only in the context of not one, but two other foci of human study and experience, and so even less saw poetry as something in its own right. 

A similar mistake is to treat literature as a vehicle for history. This is the claim of the historicist school of thought: literature and history cannot be separated. It follows that a work of fiction can only be understood properly as a product of its specific time and place, and any interpretation thereof by a critic from any other era can only be a product of the critic’s time and place. The object of study becomes those two times and places. There is merit to this position for two reasons: 1) we cannot separate human experience and human imagination and 2) historical background does enrich our appreciation for a work of literature.

No author can imagine something entirely removed from some human time or place. Depictions of non-humans are always versions of living things on earth, for example. They are either humanoids (as in The Time Machine, Fellowship of the Ring), versions of animals or bugs (War of the Worlds, mythological creatures like Pegasus and the Sphinx), non-corporeal beings manifesting in voices or bodies (Wind in the Door, Sandman), or all of the above (Harry Potter, Wheel of Time). Occasionally we’ll get versions of humanoid-ish plants, as in Little Shop of Horrors. What we never get is something entirely outside human experience. How could we? Our imaginations are born from our senses. So if a good author writes about versions of things in the range of personal experience, those works, however fictional, are always tied to the author’s experience, which happens in a time and place. But saying that a work is linked to elements of history is very different from saying that those elements of history are the only reason to read the book. 

Similarly, historical background can be helpful to broadening the understanding of a literary creation. In The Tempest, for example, knowing the historical origins of Caliban’s “god” Setebos is illuminating and interesting. Setebos was a demon deity of Patagonia, from where Sir Francis Drake had returned to London twenty-odd years before Shakespeare wrote the play. The modus operandi of Setebos was to impregnate young women who then gave birth to monster children. Knowing this historical tidbit helps us understand Caliban’s origins and Caliban himself. But the research elaborates on something that is already there. We can hear and feel Caliban’s rage and longing without knowing that Francis Drake went to Argentina. We should examine whether other reasons exist before too quickly adopting the historicist approach.

The main question so far is still unanswered. If something makes literature unique and irreplaceable, what is that thing? We can narrow the field by eliminating some things literature is not. It is not a list of plot points and characters, it is not an explanation of themes, it is not doctrine, it is not propaganda. 

Learning to See

I’ve encountered students who think that novels are nothing more than a plot outline, a list of characters, and whatever the all-knowing VagueNotes designates as the “themes”.  As with historical tidbits, these things are necessary or at least worthwhile, but if in fact plots and lists compose the fundamental worth of a novel, then a student’s resistance to reading fiction is entirely justified. Let’s hold off on faith in VagueNotes until we see whether there is something more. At minimum we can acknowledge that training the eye to see beneath the surface invariably entails revelation, granting that the book is good or great. Some books, which are either light reading (P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Ready Player One) or just bad literature (I’ll refrain from ranting here) are motivated by a sense of fun or the author’s desire for money and fame. Good and great books, on the contrary, are always deeper than the plot, and always motivated by the search for illumination.

We’ll encounter it if we look, and discovery is rewarding. For example, you might say that Odyssey is about a guy who faces some fantastic obstacles trying to get back home. This is a lie in that it dismisses the fact that most of the poem is devoted to Telemachus, Penelope, and Agamemnon, and that most of the fantastic obstacles are things that Odysseus may or may not have faced, since we have only his word for it. Whether he is trying to get home or not is also debatable, in my opinion. When you start to ask why Athena goes out of her way to make Odysseus’ path more circuitous than it already has been, and allow that Athena the goddess of wisdom might be smarter than you, you have a chance to see that Odysseus’ journey home involves a lot more than walking through a door and killing some bad guys. A Wikipedia summary is particularly tempting to those high school students who, struggling heroically against the oppressions inflicted by the monster at the whiteboard, need only pass a quiz to fend off the curse of having to read. Teachers, clinging to the hope that they can convince their students otherwise, can be tempted to focus on historical, thematic, or philosophical intricacies, for example. But this only evades the indictment. Either the disciples of Wikipedia are right, and we should be reading something else, or literature is something we still haven’t brought into the conversation, and I thank you for your patience thus far. 

What Literature Isn’t

Literature is not a lecture topic, it is not doctrine, it is not propaganda. This is better said the other way around: lecture topics, doctrine, and propaganda are not true literature. These things can be in a book, but if they are the primary purpose of the book, the book is not literature. We can usually tell whether we have limited literature to one of this unholy trinity when we say that it is “about” something.  For example, you may hear or say that Dickens’ Oliver Twist is about the evils of 19th-century British orphanage systems. This is false. 19th-century British orphanages and their appendages are a topic, but if the book is “about” anything, it is about wowi’mhungrywhy’dtheydothatthispersonandthatpersonlovemeohdearnotheydontbuttheseonesdo…. Another example: you may hear that Merchant of Venice is about anti-Semitism. False. Anti-Semitism is an important topic in the play, though even that incontrovertible statement inexcusably limits Shakespeare’s prophetic scope. If Merchant is “about” anything, it is furymuststophimlovehatelovehatei’mgoingtowini’mgoingtowin… And these are woefully inadequate expressions of single characters in multi-character interlocking stories. 

To be clear, being “about” something doesn’t make a book false, just something other than literature. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is about the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and it is not literature, nor does it pretend to be. On the other hand, and at the risk of inciting indignant chaos among my colleagues, I’ll suggest it worthwhile to consider whether The Screwtape Letters is masterfully disguised doctrine, and not literature. A genre of “moral epistles” exists and is wonderful, but is not literature as defined here. Literature is no more a sermon or apologetic than it is a lecture topic.  

Neither is literature propaganda, by which I mean an attempt to instill positive or negative bias, depending on which way you are already leaning, often by simply overwhelming the reader with an onslaught of excited words. Examples of this are London’s Iron Heel and Chesterton’s Manalive. If a work of fiction is only asserting a specific ideology, then it is propaganda, not literature. The Jungle, for instance, asserts unqualifiedly that oppressive capitalism proves the value of socialism. The message is grounded in the facts of factory worker abuse, and confronts the reader with some uncomfortable truths, but you don’t care about the characters, and you aren’t supposed to. You’re supposed to get angry about the scenario, which is cleverly built to get you angry enough to accept the impersonal theory at the end. Excellent book, just not true literature.  The same goes for Jack London’s Iron Heel, which has the virtue of being less devious, and the vice of being less interesting. To elucidate by contrast,  London’s Call of the Wild is not making the uncategorical statement that the state of nature is superior to the civilized state. That idea is thematically involved but is not the point of the book. The existence of White Fang, if nothing else, proves that London is not so single-minded, and in the end, we care more about whether the dogs are going to win than where they end up. And lest I’ve given the wrong impression about propaganda in literature: this isn’t a fault exclusive to the so-called left. It is simply a style of writing that writers employ for different purposes.

The truth is, the only adequate expression of the stories is the words of the stories themselves. The only way to get a sense, and it will always be incomplete, of what this literature is about, is to experience the words as fully as possible, and then talk to other readers to learn a bare modicum of the things you certainly missed.

Now I hope we can start to see the outline of the house through the fog. I’m bringing with me some treasures I’ve found on the way that you also may find valuable. The things I’ve found to distinguish literature from all others are the following: recognition of the other, encouraging behavior without consequences, practicing the reach for the ineffable, and recalling the garden.

Recognition and Exploration

Recognition of the other. This might be better stated as “recognition of the other through a real visceral experience”. Atticus Finch’s famous line is, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Considering things from another’s point of view can be a surprisingly impersonal exercise, but climbing into someone else’s skin is feeling what they’re feeling in their blood and their bones. This experience is the impossible thing that literature makes possible. If the book is a good one, we experience something that is not in our own experience. We have never (presumably) been inside an apple barrel listening to pirates plan a mutiny, but reading Treasure Island can give us actual feelings of suspense, dread, thrill, and the like. In Native Son, we can begin to feel Bigger Thomas’s helplessness and terror as he walks toward the fire with a dead body. While the story is imaginary, our experience is real. The better the author, the deeper the experience, and through the eyes of another we begin to understand how little we have seen ourselves. Invaluable too is any book in which the experience enacted is like our own, because then we might see that someone has recognized us, and in that moment we know we are loved and seen and worth being the subject of a creation. 

Behavior without consequences. Sounds like a bad thing, right? But in living the life of an imaginary or possible person, we experience our own possible selves, and are able to have felt knowledge of, say, what murdering someone would do to us. Louise Cowan, whom I was lucky to have as a teacher, once challenged us with the idea that Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment commits murder so that we don’t have to. We have instincts to explore the unknown, to form relationships, to find answers. Sometimes these explorations are of the forbidden, the unhealthy, and the false. If we indiscriminately pursue every one of these instincts at the first opportunity in our actual lives, we’ll fast run into more trouble than we can handle, and opportunities to strive, seek, and find decrease. If we can experience the behavior of a possible person, written in a convincing way, then we can also experience the consequences while remaining free to decide whether we wish those consequences in real life. Worth noting is the fact that while history, philosophy, and even theology can teach us about these good and evil consequences, none of these is in itself the active practice of exploration. The only other discipline besides literature that does this is theater. Now, the idea of behavior without consequences even in only a vicarious way might still seem unsafe, and indeed it is. Exploration, like Aslan the Lion, cannot be called safe, but it is good, and it is necessary for growth. If we dedicate our lives to being safe, we will gradually retreat further and further into a bunker of looping fear, starving our minds, hearts and souls. Also, exploration without consequences does not preclude the presence of a mentor or guide, which is why adults need to read a lot!

Reaching for the ineffable. Unlike other subjects, which depend on scientia, literature depends on metaphor. Metaphor is the opposite of the literal, in some ways the opposite of the fact. Metaphor reaches for what is beyond the words, the thing not yet attained, whereas fact is the thing done, the thing accomplished. When we mistake fact for truth, we also mistake metaphor for lies, and begin yet again to miss the point of literature. Inherent to metaphor is a most profound truth that fact is not able to convey, namely, that no matter what we say, our words are insufficient to contain the whole truth. This is for two reasons: one, no one human being or group of human beings understands everything, and therefore our words cannot describe everything about an object of our vision. At the same time, our words do touch some element of truth. In spite of insufficiency, truth is still in the words. Metaphor articulates truth and ineffability simultaneously. It captures incompleteness. 

Remembering the Garden

Eden is where creation is as it was meant to be. Poets reach out for it and mourn its loss. Authors of literature try to see what it would look like if we put it back together. We’re broken into these shards of understanding that were meant to form one magnificent multi-colored multi-faceted jewel. We call these shards theology, philosophy, history, physics, and literature. The latter is an attempt to reunify, to take those shards and make, if not the original masterpiece, at least a stained glass window. By the root meaning of “definition”, literature has no definition, because it has no precise restrictive limits within which it must operate. Literature overlaps any and all others on purpose, not accidentally, because the goal is to reunify the ways we see into one coherent vision. And this, hopefully, brings us home.

The story goes (and continues to go) that our first jobs were to be fruitful, multiply, and take care of creation. That doesn’t mean have babies, plant cucumbers, and put up birdhouses, all of which I strongly recommend, by the way. Stewardship is also over the mud that is ourselves, into which the original Muse, the spirit of life, has been breathed. Now we’ve just got to keep that mud in shape. Or reshape the mud that is glopping all over the place. Through reading literature, being inside the skin of thousands of possible persons, we can begin, with great deficiency and the help of much grace, to re-create the real person we were meant to be. 

Back home in our armchairs by the non-functioning fireplace with laundry and children variously strewn about the room, and no bronze-tipped spears with which to impale the ants that have begun to mount their summer invasion, my bride and I realize why The Road is cleansing. If we can be with the unnamed man and boy traveling through that endless burned out world, we’ll have felt the exhaustion of pushing on again in spite of a cannibalistic culture that can’t help devouring everyone it sees. But we also have lived again the joy of stopping for a sacramental meal, and have narrowly escaped tragedy. We know that the beauty of the people in our lives is what matters. Cleansed of what doesn’t matter, we have hope, the hope that even in the darkest of worlds, the road to the garden can be found again, through mazes humming with mystery. 

About the Author

Joseph Bissex

English, Drama, Latin

Joseph lives in Rockville with his dear family, a mountain of books, two mountains of board games, various small animals, and a collection of 150 shot glasses. He can rave endlessly about the awesomeness of Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Tempest, so say “Penelope” or “Prospero” and see what happens. An avid fan of all things theatrical, he has directed and performed in over seventy high school, regional, and community theater productions. He intends to be in every Shakespeare play (17 so far) before shuffling off the old mortal coil. Joseph directs the Omnibus Players of The Heights School. Omnia Omnibus!

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