Over the years, the potboiler fiction and cheap movies have pretty much disappeared from my radar. As I have often remarked in this blog, reading great works of literature, and watching movies that are about the human condition, help me with trying to understand the "other," which is pretty much everybody other than me. In the process, I begin to understand myself too.
I have also blogged often that my intuitive, personal-observation-based, view is that despite the fact that we are more educated than ever before, we are reading less of literature. I routinely poll students in my classes about a few classics that I expect to appeal to young readers in particular (like Fahrenheit 451) and the response is always discouraging. For that matter, even my faculty colleagues seem to be unfamiliar and uninterested in some of the great works. Yet, these very faculty can be all high and mighty defending the value of the humanities. WTF, right?
Many humanists have difficulty in presenting their case because they are used to speaking one way among themselves and another way to outsiders. To the public at large, they still make statements about the value of great books, of the noblest things said by the most brilliant minds and of the need to know the Western heritage. Among themselves, such talk is, at best, hopelessly dated. Perhaps one reason literary scholars make an unconvincing case to outsiders is that they do not believe it themselves.How unfortunate!
Students often come to college without having any grasp of what reading great works entails. Their AP and other exams test knowledge of facts about literature, not actually understanding it. Classes teach them to hunt for symbols, to judge writers according to current values, or to treat masterpieces as mere documents of their times. The first method makes reading into a form of puzzle solving, the second allows us to compliment ourselves on our advanced views, and the third misses the point that great literature speaks outside the context of its origin. Tolstoy is not great because he tells us about czarist Russia or the Napoleonic wars.
Here’s an alternative approach: Why not approach great literature as a source of wisdom that cannot be obtained, or obtained so well, elsewhere?Exactly! This is exactly what I have been talking about, and practicing, for years now.
And great writers present ethical questions with a richness and depth that make other treatments look schematic and simplistic.Moreover, great literature, experienced and taught the right way, involves practice in empathy. When we read a great novel, we identify with the heroine. We put ourselves in her place, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become our bad choices. Even when we do not like her, we may wince, suffer, put the book down for a while. The process of identification, feeling and examination of feeling may happen not just once but, in the course of a long novel, thousands of times. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as this constant practice in ethical thought or that direct sensation, felt over and over again, of being in the other person’s place.Seriously, isn't it tragic that these are not self-evident, and that the president of Northwestern University and his faculty colleague there have to write a commentary to remind higher education professionals about these?
The most important lesson novels teach is not a fact or a message but the skill of empathy and of seeing the world from other points of view. Practiced often enough, that skill can become a habit.
Empathy does not come easily to us. We need to learn about it, and experience it over and over. We learn and experience empathy through the profound works of literature. I still remember feeling devastated after reading A farewell to arms. As I noted in a post:
Felt so empty inside when it ended that I had to wait out a couple of days before blogging this.Empathy, dear reader, for this fictional character leads to empathy for the real ones in the real world.
Hemingway simply sucked everything out of me with the anti-war story where the American protagonist signs up to serve in the medical corps of the Italian army in order to fight the good war, ends up deserting that only to have the military come after him because of his AWOL status as an officer, flees to neutral Switzerland with his British "wife" who is pregnant ... and then Hemingway lets the wife die after a difficult birth of a stillborn child. That is simply too cruel!
What could be more important, for ethical and social understanding, than the ability to grasp what it is like to be someone from a different culture, period, social class, gender, religion or personality type? And one learns why even those broad categories won’t do, because one senses what it is like to be a particular other person. And that, too, is an important lesson: no one experiences the world in quite the same way as anyone else.
If we could more easily put ourselves in the position of others and put on a set of glasses to see the world in their way, we might very well, when those glasses are off, still not share their beliefs. But we will at least understand people better, negotiate with them more effectively, or guess what measures are likely to work. Just as important, we will have enlarged our sense of what it is to be human. No longer imprisoned in our own culture and moment, or mistaking our local and current values for only possible ones, we will recognize our beliefs as one of many possibilities -- not as something inevitable, but as a choice.