Friday Essay – In Praise of Literature

In Praise of Literature

photo by Cara Barer

I read an article in the November 2012 issue of University Affairs entitled “In Praise of Literature”.  I don’t know much about the discipline of English.  In fact, the first university English course I took was completed less than a month ago (and my last degree was completed just over a decade ago).  I disliked English in high school and had no interest in taking it in university.  (I completed my language requirement with a French literature course.)  I didn’t like being told what the author meant when he/she wrote this piece of literature. I didn’t like ripping the stories apart for metaphor and meaning and denouement and climax and blah, blah, blah…  I liked stories.  I liked learning about the world and myself and my culture through the stories I read.  I wasn’t particularly interested in delving much deeper than my initial visceral reaction.  Then I started writing more.  I started being interested in storytelling.  I became interested in the mechanics of writing and storytelling and literature.  So, I took an English class.  It was wonderful.  I loved the whole process of watching a film, reading the books and play and poems, then discussing them, then mining them for meaning.  As an historian my process involves reading documents, analyzing them, and synthesizing their contents for meaning.  I used this process in my English class for the first few assignments.  However, for my final essay and the final exam I found, I think, how those trained in the discipline of English think.  It was some of the most creative thinking I have ever done.  Certainly I required a knowledge of the works I was examining, a good understanding of the context in which they were written and some knowledge of genre and literary techniques.  However, after that I could mine the text for all sorts of interesting insights, stories, metaphors and whatnot.  What the stories meant to me, in light of context and genre and lived experience, etc., was the interesting and important part of this discipline.  By examining what I believed the author to be telling me was how I brought the universal meaning of the text to light. I found it a fascinating and liberating process.  What a wonderful way to find even more to love in the stories and texts one already loves.

The article in University Affairs discusses the fact that so many English scholars focus on literary theory and criticism, but not on literature.  The main thrust of the author’s argument is that the ‘scientific method’ was seen as the be all and end all of scholarly investigation, therefore the study of literature had to conform to this method of inquiry.  Of course, the problem is that literature – and art generally – is not science.  Some how science and the scientific method have gained top place as the preferred way of looking at the world.  However, this is not the only way of knowing, or to use a fancy-pants word, it is not the only epistemology available to humans.  Myth, story, metaphor are equally important ways for humans to understand their world and each other.  I don’t think we would have created so many if they weren’t important to us.  One day, I hope, we will all see that art and story are as important to our understanding of ourselves and our universe as scientific inquiry.

Be Lovely to Each Other,