Sunday, 23 February 2014

A Defence of Studying Literature

It is true that the study of literature is self-indulgent; people have been reading for pleasure for thousands of years. However, this does not necessarily mean that the study of literature should not be considered a serious venture, and it certainly does not mean that it should not be done. The study of literature is, amongst other things, vital to the understanding of human nature, and the written word has transcended time due to its ability to portray ideas and emotions like no other medium.

The first form of literature to be studied in England was that of religious texts. Until relatively recently, the study of Theology was the only study that could be undertaken at University. The influence that the Bible has had on orthodox conventions in our country is indubitable, and indeed it would be hard to argue that our understanding of religious texts is unimportant. Without Biblical scholars and students of religious literature, many of the mores and teachings of texts like the Bible or Aquinas’ Summa Theologica would be ignored. The study of religious literature is therefore vital if the common person is to understand their own faith; without it, our views would be completely controlled and governed by the likes of Chaucer’s Pardoner and Summoner, who used the peasants’ lack of Latin knowledge to make money. Moreover, if we did not read or study religious or scientific literature, it would all inevitably be lost. Imagine if nobody had ever studied Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or Galileo’s revolutionary works: knowledge that is central to our lives would vanish. Therefore, the study of literature is important to discover and retain the knowledge that binds us together as a society.

From books, particularly novels, we learn things that we cannot learn elsewhere. The study of literature is not only a source of pleasure, but it also teaches us about the human condition, and about the nature of love and death, amongst other things. Literature teaches us that the society we live in today is not the only society that has undergone turbulence, change and revolution. In fact, William Nicholson, British playwright, screenwriter and novelist, said, “we read to know that we are not alone”. Literature teaches us that people are concerned with the same things now as they were when the book was written; although historical intricacies may differ, the human condition and human nature remains unchanged. Even in the Victorian period, when sexual and polite mores were very strict in comparison to modern conventions, comparisons can still be drawn between the concerns of contemporary authors, and those of, for example, Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Literature ought to be studied if only to enlighten us about ourselves and about the lives we live.

Literature shows us the flaws of human nature, and encourages us to improve not only ourselves, but also the societies in which we live. For example, novels which show a particularly loathsome hero or heroine can inspire the reader to distance themselves from that type of behavior, and so gives them the ability to improve themselves. Moreover, many of Dickens’s novels had a gravitational effect on attitudes to the poor, engendering more sympathy for those living in poverty, and this is another example of how literature can promote progression and improvement in society. Through the medium of literature, new ideas and passions can be channeled and directed at society, and through the study of literature, they will be heard.

Arguably, all kinds of art are self-indulgent, whether it be literature, music or painting. The reading of literature is, like other art forms, a pursuit that entertains our minds and sets us thinking. Literature can pose intriguing questions that excite our thoughts and feelings, and this is precisely what sets us apart from the animals and makes us human. We extract from literature emotions that are hard to find elsewhere – feelings like empathy, communality and pleasure – and if we turn our back on these we turn our back on our innate characteristics and desires as humans. Because humans are social creatures, with a curiosity about not only ourselves, but about each other, we must study literature to satisfy that curiosity. Our needs are not met by factual or scientific treatises – it is art that can intrigue our minds and teach us about one another.

There is also a Utilitarian reason for reading and studying literature: it is enjoyable. J. S. Mill taught that there are certain ‘Higher Pleasures’ (intellectual pleasures rather than physical pleasures) that ought to be pursued in order to increase utility and happiness. Surely all students are self-indulgent since they choose what to study because they enjoy it, or because they inevitably get some pleasure from it. Even if somebody becomes a doctor to save lives, they still get pleasure from saving lives, just as students of literature may not enjoy the intense study of books, but they may get pleasure from the knowledge they learn or the reading itself. Because there is value in learning and because it promotes human pleasure, we ought to study literature.

‘L’art pour l’art’ (‘Art for art’s sake’) is a concept (credited to Gautier) that originated in the 19th Century. It suggests that we should admire art, particularly literature, for no reason other than its fundamental and intrinsic value. Edgar Allen Poe, the famous novelist, wrote: “The simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.” Poe is suggesting that art has a value that is separate from its moral and spiritual teachings, and that is simply the fact that it is intrinsically good. Poe and others would defend the study of literature even without all the collateral benefits that it brings. Surely, for this reason alone, art should be read, studied and cared for. 

As aforesaid, the study of literature is indulgent. However, there are a number of undeniable benefits of studying literature, and it would be a travesty if great works of literature were to be ignored. All art should be treasured and respected simply because it is what makes us human.

1 comment:

  1. If one decries all "indulgent" pursuits (art & music etc.) then one begs the question, then for what reason do we bother to exist? To quote/paraphrase Robin Williams' character in the film Dead Poets' Society, "Business, medicine, law - these are all worthy pursuits, essential to human life - but poetry! Poetry is what makes that life worth living." Art may not save lives or pay the bills, but that doesn't mean it's worthless.

    That said, not everything you've written here stands to scrutiny. I know a lot of biologists but I don't know any who've bothered to read Darwin; I imagine that similarly, very few physicists have read Newton. This isn't because their ideas are worthless, but rather that the scientific essentials can more efficiently be boiled down and summarised in a textbook (also, the essentials of both are - theoretically at least - actually taught to everyone in schools). If you want to understand something, it's actually much more efficient and easy to read a textbook. Obviously this doesn't undermine the significance of their discoveries; but to imply that science would go downhill if people stopped reading Newton is rather spurious (I would estimate that fewer than 1% of physicists have read his work).

    Also, I'm not sure many religious people require religious literature to "understand their own faith". I think most of them are quite content to have other people interpret it for them. In fact, I'd say that's rather the point of religion - to provide the answers to one's questions so that one doesn't have to find them oneself.