Monday, August 07, 2017

`Its Sense of Human Experience'

“What makes a work literary in the first place is that it is of interest outside the context of its origin.”

Which is why we still read poems about a Bronze Age siege and a Scottish king’s domestic troubles. I once told a fellow reporter she could learn more about the first Gulf War by reading The Iliad than from reading the Times and watching Wolf Blitzer. I half-believed what I was saying, but she didn’t argue, bought a copy of Robert Fitzgerald’s Iliad, read it and even thanked me. Here’s how Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro develop the idea in Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2017):

“Dickens and Tolstoy have important things to say to us even if we don’t care about nineteenth-century Europe and Russia. Gibbons’s [sic] Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has long been outdated as a source for understanding ancient and medieval history, but it is still read—as literature—for its insights into human nature, its sense of human experience, its sardonic vision of the historical process, and the inimitable style with which it is expressed. Herodotus’s Histories and Boswell’s Life of Johnson, though originally offered for their factual content, survive as literature for much the same reasons. And although the great novelists do indeed document their times, that is usually not what makes them great novelists.”

Morson and Schapiro are precisely accurate in their understanding but unlikely to persuade a skeptical soul. Why do some of us recognize works of literature and pursue them for that reason, while others run away? It has nothing to do with virtue or smarts.   It may come down to what Louis Armstrong is supposed to have said about jazz: If you have to ask what literature is, and why anyone would want to read it, there’s a good chance you’ll never know. In schools, as Morson and Schapiro point out, literature is “reduced to a simple message”:

“A student explained to Morson that she didn’t see the point of reading Huckleberry Finn if all it told her was (as she had been taught) that `slavery is wrong.’ Surely, she knew that before; and if that is all the book amounted to, she would be right to think it a waste of time.”

Morson teaches Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, where Schapiro is the president and a professor of economics. This is the first book about economics I have read (as literature) since The Wealth of Nations in 1972. I’m not a critic and have no interest in defensively formulating theories about literature. The definition my late friend David Myers came up with some years ago seems to work pretty well: “Literature is simply good writing—where `good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.”

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