Friday, May 26, 2006

But will it make me a Better Person?

When I was an undergraduate, those who were teaching me literature and imparting their conviction (as was fashionable at the time) that literature made one a better person were not leading by example. We were being exposed to the beautiful thoughts and carefully teased-out, finely-spun observations of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster and Katherine Mansfield, of Chekhov and Tolstoy and George Eliot, and it was supposed that we would absorb by a process of osmosis their finely wrought moral sensibilities.

Two things immediately became clear: (1) that the departmental Woolf-worshippers, Forster-favourers and Tolstoy touts imparting these views included among their number several people who habitually indulged in some of the pettiest, shabbiest behaviour I have ever seen before or since, and (2) that Virginia Woolf, God love her and her genius, was a Grade-A bitch, and Katherine Mansfield made her look like a beginner. I didn't mind their bitchery at all, not least because it was of the finest, but I wasn't under any illusions about either of them, or about the morally elevating effect that their work was allegedly going to have on me.

It was only years later when I came to read around in theories of narratology that I understood all this a little better. The notion of the 'implied author' is a useful one: it's what might be called the writer's best self, her wisest, her most adult, her most knowing and self-knowing self. In fiction or poetry the 'person who is speaking' just is not the same as that flawed being who ignores the dishes, fobs off her editors and creditors, loses patience with her elderly father, and swears at the person ringing from the call centre in Mumbai. None of this stuff makes its way to the pristine page: the implied author is a construct, a sort of distillation of all the best (and only the best) stuff that the writer has to say.

So it was a bit odd to be driving down Grand Junction Road on a Friday morning listening on the radio to the writer Aleksandar Hemon talking to Ramona Koval from the Sydney Writers' Festival about whether literature in particular and art in general were morally uplifting, for I've never been able to see how it could be or why it should be asked to carry so unreal and unreasonable a burden. No matter how many languages are spoken or instruments played, no matter how many books are read or operas attended, people will find a way of rationalising, and then doing, whatever it is that they want to do. They will find a way, as Hemon pointed out, to send you to Auschwitz or Birkenau even while they listen to Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Literature can't make you a better person. But one thing it can do, if you ask it to, is get you through life's worst moments in slightly better shape than you might otherwise have managed -- either by giving you words to express the horror, or giving you consoling or diverting images, as on the pre-dawn drive I took some years ago to the hospital where my mother had just died, when a huge golden harvest moon hung on the horizon and lit the road for me all the way; there was time to dredge up at least twenty unforgettable literary moons, from the portent of a deadly storm in 'The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens' to Jane Eyre's mystical communion with her own dead mother, via the stern imparted wisdom of the moon through her bedroom window, to the darkness and mystery of the moonlit Sydney Harbour where Joe Lynch lies drowned in Five Bells: 'Deep and dissolving verticals of light / Ferry the falls of moonshine down.'

Hilary McPhee, talking about literature at a writers' festival some time in the 1980's, said 'We read books in order to find ideas about ways to live our lives', and this seems to me to be a more modest, a more accurate and a more realistic claim. I have learned over decades from books and poems how better to deal with family conflict, with hard decisions, with love gone bad, with anger, despair and death. Reading literature hasn't made me a better person, but it has made me much readier for anything, good or bad, than I would ever otherwise have been.


  1. I was saddened to hear your news.

    Beyond that anything that I write will come across as trite. But this is an excellent piece. I suspect the inability of some readers to be able to discern "the singer from the song" is down to the "age of celebrity" in which we find ourselves. At least I hope it's just that. There's a chance it might pass away in that case.

  2. Perry, thank you. That moonlit drive was actually some years ago and I will edit the post to make that clearer, though of course the sadness stays forever. The real point, of course, is that (a) it helped, and (b) I will never forget it.

  3. You have clarified my excuse for using tiny chunks of Beckett as occasional emotional crutch-ettes much better than I ever could, Kerryn. Beautiful.

  4. Hmmm...I'm not sure postmodernism or cultural studies have done much for anyone personality wise either.

  5. Interesting observations, Kerryn. Sometimes I think books, like movies, are ways to fill in the dreaded 'hours'.

    When I read novels as a younger person, usually I always hated the endings because they signaled that everything has a conclusion.

    Now I'm older I am resigned to the reading of the last chapter.

  6. Thank you for validating the dislike I felt for most of my English Lit lecturers.

    And it is a really beautiful post.

  7. This is a beautiful post and it helps me make more sense of your post over in Pavlov's Cat about JD Salinger's writing.

    The business of shining your shoes for the fat lady is to me a bit like the business of uttering little prayers to oneself even when you don't believe in god. It's about finding a way to make sense of the often seemingly meaningless life we live when faced with horror.

    Your thoughts on the study of literature resonate for me. During my matric year, a wonderful year as I recall, my parents separated, or should I say, my mother left my father to try to get him to see sense.

    We lived in this rundown sea-side cottage in Royal Parade in Parkdale and I dedicated myself to my studies. Perhaps because we were not living at home with my father that year, I was free of the usual stress of his drinking etc and so I was able to do well at my schooling.

    The Great Gatsby inspired me, not when I read it at first at school with the nuns, but when I looked up all the critical books in the Monash library and discovered there was a whole new way of thinking about what I had read, well beyond the nun's simplistic comments. Most of all I remember talk of Gatsby as symbolising the death of the great American dream, the death of illusion.

    These were entirely new ideas to me. I took heaps of notes, rote learned the stuff I'd read and managed to get an A in English literature for my matric year, the best mark I have ever received in my life.

    The rest was down hill because once I started in English lit at Melbourne university I discovered a new world of elitism and understandings that left me so far behind, I scraped through English one and two and stayed in social work. If only I could do it again, I'd do it all differently.

    Posts like yours remind me of the joys of literature and of reading. sorry to go on for so long in a comment. You can think of it as a measure of the beauty of your post. Thanks.