Know Thy Shelf
Meghan Thomassen | Thursday, November 29, 2012
After years spent trying to justify my love of literature, I finally had that moment. It was an elusive but completely satisfactory second of pure realization and vindication. When I read Martha Nussbaum’s essays on “Cultivating Humanity,” it was like God had rolled back the sky like a scroll, reached down and stuck a big “OK” stamp on my English degree.
Martha Nussbaum is a liberal humanist who tackles the influence of literature, but without the alienating academic garble. She is one of us. She doesn’t use words like “solipsism” or “autolatrist.” Her sentences are reasonably sized and don’t abuse the comma like it’s her job (ahem, Hemingway).
Nussbaum’s chapter on “Narrative Imagination” highlights how everything we love about books can actually work for the greater good. For Nussbaum, the imagination is vital in order to be a cultivated citizen of the world. As Aristotle wrote in his “Poetics,” literature shows us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen.” But Nussbaum theorizes that literature doesn’t just show us what might happen, but what should happen.
Think about all the times you sat on the edge of your seat, enraptured by whatever book you’re reading. You tune out the world, shun your friends and maybe even deny yourself proper hygiene, all because you just have to know what happens. John Grisham and Nora Roberts have turned this kind of suspenseful writing, be it mysterious or romantic, into a very comfortable livelihood, but that does not discredit the theory behind their success.
Nussbaum says imagination makes readers invest themselves in characters and “inspires intense concern with the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a rich inner life.” It doesn’t take much for an author to imply what a character’s inner landscape looks like.
Gandalf doesn’t say much to Bilbo, but when he does, he reveals centuries of wisdom and fathoms of power behind that kindly, old-school faÃ§ade. Elinor Dashwood spends the majority of “Sense and Sensibility” worrying and writing letters, but when Edward finally gets down on one knee, Austen captures mountains of anguish in one, uninhibited cry.
When something happens to the characters you’ve grown attached to, whether it’s Severus Snape, despite Harry’s judgment, or Scarlett O’Hara, even though she’s a self-centered princess, you feel an overwhelming sensation of justice, especially if you think your character has been wronged. Who didn’t fling “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” across the room when (spoiler alert) Snape died? Who didn’t raise their hand in solidarity when Scarlett swore that she “would never go hungry again?”
You’ve never met these people. You’ve never encountered a situation like theirs. And yet your values are being put to the test with each new reading. By inciting your compassion or righteous rage, literature does something to you. It puts you through a highly specified and refining experience, one that can be recreated, reinterpreted and shared for years and years to come.
This was the essence of the Greek tragedy. To watch “Oedipus Rex” or “Antigone” is to experience cruel fate and injustice firsthand. The Greeks saw value in these cathartic visits to the theater because it plumbs each spectator’s moral virtues and normalizes the crowd’s response.
If adequately skilled, the playwright cannot only identify and induce a common emotion, but can also teach what the spectator’s proper reaction should be. Obviously, Nussbaum’s understanding of literature is nothing new. Works like “Animal Farm” and anything from the Irish nationalist theater will attest to that.
But for everyday people who aren’t facing major political conflicts, Nussbaum calls attention to what we read and how it normalizes our actions. This doesn’t mean we should only read what we agree with. That would only lead to complacent, uninformed value systems that would crumble at any outward challenge.
If written correctly, a book can help you recognize, understand, and respect other people. Unless, of course, you’re a solipsist.
Contact Meghan Thomassen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.