In Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously kicks out all of the poets from the perfect state that he is imagining. The big problem with poetry is that it sets a bad example: it values emotion over reason, and it shows the emotions overtaking reason for dramatic effect. It’s also just too far from expressing the truth of the world. Poets are mere imitators while philosophers (and I think we would say now scientists) are able to make solid truth claims about the world.
And yet, Socrates is aware that he enjoys going to plays and listening to recitations of poetry. He is seduced by Homer and wonders whether poetry can be saved after all. He turns to a bit of crowdsourcing:
“And we may further grant to those of her defenders who are lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?”
It is certainly worth debating whether all poetry and art values emotion over reason. And one can for sure wonder why we should accept the idea that reason should always be valued over emotion in the first place. Is there no room for certain moments in which emotion is dominant? It seems strangely inhuman to deny the importance of such moments.
Nevertheless, granting Socrates’ evaluation of poetry, I think the challenge is worth accepting. Scholars have long argued about Socrates’ pitch to literary scholars, echoing down from the past to provoke us. What I want to do is face the challenge from my particular position as a teacher of literature at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. My question is: Why should we study literature and what benefit do we gain from studying literature? Most of my students are not Humanities majors and want to be scientists of some sort, and so they very reasonably wonder why they should be studying literature. So here is my top five list of why to study of literature:
- Part of the World
I’ll begin with a very general point about the topic. It’s important to note that the study of literature (fiction, poetry, drama, etc.) is like any other field at the university in that it attempts to understand a select piece of reality. Literature is a part of our world, a big part of our world. Like hamburgers, families, movies, computer security, alligators, Malyasia, and mitochondria, literature is something with which we share a world. It is complex, and so we ask the questions that such subjects get: what is it? how did it come to be? why is it here? how does it work? and what role does it play in society? Furthermore, literature did not appear just yesterday. It has been a part of every human culture on the planet, in some form, for about as long as people have been writing. Some of the earliest written documents we have are poems and stories, my favorite is the ancient Sumerian story Gilgamesh about a despotic king who takes on life’s big question: mortality. Literature these days is also part of an enormous literary system that includes the publishing industry, libraries, and producers of digital technology. Everyone knows someone who writes, even if it’s song lyrics on the weekend. Literature is an enormous part of present and past human society, and simply put, this presence means that it deserves careful study. Outside of the university, people read tons of literature, but inside the university, we primarily strive to understand it.
The study of literature is dependent on gaining access to works of literature. Historically, literature has been held by libraries, bookstores, and museums. Now, much literature is online, but much of it is still to some degree inaccessible because of cost or technological barriers of some kind. Teachers who have individually collected works of literature and have spent time and money getting them, then enable students to have that access. It is the responsibility of the teacher to show students how to get the books, in my case, that means making all the readings available online. In Puerto Rico this is especially important because there few bookstores (none in my town of Cayey), internet shipping is not exactly the best, and the only library is the university library. Access also means that the works have to be organized in some way, curated, filtered from the mass of literature out there. There are few students who want to go out and read all of Victorian literature, but there are certainly teachers who do. Teachers can offer an easier way to access the whole through selecting representative works. The idea is that the study of literature at a university means that one has privileged access to literature and the privilege of having someone to help enter the maze.
No way around it, you’ve got to read the work of literature in order to study it. This is different from say the study of atoms. To study atoms you might want an artist rendering, but more importantly you need the description and theory of what atoms are. You don’t need to go experience the atom. To study literature you need to engage in the activity of reading, you need the aesthetic experience. Art gives us pleasure, entertainment, spiritual nourishment, and space to contemplate human life and ethics. Here I should mention a couple of the various benefits that people claim is gained by reading of literature: it makes you a better writer to be exposed to adept writing, it develops empathy by placing you in the shoes of a variety of kinds of characters, it spurs your imagination by giving you just enough information without overwhelming the senses (and countless other reasons have appeared over the years). Sometimes teachers forget this, but the study of literature depends on students having the experience of reading literature prior to theorizing about it. Furthermore, to experience literature is to experience human culture, and to engage in the centuries old dialogue of human culture. Everyone needs to engage human culture, not just consume it, because it is the expression of who we are as a species, it is everyone’s responsibility.
While similar in many ways to science, the study of literature is also very different. Literature demands a different methodology of study, and a unique approach. On a micro scale, you take notes about a work of literature, you do some kind of close reading of the story, you employ a set of literary categories or some theoretical framework to make sense of it or criticize it, and you generally then write about. On a macro scale, you are not normally studying one work in isolation, but in the context of a genre such as “Victorian Literature” or in my case “Latino/a Literature.” This means that you’ll be studying a larger literary history, how a genre develops, and so on. The point I want to make here is that the study of literature involves different types of scholarly skills, and one must use all of these skills. One must be able to move in and out of different modes of thinking (from objective summarizing to critical interpretation for example). In doing so, one must engage the many aspects of oneself in order to interpret literature well. It is not math, nor it is not pure opinion, but some subtle mix. In this sense, the study of literature is properly a humanities endeavor, not just because literature is created by humans, but because we study literature using a great deal of our humanity, our logic, reasoning, creativity, and personal vision. This is easier said than done. Students are often tempted into accepting easy interpretations of stories. To study literature is to take on one of the most challenging forms of study and face its many pitfalls. Ultimately, we need separate and strong departments of literature to dedicate time and energy to work out this study of literature.
- Truth and Representation
I think Socrates is right that truth is not the most important aspect of literature, in the sense that it can make truth claims about the world or “mirror” reality in some way. Certainly there are elements of reality in a work of literature but they are not always present as direct representation, rather, interesting literature normally uses formal qualities such as narration and plot structure to make indirect comments about the truth of the world. Negotiating truth is an extremely important part of the study of literature. We need to be able to attend to varying levels of truth in the study of literature. What are the facts of literature? When does interpretation enter? Can interpretations be true? These and other questions that mark out the complexity of truth are highlighted in the study of literature. As Socrates was aware, literature can be very powerful. It can seduce us and affect us in deep ways. Rather than do violence to society by banning a part of culture as Socrates suggests, I think that it is better to understand it. We then can learn to manage the complexities of truth, an important function of a university, and an important task of living in the era of Photoshop.
These days there is little chance that the poets will be banned from society. A real possibility though is that that students feel that the study of literature is not important and that administrators decide that language and literature departments should be under-funded. This is a real danger, not because we would lose literature, but because we would lose the study of literature, and with that we would be a greatly diminished species.