Lit vs. the Evils of History–More Debate

Ciro Ferri, "Alexander the Great Reading Homer"

Ciro Ferri, “Alexander the Great Reading Homer”


Rummaging through my past files, I came across an article by Alberto Manguel written in 2012 that addresses some of the central concerns of this blog. I enthused about Manguel’s The Library at Night a few years ago, and he revisits some of those themes in his Salon piece.

As Manguel sees it, a central tension in literature is that, while it seems to make “nothing happen” (to quote Auden), it is absolutely vital in the struggle against tyranny.

Here’s Manguel making the case for the ineffectiveness of literature:

It is true that, confronted with the blind imbecility with which we try to destroy our planet, the relentlessness with which we inflict pain on ourselves and others, the extent of our greed and cowardice and envy, the arrogance with which we strut among our fellow living creatures, it is hard to believe that writing — literature or any other art, for that matter — teaches us anything. If after reading lines such as Philip Larkin’s “The trees are coming into leaf,/ Like something almost being said,” we are still capable of all such atrocities, then perhaps literature does make nothing happen.

But pushing against this seeming impotence is the way that literature reminds us, against all odds, of “hope and consolation and compassion”:

In at least one sense, however, all literature is civic action: Because it is memory. All literature preserves something which otherwise would die away with the flesh and bones of the writer. Reading is reclaiming the right to this human immortality, because the memory of writing is all-encompassing and limitless. Individually, humans can remember little: Even extraordinary memories such as that of Cyrus, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name, are nothing compared to the volumes that fill bookstores such as this one. Our books are accounts of our histories: Of our epiphanies and our atrocities. In that sense all literature is testimonial. But among the testimonies are reflections on those epiphanies and atrocities, words that offer the epiphanies for others to share, and words that surround and denounce the atrocities so that they are not allowed to take place in silence. They are reminders of better things, of hope and consolation and compassion, and hold the implication that of these too, we are all of us capable. Not all of these we achieve, and none of these we achieve all the time. But literature reminds us that they are there, these human qualities, following our horrors as certainly as birth succeeds death. They too define us.

If you want proof that literature is doing powerful work in the world, Manguel says, look at the dictators that have tried to stomp it out. Ultimately, literature has proved more durable than their achievements:

William Blake, speaking about Napoleon in a public address, had this to say: “Let us teach Buonaparte, and whosoever else it may concern, that it is not Arts that follow and attend upon Empire, but Empire that attends and follows the Arts.” Napoleon was not listening then, and minor Napoleons are not listening today. In spite of thousands of years of experience, the Napoleons of this world have not learned that their methods are ultimately ineffective, and that the literary imagination cannot be annihilated, because it is that imagination, and not the imagination of greed, that is the surviving reality. Augustus may have exiled Ovid because he knew (and was probably not mistaken) that something in the poet’s work accused him. Every day, somewhere in the world, someone attempts (sometimes successfully) to stifle a book which plainly or obscurely sounds a warning. And again and again, empires fall and literature continues. Ultimately, the imaginary places writers and their readers invent  — in the etymological sense of “to come upon,” “to discover” — persist at all because they are simply that which we should call reality, because they are the real world revealed under its true name. The rest, as we should have realized by now, is merely shadow without substance, the stuff of nightmares, and will vanish without a trace in the morning.

Manguel then quotes Don Quixote to give us a vision of how the realm of historical action and the realm of literature might interact to enrich each other:

In the second part of Don Quixote, the Duke tells Sancho that, as governor of the Isle of Barataria, he must dress the part: “Half as a man of letters and half as a military captain, because in this island which I bestow upon you arms are as necessary as letters and letters as arms.” In saying this, the Duke not only refutes the classical dichotomy but also defines the obligatory concerns of every governor, if we understand the one to mean action and the other reflection. Our actions must be justified by our literature and our literature must bear witness to our actions. Therefore to act as citizens, in times of peace as in times of war, is in some sense an extension of our reading, since our books hold the possibility of guiding us through the experience and knowledge of others, allowing us the intuition of the uncertain future and the lesson of an immutable past.

I think Manguel gets its ideas jumbled a bit at this point in the essay since he goes on to mention world leaders whose bloody thoughts have not been tempered by the literature they have read. In other words, they have not been half men of letters, half military captains as envisioned by the Duke. Reading Homer’s vivid descriptions of “the suffering caused by war” didn’t deter Alexander from pursuing his bloody dreams. The captain and the man of letters were at odds, and the Greek leader did not act as a “citizen” who felt that his actions must be “justified” (whatever that means) by The Iliad:

We are like the young Alexander who, on the one hand, dreamt of bloody wars of conquest and, on the other, always carried with him Homer’s books that spoke of the suffering caused by war and the longing for Ithaca. Like the Greeks, we allow ourselves to be governed by sick and greedy individuals for whom death is unimportant because it happens to others, and in book after book we attempt to put into words our profound conviction that it should not be so. All our acts (even amorous acts) are violent and all our arts (even those that describe such acts) contradict that violence. Our world exists in the tension between these two states.

So what’s it to be, the two at odds or the two working off each other in constructive ways? Manguel may raise the prospect of the first but, in the end, he seems to see literature as always performing a rearguard action, pointing to the ambiguities of history while policy makers strive to reduce issues to black and white:

Today, as we witness absurd wars wished upon us less from a desire for justice than from economic lust, our books may perhaps help to remind us that divisions between the good and the bad, just and unjust, them and us, is far less clear than political speeches make them out to be. The reality of literature (which ultimately holds the little wisdom allowed us) is intimately ambiguous, exists in a vast spectrum of tones and colours, is fragmented, ever-changing, never sides entirely with anyone, however heroic the character may seem. In our literary knowledge of the world, we intuit that even God is not unimpeachable; far less our beloved Andromaque, Parzifal, Alice, Candide, Bartleby, Gregor Samsa, Alonso Quijano.

Manguel isn’t wrong here. But from his example of Sancho Panza, I was hoping for a bit more—that he would show that literature, rather than always being inexorably at odds with politicians, could also enter the world of policymaking in progressive ways. He hints at such a role in his concluding paragraph but is rather vague about it:

[T]hat essential ambiguity of literature is neither arbitrary nor unclear. Praising the supposed Arabic author of “Don Quixote” for the excellencies of his story, Cervantes has this to say: “The book depicts thoughts, unveils imaginings, answers unspoken questions, clarifies doubts, resolves arguments, and finally reveals the very atoms of the most curiosity-driven desire.” In times of crisis, real or invented, almost any book, any real book, can accomplish for us all these things as well. Perhaps in this lies our hope.

How exactly does Manguel think that literature, as it “depicts thoughts, unveils imaginings, answers unspoken questions, clarifies doubts, resolves arguments,” will help us with our times of crisis? I suggest he read Percy Shelley’s Defense of Poetry where he argues that poets, those unacknowledged legislators of the world, have helped bring about the world’s great progressive advances. Manguel, however, does no more than elide “real” and “invented” without showing what hope will look like. He doesn’t offer any concrete examples.

Better Living through Beowulf, of course, is dedicated to finding such concrete examples. I’m grateful to Manguel, however, for helping me further set up the framework in which such a search can be conducted, even if he doesn’t go further.

Further thought: In his Alexander the Great example, Manguel doesn’t consider the possibility that The Iliad actually bolstered Alexander in his bloodthirsty ambitions. Homer’s work  points to the glories of military conquest as well as the suffering of war. In a blog last week I debated with a friend whether literature can actually have a deleterious effect, functioning as a force for evil as well as good. The same is true of religion and, for that matter, Reason.

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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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