Can Lit Also Be a Force for Evil? A Debate

"Napoleon Reading"

“Napoleon Reading”


In today’s post I summarize a debate I had earlier in the week with novelist Rachel Kranz, my best friend from college (aside from my wife). I had shared my view with Rachel about how literature liberates us by giving voice to worlds and possibilities that we don’t have words for. Rachel didn’t disagree that literature plays this role, but she accused me of underestimating literature’s negative dimension: stories are so powerful that they can also blind us to possibilities.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a work we frequently disagree about. Whereas I see the novel, especially the figure of Elizabeth Bennet, as a boost to female empowerment, Rachel sees it as reinforcing the age-old story that a young woman’s major purpose in life is to land a highly desirable man. The very fact that a strong and self-assured woman like Elizabeth would buy into this drama—in the novel’s final pages she’s even apologizing for her previous assertiveness and censoring her satiric tongue—makes it even worse. Because of romances like Pride and Prejudice, we feel that our lives are failures if they end up differently.

My counterargument was one that I use for virtually all of the classics: we should minimize the local prejudices of the time when we judge a work and focus rather on the vision of liberation that shines through. Thus, in my view, Austen’s vision of a strong woman far outweighs her conventional marriage plot. Or to cite another example that Rachel and I discussed, Shakespeare’s momentary vision of same sex partnerships in Twelfth Night far outweighs the play’s conventional ending, where heterosexual relationships are restored while the homosexual Antonio is marginalized.

In my defense of Pride and Prejudice, I cited Azar Nafisi’s students in Reading Lolita in Tehran, where the figure of Elizabeth Bennet deciding her own fate helped them maintain a sense of self as they were forced to don the veil. With Twelfth Night, I could have mentioned a once-closeted friend who, during her childhood, felt affirmed by Viola talking about how she would make love to a woman.

Again, Rachel didn’t entirely disagree. But she noted how suffocated she feels, as a writer, in creating women characters who can’t leave the marriage plot behind or venture out into the world with their own mission. In past discussions she has noted that she’s not the only one. Why did George Eliot, as independent a woman as one will find in the 19th century, create in Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooks a figure who looks always looks to men to achieve a higher destiny. Why does Ursula LeGuin, a self-aware feminist, have a male protagonist in the Earth Sea Trilogy? Why is Harry Potter rather than Hermione Granger the protagonist in J. K. Rowling’s books?

For that matter, Rachel asks, why, in her own first novel Leaps of Faith and in the sequel that she is on the verge of completing, can she create quest stories for her male characters but not for her female characters? As much as she loves literature, she says, she feels stymied by a tradition that seems to close off certain futures.

I mention as an aside a student of mine who is currently grappling with exactly this issue. Allison Riehl is writing about young adult literature that addresses death, and she is discovering that the death of girls often serves as a launching pad for male identity quests. One can see this dynamic working itself out in little Nell (Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop), Annabel Lee (Poe’s poem), and Little Eva (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). I’ll write in more detail about Allison’s project later, but, to cite one modern example, in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia Leslie seems to be put on earth just in order to help Jesse grow up. Once she has set him on his way, she dies and he must put into practice the lessons she has taught him. She doesn’t appear to have a journey of her own.

I tend to approach life with a glass-half-full attitude, perhaps the result of privilege, but am willing to reexamine my assumptions here. Should I be more sympathetic to Plato’s critique of Homer’s bad influence and more critical of Aristotle’s uncritical praise of catharsis? Should I be suspicious of Sir Philip Sidney’s assumption that literature automatically engenders virtue in its readers? And how about Shelley’s assertion that the greatest poets are the unacknowledged legislators of civilization’s great advances?

Perhaps I should be looking at literary power the way I look at spirituality—in the right hands capable of doing great good but also susceptible to corruption by evil minds.

In short, can even a great classic have ill effects? You’ll be hearing more from me on this.

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  • Rachel Kranz

    Great summary, Robin! Brecht was certainly critical of catharsis (to take a random example! 😉 ). He felt that by allowing audiences to focus on pity and terror, classical theater allowed them to reconcile themselves to the world as it was. “Poor Lear–isn’t life awful sometimes–well, let’s go home now,” is the extremely caricatured version of that view. As opposed to a theater that would spur you to say, “Wait a minute–that’s not right–it shouldn’t be that way–I’ve never noticed that before, but now I see that it’s a problem.” He wanted to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange…that is, you’d see ordinary injustice, that seems normal and natural to you (date rape, domestic violence, prison, police violence, transphobia), and suddenly, it would look strange to you, and you’d wonder how you could ever have thought it was okay. And you’d see new possibilities that seemed impossibly out of bounds (police who DON’T behave badly, trans ppl accepted, women free of fear), and suddenly, they would seem possible. And, in theory, that would spur you to action, instead of enabling you to go on living in an injurious world.

    FWIW, I don’t think either in “Twelfth Night” or in “Pride & Prejudice,” it’s as simple as things opening up and then closing down. It’s that the story DEMANDS its limits even while breaking your heart with their opposite. For Elizabeth Bennett to be happy, she must recognize her very assertiveness as “pride” and “prejudice”–as her resistance to Darcy, and thus to her own truest feelings of love for him. The whole plot depends on her disowning her objections to him AS HER TRUEST SELF-KNOWLEDGE. (That’s Tania Modlewska’s argument.)

    In “Twelfth Night,” men violently and painfully reject their homosexual/like partners. Sebastian literally refuses to recognize Antonio (it’s Viola who doesn’t recognize him, but the image of a man saying, “Don’t you know me? Don’t you remember all the nice things I did for you?” and the other ‘man’ saying, “No, I’ve never seen you before” seems VERY resonant for homosexual experience). Toby cruelly insults Sir Andrew in order to break with him and marry Maria. Those are really painful moments (although most productions rush over them or take them at face value–and Shakespeare does allow you to ignore the homosexual subtext if you want to, which is sort of the point). The IMPOSSIBILITY of same-sex love is what makes the story work, which gives same-sex lovers a place to put their feelings but also a way to accept their inevitable defeat (both Sebastian and Toby marry women; Viola rejects Olivia; the Duke leaves Viola in boy’s clothing, making you wonder what kind of partner he REALLY wants; the play ends with Antonio still in chains).

    However, we take our liberating moments where we can find them, and I fully agree that generations of readers, myself included, make what we can out of the “scraps” we’re given. Or, much more fairly, out of the glimpses of liberation that we’re given–just, as a girl DESPERATE for girls to identify with in my early reading days, it often FELT like scraps, and you had to pretend you didn’t really notice that all the girls were pretty, and so many of them weren’t as important as the boys (like Hermione). Certainly lesbian & gay readers made entire lives looking for homosexual subtext and enjoying oblique images (“The Celluloid Closet” talks about that in the movies).

    As a critic dealing with a single work, you say one thing. As a reader, making what you can from the work available to you, you say something else. As an analyst, looking at the whole of literature, you say yet another thing. And as a writer trying to push things forward, you make yet another kind of argument.

    In this way, talking about literature is not unlike talking about capitalism. 😀 You can’t ever just say, “It’s good” or “it’s bad” and expect to have said anything very useful. You can’t just make a list of “good stuff” and “bad stuff,” either. You have to look at the whole dynamic…and then which question you ask next (“How did it get that way?” “What impact did it have?” “How could it be different?” “Could anything be better?”) depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

  • Carl

    Love this erudite, thoughtful discussion — thanks to you both. This addresses the key element of literature instruction and, of course, the thesis of Robin’s blog. I wish more teachers engaged this as a critical, authentic question that is interwoven with Shelley’s sparklingly controversial assertion that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

    In my high school classroom, I tell my students that my goal is not to teach them about A Book, but to illuminate how literature teaches us all about human nature. “Few of you will be professors of English,” I say, “but all of you will be humans who will benefit from understanding human nature, with all its virtues and flaws and possibilities.”

    To that end, I especially enjoy working with them through challenging texts that are dissonant with various narratives. Robin has often considered this with regard to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (as have I, thanks to his platform) and oh-so-many other texts.

    One of my favorite examples involves Tobias Wolff’s brilliant memoir, This Boy’s Life, which a former colleague of mine once criticized me for selecting because she felt that Wolff seemed to revel in and get away with immoral acts, in a way that seemed to condone those acts to easily-influenceable readers. Does Wolff’s skillful book disqualify itself from curricular use because it espouses an inappropriate position? I use her opposition to the selection — via a mocked-up letter that mirrors her complaints — for an assessment that challenges my students to support, refute, or qualify her position. Something similar can be (and has been) done with works ranging from Merchant of Venice to Of Mice and Men (I’ve done that one) to dozens of other major works that reach sharply and politically into society and human nature.

    This is not to say that the traditional “qualities” of literature-instruction — close-reading, use of imagery and diction and character-development to construct theses about themes, etc. — are not also crucial focuses; it would be a false dilemma to say that one approach necessarily crowds out the other. Indeed, your debate here demonstrates intelligently political theses AND thorough, adroit critical consideration of the texts themselves. I have found success and joy in my classes when we approach through the big issues and using that momentum to lend authoritativeness to the development of those skill-oriented qualities, instead of the other way around.

    (By the way, an op-ed by private-school teacher Helaine Smith appeared in the Oct. 22 Wall Street Journal [paywall], promoting an opposite direction. I would call Smith’s thesis reductive, in its apparent assumption that any consideration of politics is necessarily anti-skills or an unhelpful distraction; I dispute her conclusion strongly, even as I completely agree with her about the primacy of critical thinking and the reliance on evidence instead of agenda. This is a topic for another day….)

  • Robin

    Thanks, Rachel and Carl. These two replies are so rich that I think I’ll need to write a full post to do justice to them. More to come.

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  • The first text I have read recently which seemed to consider a female epic as something different than just a young woman following a coming-of-age path in a skirt was a graphic novel: Strong Female Protagonist. Our hero, Allie, has given up her superpower status to attend college. It does not go as planned-she become secret friends with a supervillain and considers the justice missing in a world that survives on the efforts of a few super-gifted heroes to save them. How does that create a better world? She is more interested in progress, change, than she is in her own legacy. I am not sure her male counterparts would have even considered the question.
    I am not sure if the series will keep up the quality it has now, but I certainly found myself applauding the questions Allie asks. I would have asked them too.
    P.S. SFP is drawn by a woman, but written by a man.

  • Robin

    Sorry for the late reply, Leslie. I think it interesting how sometimes less respected literary forms (although the graphic novel is rising in respectability) chart new paths before other authors do so. Science fiction and fantasy have done so as well. Anyway, I will check this out.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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