Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Being Human: Why Great Literature Still Matters

I rant quit a bit about the STEM uber alles mindset that seems to dominate contemporary American thought. That thought seems to dominate certain circles of education reform. Cindy Haven quotes a David Foster Wallace book review to show that great literature is necessary to remind one what it means to be human:
“The thing about Dostoevsky’s characters is that they live.  And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and ’round.’ The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them. …
[Dostoevsky'] concern was always what it is to be a human being – i.e., how a person, in the particular social and philosophical circumstances of 19th-century Russia, could be a real human being, a person whose life was informed by love and values and principles, instead of being just a very shrewd species of self-preserving animal. …

So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves."
Wallace's review also points to a reason that condemnation of "dead white males" is overblown. The young'uns need to read a few of the old books* every year:
Part of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our own era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture.  The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and ‘Great Novels’ since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that serious literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life.  Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be ‘serious.’

But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlightenment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about.  The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave.  … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t – could not – laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction
I may be reading too much into this advertisement, but it strikes me that it points to a strong undercurrent in American culture that asks Americans to seek answers in tech rather than in their own humanity.

HT: This Andrew Sullivan post

*I will stipulate that they should read some more recent works as well. Many on this list would work in a high school classroom

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