David Leigh, SJ
Although literature has been at the heart of liberal education from the classical to the contemporary world, approaches to literature in the past three decades have made it difficult for many to justify their passion for reading poetry, fiction, and drama. As Frank Farrell has summed up the problem in his study Why Does Literature Matter?, recent critical theory has too often reduced literature to a means of portraying power struggles or of playing language games. The first shift, toward questions of power, is sometimes called “the political or cultural turn” to New Historicism or cultural studies; the second, toward language games, is called “the linguistic turn” to deconstruction. As a result, many literate people have moved from reading literature to reading popular social science books, but with a deep sense of loss. Following suggestions by Farrell, Rita Felski (author of the literary study The Limits of Critique), and others, I suggest that literature contains far more than power struggles or language games: literature helps readers experience a transformative journey in faith and exploration toward understanding and living out the fullness of the Word.
Literature as a way of understanding oneself, others, society, and ultimate questions
Many of my students tell me that they have learned more about themselves and the world through reading novels and watching plays than through other methods of learning. They testify to how well they have come to understand their family or their peers through finding them in a Shakespeare play or a modern novel. Literature conveys understanding through its formal elements—plot, characters, setting, language, etc.—in a way that engages the imagination and whole mind of the reader.
Through the study of these formal elements, students find patterns of meaning that help them to a moment of insight that Felski calls “recognition”—recognition of themselves or others. She suggests that modernist critical use of the metaphor of “epiphany” is a way of expressing this “recognition” in which a text “discloses, makes manifest, forces into consciousness, what is otherwise inaccessible to thought.” Paul Ricoeur calls literature’s power of manifestation “a redescription rather than a reflection . . . an act of creative imitation, not mindless copying.” Thus, this “configuring” of literature is done through the medium of genres, figures of speech, and other literary devices to provide a “redescription” of the world of human experience that, in Fleski’s words, “augments our understanding of how things are.” As Glenn Arbery has said in Why Literature Matters, students and teachers long for what is lost in too much contemporary criticism—“the experience of form as the poetic mode of knowledge, the essential pleasure in world becoming word, the intelligence of feeling, and the revelation literature affords that reality is polysemous, including historical and moral levels, but ultimately disclosing an anagogical meaning.” Some literature is especially suitable for understanding society (e.g. the 19th-century novel), other literature for understanding the self and others (e.g. lyric poetry, Shakespeare, Proust), or understanding ultimate experiences (e.g. Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Denise Levertov, Marilynne Robinson).
Literature as an embodiment of a special type of meaning distinct from but complementary to that of other disciplines
As Farrell suggests, literary texts provide an experience and understanding of aspects of reality that are different from that studied by science or other disciplines and thus require a type of reading that is specifically literary. For example, he notes that some literature provides a way into the life world of the characters and their subjective viewpoints as embodied in their words, monologues, and engagement with others (for instance, in Emma or Waiting for Godot). Other literature goes beyond this phenomenological insight to provide patterns of metaphysical or social meaning, as in the human interactions or dialogue in a novel by Henry James or Cormac McCarthy. Other texts provide a pattern of self-understanding of the author or characters in relationship to the stages of their childhood or growing up, as in Dorothy Day’s autobiography or Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels. Although these books include power struggles of society, they provide insight into much more on other levels of reality, both immediate and ultimate. As Mark William Roche noted in Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century, literature gives readers “insights into the essential structures of reality by way of particular stories and images . . . [making visible] those parts of reality that are otherwise veiled to us, especially in a technological age.” Unlike other disciplines, literature symbolically incorporates human experience and knowledge in narrative, lyric, and dramatic forms using concrete and imaginative language. As symbolic, literature can embody human experiences that are difficult to convey in other types of language. Thus literature becomes the vehicle of what Heidegger and others call transformative disclosure through its literary forms.
Literature as an aesthetic use of symbolic, imaginative language
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of literature—and the one that calls for most attention by teachers and students—is its special use of imaginative language. This use of language includes the range of figures of speech, rhythms of sentences and phrases, poetic devices of sound and repetition, varieties of irony and paradox, and complexities of plotting and character development. These complex aesthetic uses of language and form provide aspects of meaning that go beyond the usual literal or denotative force of other disciplines. The range of such language also includes the variety of literary genres, from lyric to drama to epic to novel, along with the myriad of subgenres that make up the history of literary forms. All of these aesthetic varieties of language provide the method for expressing a multitude of meaning, but also for engaging the reader in the pure beauty of language as a human expression. Thus, studying literature is not only a way of understanding the world of meaning but a way of enjoying the world of beauty.
In the world of beauty, as Arbery reminds us, “the greatest works achieve form in ways inseparable from their meaning, none more so than the Iliad; they give the highest pleasure to the imagination, for reasons that can be analyzed but not entirely explained; they both elicit and inform emotions in ways that require the whole intelligence of the work.” As Felski points out, the poet “Seamus Heaney speaks of the creation of soundscapes rather than landscapes, describing a form of affinity with poetry steered as much by musicality as by meaning, or rather, where meaning adheres to a poem’s sonic effects as much as the things or themes to which it points.”
Literature as an ethical challenge to prepare to act in the world
Just as Horace pointed out that literature is both utile (useful) as well as dulce (enjoyable), so modern critics like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and James Wood have emphasized the power of literary texts to raise ethical questions and to engage readers in seeking answers to them. Since literature deals with the complexities of human action and interaction on the personal, interpersonal, and societal levels, it gets readers embroiled in the struggles between good and evil in the lives of its characters, as in Antigone, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, The Jungle, Invisible Man, or Lila. Felski also notes that some literature creates a “reaction to what is startling, painful, even horrifying.” Thus, novels like All Quiet on the Western Front or Beloved, or drama like Disgraced, work to shock the reader into an emotional awareness of the social violence of war, slavery, abuse, discrimination, poverty, or other patent injustices.
One of the effects of shocking literature is to cause a sudden painful new consciousness and to evoke a sympathy for people undergoing violent injustice. No matter where readers may stand on particular solutions to such injustices, they cannot avoid reflecting on, discussing, and searching for ways to go beyond them to a more humane world. In his essay “Literature and Social Justice,” Gerald Graff admits that they must explore the controversies arising from ethical issues in shocking literature. As Farrell says, “It is not just that we see characters going through kinds of ethical decision-making; we become aware of the ways in which we set ourselves in relation to an ethical world . . . ” Gregory Jusdanis has summed up this ethical dimension in relation to the aesthetic dimension in his book Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature: Greek comedy “highlights the dual capacity of art, to provide pleasure and a social purpose at the same time . . . From its fictional universe, we derive much enjoyment . . . but are also able to gaze back at the actual one, criticize it, see alternatives, or seek to transform it.”
Literature as interpersonal communication on the deepest levels
Among the neglected aspects of literature in critical theory today (except in studies of autobiography) is the interpersonal relationship between the author and reader. What was once an important dimension for the Romantic writer has been reduced to a problem of skeptical knowledge of the other. Yet students on their literary journey often find that the author of great poetry or fiction seems to be “speaking to me.” Is it too much to suggest that we might learn from psychological studies of literary readings by students? Can we even understand what the French critic Charles Du Bos meant in his 1938 lectures on “What Is Literature?” when he claimed that “literature is the place where two souls encounter each other”? For Du Bos, the “soul” meant the deepest part of the human person, thus implying that a great author speaks to the reader from that deepest dimension of the self; as a devotee of John Keats, he agreed that “life is a vale of soul-making.” For Du Bos, then, “great poetry is the expression of that to which the human soul responds and clings.” Perhaps the recent interest in requiring students to write “reflection” papers as well as analytical papers on literature might suggest that we are recovering this interest in the interpersonal dimension of literature. When a reader says that a poem or novel “speaks to me,” can we help them explore this encounter with the author and text by means of deep reflection?
Literature as emotional engagement and development of empathy
Beneath the interpersonal lies the personal emotion in the depths of the reader. Yet, as Felski notes, critics have made teachers too embarrassed to discuss the emotional responses of their students. Too often, this response goes only to the level of “I liked the poem.” However, Felski says that we must not forget that most students become emotionally engaged with some literature, even to the point of feeling “enchantment.” She rebuts critics who reduce such engaged emotional reading to lack of “aesthetic distance,” when she contests that “enchantment” is “potentially enlivening, energizing, even ethical, encouraging a stance of openness and generosity to the world” and thus avoiding “sinking us ever deeper into the void of a dispiriting, self-corroding skepticism.” In fact, she argues that such enchantment does not mean that students miss the literary texture because their emotional engagement drives them on to study more carefully the complexity of the text. The result is that they become “enchanted” with the means as well as the meaning of their emotional engagement. From such engagement, as we have noted above, readers also develop their emotional life to include an ethical dimension of empathy. Students of mine have recently surprised me by their reports of the emotional power of Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. As Glenn Arbery sums up this dimension of literature, “Poetic experience is a schooling of the emotions and feelings that give reason not only its warmth and pulse, but its general accuracy, so that the finest feeling is necessary for the most robust
Literature as an encounter with the spiritual or ultimate Mystery
Traditional literature has always included a variety of genres that embody for the reader the world of spiritual or ultimate meaning. Most literature began with scriptures, hymns, religious journeys, or rituals. Much literature from the medieval to the modern period used spiritual genres, as we see in the writings of mystics and the poetry of Donne, Herbert, the Romantics, Hopkins, Eliot, Levertov, and Cairns. This dimension tends to be lost to modern students when all literature is studied only as a social power struggle or a language game. Although, as Charles Taylor argued in A Secular Age, the modern period has become publicly a secular age with few common spiritual experiences for many, the spiritual potential of literature remains available to the open reader. The reader, however, must learn to be open to what Arbery calls “a kind of pure receptivity,” for “the beauty of form . . . cannot be made by human will and expectation. Something else—some super-added grace—must descend with the transformed matter.” Thus mentors find ways to open young readers to the final dimensions of what Dante called “spiritual” or “anagogical” levels of meaning. Even for persons without clear religious convictions, such readings of ultimate meaning can become at least understandable within a historical context, as teachers of medieval literature have found. In addition, Paul Ricoeur affirms the power of some literature to produce a “transfiguration” in the reader. Thus most students can engage with literature of ultimate meaning with at least an imaginative engagement with “how it feels” to experience a spiritual moment (e.g. Brothers Karamazov, Four Quartets, White Noise).
On the level of theory, we can make use of the metaphor of incarnation to explore this ultimate dimension of literature. As Charles Du Bos has written, “All literature is an incarnation . . . in the living flesh of words” as “the creative emotion incarnates itself in the form and there is the highest and most complete expression of the artist, thus the emotion has become flesh in words.” Thus, the student can follow this metaphor of incarnation to its source in theology and perhaps in human experience of the incarnation of the Word in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Studies of literature and theology have shown that the literature of ultimate Mystery includes not only this metaphor of incarnation but also archetypes of the journey, the cosmic battle, the mystical marriage, the transformation story, cosmic organicism, and silence.
If reading literature can bring alive the transformative journey of readers toward meaning of words and the Word, then there is deep resonance for us in the words of Glenn Arbery: “Literature matters because nothing can better approach the form . . . of life in its felt reality, as it is most deeply experienced, with an intelligence that increases in power the more it explores the unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering. Without being specifically religious in itself, [literature] can give an experience of ‘a common glory’ that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things are made.”
David Leigh, SJ is professor of English at Seattle University, where he teaches British literature and theology, and coordinates faculty development programs. He has published two books: Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography (2000) and Apocalypse in Twentieth-Century Fiction (2008).