Dulce et Utile

From your incessant emails, I am aware that you have been anxious for my next post. I apologize for the delay. I have been busy preparing a new course I’m teaching this spring. I’m finally caught up enough that I have a moment to put some thoughts together.

In the past couple of posts, I have bemoaned the dire status of contemporary literary studies. In this post, I want to offer my alternative, or at least a few steps toward an alternative.

My profound disappointment in grad school with the state of literary scholarship (and scholars) stimulated me to go back in history and learn how our predecessors approached literature. I am learning a lot more than can be included here, but here is a petite history of literary interpretation.

From Aristotle until the Romantics, that is, for about 2100 years give or take a few, those who pondered and wrote about the purpose of literature (and its highest form, poetry) told those who had ears to hear that, at its best, literature leads the reader to contemplate the high truths and beauties of the other side. Longinus, in the 1st century, believed that literature should arouse “the unconquerable love of whatever is elevated and more divine than we.” Boccaccio, in the 14th c, said that “poetry moves the minds of a few men from on high to a yearning for the eternal.” In brief, until about the middle of the 19th c, literature was viewed as a vantage point from which the reader could catch a glimpse of the permanent things.

What has happened from the 19th c to the present is fascinating and, while certainly not all bad, certainly took a turn for the worse, as did many things, during the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.

For now, I think it is high time we give Horace and Longinus and Boccaccio and Sidney a second look. They understood something about reading literature that, if mentioned at all, is ridiculed in the halls of academia. Our forebears understood that literature should be, as Horace put it, dulce et utile, “sweet and useful.” It is sweet because it is delightful and leads us to enjoy visions we had never imagined. It is useful because one cannot see truth or beauty without becoming a better (or worse) human being.

I do not know how to talk about my approach without being somewhat allegorical, so here goes. Well written literature taps into the wellsprings that bubble up on the other side. Like the aqueducts of ancient Rome, good literature brings that life-giving water from the high country into the lowlands of our daily lives. There are three springs on the other side. One is the spring of Truth, and shows us what should be believed and taught. Another is the spring of Goodness, and shows us how we should live and what kind of living should be rewarded. The third is the spring of Beauty, and shows us what should be adored and celebrated. Good art taps into these springs and awakens in the one who drinks a desire and thirst for more.

I apologize for that corny, Bunyanesque way of describing it, but it is dificult to talk about the permanent things in concrete terms when we only see them through a scrim. Another way to put it is that every work of art portrays a version of reality that draws us toward the True, Good & Beautiful, or leads us away from it.

A modern scholar might ask: “How does this text reveal the way that men have oppressed women?” (a feminist question) or “How does this text reveal the way that humans have exploited nature or animals?” (an environmentalist question). You can see how it works. The text becomes a pre-text to advance a political argument. What one writer says of politics can aptly be said of contemporary literary scholarship: it is “the intellectualization of hatred,” and, I would add, of hubris.

I want to construct a hermeneutic that cultivates our minds, souls and imaginations. My approach is to ask: How does this text help me to see what is true? to adore what is beautiful? to align my heart with what is good? My approach implicitly demands that the reader desire to grow in understading, virtue, wisdom and even beauty. My approach requires that the reader approach literature humbly, as a pupil or even as a child.

For my part, if the text does not assuage me with that sweet water from the other side, it is not worth reading. Likewise, if the reader does not desire to drink from those wellsprings, he does not yet know how to read. We ought not drag literature into our political spats. Rather, we should allow literature to guide us to the things that transcend, and thus can truly reform, our confused and twisted world.