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.

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2 thoughts on “Dulce et Utile

  1. Erick,

    I’m with you, but don’t they have a point about oppression? I love good literature (and I’m assuming you know what I mean by “good”) and I couldn’t imagine having to read the crap you had to read in grad. school. However, isn’t there a point to the argument that whoever gets to define beauty and what we “ought” to read has power?

  2. One reason that the contemporary theories have staying power is that each of them, including deconstructionism, has a kernel of truth. So, yes, I agree that there has been oppression throughout history — though some of what is called oppression I would call unfairness.

    It is also true that literature often depicts or represents those “oppressions,” just as lit depicts everything good and bad about the world in which the author lived.

    The first problem is that the body of works I’m talking about are not historical works, they are imaginative. Beowulf never did pull off Grendel’s arm, and Titus never fed Tamora’s sons to her in a meatloaf. So why use these imaginative works as pretexts for arguing about contemporary views on race, power or the environment?

    Almost all of the great literature was written during periods that held non-21st century views about women, other races, animals, wealth, class, religion, etc. So, naturally, it is always going to represent those perspectives or at least interact with them. Once you accept that fact, it takes absolutely no erudition to point it out in the text, and adds absolutely zero to our knowledge. Show it to me once, I learn something. Show it to me twice, you bore me. Surprise, surprise, the world Chaucer created has women who do not have as much power as men.

    I can see where you, as an historian, would want to explore the power relations between persons in a particular historical context. But you are dealing with something that really did or did not happen, with real people who actually did suffer or caused others to suffer. Even from an historian’s perspective, though, are the power relations really the most important or most interesting thing about the historical event?

    The second issue is that good literature depicts the amazing complexities and mysteries of the human experience. A good literary theory will open those up to the reader and leave him humbled and circumspect. That is the kind of theory I want to develop. Contemporary literary theories, by contrast, reduce the human experience to one narrow perspective and leave the reader feeling self-righteous because “We know better than the misogynist Boccaccio.”

    As for your second question, it is certainly true that teachers have a kind of “power,” though I do not like to use that term since it is so politically charged and predefined as something negative. Power is not a bad thing, no more than a gun is a bad thing. So, yes, those who make reading lists and teach aesthetics have a kind of power, but I know you would not have us do away with teachers. I must be missing the point of your question.

    As for reading lists, the traditional classics have been blamed with perpetuating the biases represented in their pages. This has undoubtedly occurred, but it is an error that is easily corrected without denigrating or abolishing the text. I’m not so much for telling people what to read as for helping us figure out the best way to do it. Once a person learns how to read, it is easy to filter out what is worth reading from what is not.

    As for defining beauty, I do not want to define it so much as I want to see and experience it. In fact, I would say beauty is what the theologians call glory, or perhaps glory is the highest form of beauty. It is so rich and manifold that it defies definition. It is not to be defined but adored.

    Sorry for the long reply Kevin, but you asked a couple of big questions!

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