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Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview

THE ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS
OF UNNATURAL SCENARIOS

Jan Alber

Why do we study fictional literature? This is one of the most important questions of our discipline. My answers are simple and subjective. First, I think that one should study literary fiction because it allows us to transcend ourselves and to experience scenarios and situations which are strictly speaking impossible in the real world. As Jean-Marie Schaeffer has shown in Pourquoi la fiction? (1999), fictional literature widens our mental universe beyond the actual and the familiar, and provides important playfields for numerous (sometimes disconcerting) thought experiments. Second, I think that one should study literary fiction because its projected storyworlds urge us to look at ourselves and the world we live in from a new and different perspective. Either explicitly or implicitly, the counterfactual worlds of fictional literature make us aware of other, and possibly even better, worlds. In other words, literary fiction always involves ethical questions. For instance, Heinz Antor argues that “since pattern-building processes and the acts of self-creation they involve always imply value-judgments, taking a stand or […] positionality, literature as a medium of such practices is per se situated in the realm of the ethical” (Antor 1996, 70).1

The aim of this essay is twofold. First, I present examples of what I call “unnatural scenarios and events” from selected periods of English literary history in order to illustrate that physical and logical impossibilities play

1 It is perhaps also worth noting that these two reasons can best be seen by a professional reader who engages in the systematic study of literature as a disciplinary activity. While a lay reader typically reads on his or her own and is primarily motivated by desire or pleasure, a professional reader collaborates with other researchers, has knowledge of different periods and genres, and is (ideally at least) more vigilant than the lay reader (Guillory 2000). While the discovering of unnatural scenarios demands familiarity with a wide variety of different texts (both canonized and non-canonized), the determining of ethical implications demands discussions and collaborations with other researchers.

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