A Cosmic Theory of Literature

Mary Ferris Kelly, "Woman Reading in a Study"

Mary Ferris Kelly, “Woman Reading in a Study”


A couple of weeks ago I promised a follow-up post on a topic that elicited thoughtful responses from friends. The question was whether literature can be a force for evil as well as for good. And by literature I mean high quality literature since I have no doubt that bad literature can have very bad effects (e.g. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged inspiring certain rightwing lawmakers to attack the social safety net).

I asked the question hoping for a negative answer. If a work is truly great, I want to believe, it can be used for ill only if perverse readers twist it to their own ends. (Say, Nazi concentration camp commandants reading Goethe to reaffirm their sense of German superiority, even though nothing in Goethe would sanction the Holocaust.) So I have to qualify my defense of quality literature with the stipulation that it be correctly read.

I’ll touch on the question of correct reading in a future post. Today I want to speculate about literature’s underlying impulse. Two possibilities seem before us: either (1) great literature is intrinsically a force for good or (2) such literature is simply a force that, like any powerful force, is good when it is used well and bad when it is used badly. If the latter, then my friend Rachel Kranz has a powerful case when she argues that even classic works of literature like Pride and Prejudice and Twelfth Night, are instances of the force being used badly.

As Rachel wrote in response to my post, both works are predicated on what we today would consider oppression. Elizabeth Bennet’s pride and prejudice are her female assertiveness, which must be tamed if she is achieve the end that we the readers desire: marriage to Darcy. Twelfth Night’s message, meanwhile, is that people must push under their homosexual desires, even though it may be painful to do so.

In other words, rather than seeing the works as centuries ahead of their time in the way that they open up new possibilities (strong women, same sex desire), they must be seen as quelling those very possibilities.

My own argument was that, simply by acknowledging new possibilities, the works have set new forces into play, even if they can’t—for historical reasons—outwardly endorse them. I don’t know who is right but, in defense of my position, I’m going to sketch out my vision of literature generally.

As I see it, all great literature honors the human. As Terence puts it,  “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” I don’t know Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, which Carl Rosen mentions in his response to my post, but if it genuinely honors the humans engaged in the “immoral acts” (rather than, say, sensationalizing them for prurient purposes), then the respect will shine through.

There’s another element of this respect. Because literature strives to give a full account of creation, it is also deeply aware of those forces that stand in the way of humanity fulfilling its potential. In a powerful work of literature, we see both the striving and the resistance. Sometimes these take the form of the protagonist and the antagonist.

I combine this vision of literature with my view of human progress. I believe that the arc of history bends towards justice—towards a world in which all will have the support and encouragement to develop their inner gifts—and so have come to see literature as a guide to the world we yearn for. Even our earliest poets had a sense of this world, although they could articulate it only through poetry, fiction and drama. They could not imagine it literally.

Truth to say, we still find it hard to do so.

I sometimes turn to spiritual language to express humankind’s yearning. Literature sings our higher self, which is why we may feel in the presence of transcendence. Literature seeks to unlock the mysteries of creation, and the greatest literature is that which gives us the fullest account.

I understand why Rachel feels suffocated rather than uplifted by much of literature, however. As a practicing novelist, she feels frustrated by a tradition that doesn’t provide her the forms that can do justice to her vision. As a result, she is driven to invent new forms. Her impatience with unsatisfactory articulations propels her art.

I cannot deny my own very different experience, however, where I feel lifted up, not suffocated, by virtually every work of time-tested literature that I encounter. I give myself over to whatever I am reading and almost always feel richer because of it. No work has everything I need—I agree with Wayne Booth when he says that we need many works so that they can dialogue with each other—but every work has a gift for me.

I am like Sir Philip Sidney who, talking about how great literature promotes virtue, sees tragedy doing it in one way, comedy in another, satire in another, epic verse in yet another, and so on through all the genres. All literature seems to be on my side, including (especially) the literature that calls me out.

Is my satisfaction a sign that I am privileged?  Maybe I don’t feel threatened by the marriage plot because I happen to be Darcy. This means I need to listen very closely to those who have different encounters with literature.

But even after striving to do that, one can’t be other than one is. Many of my moments of greatest pleasure, of deepest thought, of most impassioned feeling, of intensest spiritual uplift, have occurred when I was reading a poem, play, or novel. These moments have included the works of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. So when I construct an understanding of the world, that is where I start.

This entry was posted in Austen (Jane), Rand (Ayn), Shakespeare (William), Sidney (Sir Philip), Terence and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • 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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