Friday, June 7, 2013

Does Great Literature Make Us Better?

An Appreciation of William Gass, and some remarks on moral fiction

"The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which
do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of
love . . . Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we
try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try  
to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to
know something else."  William Gass

As a lover of fiction, I owe a special debt to William Gass--who will turn 89 next month and who still thinks and writes with clarity and insight (I will discuss his new novel Middle C in this blog soon; he has published a typically stirring review of his contemporary M.H. Abrams's new book of essays in the current New York Review)--for it was Gass who, thirty-five years ago, first awakened me to the sensuality and moral depth of great writing.  In his many books of literary essays and in works of fiction like Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Gass shows us that great books are, as he has written, "objects worthy of love," and that serious readers will have the world opened for them, have their awareness pitched higher, discover what is mysterious in ordinary things, and see more clearly into the lives of those around them if they will but pay attention. [I suspect Gass would hate the previous sentence for its pretension, but I will let it stand.] Gass is a poet in prose, who, like his beloved Rilke, has the rare gift of being able to make of language both a bearer of meaning and an object worthy of admiration in itself. The Tunnel hypnotizes me with its meandering fragments of memory and description; I will read four or five pages, entranced, and then return to unwind the thread of the narrative (if I can--Gass disdains plots).  Gass has his imitators, but, in my view, there is no one who can play language with and against meaning in quite the same way.

"In the winter he often slept inside the station. He knew to an inch how far from the stove to sleep. He knew where everybody spat and where we stamped the snow from our boots, shaking the floor, and where the wind came pouring, snowflakes with it, rattling the paper spills we kept in the woodbox. He knew where a live ash from a pipe might land or a whittler's shavings, and he figured the fall and roll, I'm sure, of every check to the corner where the board was spilled, as it often was if Jenkins played....Kick's cat knew everything about the station. He knew where most of the light fell, and talk, and where the smoke went...."

Kick's cat under the stove.  Out here in the West, where the winters are long and a lot of heat comes from fireplaces, paper spills are common--they probably were up near Cornell where Gass received his Ph.D. in philosophy (linguistics, I think, since there was no one to direct his thesis in aesthetics) and maybe in St. Louis where Gass has lived and taught since 1959. "Where everybody spat."  Generally I read Gass aloud when the house is empty--"Furber had come in the late fall following that enormous summer...."  I'm leafing through Omensetter's Luck  (1966).  Here's Middle C, nine cat's lives later (2013):

"When the soup was clear broth, as it often impecuniously was, Joey could occasionally see his face floating in a brown dream, and he thought of his mother's real self submerged in a brown dream too, beyond the reach of life."

I remember the debate between John Gardner and William Gass concerning the "morality of fiction;" Gardner, a realist and a bit straitlaced when it came to literary form, attacked "post-modern" writers like Coover, Barth, Hawkes, Barthelme, and Gaddis for their focus on language as opposed to the moral quandaries of their characters (if these writers could even be said to have created  characters).  At the time I thought Gardner had a point--I disliked Barth and Hawkes and couldn't understand a word of Gaddis--but Gass's aesthetic represented a bridge, I felt, between literary aestheticism and a not-too-rigorous concern with moral questions.  And it was reading Gass's literary essays, especially Fiction and the Figures of Life  (1970), that allowed me to see the connection between language and meaning in literature--Gass argues, and rightly, that fiction, like philosophy, is constructed from concepts: "There are no events but words in novels."  So the love of language comes first, the aesthetic work of the writer, and then, if you're lucky, and if the writer is good, the ideas, the moral problems, the inner life of the characters--they too unfold. 

The New York Times published an opinion by the philosopher Gregory Currie this past week on the question that titles this post.  Currie's argument puzzles me a bit; he seems to be wondering how anyone could prove that fiction makes us better, or rather he believes there is no evidence for such a connection.

"There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic [the moral effect of literature] and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; 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." By this measure marriage, religion, opera, National Parks, and philosophy are suspect: how could one ever prove in a way that would satisfy a philosopher that any of these cultural institutions, like literature, make us moral?  What would such proof even look like?  I don't expect much from editorial opinions, especially from philosophers who write sentences like this one: "Many who enjoy the hard-won pleasures of literature are not content to reap aesthetic rewards from their reading; they want to insist that the effort makes them more morally enlightened as well. And that’s just what we don’t know yet."  Not content?  In his desire to make reading serious books seem tainted by elitism, Currie makes an odd argument.  Reading (say) William Gass, or many of the books discussed in this literary journal, one isn't wishing or hoping or reaching for moral enlightenment anymore than philosophers teaching Kant's Groundwork are thinking "I hope my students don't merely comprehend the idea of the categorical imperative; I hope they adopt it!"

Great literature works on us in all sorts of ways, often not at the conscious level of "mere" aesthetic enjoyment.  Reading William Gass over three decades has taught me, for example, to pay attention.  But I didn't set out to learn this, or learn it all at once, or even figure out for years that it was something I had learned.  The causal relation between reading serious books and becoming a more empathetic and therefore a more moral person is murky: novels aren't self-help books, and the subtle influence of any serious experience is never felt at once and always intermingled with other experiences. When and where and with whom I read Gass matters as much as who I marry, what sort of religion I subscribe to, which philosophers I read.  So: there isn't likely to be any proof that will satisfy Mr. Currie that great literature makes us better.  Books don't make us moral, force us or trick us into behaviors we might not otherwise adopt; living makes us moral, and good books change the way we live, if only because while reading books we aren't doing other things whose claims to enhancing our character would be prima facie weaker. If, as Gass says, works of art induce love in us, who would argue that this is not a moral good?

 p.s. I apologize for the formatting glitches in this post. Blogger is free and not bad, but there are several significant problems with its operation. 
I owe a debt to John Madera's remarks on, and interview with, William Gass found here:

Happy Birthday Mr. Gass!  And my there be many more.

George Ovitt (6/7/13)

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