Cur Litterarum?

It should go without saying, but now, more than ever, we have an near infinite supply of art available to us. From the comfort of our own beds, we can stream a film, play the latest Mario Bros., look at the paintings housed in the Philadelphia Art Museum, and download bestsellers straight to our e-readers. A lot of people claim that all of these different forms of media are “competing” for our attention. The novelist complains about the filmmaker who steals his audience. The filmmaker decries those who defect from the big screen to the TV screen. Even the video game creator bemoans the players who pass over her game to watch someone else enjoy it on YouTube. But this idea is fundamentally backwards. It assumes that all art is on equal footing, that the novelist and the comic book writer and the painter are somehow at odds with each other. It is true that our time is always limited, and we can’t devote ourselves to disparate artforms. However, this doesn’t mean that they compete with each other. They are different experiences with different strengths, different weaknesses. Therefore, why can’t a person play video games on a Thursday, watch a film on Friday, go to a museum on Saturday, read poetry on Sunday, and listen to music all week long? This false dicotomy only muddies the water, clouding the conversation at hand–a side-show distraction that prevents us from talking about what really matters. The real question is why should we engage with art at all.

As I’ve mentioned before, Hegel gives one of the finest definitions of art: It is the “sensous presentation of ideas.” In other words, art appeals to our sensory experiences, not solely to entertain, but to teach us about ourselves, about the lives we inhabit, about how to live. This isn’t to say that art is inherently didactic or preachy. (In fact, I would argue that is a symptom of bad art.) It’s more so a case of bringing our attention to serious questions about life. Camus makes us question modernity, morality, our own existence. Bioshock asks whether we have free will, questions about human and player agency, about Randian philosophy. The Dark Knight demonstrates the tension between choas and order and the moral costs of post-9/11 America. Even Dali, in his surrealist nightmares, asks us to question our own reality, our own self of the world. Art isn’t just about good technique or grabbing our attention or being unique: It’s a messy attempt to answer unanswerable questions.

Since this blog is dedicated to the literary arts, the question arises, “Why study literature?” Think about it for a minute. Really think about it. A video game is far more interactive than a poem. A film is better at showing imagery. Sculpture is more tactile. You can view an entire painting in an instant, but a novel may take you several hours to finish. So why the hell should I read a book? What makes it so great? What does it do better than anything else? What’s missing from the rest of those forms? A book, more than any other medium, allows us to access the mind in ways that films or painting or video games can’t. Just look at some of your favorite literary characters: Gabriel Conroy, Raskilnikov, Anna Karinina, Oscar Wao, Milkman, Oliver Twist, Holden Caufield, Nick Carraway. Now think about how many of those characters succeeded on film. Not many. So what’s missing? Why are those characters so endearing on the page but so lifeless on screen? It should be obvious. Those characters are unique to their medium, designed specifically for it. They work, and we care about them, because we have access to their interior lives just as much as their exterior lives. This isn’t to say that all great literature dives feverishly into a character’s soul, but even those minimialist authors–your Hemingways, your Carvers, your Bankses–still give us some insight into the person behind the person. Poetry, one might argue, does this even better than prose, as it cuts out the story (though it may have one) and jumps straight into the soul. No other medium can express emotion or thought like literature. Other forms may have approximations, but they can never claim that as one of their strengths. Just consider how often people complain about narration in film. (It’s visual media, after all.) 

We read to discover that we are not alone in the world, that others exist whose experiences are our experiences, that we are all a little bit crazy. We might not know what it’s like to kill an old pawnbroker or to serve in World War II during the bombing of Dresden or have fallen madly in love with a man who is not our husband, but we know what it’s like to be human, to make mistakes, to want things, to hide things from ourselves, to suffer. 

Seneca, the great Roman stotic philosopher, when forced to commit suicide by Emperor Nero, comforted his family, telling them, “Why cry over parts of life when the whole it calls for tears?” His words are just as sage now as they were back then. We tend to think of our momentary hardships–even our own forced suicide–as unique and without equal, that no one will ever understand what we’ve gone through. While that’s in some ways true, we have to realize that people, no matter where or when they live, have felt a similar way. Life is, as Buddhists observe, dukkha–not just suffering but impermanent. We are all in a fight against time, and literature, thankfully, freezes that one imperfect moment so we may come back to it again and again.


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