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Make-believe

September 6, 2011

Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, has an essay in last week’s The Times Literary Supplement about literature and philosophy. He makes a fairly convincing case that literature (meaning primarily the psychological novel) does not offer the insight we sometimes think it does, gesturing at scientific evidence that:

we tend to credit a certain group of individuals [that is, authors], prone, apparently, to over-interpreting the meaningfulness of things and to emotional disruption, with a deep insight into human nature and conduct, and are not discouraged by the fact that many of them seem to have little experience of or interest in the corresponding reality.

So: our natural inclination to focus on the maximization of meaning leaves us vulnerable to bad errors in thinking about the mind, errors which systematic experimental work has done something to expose. The institutions of fiction, and the psychology of the creative artist, do nothing to keep us on track, and so literature’s filling in the detail of an already mistaken picture just makes things worse. That’s the message at its most pessimistic.

So far, I basically buy it–the way Henry James describes trains of thought is fascinating and internally consistent, but I  never thought it corresponded that closely to reality.

Currie goes on the say that to protect novels from the neurologists, we should say that we read them under “pretense”–that we should “give up the idea that what is going on in literature-land is true learning, and make do with the pleasures of pretended learning.” We need to recognize, Currie says, that

when we engage seriously with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, better abilities, clarified emotions or deeper human sympathies. We do exercise capacities that let us explore a fascinating, demanding conception of what human beings are like – probably a wrong one.

He denying saying we should “treat The Ambassadors as a tale of exotic beings psychological light years from us,” but that’s what it comes down to.

Now, to avoid writing another thousand-word tract, I’ll just make a few brief comments about the article.

1. Regarding Mimesis and Imagination: Currie ignores the oft-made claim that literature isn’t just teaching us what the world is like, it’s teaching us how to live in it–it’s not just descriptively mimetic, it’s constructively mimetic. Henry James isn’t just describing how human thought works, he’s imagining how human thought ought to work; he’s educating the reader into a way of looking at the world that he believes beneficial. Not everyone reasons through their problems in the intricate way Lambert Strether does, but seeing him do it teaches us to make those sorts of inferences and navigate those sorts of complex moral situations (hat tip: Rachel Davies). Now, this way of looking at it comes with a lot of baggage–perhaps most importantly, it seems to imply that the human mind is almost infinitely pliable–but still, I find it odd that Currie didn’t address the idea that when we make-believe, we make for ourselves new ways of believing things.

2. Regarding Transcendence and Objectivity: Currie also offers a perfect example of how devotees of science and those of poetry tend to talk past each other. It reminds me of the reviews Terry Eagleton and James Wood write of New Atheist tracts, and the New Atheist responses; the poetic atheists say, “yes, yes, God doesn’t exist and there is no transcendent objective Truth, but don’t you realize there is something transcendentally true (though only subjectively)?” and the scientific atheists say, “of course there’s no transcendent objective Truth, but don’t you realize there is something objectively true (though only immanently)?” Of course the poetic atheists’ only weapon is scorn for the scientific ones’ impoverished souls, while the scientific ones can wield facts, so to defend themselves the poetic ones all too often resort to things like this article–saying, well, all right, we admit that poetry isn’t really true, that neuroscience is better at people than the novel, but aren’t novels still fun?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011 9:28 am

    “when we engage seriously with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, better abilities, clarified emotions or deeper human sympathies”
    I’d go a step further and disagree with the above statement altogether. I’m not 100 per cent certain what he means by “engage seriously” but as a reader who seeks out influences and sources, absorbs new vocabulary, weighs the choices taken by characters and so on, I think I’ve been reading seriously enough for most of my life. As a writer, I hope I *do* come away with better abilities each time I read a well-written novel and essay; who else would I learn from if not fellow authors?
    And clarified emotions? I guess he’s never heard of “a good cry”, something the best books always give one.

    New follower, by the way! Stumbled across your blog when looking up Tolkien in the OpenLibrary, trying to figure out who James Kenneth Tolkien was…
    Hope all your books arrived safely! I’d have been just as worried – you could take a picture of the inside of each box, just in case… Easier than writing it all down (I know about that – tried to catalogue our library last year; *such* a tedious task!).

    Off to check out your older posts!

  2. September 26, 2011 7:36 pm

    Welcome. Always good to have new readers. My instincts are in the same direction as yours; of course my reading makes me a better person! But it is, I have to admit, somewhat strange to trust authors to teach us about life when they often lead such bad lives themselves. I think what he’s done is basically jump from that mini-paradox to a claim that literature can’t teach us anything.

    I thought of taking a picture the day I got on the plane. Unfortunately it was too late since I had sent the last boxes the day before. I’ve now gotten all but one of the boxes of books, and from looking at what’s missing from my new bookshelves I can list at least ten of the books that were in it; five are anthologies so there probably weren’t that many more.

    Strangely, I do know where the last box is: at the Chicago post office; apparently they don’t want to deliver it (even though they delivered all the other ones) because my name isn’t yet on the mailbox.

    I also made a cool discovery about personal-librarying recently; I’ll make a post about it soon…

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