I Will Survive…by Reading Novels

Jacquelyn Bischak - Woman reading by the window

Jacquelyn Bischak – Woman reading by the window

Wednesday

Yesterday my colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black alerted me to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about “The Novel as a Tool for Survival.” It’s a bit tangled as it gets bogged down in digressions and qualifications, but I’ve extracted its argument about survival.

Author Arthur Krystal notes that society must repress certain primitive desires in order to exist, and he points out that these primitive desires show up in literature. A balancing act is required if we are to honor both our own drives and society’s requirements, and the best literature captures and honors that tension. Here’s Krystal describing the tension:

For just as no society can survive if it allows the darker facets of our nature to surface, no society can truly function if it disowns the human impulses that helped establish it. By imposing order, we compensate for the impulse to create disorder….[T]he tension between individual freedom and the society that seeks to protect that freedom is embedded in the moral and legal restraints that, in effect, repress the energies that originally ushered them into existence. 

The novel excels above all other literary forms in capturing this internal conflict, Krystal says:

Fiction, speaking very generally, is about the individual in society, about the expectations and conflicts that color a life when an obdurate reality stands in the way of one’s self-image or desires.

And further on:

[L]iterature, when undertaken seriously, is a celebration not of life but of awareness, an awareness of the human condition, which is both communal and individual and inevitably strikes a balance, palpable or barely perceptible, between the two. Each of us, then, is a fulcrum where the private and the public meet, where inner and other-directed yearnings sometimes clash. Literature gets written because of this, and what we understand and love in it, as Erich Auerbach wrote, “is a human existence, a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves.”

As one who writes daily blog posts about “how great literature can change your life,” my ears perked up at the idea of literature leading to modification. Krystal, however, is vague and seems more interested in how literature lead us to awareness than in how it prompts us to act differently. Still, I find useful how he shows literature getting to show what else is possible in the world. It shows us not only where we are but what we could become:

By informing how we live and how we might live, the novel became the vehicle of our discontent. It allowed our suffering and suggested we had cause to suffer, and, if I may reach a bit, helped us survive. In its own formative way, literature is an adaptive tool that keeps pace with the small and gradual gestations of the human mind. Although a great novel can be a loose, baggy monster or as spare as a lama’s bedroom, its literary status rests on an ability to imagine the lives of men and women in light of the societal conditions that animate them. If it works, if it’s serious, the narrative — whatever form it takes — edges ineluctably toward a realism in which individual destiny has meaning (even when it’s represented to have none).

I don’t have Krystal’s hesitations about “reach[ing] a bit,” and I wish that he would spell out what he means about “small and gradual gestations of the human mind.” Does Krystal mean that great novels help us negotiate the relationship between changing ideas of self and changing social pressures? He seems to be getting at something along the lines when he writes,

Literature is where we go to identify ourselves, where we shake off outmoded attitudes and beliefs, where we pause to evaluate our progress.

I want to hear more. I see how shaking off old attitudes and beliefs and pausing to evaluate can potentially lead to our modifying our behavior. I’d just like more tangible examples. Instead, Krystal retreats back into the intellectual insights that literature offers.

Maybe he provides more concrete examples in his forthcoming book, This Thing Called Literature.

Aside from these objections, however, I agree with Krystal that great literature explores reality and gives us “an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity.” The best modification must proceed on the basis of truth:

The only mandate here is one of exploration. Writers have an obligation to interrogate reality, to make sure that our relation to the world is or is not what it appears to be. This sounds rather grand but can be accomplished in a number of ways: through layered Shakespearean rhetoric, nuanced Chekhovian observation, lengthy Proustian ruminations, collagist Joycean soliloquies, or minimalist Carveresque touches. What it boils down to is an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity, which, if we’re honest, contains a good dose of ignorance. What are we or the universe doing here? What is the meaning of existence? In this capacity, literature is, at bottom, a wondering, an attempt to get to the bottom of things, or, at least, a faithful, if oblique, portrayal of how things are. 

Sifting through Krystal’s digressions, I find a few more statements about how great literature helps us survive. For instance, he quotes Terry Eagleton about how literature can help us “live authentically”:

“To live in an awareness of our mortality is to live with realism, irony, truthfulness, and a chastening sense of our finitude and fragility. In this respect at least, to keep faith with what is most animal about us is to live authentically.”

Further on, Krystal writes,

[L]iterature could not in good conscience be seen as arbitrary but rather as something that answers a basic human need: It’s part of the civilizing process, it helps us to thrive.

And:

[L]iterature makes life more manageable; …[I]t speaks to us in the way we speak to one another; it’s the self-conscious repository of consciousness. 

As I say, I’d like more concrete examples. But if you don’t mind wading through tangled prose, it’s worth reading.

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