A good novel can do many things. It can distract us from the humdrum of daily existence, stimulate our imaginations, and delight us with its creative use of language.
By guest blogger Joshua Landy
What, if anything, do works of verbal art—poems, plays, novels, films—do for us? These days, most people will tell you one of two things: some will claim that works of verbal art make us better human beings (usually by teaching us Important Lessons about Life, or by rendering us more empathetic), and others will insist they have no effect on us whatsoever. I happen to think both of these hypotheses are wrong, and that fictions are capable of extremely important—but morally neutral—effects on our lives.
On this week’s show, you’ll hear John Perry espousing the second view. For him, it’s all just candy corn—a perfectly pleasurable little snack, but with no nutritional value. Don’t believe him! We can know for sure that he doesn’t mean it (sorry, John!) because he himself is the author of a work of fiction, and an excellent one too. His Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality makes full use of literary form to do philosophical work—decent prima facie evidence, I reckon, that he sees a genuine value in at least some forms of fiction.
Does that mean that literature inevitably makes us better human beings, in the sense of being more altruistic? I don’t believe that either. There’s some evidence suggesting that reading fiction improves our ability to access the mental states of other people, but that is a morally neutral skill, one that can be put to the service of manipulation just as easily as it can be put to the service of philanthropy. As for “messages” ostensibly delivered by fictions, these are almost always banal, unsubstantiated, and in conflict with other “messages” you could pick up, if you were not careful, from different books. (Crime and Punishment doesn’t “teach” us that all criminals feel guilty, any more than Crimes and Misdemeanors “teaches” us that they don’t.) As Schiller rightly says, it is only a bad reader who will “enjoy a serious and moving poem as though it were a sermon.”
(Oh and yes, I know about Uncle Tom’s Cabin; but I also know that Joseph Goebbels loved Dostoevsky, Heinrich Himmler was a big fan of Siddhartha, and a person of my acquainance saw Albee’s The Goat and decided bestiality is OK. As they say in those medicine commercials, “results may vary”!)
So what should we hope to get from works of verbal art? Quite a number of things, actually. Some writings, to be sure, don’t do much for us at all: I’m sure John Perry’s point is apt when it comes to The Da Vinci Code. Others, however, do us the immense favor of helping us to know who we are and what we believe. (Noël Carroll has written eloquently about this, and you will hear Ken Taylor speaking equally eloquently about it on the show.) Then there are those that console us, offer us company in our sorrow, help us to grieve. And there are also some that offer formal models for thinking of our life as a story (Ken, John, and I talked about this on an earlier show).
All this said, philosophers may be particularly interested in a further effect works of literature can have on us. There’s a set of fictions, I want to suggest, whose function is to help us strengthen our mental capacities. What they offer is not knowledge but know-how; what they do is not to teach but to train. And they do so by means of literary form, not by means of claims put forward by a narrator or character. (That’s why only literary works will do, and not treatises, which have other things to offer.)
Plato is an excellent example: rather than writing treatises, Plato chose to compose fictional dialogues (thus prefiguring the equally excellent John Perry). And these dialogues deploy the very literary device of authorial irony, in as much as Socrates, the smartest character on stage, isn’t always making the soundest of arguments. The effect is to invite us to become active participants, registering the holes in arguments, trying to fill them, dialoguing with the dialogue—and hence becoming better philosophers in the process.
Similar things are going on in Beckett, whose novels offer us implements straight out of the ancient skeptics’ toolbox; in Proust, whose writing helps us adopt a Nietzschean attitude toward our lives; and even in the parables of Jesus, which cultivate our faith by cultivating our capacity for figurative language. (More about all this on the show.)
None of this means that reading cannot sometimes catalyze changes of attitude (for better or worse): after all, self-knowledge can sometimes prompt modifications of various kinds. And none of this means that fictions aren’t also fun to read. Above all, none of this means that we only love fictions because of what they do for us, let alone that we tyrannically exploit them for what they have to offer us. But a great work of fiction is like a great friend: while we love them for who they are, we can be thankful for what they do for our lives. And just as it would be a criminal reduction of friendship to see it as either a meaningless pleasure or a relentless program of mutual moral improvement, so it is a catastrophic reduction of literature to see it as either a bottomless bucket of candy corn or an endless stream of sermons.