Newspaper article International New York Times

Should Literature Be Considered Useful?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Should Literature Be Considered Useful?

Article excerpt

To reduce literature to its usefulness is to miss the pleasure of word and sound that makes it literature in the first place.

To reduce literature to its usefulness is to miss the pleasure of word and sound that makes it literature in the first place.

In his essay "Literature as Equipment for Living," the critic Kenneth Burke invites the reader to consider literature in the light of the proverb. Proverbs, he writes, "name typical, recurrent situations," in ways that tell us "what to expect, what to look out for": They are verbal condensations of experience, formulas of practical wisdom. And with certain kinds of literary works, viewing them as a proverb or strategy -- as active,useful knowledge, designed to clarify the reader's world -- is eminently sensible.

"A Doll's House" is useful in one way, "Gulliver's Travels" in another, "Othello" in yet another: These works tell us something we need to know about sexual oppression, social convention, jealousy. Yet it's immediately obvious that this approach does not help us make sense of other kinds of literary works. People have been debating for centuries what exactly we are supposed to learn from "Hamlet," which presents us with a character whose equipment for living is highly defective. Lyric poetry, too, does not seem very proverb-like: What is the practical wisdom behind "Lycidas" or "Ode to a Nightingale"?

More important, however, is that even when a literary work has an obvious message, the articulation of that message is far in excess of its meaning. You could say that "Othello" is a long way of saying, "Be careful whom you trust," but if that were so, why did Shakespeare bother to write, "Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars. ... Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump"?To reduce literature to its usefulness is to miss the verbal texture, the excess, the sheer pleasure of word and sound, that make it literature in the first place. The idea of literature as equipment for living seems puritanically utilitarian -- as if you were to listen to a symphony in order to sharpen your hearing, or look at a painting to improve your vision.

Yet there is a persistent impulse in our culture to offer such pragmatic excuses for art, as if only something that helped us gain an advantage in the struggle for life were worthy of respect. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.