Saturday, September 28, 2019
Can We Learn From Fiction: Some Back And Forth
I was sceptical of the idea that there was a significant relationship between fictions and faith, but now I might agree. I believe we do not learn anything from fictions, from Antony and Cleopatra or Madame Bovary. Nor from TV soap operas or Harelequin romances. Many works are didactic and intend to teach, but there it is clear what and how they teach. The work illustrates the idea to be taught. I don't think it makes what is taught true, just illustrates a truth already known, like Plato's Cave Allegory. However, great works offer an intense experience, and that makes us believe that behind it there is something deep, significant. That is what happens I would guess in ritual dances and singing, during the mass, in hymn singing, etc. They offer an experience that transcends one's self. Mystics have other ways of doing it, but the result is the same, a sense of transcendence.
A few points:
Didactic works apart, works of literature do teach us various kinds of things. Take Huck Finn, for example. Among others things, we learn about social formation as we see how Huck’s surroundings impinge on him so decisively; and another one we learn is about the contrast between a kind of isolated purity against corrupt and corrupting deeply embedded social convention that exerts such powerful formative influence; and, too, we learn how a society can be marked lousy by its deepest pervasive rot. Multiply these kinds of lessons by every worthwhile piece of fiction and drama and poem ever written, long and short, and lo and behold, learning galore. Contrary to what you say, as I take it.
Another thing we can learn from is the recreation of common scenes, as in visual art, so that we understand in them in new and vivid ways and keep for as long we have memory, like Wordsworth’s wandering lonely as a cloud, and then seeing a field of daffodils, or Milton’s “still doth sway” as a way of seeing motion in rootedness, or Stevens’s depiction of a bare wintry scene. Multiply these recreations of common scenes by every recreation in every worthwhile poem and every worthwhile piece of prose. And, you guessed it, learning galore.
And all this learning is without mentioning the ideas lurking within these recreations when they’re there. From the plainest single insight to entire cosmic systems such as Blake’s transvaluation of Christian values.
That is all on top of, or, rather, the culmination of, the intense experiences of which you speak as we try to think through what they mean.
Another point applies both to didactic and non didactic works: we, in the way I’m arguing for what constitutes learning from literature, always learn something new from both types of work. Every exemplum of some common sense point—“haste make waste,” “look before you leap,” “slow and steady wins the race”—teaches us something new, adds texture and depth to the point. Similarly but exponentially richer and more complex is that kind of learning from worthwhile works.
So all of that takes me to your final point, faith and fiction, as I have it. As I have it, the sense that we’re in the presence of something deeply significant when literature has provided us with an intense experience, that sense is a matter of belief hence faith. And people have, you suggest, a similar sense, intuition?, when they’re in the midst of some deep going ritual related to their faith or related to their belief, their faith that is to say, in something beyond themselves.
If I have that right, I, for one, discount any such significant relationship. My main reason is that being in the midst of such rituals comprises a, so to say, letting go of intellect and subordinating it to an emotional immersion, something shot through with faith from first to last. That exercise in faith doesn’t in the nature of things raise up reflection about it.
That faith, like The Dude, abides.
In reading great works, however, under the umbrella of our “suspension of disbelief” there are number of differentiations from ritual immersion.
One is that in reading we’re not throwing the entirely of our beings into something in a way that suppresses our intellect.
Another is that in reading, something dialectical is going on, an evolving synthesis between what we’re imaginatively taking for granted and between our rational assessment of what we’re reading every step of the way. For it’s only that that allows us to emerge, as we invariably do, from what we’ve read with a critical assessment of it.
Still another is that that assessment involves a comparison between what we’ve read and what life is like, whereas immersive experience does not involve that comparison at all.
An iteration or supplement to that last point is, as I’ve suggested, that immersive involvement in rituals pointing and connecting adherents to the believed-in transcendent does not invite reflection on the experience, while the intense experience gotten from reading, a different order of intense experience btw, invariably invites such reflection: it’s institutionalized in a machinery that encompasses a spectrum ranging from book reviewing to the entirety of the academic discipline of literature.
Of course, the most obvious difference is that the religious hold that that what they believe in is true. Literature readers know that what they’re reading isn’t.
There are many such notable markers of difference but I’ll just mention one more: the faiths are qualitatively different. Religious faith underlies, pervades and informs the rituals that point and connect believers to the divine. The faith you speak of in the reading great literature is much thinner and immensely less significant. It’s our intuition, belief, in a word faith—stipulating to your characterization for argument’s sake—that because we’ve had an intense reaction to what we’ve read there must be something deep and significant “behind it”—your words.
You didn't know before you read Huck Finn that "surroundings impinge . . . decisively" on people? But of course I know that is not what you said---somehow.
Plato knew it. In a late book of Republic he has a brilliant chapter on how certain kinds of societies (aristocratic, democratic, oligarchic) produce different kinds of people. And that idea is one of the dominant ideas of our age, culture shapes people. Reading Huck Finn you recognize that Huck is being shaped, you don't learn it and you respond emotionally to the particulars of his fate,
Learn, recognize—you’re splitting semantic hairs and not understanding me.
What I learn from Huck Finn, among many, many other things, is something I didn’t know before, an example of how that boy could be deformed in those social circumstances and how he could be reformed being away from them and in another set of circumstances, namely on the raft with Jim, and then again deformed. What I learned in reading that, then thinking about it and coming to some judgments about it, I took with me to the world. And some bland, bare notion of how convention affects us, how our environments affects us, got brilliant depth and texture in filling in that bare notion. If that’s not learning something, being taught something, then I have to wonder what as a prof you were doing in front of a classrooms all those years.
And another obvious thing: Huck Finn is a thing in the world—like a rock or a bird or a bacteria—and I learned about it, something I’d never known till I read it. And that surely is learning about the world.
So, in sum, I leaned more and something new about the world in virtue of simply experiencing the book, and in doing that I learned all kinds of things, such as I have mentioned, that the book has to teach me.
Not for nothing was I instructed and delighted.