Does Studying Lit Truly Change Things?

A Scholar In His Study Reading - (after) Willem Van Drielenburg

A Scholar In His Study Reading – (after) Willem Van Drielenburg


 At the moment I am reading all the theorists I can find who have discussed literature’s impact on history. As I venture into F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny school, I am discovering why I think about literature the way I do. I rely heavily on Terry Eagleton’s description and critique of them in Literary Theory: An Introduction. 

According to Eagleton,

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation. Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence—what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values—were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

 If this your vision of literature, as it is mine, Eagleton explains why we have this view of it:

English students in England today are “Leavisites” whether they know it or not…There is no more need to be a card-carrying Leavisite today than there is to be a card-carrying Copernican: that current has entered the bloodstream of English studies in England as Copernicus reshaped our astronomical beliefs, has become a form of spontaneous critical wisdom as deep-seated as our conviction that the earth moves round the sun.

I add that Leavis has bestowed the same legacy on American English departments.

One reason we are Leavisites is because of our emphasis on close textual reading. Under Leavis, literary criticism, which had once been regarded as a mere matter of taste, became “rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to the ‘words on the page.’” Channeling Leavis’s view Eagleton notes,

Literature was important not only in itself, but because it encapsulated creative energies which were everywhere on the defensive in modern “commercial” society. In literature, and perhaps in literature alone, a vital feel for the creative uses of language was still manifest, in contrast to the philistine devaluing of language and traditional culture blatantly apparent in “mass society.” The quality of a society’s language was the most telling index of the quality of its personal and social life: a society which had ceased to value literature was one lethally closed to the impulses which had created and sustained the best of human civilization. 

As Eagleton describes the Leavisites, they sound very much in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, the subject of a post last week.

After having acknowledged their contribution, Eagleton then proceeds to take them apart, especially for their grandiose claims about literature. Since I too argue for literature’s foundational importance, it’s important for me to grapple with Eagleton’s criticisms.

He mocks, for instance, the idea that literature can truly change society. What is needed for social transformation, he observes, goes far beyond “a sensitive reading of King Lear”:

The whole Scrutiny project was at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd. As one commentator [Iain Wright] has shrewdly put it, the Decline of the West was felt to be avertible by close reading.

A skeptical and sarcastic Eagleton goes on to ask,

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James. The Scrutiny case was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College.

Eagleton then adds another wrinkle. What about abhorrent people who have actually read the classics:

For if not all of those who could not recognize an enjambement were nasty and brutish, not all of those who could were morally pure. Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer…to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had wiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.

Eagleton’s questions present me with some real challenges. While I don’t share the Leavisites’ longing for a preindustrial organic society nor their aversion (which they share with Arnold) for the working class, I do believe that literature can put us in touch with deep and liberating energies. When we are in the presence of great literature, I believe that we sense the potential for self-actualization that resides within human beings.

Because my politics are progressive, like Shelley’s and Eagleton’s, I think that literature points to a fully egalitarian world (although I don’t have Shelley’s or Marx’s full confidence that we will one day achieve it). I also think that close textual reading—paying attention to the words on the page—is a profitable exercise that helps unleash literature’s power. When I teach my literature classes, I listen carefully to my students’ responses and urge them to undertake a disciplined exploration of life-affirming issues that the work raises for them. Over the past six years in this blog, I have described many instances of students using literature to grapple with vexing questions and overcome internal blockages.

What about those concentration camp commandants reading Goethe? Of course I think they are misreading him, using him as a symbol of German greatness to affirm their sense of their own superiority. (Apparently some listened to Beethoven for the same reason.) There is no doubt that Goethe prompts the spirit to swell, but in their case the swelling led to actions that violated everything the great Enlightenment thinker believed in.

Goethe is far from the only author whose work has been misinterpreted. The great Serbian epic poem The Battle of Kosovo was used centuries later to justify the massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Pride and Prejudice has prompted some women to conclude that they can be happy only if they marry a Darcy.

Maybe literature is like religion, a powerful energy that, because it is powerful, can be used for good or bad. The words of Jesus Christ have been used to end slavery and they have been used to justify the burning of heretics (“If a man abides not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”). I feel confident that I am more in touch with the true spirit of Jesus and Goethe than are the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis but I know that I need more than religion and literature to make my case. Which leads me to Eagleton’s other point.

Yes, there is more to life than literature and one doesn’t have to be a reader to be a decent person. Nor does one need a liberal arts education or, for that matter, a college degree. If the Leavisites overestimate the importance of literature—and if I do as well—it’s because we can’t imagine life without it. Eagleton is right to puncture overly inflated claims.

But that being acknowledged, literature is also a huge boon to humankind, and people who don’t have it are missing something that would nourish and enlighten them, that would make their world bigger. The same is true of all the liberal arts and I won’t argue here for the primacy of any one of them. But it seems to me undeniably the case that, when our worlds are smaller, we are more likely to be preyed upon by our fears and to lash out in anger, with all the mayhem and destruction that that entails.

So yes, literature doesn’t automatically make us better people; yes, literature can be misused; and yes, literature is not the saving grace for all our troubles. But a world without literature would be a desolate place.

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  • Derrick Early

    Kitcher has an excellent chapter on this topic in his book Life after Faith.

  • Robin

    I’ll track this down, Derrick.


  • 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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