Illness does not apply only to individuals’ bodies and minds, but to whole cultures, something we see in the United States, which is ramping up for the midterm elections, and which recently experienced the largest killing of Jews in its history. What is the role of literature in societies where one of the world’s most powerful men, Donald Trump, does not….read? Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher with a profound grounding in literature who has appointments in the University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department and Law School, pondered this question in her brief but remarkable book The Monarchy of Fear. Beginning the very night Trump won the election, she has incisive and well-supported theories about the role that fear and its corollaries—anger, disgust, envy, and a desire for vengeance—played in electing Trump, and I recommend that you read it if you want to understand why populism and autocracy are surging all around the world, most recently in German elections.
But it is Nussbaum’s chapter on hope to which I turn. She conceives of a number of roles for literature in a society that is sick, suggesting that what we need is some tenderness manifested in “loving, imaginative vision (through poetry, music, and the other arts)” (201). Later she argues that during such polarized times, when we interact with people whose values differ from our own, “We need… to treat that other person as a person, having depth and an inner life, a point of view on the world, and emotions similar to our own….Through stories, novels, and poems we learn how to endow a human form with humanity and we quickly form the habit of doing so” (215-216). Without making reference to it, Nussbaum is appealing to a fairly robust research into the psychology of reading which you can most easily find on Dr. Keith Oatley’s blog, On Fiction.. Let me briefly parse out the prosocial behaviours we learn when we read. First, young children develop “theory of mind,” the sense that other people have inner lives as vivid and important as their own. This leads to perspective-taking: our ability to imagine a perspective unlike our own. Oatley writes in his June 29 2015 blog “First, in reading fiction one can sample across a wide variety of societies, personality types, and circumstances so that reading extends the range of one’s experience of others, and second that in reading fiction, particularly artistic fiction, one has to make inferences about what characters might be thinking, feeling, and wanting…. these factors contribute to the better perspective-taking abilities of people who read a lot of fiction.” Empathy, as I’m sure every empathetic English major knows, follows in short order. In turn, theory of mind, perspective-taking, and empathy all short-circuit a tendency to insist on a tribe that is extremely homogenous: the precursor of xenophobia and hate crimes. In contrast, prejudice and brutality arise when we fail to see people as individuals—as literature teaches us to do.
I began this paper with two sets of literary principles. Let me add another, from Walt Whitman, who is writing during one of America’s other periods of immense conflict, about the role of the poet in a democracy, and the poet’s contribution to the state:
Of these states the poet is the equable man….
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land….
He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.
Ah, tenderness and curiosity again: the poet giving people and the world his full attention and in turn proffering that attention to the reader. His words translate the writer’s tenderness and curiosity into something akin to justice. In her eearlier study, Poetic Justice, Nussbaum develops a careful parallel between “the literary imaginer and a concern with social equality” (82). She writes “it is Whitman’s point…that the ability to imagine vividly, and then to assess judicially, another person’s pain, to participate in it and then to ask about its significance, is a powerful way of learning what the human facts are and of acquiring a motivation to alter them” (91).
The importance of reading during dark times like our own, as a way of defending democracy, has been widely argued in a variety of contexts—and I’ve culled an odd and diverse list from things I’ve been reading lately. The narrator of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is telling the tale, during the second world war, of a composer who courted madness for his art. He says, of the Volk, “that ancient collective layer” that earlier burned witches, and which now burns Jews, “I do not consider religion the most effective means by which to keep [those ancient qualities] safely under lock and key. In my opinion, the only help comes from literature, the humanistic sciences, the ideal of the free and beautiful human being” (41). In a British longitudinal study designed to reveal the factors in human well-being across classes, finding pleasure in reading was found to be a very good predictor of flourishing. Certainly democracy must flourish when people do because they are freer to make disinterested choices about how their government should run. “Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” writes the poet Mary Ruefle. Certainly this is true in Brazilian prisons, where inmates are given four days off their sentence for every book they read and write an “appropriate” (thoughtful? on topic?) report about. Since the beginning of this program, there has been a 30% drop in criminal relapses. Perhaps knowledge is power and literature helps us reflect on our place in the world? At the end of his life Carl Sagan insisted that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”
The aesthetic order of the book, manifested in us as we read, has the capacity to become a more just order for society. This metamorphosis occurs in conversation. First, with oneself. When was the last time you talked back to a book or felt that a book provided one more piece to the puzzle of being human? And then in respectful, tender, curious conversations about books like those we have in book clubs and among families and friends.