Monday, February 27, 2017

For The Love Of Literature


“So much of what I see and read today approximates reality and appears as its poor imitation, except for the misery. This is more real than anything the news could portray or show. For reality, beauty and truth to be found, one has to look in books and at movies, in literature and at films. The trick, however, is not to over-think or over-analyse.”
Perry J. Greenbaum
“Notes from the Sixth Floor: Approximating Reality,” 
February 2017

For as long as I could remember, I have loved reading stories—all kinds of stories, from fairy tales to historical novels to detective and romance stories, as well as literary novels, the classics of literature. It has been a love affair spanning more than 50 years. To be sure, like all educated persons, I have read many of the literary classics published in the English language, including most of the books that make the lists of the best books of all time and those of the last 100 years.

For the most part, I have read these books for my own edification and enjoyment and not part of any program of academic study, although some were introduced favorably by professors at college and university. Some I have read more than once. There was no need to write any paper and I was not marked for my efforts. I did often take notes, writing thoughts in my journals. I look back at these from time to time.

Many of the books used to be taught in university courses of English and American literature. I am not sure if this is now the case. No matter; these books will survive current narrow ideas of “acceptable books.” Moreover, with the cost of books in decline, coexisting with a greater accessibility due in large part to the Internet, readers have more books to enjoy, even if “the gatekeepers” of Academia do not easily tolerate let alone approve of such choices that comprise the traditional texts of the “Great Books of Modern Civilization.”

In his Nobel Prize Lecture (December 12, 1976), Saul Bellow said this about what we gain or see—“the essence of our real condition”— from Literature, which becomes more apparent and urgent during times of confusion.
The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as "true impressions". This essence reveals, and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, "There is a spirit" and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.
This is true for all of us who have (briefly and fleetingly) encountered this “spirit,“ without the confusion and clamor that manifests itself in so much of our society today. The soul of Literature continues to be found at times, inspiring the reader to acquiring knowledge and to setting sights on quiet determined action. This, out of necessity, begins in the mind. So, I would like to say “enjoy and learn,” since there is a joy in learning, contrary to what many young-aged children say (and older ones, too) in protest of going to school to take required courses in English and, by default, in literature.

Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum
If you are lucky, you will have an English teacher who will encourage you. Many teachers actually love literature and understand its value to society as an influence of good; such was the case with my high school teachers. Literature, when taught well, can help young minds (and older ones, as well) to understand others and the world around them in a different way than science or technology does.

All the more reason to bemoan what has been taking place, for decades, in colleges and universities in Canada, the United States and other western nations, which have deemed it expedient to politicize literature to the point where it cannot be enjoyed, taken seriously or loved. So much of what is taught in English and humanities courses is unimaginative, pointless and replete of the prevailing prejudices of the lecturers and professors, no doubt leading one farthest from any genuine imaginative effort and the building of independent critical thinking, let alone the search for both beauty and truth.

Which brings us again to talk of soul and spirit, but not in the same sense of theologians or scholars of religion who also get bogged down in details; it is to not strip literature of all that makes it essential, important, inspiring and human. Take out the discussion of soul and spirit, take out thoughts of beauty and truth, take out the ideas of universal humanity and literature becomes what it ought not be: banal, petty and boring. Compounding the problem of accessibility is academic jargon, arcane language and techno-speak, something that gets the attention from time to time in the Academy, but usually among its most junior members who have not yet been lost to it.

It is a wonder that anyone can graduate from such programs of study with a measure of his own thoughts and ideas. It is to resign yourself to living in a small world rather than a large one, suspicious of any idea that falls outside accepted thought. It is always hard to disabuse someone of an idea dearly held. Having a graduate degree in literature hardly gives anyone a special insight into the human condition. It might be a good start, but it takes much more than that to achieve a life not only well-read but also well-lived.

Even more difficult (and rare) is to find (post)graduate students from such a program of study who hold a continued love of books. Studying literature today can easily and methodically remove any desire to read books, let alone enjoy, discuss and love what they say. Academic literary theories will, because of their narrowness and stated strictures, move students further away from understanding the universal ideas that bind humans together.

If I sound harsh, I am probably not harsh enough. I enjoy my moral judgments like anyone else. Why shouldn't I? I have worked hard and earned them. Seeing the shortcomings of a thing has always been my way of trying to find answers. There is enough pain and misery to go around, no doubt; and the question is, as always, What should I do? The short answer is, Who really knows?

In the light of no easy answers, I read, reflect and think; and take walks, short quick ones and long leisurely ones—to get information and a bit of knowledge. Such are Big Ideas, which often cause people to close their eyes and fall asleep. Not easy to take a hold of them, yet one should make attempts to do to find the soul of Literature. (In a future post, I might  discuss a few of my favorite books.) I offer you now a quote from C.S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism (1961), which argues that literature is written for the enjoyment of the reader, and, moreover, good reading involves surrendering oneself to the written work:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Good readers will understand this; it does not require knowledge of any literary theory. I will go as far as saying that the absence of literary theory will make reading more enjoyable. It might be true in this case that absence makes the heart grow fonder.