Why read hard books? the Guardian‘s Stephen Abell asks.
Joshua Landy rushes to the rescue with equally hard answers in his new book, How to Do Things with Fictions. Josh is nothing if not a lively thinker. Abell writes: “His answer, when shorn of its sometimes uncomfortably scratchy fleece of critical theory, is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity: ‘each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.’”
Frankly, I like the even more simple answer he gave me in his Stanford office, nearly two years ago: “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life.” In fact, I think the article I wrote goes some way towards answering the questions I posed last week about defending the humanities: “The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works ‘enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves.’ He offered ‘literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match.’ He advocated moving away from the ‘stranglehold of narrativity,’ which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to ‘a more lyrical mode of thinking.’”
The case studies from his new book range across five countries and 2,500 years: Plato‘s Gorgias and Symposium, St. Mark‘s gospel, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé, and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Abell writes:
Before we get to the evidence, we receive a breathless summary of various other literary theories that seek to explain the purpose of fiction. Landy is fond of lists and numbers, and posits “13 ways of looking at fiction”, which include three main schools of thought: the “exemplary” (novels as morals; read Clarissa and become a better person); the “affective” (freeing our emotions; see Kafka‘s wonderful observation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”); and the “cognitive”. Landy spends most time on the “cognitive”, subdividing it – I think – into four other sections, but basically categorising it as the view that novels are “directly educational”.
Landy’s own theory, of fiction as a thought-trainer, comes close to this notion, but he exerts himself considerably to condemn those “meaning-mongers” who insist that fictions provide the key to straightforward verities. He is also dismissive of those of us who only want to dwell on the enjoyment of being told a story, or what he calls “the glorious uselessness of fiction, its ostensible inability to yield anything beyond pleasure”.
Abell hints strongly at the end of the piece that he reads books for the plots. But Josh Landy’s description of one case study, the Gospel of St. Mark, during a colloquium two years ago, was downright spellbinding:
Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus’ parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: “The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what’s on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train.”
The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark’s texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that “implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience.”
“To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit,” Landy said.
“Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission,” Landy said. “They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable.”