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Literacy: The End and Means of Literature
In modern times a gap has appeared between the arts of history and literature, and the sciences of historicism and criticism. Many modern critics, historians, and teachers of literature and history (and even many so-called authors of literature) have welcomed, or at least complied with, the “scientification” of their arts, resulting in widespread illiteracy with regard to literature and history. The solution to this problem lies in a (re-)investigation of how the art of literature teaches us the truth. I maintain that the lifeblood of literature is the set of common joys and griefs, the common blessings and sufferings, of mankind. Without a communication of these passions as passions with the result of a transformation or shaping of the soul—without a mimesis, as the Greeks would say—across the boundaries of tribe, race, gender and era, there is no literature; and no literacy. Using a scene from Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle, I argue that these passions are part of the truth (or falsity) of any story involving human beings. So literature and history would both be restored if the writers, readers, and teachers of each developed a deeper concern for the whole truth.
In 1957, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his acceptance speech, he describes the relationship between his art—literature—and his fellow man:
For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. (Nobel Acceptance Speech, 1957)
Thirteen years later another Nobel Laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, echoed the words of Camus in his Nobel Lecture:
One world, one mankind cannot exist in the face of six, four, or even two scales of values. . . But who will coordinate these scales of values, and how? Who will give mankind one system of interpretation, valid for wrongdoing and for doing good, for the bearable and the unbearable as they are differentiated today? Who will rightly direct our abhorrence and anger towards that which is really heavy and terrible, rather than that which rubs us raw only because of its nearness? Who is capable of extending a true understanding of such things beyond the boundaries of his own personal experience? Who might succeed in impressing upon a narrow, obstinate human being the distant joy and grief of others, an understanding of dimensions and deceptions that he himself has not lived through? For this task propaganda, coercion, scientific proofs are all useless. But fortunately there is a way—in this world—to do this. That way is art: that way is literature.
This art can work a miracle: it can overcome man’s detrimental peculiarity of learning only from his own experience, unaffected by others. From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all of its hardships, its colors, its vitality, re-creating in the flesh an unknown experience and allowing us to possess it as our own. (Nobel Lecture, 1970)
I begin with these passages from two writers of literature who are themselves reflecting on the value and purpose of writing literature, because I am worried by what I can only describe as an indifferent attitude towards the humanities in general—and towards literature in particular—which is pervading so many of our modern institutions of higher education. Despite the appearance of a widespread renewal of interest in literature, the reality is that this interest is merely the fashion; at a deeper level, indifference is the reigning attitude. Most alarming of all, we find this attitude to have become a common characteristic among literature faculty at a great many of our universities. This, I believe, is an historical first. In the midst of all the storms generated by recent literary criticism, many seem to have let go of the literature itself. There are some notable exceptions, especially among Aristotelians, archetypists, and New Critics, but by far the predominant species of critical theorists today are those with either the stripes of social determinism or the spots of political ambition. Despite the efforts of the former exceptional critics, the stampede of the latter kinds of critics seems to have crushed the writers. I do not mean that literature is no longer read by these people or in departments composed of these people, only that it is no longer read as literature. The common view among this group—a group that includes theorists of many different varieties: New-Historicists, Freudians, Marxists, Feminists, Masculinists, Structuralists, Post-Stucturalists, and Deconstructivists, and so on—is that a work of literature is an artifact or a tool: either an historical (or “cultural”) artifact, like an ancient arrowhead or cooking-pot, which at one time and in one place and for some people had a purpose, but now (even if “now” happens to be only a short time or distance away) is only an object of curiosity, even if sometimes it is a very intense curiosity; or as a political instrument, like a tool—a hammer, saw, screwdriver, or chisel—which, despite its ornamentation, is used by an author and his (or her) “group” to gain and retain political and psychological power over others. In both cases, what it is not, is a work of art—at least not art in the sense that Solzhenitsyn and Camus (and many others) speak of art. For them, as these passages show, art is neither a dead artifact nor a partisan tool. Rather, art is living—even immortal—in the sense that a work of art always has the power to change and shape the passions, desires, and beliefs of people, regardless of its (or its author’s) age—and art is universal, for it continues to affect generation after generation, and its affects spread to all of mankind. Or, I should say, to all of mankind who can read it.
This, then, is what I want to investigate. What is it to read literature, as literature? The answer to this question is what I will refer to as literacy. There are, of course, many uses of this term, but the one I am interested in here is specific to the reading of literature. It is, in fact, the failure to distinguish between this specific sense of literacy and other senses of the term that has partly led to the current crisis in humanities education. That is, if we (teachers, educators; especially in the humanities) do not clarify the distinction, it is easy for us (all of us) to suppose that anyone who can read, say, the tabloid at the grocery store checkout stand, or the stock-market report, or a textbook, can also read literature. This view will naturally lead to the supposition that the reading of literature is both easy—it takes no special training; and trivial—one reads literature, if at all, either for mere information (about the author, the times, the culture, etc.), for mere entertainment and diversion, or for creating a certain image of oneself. The further implication is that literature, unlike the stock-market report and the textbook (if not the tabloid), has a completely subjective meaning: it contains no universally applicable truths, especially if it is a work of pure fiction. In the face of the so-called ‘objectivity’ of the sciences, the arts and humanities in general—and literature in specific—are widely devalued.
This is nothing new. But what is new is the equally widespread incapacity among educated people to make a coherent and compelling—that is, a literate—defense of the arts and humanities, and of literature in particular. This incapacity is peculiar to our times—roughly the last half-century—and is, I believe, the result of an illusion that is also peculiar to our times: the illusion that in knowing the causal explanation of anything, we understand it completely.
The following story typifies this illusion. I recently visited my local campus bookstore and noticed that many of the history professors were using works of literature in their history courses. My initial reaction was that this was a good sign. In the past, many of the best historians have been poets (Herodotus, Virgil, Livy, Malory); and many of the best poets have also been particularly insightful when it comes to understanding history (Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn). The line separating history from literature is a fine one, and much can be gleaned by combining the disciplines of careful research and exacting description. But I soon realized that my hopes were ill-founded. One of the history professors who used works of literature in his classes (he was teaching 19th Century American history and had assigned Huck Finn) informed me that he assigned those works in order to get the students to “understand the political and social forces of the time period.” When I asked him how he thought reading a work of literature would help students understand this, he replied that “the book represents the common views of society of the time period in which it was written,” and, furthermore, that these common views in turn represented “the strongest political forces” in the nation at that time. When I went on to ask whether he thought it was possible that an author might (a) not be representing his own views at all in the book he or she had written, and (b) be writing what he or she writes without being caused to do so by “social and political forces,” he replied that “all writing is political.” I couldn’t even raise the further question of whether or not the author was trying to “represent” any “views” at all; that the point might be to portray certain characters or places or events or ways of life in such a way, and with such accuracy and descriptive power so as to evoke and shape the passions of his or her readers. It was clear to me that my historian had never read literature with these questions in mind, and was not now likely to read it in any other way than he had, his whole life, read it: as an artifact, interesting because of what it supposedly told him about the past, but incapable of touching his own soul. Rather than seeing literature as a sister art to history, my historian saw it as yet another tool of politics.
Thus, in modern times, a gap has appeared between (social) scientifically oriented historians, critics, teachers and readers of literature; and the artists themselves (along with the more artistically oriented historians, critics, teachers and readers of literature). This is a gap that continues to widen, despite the apparent consonance between these groups. In reality many modern critics, historians, and teachers of literature and history have welcomed, or at least complied with, the “scientification” of their arts: even many so-called poets. All alike have bowed to the modern pantheon of “the sciences of human behavior,” following a false faith in the principle that people are what they are because the laws of nature have made them so. Whether these laws are genetic or social—whether the ideological limitations and aims of era, age, race, gender, class and culture are social constructions, or the inheritances of nature—the common assumption is that these are inescapable forces: no author (and no reader) can write (or read) beyond them. This ideological idolatry has led to a widespread misunderstanding of the purposes of both the study of history and the making of poetry. But, as Camus and Solzhenitsyn say, this ideological and superficial unity is maintained only at the expense of honesty. For no genuine poet, nor any genuine historian, can honestly maintain that he is himself merely and necessarily either the product of the blind forces of nature, or the socially constructed tool of a political faction. Nor can he honestly maintain that others are. For, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man so vividly demonstrates, this is a view that cannot be lived. It cannot be true existentially, for it implies not only the impossibility of free agency, but also the impossibility of desires, wishes, passions, duties, judgments, and even theories, since theories are not natural phenomena but rational creations. The Underground Man responds to his imaginary social scientists,
After all, really, well, if some day they truly discover a formula for all our desires and caprices—that is, an explanation of what they depend on, by what laws they arise, just how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case or another and so on, and so on, that is, a real mathematical formula—then, after all, man would most likely at once stop to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being to an organ stop or something of the sort; for what is a man without desire, without free will and without choice, if not a stop in an organ? (Notes From Underground, 24)
The existential consequence of such a view, then, is a transformation from human being to organ stop—or something of the sort. And the practical result?
After all, the direct, legitimate, immediate fruit of [this] consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious thumb twiddling. . . . Granted, granted I am a babbler, like all of us. But what is to be done if the direct and sole vocation of every intelligent man is babble, that is, the intentional pouring of water through a sieve? (Notes From Underground, 15, 17)The lifeblood of literature, as both Camus and Solzhenitsyn indicate, is the common joys and griefs, the common blessings and sufferings of mankind. But if we adopt a view of human nature that reduces the joys, griefs, blessings and sufferings of people to mere effects of social or political causes, peculiar to a tribe, a race, a gender, or an era, we drain the blood from the body of literature, and are left to study the corpse, the organ stop. Regardless of how gently or respectfully that blood is drained and replaced with the formaldehyde of social-scientific theory, the result is the death of literature. Without a communication of these passions as passions with the result of a transformation or shaping of the soul—without a mimesis, as the Greeks would say—across the boundaries of tribe, race, gender and era, there is no literature. And if there can be no literature, neither can there be writers and readers of literature. Whatever use we may continue to have for these terms, the activities of reading and writing will be nothing more than “conscious thumb twiddling”; “the intentional pouring of water through a sieve.” And this is, put in an impolite picture, the scientistic view of what literature really is.
Literature, like its authors and its readers, must have a soul. Otherwise it is not literature, and its authors and readers are not literate. But the sciences of Man, as we now know them, either ignore the soul or deny its reality.
Nevertheless, the ideological, pseudo-scientific view has many intellectual adherents, and the result has been the phenomenon of a widening gap between the arts of literature and history and the so-called sciences of criticism and historicism. This gap has extended, naturally, to students too: there are now those—perhaps even the majority—who learn to read historical and literary works as artifacts or instruments, or as products or services, and, on the other hand, the minority who learn to read works of literature and history as arts, as humanities. In modern times poetry and history both have become something less than what they once were, and could again be.
What I mean by a literate defense is a defense that does not reduce works of literature (or any kind of art) to mere “objects” or “phenomena” in the course of “defending” them. Such a reduction is actually an offense, both in the sense of it being a weapon or tactic in advancing a political agenda, and in the sense that it is an offense to the literature itself. But this is exactly the pattern we see among those theorists who take literature to be either an historical artifact, a political tool, or an economic product: to save literature from the dustbin of mere taste, the strategy seems to be to reduce literature to an object—artifact or instrument—so that it can be approached in a more scientific manner. What Wittgenstein says about modern philosophers in The Blue Book is also true of many modern literary critics and teachers of literature:
Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is ‘purely descriptive.’ (18)
Replace ‘philosophers’ with ‘literary critics’ (of the predominant sort I have been talking about), ‘metaphysics’ with ‘theory’, and, apart from the last two sentences, you have a fairly accurate description of the recent history of literary criticism. Even the more pragmatic theories that deny the possibility of an objective meaning of a work of literature take as a point of departure the idea that works of literature are “objects.” On this they agree with the objectivists; they depart from them only when they claim that there can be no one proper or right interpretation of what the work of literature means, for meaning is the private creation of each reader. Theorists of both sorts (the ones who think all works of literature must be explained in terms the social or political forces that were operative upon the author, as well as the ones who think that there can be no determinate meaning to any work of literature), in seeing a work of literature as an object, open the door to the supposition that we can distinguish a “text” from its “meaning.” That is, what all these theorists share is a common picture, a common illusion, fostered by “constant[ly] see[ing] the method of science before their eyes,” that works of literature are mere phenomena, in need of explanation by means of theory. (Hence, the odd use of the word ‘text,’ so prevalent among the practitioners of these critical methods.) The consequence of reducing works of literature to mere ‘texts,’ is a peculiar sort of illiteracy: there is no longer such a thing as reading literature; there is only the interpretation of ‘texts.’ Thus it seems that many of the literati of our time are themselves illiterate: functionally illiterate.
The functional illiterate, as the name implies, differs from the illiterate in that he can “function” in the practical affairs of worldly living. That is, his illiteracy does not prevent him from reading and writing per se, but he does so on a childish and utilitarian level. He can read (and, perhaps, even write) short newspaper articles, short stories with violence or sex to hold his attention, letters to the editor, the box scores, most restaurant menus, greeting cards, and popular newsstand magazines (which are written with primarily him in mind). He can write memos and e-mails, balance his checkbook and, perhaps, repeats the facts of a history or a plot. But he will not—unless forced to do so—read Shakespeare, Yeats, or Coleridge; Dostoevsky, Donne, or Dickens; Homer, Houseman, or Hemingway; not even Scripture. And he cannot figure out why other people would want or would need to read them. Mark Twain once quipped that those who will not read have no more advantage than those who can not read. There really is very little difference between the person who says, “I can read history, but I get nothing from it” and the person who says, “I can’t read.” Neither of them can be enriched by history. Likewise with literature. Both are intellectually crippled; the latter by not going to school; the former by going to school.
It is not my contention that every well-educated student ought to become a devotee of literature, or of history, or mathematics; only that every student ought to have teachers who are. That is, teachers of literature, teachers of history, teachers of mathematics ought to be literate in their field, and not functionally illiterate; a teacher of literature ought to love to read literature, and read it in such a way as to be able to feed off of it, to return to a well-written and substantial book again and again.
But, now, just as the muddy meaning of “literacy” required the clarification of a new subspecies to the category of the illiterate (viz., the functional illiterate), a further clarification of “criticism” will also require that a distinction be made: a distinction between two different applications of literary criticism. On the one hand, we see some critics applying a particular theory of interpretation over all literature. That is, they apply the theory a priori; not on particular works of literature. To apply a theory at this general level is effectively to ignore the question of what an author consciously and deliberately intends. Even if the author admits, for example, that he or she intended the work to be a political tool, the admission would be nothing more than a confirmation of what a feminist or Marxist critic thinks is necessarily true in any case. A Freudian critic “knows” in advance what to look for in any novel or poem: the unconscious struggle between the desires of the id and the superego. Pragmatist theories that deny that any work of literature has a determinate (or determinable) meaning are also applied at this general level. Again, application of this latter sort of theory at the general level dismisses (as irrelevant) the question of what an author consciously and deliberately means to do or to show. Furthermore, application of theory at this general level also ignores or dismisses the distinction between the intentions, desires, passions, beliefs and aims of the author and those of the subject (i.e., the person or object from whose ‘point of view’ the story or poem is written). Obviously, there can be many nested points of view, none of which necessarily tell us anything about the author’s own point of view. To give an example, a novelist might include a character—or even write the entire novel from the point of view of a character—whose way of life can be best understood in terms of Freudian analysis (Faulkner comes to mind). But this does not imply that the author himself can be best understood in those terms; nor that the author is (consciously or unconsciously) affirming the truth, effectiveness, or universal application of such an analysis. In fact, the author may be indirectly showing just the opposite.
At another level, a critical theory may be applied a posteriori—i.e., to particular works of literature, and to particular characters or subjects in literature. Samuel Beckett’s plays, for example, may be best understood as displaying the indeterminacy of meaning, or of the incommensurability of meanings between various characters. But if one applies this very same theory to the plays themselves, a priori, then it’s a wonder why one would pay any attention to them at all—and why Beckett would write anything at all. Even if the characters within the plays portray lives lived in accordance with the theory, this does not (and, logically, cannot) imply that Beckett himself thinks such a theory is, or ought to be, true or beautiful or good. Nor does it imply that Beckett thinks all works of art ought to be interpreted in terms of that theory. Application of theory at this level makes allowances for the differences between individual works of literature, as well as differences between authors and their literary subjects.
Clearly, much of modern literary criticism is of the first sort, the a priori application of a theory. That is, all works of literature are read through the lens of a certain pseudo-scientific theory in order to determine the “meaning(s)” (if any) of that work. This kind of procedure has come to be called “reading critically,” or “thinking critically,” or even “reading closely”—a term that actually comes from the New Critics, who mean something quite different by it. There are, of course, all sorts of critical theories that are applied in this a priori manner, but the common element in all of them is, as we’ve seen, the use of a theory: you cannot read or think critically unless you have a “theory” by which to “interpret” the literature. Having so many different theoretical approaches to “understanding” works of literature has its advantages—it is certainly a boon to the literature-professor job market—but it ignores the possibility that the author is intentionally, creatively, and rationally making art, and that his rationale in making it is not to illustrate theory x. The author’s meaning may be intentionally obscure, or ambiguous, or hidden, but that does not mean he or she does not know what they meant to say or show.
Furthermore, making the meaning of literature a matter for theory to decide also ignores the possibility that literature is, as Camus says, “a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings,” and that, as Solzhenitsyn says, “This art can work a miracle: it can overcome man’s detrimental peculiarity of learning only from his own experience, unaffected by others. From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all of its hardships, its colors, its vitality, re-creating in the flesh an unknown experience and allowing us to possess it as our own.” But seeing a work of literature as simply an artifact or a tool will prevent it from working this miracle: only when it is experienced as art, as communicating something universal in the particular, something of eternal significance in the temporal—only then can we be said to be reading it for what it is.
Notice how antithetical are the views of the theorists from those of the writers themselves with regard to the aims of literature and the tasks of the writer. Camus says,
[T]he writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise he will be alone and deprived of his art. . . the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. (Nobel Acceptance Speech, 1957)
Solzhenitsyn again echoes Camus:[L]et us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. . . . And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world—but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.
And no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness—and violence, decrepit, will fall. (Nobel Lecture, 1970)
According to these authors, the goal of the artist is not to exhibit his psyche’s truth or x’s political program, but to open us to a truth and a liberty shareable by all. Contrast this with the view of theorists who claim that, however hard an author or a reader may try, the “truth” is always and necessarily a matter of opinion, colored and shaped (and maybe even fabricated) by inescapable social forces.
But there is something more that the theorists ignore by considering works of literature and history to be artifacts or tools. They ignore the importance of the literature’s affects: its evocation of a reader’s passions, and its ability to transform and shape those passions. C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, nicely explicates this aspect of literature:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, our contempt. . . . When Shelley, having compared the human sensibility to an Aolean lyre, goes on to add that it differs from a lyre in having a power of “internal adjustment” whereby it can “accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them,” he is assuming the same belief. “Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. Plato has Socrates saying the same. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.” (28-29)
Clearly this accords with the tasks that Camus and Solzhenitsyn see for the writer, and the implied duties of the reader to become literate enough to be open to the affects of a work of literature, to let it do what it can to his or her passions.
But if a work of literature is separated from the reader by means of an interpretive theory, it cannot possibly effect the affects of a reader in the way the author intended. The theory acts like fog on a day when one hoped to see the gleaming mountain peaks piercing the deep blue sky; not only does it obscure what otherwise could be easily seen, it also casts a pall over one’s heart. Thus, objectifying theories necessarily fail to determine any value or effectiveness of a work of art in evoking certain passions towards certain characters, events, or ways of life, because the methods of science do not allow for any judgments of moral value.
It is a disservice to the artist to let a critical theorist rob the work of its possible affects upon the spirit. If there is an effect of critical theory in the social scientific mode, it is the fostering of the affect we could call scientific indifference. But indifference is not a passion: it is the deprivation of passion. (As we will see, Solzhenitsyn the artist can portray this kind of character in such a way as to evoke the passion appropriate to it.)
Once we see this essential element of art—an element not found in a mere historical artifact or political tool; for even though the work of art might be seen as a political tool or an historical artifact by the politician or the historian, it is much more than that to both the author and his or her audience—we can also see that there is a kind of truth that is also ignored by a social scientific analysis of literature. It is what Kierkegaard, through the voice of one of his pseudonyms, Johannes Climacus, ironically calls the “Truth of Subjectivity.” Though subjective, this truth is universal. For if it is true that certain characters, events, objects, places or ideas are deserving of certain emotional or passional responses from us, then not only must the conscientious writer and reader know the truth about who—which characters in a story, for example, or in a history—have more or less ordinate passions, and in what ways they might be inordinate, the conscientious writer and reader must also be able to evoke (in the case of the writer) or feel (in the case of the reader) the appropriate passions towards the characters, events, objects, places and ideas described. In other words, a work of literature, written so as to include even the truth about the various kinds of souls who exist in the world, is only written or read as literature when those truths affect me so as to shape and form my own soul for the better. As Augustine said, the affective function of literature is (or at least ought to be) “ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.” Being able to write or read literature so as to be affected in this way is what I would properly call literacy with regard to literature—and to history.
Our passions, desires, emotions and beliefs are subjective. But what they ought to be with regard to—and in light of—particular persons, events, objects and facts, is not a matter of pure subjectivity. As Lewis reminds us, there is an objective ideal for these subjective elements. Every cultured society has held up this ideal as a standard of virtue for the heart. And, as we have seen, both Camus and Solzhenitsyn profess their allegiance to this ideal of universal and proper affection. Were there no such ideal, Camus could not give his readers “a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings,” and it could not “oblige the artist not to keep himself apart” nor “subject him to the most humble and the most universal truth.” Were such an ideal impossible, Solzhenitsyn would have no ground for his claim that art—literature—can “work a miracle” in “giving mankind one system of interpretation, valid for wrongdoing and for doing good” and “rightly direct[ing] our abhorrence and anger towards that which is really heavy and terrible, rather than that which rubs us raw only because of its nearness.”
Solzhenitsyn writes with literary authority about the problem itself. In a scene from his historical (and autobiographical) novel, The First Circle, two of the characters—Rubin, the “objective” social scientist (a Marxist philologist), and Kondrashev-Ivanov, the nonobjective artist (a painter)—are arguing about the nature and purpose of art. A third character, Nerzhin (the main character in the novel), listens to the argument.
Kondrashev-Ivanov, who is brought to the sharashka [special prison] only to paint portraits of Stalin and his Generals, puts the task of the painter in this way:
“For example, you want to depict a window that opens on a garden on a summer morning. If one honestly follows nature, and represents everything as he sees it, will that really be everything? What about the singing of the birds? And the freshness of the morning? And that invisible cleanness and purity which pour through you? After all, you, as you paint, perceive these things; they are part of your perception of the summer morning. How can they be captured in the painting? How can you preserve them for the viewer? They obviously have to be included! By composition, by color . . . you have nothing else at your disposal.”
“In other words, the painter doesn’t simply copy?” [asked Nerzhin].
“Of course not! In fact, with every landscape, and every portrait, too, you begin by feasting your eyes on nature and thinking, ‘How wonderful! How perfect! If I could only succeed in getting it just as it is!’ But as you go more deeply into your work, you suddenly notice in nature a sort of ungainliness, nonsense, incongruity! Right there, and there too! And it ought to be that way! So that’s the way you paint it!
But Rubin, the objectivist, objects to all this:
“But, my dear fellow, ‘ought to be’ is a most dangerous path! You will go on from there to turn living people into angels and devils, making them wear the buskins of classical tragedy. After all, if you paint a portrait of Andrei Andreich Potapov, it must show Potapov as he is.”
“And what does that mean, show him as he is? Externally, yes. There must be some resemblance in the proportions of the face, the shape of the eyes, the color of the hair. But isn’t it rash to believe that one can see and know reality precisely as it is? Particularly spiritual reality? Who sees and knows it? And if, in looking at the model, I see something nobler than what he has up till now displayed in his life, then why shouldn’t I portray it? Why shouldn’t one help a man find himself and try to be better? Why should I undervalue his soul? I will tell you something else: it is a major responsibility not only of portraiture but of all human communication for each of us to help everyone else discover the best that is in him.”
“What you mean,” Rubin said, “is that there can be no such thing as objectivity in art.”
“Yes, I am nonobjective, and I am proud of it!” roared Kondrashev-Ivanov.
“What? How is that?” Rubin asked in astonishment.
“Just that! Just that! I am proud of my nonobjectivity!” declared Kondrashev-Ivanov, his words falling like blows. He started to stand up. “And you, Lev Grigorich? You are not objective either, but you think you’re objective, and that’s much worse! At least I am nonobjective and I know it! I cite it as a merit. It is my ‘I’!”
“I am not objective?” Rubin demanded. “Me? Then who is objective?”
“No one, of course!” the artist exulted. “No one! No one ever was, and no one ever will be! Every act of perception has an emotional coloring. The truth is supposed to be the final result of long investigation, but don’t we perceive a sort of twilight truth before any investigation has begun? We pick up a book and right away the author seems unpleasant, and we know on the first page that we will not like it, and, of course, we are right! You have studied a hundred languages, you have buried yourself in dictionaries, you have forty years of work ahead of you, but you are already convinced that you will prove successfully that all words derive from the word ‘hand.’ Is that objectivity?” (The First Circle, 324-325)
On the face of it, it seems that Kondrashev-Ivanov, in attributing nonobjectivity as not only a merit for an artist, but, indeed, essential and inescapable, is propounding a view of art that is contrary to Solzhenitsyn’s own. This, of course, is quite possible; it is more common than not for a character in a story to hold views different than the author’s own. But I do not think that this is the case here, despite what Kondrashev-Ivanov says about no one ever being truly objective. For the context of his initial remark about nonobjectivity is in response to Rubin’s suggestion that, because the artist would dare to portray his subject (Potapov in this case) as having a greater nobility than he has so far exhibited, he is somehow not objective. It looks as if Rubin’s objectivity consists in simply not saying more than what is or was actually true. But Kondrashev-Ivanov has already admitted that the artist must, as far as he can, portray things as they are. Beyond things as they are now, however, lies what can or ought to be, and, as he says, these things too are seen by the artist in the model. As Aristotle noted, poetry’s subject is rational possibility. Given what he sees—all the truths he can gather about Potapov—Kondrashev-Ivanov also sees in the model a better Potapov, a more noble Potapov. Is this a failure to be objective? The artist says that this is how he shows that he values the soul of his subject. It is at this point that Rubin interprets him as saying that art is not objective. He is critical of the artist’s attribution of value to his subject, of his passion to paint something of value. No wonder the artist roars, “Yes, I am nonobjective, and I am proud of it!” Rubin would have passionless works of ‘art’—that is, he would eradicate the artistic element in them. But if that is what he means by “objectivity,” then he would have to give up his own passionate pursuits as well, for he surely supposes them to have value.
As Kondrashev-Ivanov indicates, it is with the progress in the development of a person’s spirit (as Socrates calls it) that art is primarily concerned. But progress in the development of man’s spirit is necessarily and always individual, that is, subjective. If it is supposed to be otherwise, then that is not, ex hypothesi, progress in spirit. It is subjective (or nonobjective) in two ways, both of which Kondrashev-Ivanov manifests in himself. First, the “progress” is only individual, and can be seen only in terms of the way of life lived by the individual. This is also why it is essential for the artist that he immerse himself in the character or the subject he is attempting to render, making the subject as authentic, as alive, and as realistic as possible, noticing and portraying every detail as truthfully as he can. The artist cannot be untrue to his subject, even if that subject lives or exists in some way contrary to the artist himself. There is no other way to present the spirit of that subject. Any other presentation would necessarily not be that subject.
Second, it takes place only by the individual becoming subject—i.e., subjecting himself—to those who (or that which) can teach him. Who or what these teachers are is not the most immediately important thing: that he have a submissive spirit is of primary importance. At any rate, it is the artist who can be of most help here, and to the extent that one is a help in this development, one is an artist. For the artist, in practicing his art, is submissive in the same way to whoever or whatever it is that inspires him. Kondrashev-Ivanov displays this attitude, too: “with every landscape, and every portrait, too, you begin by feasting your eyes on nature and thinking, ‘How wonderful! How perfect! If I could only succeed in getting it just as it is!’” Even when the thing or person being portrayed is far from wonderful or perfect—may, in fact, be horrible, disgusting or evil—the artist must have what Keats called “negative capability.” He must be capable of accurately portraying the essence of such a subject in such a way as to evoke the passions truly appropriate to it. Examples of this latter kind of “inspiration” abound in literature—not the least of which is Solzhenitsyn’s own portrayal of Stalin in several earlier chapters of The First Circle.
But it is also significant here that Kondrashev-Ivanov says that art—or, rather, the artist—is “nonobjective.” Not “subjective,” but “nonobjective.” The implication is that the perceptions of the artist, while admittedly personal, are nonetheless perceptions of things not exclusively, nor even necessarily, part of the artist. In Kondrashev-Ivanov’s example, these things are “the freshness of the morning” and “that invisible cleanness and purity which pour through you.” These things are not merely the perceptions of the artist; those terms do not describe only the artist’s feelings or opinions. In fact, they need not describe the artist’s feelings or opinions at all, for even at the moment that the artist perceives the freshness, cleanness, and purity of the summer morning, his feelings and opinions might themselves be impure, stagnant, or muddy. This may, of course, blind him to the freshness, cleanness, and purity of the morning, but it doesn’t eliminate or change the character of that morning, no more than his gloomy thoughts can actually transform the weather. Hence the importance of the artist being perceptive, observant, submissively open to whatever is before him as a possible subject. It is true that these qualities are, in a sense, “invisible”: no measuring device or instrument can detect them, but this does not make them any less important to either the artist or the historian. For the artist, it may be just those qualities that are most important to capture, sometimes so important that if the only (or the best) way to capture them is by altering, in his composition, those qualities that are “visible,” such an alteration is justified. For the historian, these qualities are important insofar as the noticing of them helps us understand why the decisions and actions of men were what they were, and consequently how rightly to judge and feel about those decisions and actions.
In the study of history, the importance of seeing these “invisible” qualities comes in in two ways. First of all, if it is true that most people decide and act as they do at least partly due to their own perception (or misperception) of these qualities—and the role of these qualities in the decisions and actions of nearly all historically notable persons and nations is invariably a large one—then these actions and decisions cannot be rightly understood (or evaluated) unless and until the historian himself recognizes what those perceptions were, and whether or not they were accurate.
Secondly, whether or not the historian is capable of perceiving these “invisibles” will inevitably have a bearing on what the historian thinks he or she is doing, or ought to be doing, in investigating, reporting, and evaluating the past. That is, if the historian is at all reflective, he or she will at least wonder what is the importance or good of studying history. But the goodness, or the importance (or even such a materialistic-sounding quality as the usefulness) of studying history is, like the freshness, cleanness, and purity of the summer morning, invisible. Any defense for (or against) the study of history will necessarily involve a reference to an “invisible”; otherwise there is no reasonable answer to the question “why pay attention to history at all?”
So, for the artist there is a sense (and, for the historian, another sense) in which he or she is also objective. For in order to speak of or recognize the possibility of progress in the realm of the spirit, there must be some ideal of spirit; otherwise we could not mutually understand progress in this realm. That ideal, again, is a spirit with ordo amoris, the “gentle heart” whose passions are “just in rendering to things their due esteem,” so that “every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.” Kondrashev-Ivanov holds to just such an ideal, allowing for progress in the realm of the individual spirit as it comes closer and closer to the ideal—a progress toward the complete truth of things; including especially the truth about what kind and degree of esteem and love are appropriate to any given thing—and making this the artist’s goal.
To those who consider the individual human being (or the human spirit) as an object of scientific study and treatment, this ideal is necessarily a “subjective” element—it is part of the person’s perception or thought, and therefore not a means by which to measure progress, but rather a part of that which is studied. This move, however, makes progress, in any objective sense, impossible, for the concept of progress presupposes an objective ideal, end, or purpose. But the social scientist is also a human being—scientific study is a peculiarly human activity—and therefore the ideal, end, or purpose he employs in determining the progress of man will, on his own view, be necessarily “subjective.” (“And you, Lev Grigorich? You are not objective either, but you think you’re objective, and that’s much worse.”)
In the heat of this argument between the artist and the critic, Potapov himself, who is an electrical engineer by trade, but (like the others) has spent most of his life as a political prisoner under Stalin, interrupts their argument to tell a story—a story jointly created by Potapov himself and his close friend, Nerzhin. Potapov thinks this story can “reconcile” the positions of the nonobjectivist Konrashev-Ivanov and the objectivist Rubin.
The story that Potapov tells is the infamous story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to a Soviet prison in order to ‘determine for herself’ whether or not Stalin’s prison camps were inhumane; whether or not freedom of conscience was being violated in the Soviet Union. Twenty five of the cell’s seventy five inmates are picked to be washed, scrubbed, shaved, clipped, powdered, manicured, perfumed and freshly clothed. They are fed edible potatoes with salt. Their cell is transformed by a similar treatment, and furnished with mattresses, pillows, blankets, chairs, a table, cigarettes (for show only), curtains over a previously nonexistent window, a partitioned off latrine with a clean and lidded pot; pictures on the walls, and shelves of books, including the works of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Marx, and Engels. There is a Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud. There are ikons of the Virgin Mary with the Child, the Roman Catholic Madonna, and the Orthodox Saint, Nikolai Mirlikiski. And in a niche in the corner sits a statue of the half-smiling Buddha. The betokened prisoners of cell number 72 are told that they will now be allowed to engage in several previously forbidden activities: “to worship your own God; to lie on your bunks, day or night; to leave the cell to go to the toilet without interference; to write your memoirs.” Upon her arrival at the prison, Mrs. Roosevelt is ushered into what appears to be a randomly picked prison cell. She is impressed by its cleanliness and by the freedom and comfort the prisoners seem to enjoy, which includes access to cigarettes and American magazines. Contrary to orders given before Mrs. Roosevelt arrived, the prisoners help themselves to the cigarettes and the magazines, despite the severe punishment such disobedience usually incurs. As if by coincidence, a Russian Orthodox priest enters the cell and pretends to continue a discussion with one of the prisoners about “the sufferings of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Speaking in Russian to the prisoners, the major general of the prison warns them of solitary confinement for taking the forbidden cigarettes, prompting an indignant reaction from them: in English he tells the curious Mrs. Roosevelt that the prisoners unanimously protest against the treatment of the Negroes in America. (A story she apparently believes, despite being told before that one of the prisoners was a Hitlerite, a rapist, and a murderer.) Although she is puzzled by the animal-like behavior of the prisoners when they are fed, the trembling haste with which they smoked the cigarettes and read the magazines, and their surprise at so many of the things that happened to them, Mrs. Roosevelt is suitably impressed: “You have a magnificent prison!” As soon as the door closes behind her, however, the dream vanishes and the nightmare is restored. The twenty-five chosen prisoners are once again lined up and marched into the bath-house where they are stripped, searched, ordered to wash again with stinking synthetic soap, and then given back their old prison rags, still dirty. When they return to their cell, they find it restored to its original condition: olive-drab walls, bars on the windows, bedbug-ridden planks, an open latrine in the corner, and filled again with their fifty other less fortunate cellmates. The poor sap who took seriously permission to write his memoirs—entitling them “How I was Tortured”—is charged with foul slander against the State and given a new prison sentence, and the one who ripped the Sermon on the Mount from the priest’s pocket gospel and attempted to conceal it in his mouth is severely beaten—on both cheeks. Only one trace of the dream remains, as if to intensify their suffering by reminding the prisoners that it really did happen: “In the niche, forgotten, the little bronze Buddha smiled mysteriously.”
The little smiling Buddha, indifferent to the suffering (as well as to the possible freedom) of those prisoners. The Buddha, whose principle of spiritual detachment and the eradication of all desires, when put into practice, manifests itself as moral scepticism: an unwillingness to see any decisions or events in this life as black or white, good or evil. After all, the moral injunction of such a view is that we ought not make too much of the distinction between good and evil.
The story is an image of the indifference that naturally follows from the functional illiteracy produced by the scientification of art. It reconciles the “objectivity” of Rubin’s scientific realism—it tells exactly what happened—with the “nonobjectivity” of Kondrashev-Ivanov’s artistry—the Buddha smiles, no matter what happens around it. The description is true, detailed, and accurate, and it includes the essential “invisibles,” such as the amazing smells, sounds, sights, and textures; and the reactions of the prisoners, their suspicions, hopes, thrills, and despair. In this sense, it is “objective.” But Solzhenitsyn’s artistry lies in his ability to present this description in such a way as to evoke and strengthen in his readers a mixture of passions towards the one who is indifferent, who is passionless when it comes to human suffering, injustice, and deception—i.e., one like the Buddha. For if history is studied only to discover what has happened and what others may have thought or felt, the student of history will become like the Buddha: indifferent to what ought to have happened and what ought to have been thought and felt. This is the sense in which Solzhenitsyn, and the reader of this story, if he is literate, cannot help but be “nonobjective.” In the novel itself this story is for Rubin, to make him feel (and perhaps even see) the danger and error of his illiteracy. For the novel’s literate readers, the story produces, by mimesis, the same affect. That is, the reader is made to feel what it is that the characters in the story (and often what the author himself) feels with respect to what has happened to them, how they have thought about it, and what they have done. This mimesis, then, is not so much representational as passional. It can be, therefore, as Aristotle says, cathartic.
* * * * *
So then, how are we taught to read literature literately? I have, up till now, been primarily investigating what it means to be literate with regard to literature. This investigation required looking at the end(s) of literature. But this new question is not about what it means to be literate, but about the means of becoming literate. The former—being literate—consists in understanding what a work of literature means; the latter—becoming literate—consists of the means of coming to this understanding.
This is a large question, requiring a large answer—probably as large as a lifetime. So I can only cite some indicators of the direction I believe a full answer must take. Many indicators could be given from many different authors, but I would like to feature those from Wittgenstein:
Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to comprehension of a poem or of a [musical] theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. (Philosophical Investigations, § 533)
From a story told by both Brian McGuinness and Ray Monk in their respective biographies of Wittgenstein, we can be sure of how he answered this question. When asked by members of the Vienna Circle to explain the meaning of one of Tagore’s poems, he simply read the poem to them again.
Wittgenstein himself highly prized literature. He was greatly affected by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I suspect he would have also been profoundly moved by Camus and Solzhenitsyn. I am sure he would have been appalled by the widespread indifference towards literature today. He would, I think, have agreed with Dyomka, a young man in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “Literature is the teacher of life.”
Department of Philosophy
Kearney, NE 68849
Althusser, Louis. 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: New Left Books.
Augustine. 1958. On Christian Doctrine. Trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. New York: Library of Liberal Arts.
Camus, Albert. 1957. Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. Stockholm: The Nobel Foundation.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1960. Notes From Underground. Trans. Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: Meridian.
Eagleton, Terry. 1983. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Fish, Stanley. 1984. “Interpreting the Variorum.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer. New York: Longman.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon; trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper. New York: Pantheon Books.
Graff, Gerald. 1993. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York: W.W. Norton.
Greenblatt, Stephen. 1980. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lewis, C.S. 1944. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan.
Mitchell, W.J.T., ed. 1985. Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rabinowitz, Nancy. 1993. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Said, Edward. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr I. 1968. The First Circle. Trans. Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper and Row.
———. 1969. Cancer Ward. Trans. Nicholas Bethell and David Burg. London: The Bodley Head.
———. 1972. Nobel Lecture. Trans. F.D. Reeve. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. The Blue and Brown Books. New York: Harper and Row.
———1958. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.
 The University where I teach is a case in point: under the General Studies (previously known as Liberal Education) requirements, all students must take at least 12 credit hours in the social and behavioral sciences, but only 3 credit hours of literature. Furthermore, many of the literature instructors teach literature as if it were a branch of sociology or political science.
 Gerald Graff, a highly acclaimed contemporary critic at the University of Chicago, frankly admits that “being alone with the texts only left me feeling bored and helpless.” He advocates all forms of ideologically based criticism on the grounds that it at least relieves the boredom: “The classics, I suggest, have less to fear from newfangled ideological hostility than from old-fashioned indifference.” (1993, pp.71,47)
 Another prominent contemporary critic, Terry Eagleton, goes so far as to deny that there is a category of works which can properly be called ‘literature.’ “Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist.” (1983, p.11)
 A few select quotes will suffice to illustrate the contemporary prominence of this view of literature: “Departments of literature in higher education, then, are part of the ideological apparatus of the modern capitalist state.” (Eagleton, 1983, p.200): “Without empire . . . there is no European novel as we know it. . . . The novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other.” (Said, 1993, p.69-70): “Shakespeare became the presiding genius of a popular, urban art form with the capacity to foster psychic mobility in the service of Elizabethan Power.” (Greenblatt, 1980, p.274): “Greek myth as formulated in tragedy was a ‘technology of gender’. . . Tragedy ‘hails’ a subject in a certain way—but it was male subjectivity that was the goal. . . . Euripides may indeed ‘invent woman’ and ‘reverse traditional representations,’ but ultimately he recuperates the female figures for patriarchy.” (Rabinowitz, 1993, pp.12,14)
 The original of this dictum is generally attributed to Fredric Jameson, perhaps the most influential Marxist critic in the U.S., who claims that “there is nothing that is not social and historical—indeed, that everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” (1981, p.20)
 Indeed, both writer and reader are “constituted” by these forces: “The category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects.” (Althusser, 1971, p. 171) “Rather than ask ourselves how the sovereign appears to us in his lofty isolation, we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc.” (Foucault, 1980, p. 97)
 Wittgenstein’s description in these last two sentences of what philosophy really is, and what philosophers really ought to be doing, is also apropos to literary criticism: the properly functioning and educated literary critic will not try to reduce a work of literature to an object of scientific study, nor do much more than describe the work and its effects (and affects) in terms of the story and its construction.
 Stanley Fish is a prominent theorist of this sort. In his essay “Interpreting the Variorum” he says, “This, then is my thesis: that the form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of [the author’s supposed] intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise.” (1984, p.185)
 For the New Critics, “reading closely” means particularly seeing how each of the words, structures, descriptions, images, sometimes even the syllables (in a poem, for example) work together in a work of literature to build a web of meaning. This approach is not “theoretical” in the sense that the a priori criticism is, for it does not presuppose an author or a reader to necessarily be the product or tool of social or political forces.
 City of God, xv.22. A further reiteration from St. Augustine is helpful in this connection. Speaking of the effect of Scripture on the character, he says,
Scripture teaches nothing but charity, nor condemns anything but cupidity, and in this way shapes the minds of men. . . . it asserts nothing except the catholic faith as it pertains to things past, future, and present. It is a history of past things, an announcement of future things, and an explanation of present things; but all these things are of value in nourishing and supporting charity and in conquering and extirpating cupidity.
(Augustine defines charity as “the motion of the soul towards the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and one’s neighbor for the sake of God.” Cupidity is defined as “a motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of one’s self, one’s neighbor, or any corporeal thing for the sake of something other than God.”) (On Christian Doctrine, Bk.3, X, 15-16)
 This sentence is what Wittgenstein would call a “grammatical remark.” That is, it is not a claim nor an assertion, but rather a reminder of what it makes sense to say; of how a word or an expression is used.
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