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Posted by on Jul 10, 2009 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

What have you learnt from literature?

I read a piece in the Observer a week or so ago in which an author with a background in psychotherapy said she had learned more about human psychology from Conrad, Shakespeare, etc than from Freud, Yung, et al. It is often said that we learn a great deal from novels.

But what do we learn, exactly? What kind of “truth” do novels contain?

I can see that if I read a story about a killer, that laid out how he became a killer in such a way that I can see that I too could have ended up like him, then I have learned something valuable. I can also see that I might read about a concern someone has in a story that I share, but thought was unique to me, and so learn that I am not alone in having such thoughts and feelings. I can also see that I might have a feeling that I find difficult to articulate, and in a novel find a perfect expression of it. “Yes!” I might think, “That’s how I feel”. Novels can also provoke us to think about things we might not otherwise have considered. These are ways in which I could learn something, gain some insight.

On the other hand, novels are stories. And stories can be propaganda, even unwitting propaganda. Literature can be used to tell lies about the human condition. A skilled writer may, by pressing our emotional buttons, make us feel sympathy for a cause we should revile, or make what is wrong seem right or normal, for example.

Literature is about a good yarn with a beginning a middle, and an end, a strong character that develops, and so on. Real life rarely has these features. People rarely change, and when they do, rarely change in the ways that a good story requires. The real explanations for why people do things are rarely as dramatically satisfying and neat as those for fictional characters. When people write biographies or dramatized accounts of real events, real life has to be very heavily edited and shoe-horned into the conventions of literature, so that we get a good story. Either that or the author has to search hard for one of those unusual episodes or lives that actually meets the requirements of good literature.

So isn’t literature, in many ways, profoundly misleading, providing the illusion that real life has a clear narrative structure, a plot, a moral, is driven by psychological principles, etc., that are actually rarely if ever present in real life?

Isn’t the “psychology” it presents, often as not, mythical, rather than actual, reflecting what an all-too fallible individual, the author, thinks makes people tick, rather than what actually makes them tick?

Indeed, aren’t we just endlessly presented with the same stock of archetypal plots and characters over and over again, which function as cultural sign-posts for us: “Oh, it’s a story about a quest, and X is the flawed hero, and he learns this sort of lesson as he pursues the quest…”. Even when a story deviates from these archetypes, doesn’t it succeed precisely by deliberately flouting them – by revealing itself to be of another archetype, rather than the one it initially appeared to be (the plot with a “twist”).

Anyway, these reflections lead me to ask: given that people regularly claim to have learned so much about the human condition and psychology from literature (novels), what’s the most important thing you have learned? Is there a novel you were reading, when suddenly you were struck by a rather profound insight? If so, I’d be interested to know.

My suspicion is that, because people always say that learned this profound stuff from novels, but seem rarely if ever to provide an actual example of something they learned, that actually the profound truths and insights contained with novels are largely, if not entirely, mythical.

Of course I know this will provoke howls of outrage from literary types and that I shall be branded a philistine. I am just asking, that’s all… If the insights are there let’s have some examples. Otherwise, I’m thinking “Emperor’s New Clothes” (ok, there‘s an insight right there!).

Remember – it’s genuine penetrating insights I am after, not statements of the bloody obvious dressed up in literary garb.

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