Literature - Robert Eaglestone - ebook

Literature ebook

Robert Eaglestone

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'Facts alone are wanted in life,' exclaims Mr Gradgrind at the beginning of Dickens' Hard Times. Literature is not about facts alone, and - despite two and a half thousand years of arguments - no one can agree on what it is, or how to study it. But, argues Robert Eaglestone, it is precisely the open-ended nature of Literature that makes it such a rewarding and useful subject. Eaglestone shows that studying Literature can change who you are, turning you from a 'reader' into a 'critic': someone attuned to the ways we make meaning in our world. Literature is a living conversation which provides endless opportunities to rethink and reinterpret our societies and ourselves. With examples ranging from Sappho to Skyrim, this book shows how Literature offers freer and deeper ways of thinking and being.

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CONTENTS

Cover

Front Matter

1 What is Literature?

Notes

2 Studying Literature

Literary Studies as Dialogue and Dissensus

Literary Studies as a Different Model of Education

Literary Studies as ‘Knowledge-in-Action’

Literary Studies as Craft and Activity

Conclusion

Notes

3 Why Does Literature Matter?

The Reader Project

‘Now, what I want is, Facts.’

The Professor of Happiness

Conclusion

Notes

4 What Does Literature Teach?

If You Study Literature, What Do You Become?

Crisis? Criticism!

Conclusion

Notes

Further Reading

Index

End User License Agreement

Guide

Cover

Table of Contents

Begin Reading

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Polity’s Why It Matters series

In these short and lively books, world-leading thinkers make the case for the importance of their subjects and aim to inspire a new generation of students.

Helen Beebee & Michael Rush, PhilosophyRobert Eaglestone, LiteratureLynn Hunt, HistoryTim Ingold, AnthropologyNeville Morley, ClassicsAlexander B. Murphy, GeographyGeoffrey K. Pullum, LinguisticsGraham Ward, Theology and Religion

Literature

Why It Matters

Robert Eaglestone

polity

Copyright © Robert Eaglestone 2019

The right of Robert Eaglestone to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2019 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3234-6

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Eaglestone, Robert, 1968- author.Title: Literature : why it matters / Robert Eaglestone.Description: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA : Polity, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2018032457 (print) | LCCN 2018051798 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509532346 (Epub) | ISBN 9781509532315 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509532322 (pb)Subjects: LCSH: Literature--History and criticism.Classification: LCC PN86 (ebook) | LCC PN86 .E24 2019 (print) | DDC 801/.3--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018032457

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website: politybooks.com

Acknowledgements

Thanks to: Barbara Bleiman, Poppy Corbett, Pie and Mel Corbett, Jane Davis, Philip Davis, Sarah Dobson, Justin Dyer, Alex Eaglestone, Bella Eaglestone, Ben Knights, Simon Kovesi, Ellen MacDonald-Kramer, Gail Marshall and Pascal Porcheron.

1What is Literature?

Hello. Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?

[She waves]

In our country, this is the way we say hello

It is a diagram of movement between two people

It is a sweep on the dial

Hello. Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?1

This welcome is from the American experimental artist Laurie Anderson; it’s a poem, but also a song and a sort of performance (the poet waves her forearm like the sweep of a dial). Is it literature?

No one really knows. We have a kind of hazy and indistinct idea of what literature is, but as soon as we try to pin it down, to define it, literature seems to slip away.

For example, take the idea that literature is simply ‘made up’ or fiction. But what about writing based on the historical record? Hilary Mantel’s historical novels draw on real events; many contemporary playwrights use the exact wording of interviews or government reports for ‘verbatim’ plays. More, the root of the word fiction doesn’t just mean untrue: it comes from the Latin word fingere, meaning ‘to shape, fashion, form’. Every writer – a scientist recording an experiment, a politician composing a speech, a copywriter drafting instructions about how to use a phone – shapes and chooses their words. And if literature tells us about the most important aspects of ourselves, about how we really are, or what, say, being in love is like, are these things untrue if in a poem or novel?

Or take the idea that literature tells a story, uses narrative. On the one hand, there are countless texts we think of as literary that don’t use narrative: lyric poems don’t tell stories; David Markson’s novel This is Not a Novel (2001) is made up of a series of statements, for example. On the other hand, there are texts we don’t think of as literature which do use narrative: an account of scientific research is a narrative. Telling a story isn’t unique to novels, so can’t define literature. Perhaps literature is just writing? Not necessarily, if we include, say, a poet making a crying noise or performing a gesture, or we think of the role of silence on stage; there are also ‘graphic novels’ which combine text and pictures; and some computer games are often so like novels they are called ‘ludo-fiction’. And again, writing covers more than literature. There’s also the idea that literature means just ‘great writing’ (‘Literature with a capital L’). But, as I discuss later, what makes a work of literature ‘great’, a ‘must-read’ for ‘every educated person’ (part of the ‘literary canon’), turns out to be pretty contentious and far from obvious; and a bad poem is still a poem.

Turning to history doesn’t help much with a definition either. The word ‘literature’ came to be used in English in the fourteenth century to mean ‘knowing about books’ in general. Isaac Newton’s works, from the late seventeenth century, were called literature, although we’d call them science today; the same is true of works of philosophy, history, and so on. It was in the mid-eighteenth century that people began to classify writing according to different types, and only then that ‘literature’ acquired our current vague sense of it as novels, poems and plays. As usual, the categories we use to define things, from grammatical terms to animal species, come much later than the things themselves.

Definition means limit: that’s the origin of the word, from the Latin finis, with the sense of end, finite, finish. But literature seems unlimited, infinite and, because each work provokes a response – delight, excitement, fascination, boredom, anger – somehow it’s always unfinished business. For literature, the categories we generally use just don’t seem to work. There are always exceptions, hard cases or examples that don’t fit.

And there’s a further problem. When you read, you never encounter ‘literature’ in the abstract: you encounter a particular text, ideally one that grabs you, a novel by J. K. Rowling or Leo Tolstoy, or a poem by Rupi Kaur or Sylvia Plath. It’s easier to explain why a particular work of literature matters to you (you identify with the main character or their situation, maybe, or perhaps your mum read it to you when you were a kid); it’s harder to explain why ‘literature in general’ should matter. This is why some provocative people say that literature (meaning, ‘literature in general’) doesn’t even exist.

So right at the beginning of a book called, rather grandly, Literature: Why It Matters, we find ourselves a bit lost (‘Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?’). How can we know why literature matters when we don’t have more than a hazy sense of what it might be?

I think that wanting to define literature is to approach this question in the wrong way. It is to use the methods of a scientist classifying nature or a lawyer who demands a cut-and-dried definition of everything. These approaches miss exactly what’s important. In his work the Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says that the origin of poetry is representation or imitation (the Greek word is mimesis) and it comes ‘naturally to human beings from childhood’: we love to imitate and we naturally take ‘pleasure in representations’ (20). Much of the Poetics is like a ‘how to’ guide for writing poetry and drama. The Greeks had very different ideas about literature from us, but we can take Aristotle’s point that literature is not an inert thing but an action or a craft that we do. Literature is more like a verb than a noun. Enjoying a walk is different from following the map of its route; appreciating the flowers of the hedgerow is not the same as knowing their formal botanical names. The enjoyment and appreciation may be hard to define but are real.

So I want to use a different and more sympathetic approach than that of the scientist or lawyer to think about why literature matters: a way that tries to express the walk, rather than be the map, that focuses on the appreciation not the dried specimens behind glass. This approach isn’t less precise: rather, as legal language frames the law or mathematical notation describes the movement of atoms, I’m going to choose a way that best fits the subject it addresses. In order to explore what literature is and why it matters, I’m going to use a literary technique known to everyone who has ever read a story or poem. I’m going to propose a metaphor for literature, then explore what it means and its consequences: a kind of literary critical analysis. Metaphors – as I’ll discuss in detail in chapter 2 – are the tools of thought. So when a poet writes, for example, that ‘my love is a rose’, it leads to the thought that the love is beautiful (like a rose) but also that it will fade and decay over time (as, like any flower, the rose dies). Inspired by the Laurie Anderson poem I began with (‘a diagram of movement between two people’), here’s my metaphor: literature is a living conversation. And using this metaphor, we can begin to see why literature matters.

This metaphor underlies lots of accounts of literature. Here’s Hector, the far-from-straightforward English teacher from Alan Bennett’s well-known play The History Boys (2004). He say that the

best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.2

I’ll come back to this later, but it shows one key obvious aspect of the idea that literature is a living conversation, that literature is a communication. We often think of communication as simply the transfer of data from one point another, but much more is implied by it. Communication needs at least two people (‘a hand has come out and taken yours’), a language and a medium (books, signs, lights, vibrations of sound in air, even looks). We can’t even understand ‘hello’ without finding out about these: just as every tiny piece of data tells us a great deal about the people, society and world it comes from, so even the smallest piece of literature relies on and somehow manifests a whole world.

Just as a conversation you hold with your friends can be about anything, so too literature can be about anything. As I’ve said, this is one of the reasons it can’t be defined. It can be about other people, and tell you more about an individual than you could ever really know; it can be about whole societies and cultures. It can shock or provoke or amaze or amuse or reform or corrupt you. Literature can be about the things that matter: beginning and birth, lies and truth, good and bad, ending and death. But it’s also about things that don’t matter or don’t even exist: mythical people, unicorns, mermaids.

Indeed, literature makes things matter. This is one of its mysteries. Prince Hamlet looks in wonder at the actor who is crying over the death of the mythical Queen Hecuba and the ruin of the city of Troy: ‘What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?’3 Similarly, a discussion of Dobbie the House Elf makes a generation of readers tear up. Thinking of literature as a conversation helps us explore this. In a conversation we ‘bring a subject up’ or ‘bring to light issues’ that concern us or mean something to us, and in doing this we show our own selves. Sometimes, in conversation with others (or even, silently, with ourselves), we discover what we didn’t know before, or reframe what we already somehow knew, in order to talk about it. Literature does the same: like conversation, it reveals, brings things up, puts events, experiences and thoughts into language so as to give them meaning.

But this process of revealing isn’t shapeless. We talk about ‘making conversation’ because we make, we shape, what we say. We do this not just in the content of the words we choose but also, for example, in the tone we take: the form. We can say ‘hello’ angrily, kindly, lovingly, sarcastically, and so on. In conversation, how we say something is as important as what we say. This is even more powerfully true for literature: the form is as important as – or even more important than – the content. Form has meaning: learning about literature is learning about form. Simple examples: an epic, whether it’s Paradise Lost or Game of Thrones, shows its importance by being very (very) long; in contrast, a sonnet shows its sophistication, its control and style in its brevity. The leading British critic Terry Eagleton makes these two points – about how literature makes meaning and the nature of form – when he writes luminously that poetry is ‘concerned not just with the meaning of experience, but with the experience of meaning’.4

Talking with someone is a creative act: conversation is a kind of improvisation between people, after all. So using the metaphor of literature as a living conversation means that creativity exists not just in the work of literature, or in the head of a famous author, but also in us, the reader. The creativity of literature is shared precisely because literature is an activity. This is where Hector’s beautiful image, above, is flawed: a hand reaches out in reading, yes, but you have to reach out to take it. This means that literature isn’t just about the books on the shelf: it’s about you thinking, responding, writing about, talking with