Thursday, June 21, 2007

"What is literature for?" - musings August 2006

The Purposes of Literature

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut poses an odd but pertinent question in his novel God Bless You, Mr Rosewater: “what are people for”? One of his characters, about to die, says he is looking forward to asking God this question. This struck me as one of those naïve and yet fundamental questions – what is the purpose of our existence? It is a question with no obvious final answer. Vonnegut, who is President of the American Humanist Association, is not suggesting that there is no purpose, just that it cannot be discerned.

There is a similar naivety in asking the question “what is literature for”? What, fundamentally, is the purpose of literature? Tome after tome declaiming postmodern literary theory seems incapable of addressing this most basic question. Casting round in less conventional places – the private space of weblogs - I have found some suggestions which seem to make some sense. Short and pithy ones are “to enrich our lives” and “to provide experience to humans”. Another, more ambitious states that the highest purpose of literature is “spiritual enlightenment, spiritual growth; in other words, the highest purpose of literature is to save the reader’s life.” The latter comes from James Hammond, a philosopher, albeit one without the validation of a university position.

What is true enough is that literature has many purposes, sometimes conflicting ones, so that, say, an erudite paper in mathematics or the natural sciences can completely fail to entertain, and can be poorly expressed in leaden language, but it could expand our knowledge and incite the development of further thinking. It is legitimate to criticize such an example of literature if it does not achieve the purpose of its author, and thus fails to develop or explain significant areas of new knowledge and thought. More cynically, it might be that it achieved a further purpose of the author, to ensure that the correct quota of suitable publications, significant or not, has been attained. It would be appropriate to evaluate and (perhaps) condemn this purpose, even if it has been fully achieved, as unworthy. But if a purpose of adding significantly to knowledge has been fulfilled, even if that was not the author’s prime intention, this can be evaluated as both valid and achieved.

What this suggests is that it is possible to evaluate an example of literature quite apart from the intention and purpose of the author. The author may well not have sought to “save the reader’s life” through the encouragement of “spiritual growth”, but it is legitimate to consider whether their work might fulfil this purpose in any way. If it does not, then it can be evaluated against some other purpose.

My reason for engaging in such musings is not to engage in semantics, but because I plan to examine three non-fictional accounts by three very different literary figures. One was a prominent novelist and Christian apologist, whose essay was published under a non-de-plume. One is a retired Professor of English, writing an autobiographical account, one of a trilogy, about the loss of his wife. The third is a minor novelist, who has written an account of his travels in what seems to have been a journey through grief as well as a journey through southern France. My concern is not over the first author, who seems to have realized that his book would be read as a study of grief. My concern is over the way in which the other two authors will be read.

Three kinds of reader can be envisaged here. There is the general reader who finds these accounts entertaining, as indeed they are in many ways. In a way, the critic of literature has some sort of image of a general reader in mind, and to guide, legitimize or devalue that reader’s experience seems to be an unspoken intention. I am more concerned about the reader who consults these books because they appear to address his position (and it is his, because both writers are, or were, widowers). Will such a reader find consolation or guidance in these accounts? My clear and unequivocal answer will be no. The third audience will be those professionals and helpers who seek to understand the experience of widowed men and to attempt to offer comfort and enlightenment. Again, I feel that these books mislead, and perhaps dangerously so. I will be developing this critique in relation to another kind of literature, the literature of grief. This literature comprises the writings, reflecting factual research, of those who have attempted to develop knowledge and comprehension of grief, so as to offer comfort and attempt effective (sometimes cost-effective) remedies.

This may seem to be grossly unfair. Two authors, subject to major bereavements, recently wrote books that did not intend to inform or console, and yet I am accusing them of failing to fulfil what Hammond deems the highest purpose of literature – “spiritual enlightenment”. I am more spurred by his dramatic injunction that the literary purpose is “to save the reader’s life”. It is, therefore, appropriate to evaluate these works against their ability to console and, if it is possible, to spur improvements in the quality of life. The rest can be left for the postmodernists to discuss.

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