The headline of a recent article in the opinion section of the Dallas Morning News caught my attention: “The moral of the story -- Does literature make us more virtuous? Evidence is scant.”
“You agree with me, I expect, that exposure to challenging works of literary fiction is good for us,” writes Gregory Currie, whose biography listed him as a professor of philosophy. “Wouldn’t reading about Anna Karenina, the good folk of Middlemarch and Marcel and his friends expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities?”
As a writer of sometimes gory fiction, I’m inclined to agree that reading about adultery and suicide, maybe even the evocative scent of madeleines, to pick a few topics from Currie’s list, can expand readers’ imaginations. And I’m generally in favor of expanding imaginations, although recent discussions with my seven-year-old grandsons convince me their imaginations have already expanded to universe-engulfing dimensions.
How about literature as a refiner of social sensibilities? Sounds good, although I’m not sure what literary work would alert the boys to the social insensibility of pointing out that I’m old, a fact I’m already only too aware of.
It’s the idea that literature’s role should involve the refining of moral sensibilities that bothers me. Or that, if it doesn’t improve our morals, it has no intrinsic value and no claim on our attention.
Not that it’s Currie making such a demand, he assures us. Instead, he uses it to undercut the argument he attributes to others of pushing fiction as an arbiter of morality. Proclaiming himself an anti-elitist, he holds that fiction’s only benefit is aesthetic. He hints, as the greater philosopher Plato did, that literature can’t be trusted to be moral, and
therefore has no grounds for its existence other than the questionable one of aesthetics.
Although Plato’s discussion in his Republic makes it clear that his beef was with storytelling as such, the term he used for literature is usually translated “poetry” -- the way people recorded fictional stories for most of human history, and probably, prehistory. Prose fiction is a relatively recent introduction. Plato, of course, wasn’t above using the aesthetic devices of fiction to make many of his own works delightful.
The assumption both by Currie and those he says he criticizes -- that morality, even in its smallest details, only comes in one size and style -- is the one that most bothers me. But if literature -- if storytelling -- isn’t a source of moral arbitration, what is it good for? If its only value is aesthetic, how does it differ from, or claim superiority, to any other aesthetic practice -- say cooking or knitting -- which at any rate have obvious utilitarian benefits as well? Why write literature, read it, urge it on our loved ones?
I’ll let another author speak to that. “Every story worth telling in some way mirrors our lives,” writes David Corbett, who specializes in crime fiction, in his introduction to The Art of Character. “It can’t provide scientific certainty and it shouldn’t try. . . It remains
rooted far more in searching than in finding, more wedded to the hypothetical ‘what if’ than any conclusive QED.”
To some extent, Currie agrees -- after all, how would we even quantify the effect of reading great books on morality?
“I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite,” Currie writes. But “advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence -- they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.”
I’ll quote Corbett again for an answer. “As long as we’re alive, the questions of who we are and how we should live remains open. No one convinces us less than the person who crows, ‘I have the answer.’ And ironically, this is precisely why fiction provides a more satisfying depiction of human life than any scientific or otherwise theoretical rendering can offer.”
It was just this modeling of real life instead of theoretical concepts that caused Plato to condemn storytelling. Theoretical concepts are clean. Real life is messy. Even Plato might have itched at the irony of becoming a revered literary figure through the influence of his fictionalized dialogues, based on real life of his beloved friend Socrates, his students, his enemies, instead of through the often pompous arguments of The Republic.
(For more about Corbett and his writing, see www.davidcorbett.com/. For the complete text of Currie’s article, see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/does-great-literature-make-us-better/.)