“Language does change our world. It does make possible what we think and how we think it. This is one vital reason to read and study literature, rather than merely to apply its strategies.” Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature
Much hand-wringing has been going on for years about the future of humanities, including literature, in the academy. As a person on the outside looking in, I sense this frustration and would love to enter the fray, not because of the academic intrigue, but because the essence of literature may be a way to break through some of the staid thinking on college campuses. Instead of the ubiquitous bullet points and business models that can obscure the soul of the university, literature, with the complexity inherent in both narrative and poetic forms, can bring a new perspective to a student’s understanding of education. Or, in other words, literature can bring a renewed process of critical thinking outside of the usual methods that employ models – since models don’t always pick up the nuances of life.
Marjorie Garber in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature ventures into the why of studying literature and examines reasons that it should return to the center of the academy instead of remaining on the margins (so says the jacket cover). Her arguments focus on literature as a tool not to define meaning or settle a question, but in showing a way through questions and research.
“Literary interpretation, like literature, does not seek answers or closure. A multiplicity of persuasive and well-argued “meanings” does not mean the death or loss of meaning, but rather the living presence of the literary work in culture, society, and the individual creative imagination. To say that closure is impossible is to acknowledge the richness and fecundity of both the reading and the writing process.
The use of literature begins here.” (283)
Even though Garber speaks of the possibilities of literature, she also is attuned to the ways it as been abused. Like so many things in our world of efficiency worship, literature has been reduced so that it’s often ineffective and useless. In studying it we tear it apart, remove it from general education requirements, or ride on the wave of popular movies to draw students to classes. In this process literature is debased, seen as something less than it is, and rightly marginalized.
However, even as universities seem to be moving toward efficient and practical means to prepare students to be productive elements of an economic system, there is also a growing desire to address some of the larger questions of life within a student’s career. What is the importance of learning? What are the meta narratives that drive our lives? Why do I need to earn money (or why do I need the stuff I will buy with the money)? What are the questions in society’s margins? The tools of literature can provide a path into these questions. Though it may be risky.
Maybe this is what draws me and others to literature – its attempt to ask and respond to the large questions of life, and not reducing them to a bulleted list. A plot does not a story – or literature – make. There is so much more within the language, the meaning, the reading. Literary study looks at the way of meaning, how do the words, the images, the style, the structure draw readers through a way, not only at the what and they why.
Still, it is easy to want to derive a meaning for a given piece of literature and be done with it. To show an answer. To distill it into something that one can easily hold. But if I look back at my experiences, it was the process of reading and encountering the work that made the difference. Not knowing the ending of the book, but being part of the narrative.
Literature’s essence is in the experience of reader and words of an author coming together at a specific place and time. Just like we can’t often neatly break down our lives, we can’t neatly break down a narrative without losing something in the process. Even though students may want to compartmentalize their lives and find the most efficient way to land a job through a linear path of college course, the complexity of narrative analysis can help them see and interact with the other questions that frame decisions about a future career.
I’m eager to see how literature, and other fields in humanities, can change the world as they seek not to fit into the scientific and business models, but to engage them in conversation and more fully explore the narratives alive on college campuses todays.
[Just an aside – exploring the way things mean, at least expressed in this manner, is something that is so vital in biblical criticism as well. Meaning is not merely a set of beliefs to hold – it’s a way of living. God brings us along this way – the Way – through the narrative set out in scripture and in our lives.]