Why Literature Matters by Glenn C. Arbery

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What do you want to be when you grow up?  We spend our childhood answering the wrong question.

It’s not what, but who.

When graduating high school senior are making final preparations for their journey to college, among the countless things they think about is their course of study and choice of a major.  Now it’s decision time.

Today the litmus test of almost every considered major is now this: What kind of job will it get me and how much money will I make?

All of this isn’t entirely the fault of aspiring bright minds or hopeful parents.  The cost of college education has sky-rocketed and many hearts, young and old are filled with the dread of debt which verily must be paid.  The education process has become less about questions and more about answers.  After all – who needs to think that hard when Google is in the palm of your hand?

It’s easier to let someone else do your thinking for you. We say, “Don’t bother me with the details, just give me the bottom line”, and our age of fast information shortens our already limited attention span.

It is in this spirit I offer you Glenn C. Arbery’s fine book ‘Why Literature Matters.”

Our understanding of liberal arts goes all the way back to the first century BC, when Marcus Terrentius Varro wrote an encyclopedia, Disciplinarum libri IX (Nine Books of Disciplines); seven of the disciplines he discussed in it became our liberal arts: grammar, dialectic (or logic), rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and architecture.  Of these, the so-called hard sciences are certainly in the forefront with literature and art lost in the dust of the stampeding herd.

In our age of technology worship, we gravitate to that which can be arithmetically computed wherein hard and predictable answers prevail.  The problem of course, is that life bears little resemblance to that golden ring.  Science, for all its bluster is a poor tutor for life’s real questions.  As H. L. Mencken said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

In his speech The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson said this

 “Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

In The American Scholar, Emerson calls us out of the fog, and describes what he calls “Man Thinking”. America was only sixty years old when he spoke those words in 1837, and we were still wrapped up in a parochial European mindset. He challenged his hearers to wake up and live their lives with depth and purpose.

That message has never been more relevant.

Literature is by definition immediately relevant, because it speaks of the human condition.  Ironically, we long for depth in our lives but content ourselves in shallow water. Our entertainment is banal and our conversations increasingly require a smaller and smaller vocabulary. We each have the same twenty-four hours available in every day, but many of them are lived half-heartedly – nothing special.

Apart from the simple, trashy books which constantly drill to our lowest carnal elements, true literature calls to us a host of writerly advisors who push and pull us into moral dilemmas, forcing us to, as Socrates said“know thyself.”  Anaïs Nin said “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”  Herein lies first the opportunity and ultimately the catalyst of real growth.

Arbery wrote

“Literature matters because nothing can better approach the form, in this sense, of life in its felt reality, as it is most deeply experienced, with an intelligence that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering.  Without being specifically religious itself, it can give an experience of a common glory that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things were made.  It can turn the loss of life and meaning not only into the rediscovery of meaning but into an occasion of promissory joy.”

In his essay “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy tells the story of the Russian painter Karl Bryullov correcting a student’s sketch. “Why, you only changed it a tiny bit,” the student marveled, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.” Tolstoy comments: “That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the ‘tiny bit’ begins, where the infinitesimally small alterations of consciousness take place.” 

To the college students I say – congratulations.  You are standing at the beginning point of self-discovery.  As you embark on this new journey that will commence your development of self-hood, take with you an open, seeking mind.  Fuel it with treasure of the ages and allow literature to inform your journey.

You will never regret it.  Tonight I’m praying for you, and someday you will join me and Gustave Flaubert who wrote in Madame Bovary

What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright…Haven’t you ever happened to come across in a book some vague notion that you’ve had, some obscure idea that returns from afar and that seems to express completely your most subtle feelings?

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