The Darker Side of Reading

Does literature, and specifically reading novels, lead to a more tolerant and non-violent world? This seems to be the argument implied in Elaine Scarry’s unfortunately titled “Poetry Changed the World” in The Boston Review.

Scarry writes about “literature’s capacity to reduce harm,” extrapolating her points from Steven Pinker’s much-publicized recent work of scholarly wishful thinking, The Better Angels of Our Nature. What she never once wonders about is whether literature doesn’t also have capacity to augment harm as well?

It certainly seems true that imaginatively entering into the thoughts and experiences of other people can make a valuable contribution to anyone’s moral development. But as recent events have unfortunately shown, it is not only people of different social situations, genders, etc. that literature allows us to imaginatively inhabit and sympathize with, but it also takes us into the minds of fictional killers like The Joker, the title character of Jim Thompson’s Killer Inside Me, and Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky doesn’t provide entry into the mind of the pawnbroker until the axe makes contact), to name only a few examples.

Her point about dialogue and debate being transmitted through poetry would be far more convincing if she didn’t try to bring in poetic works going back to Beowulf, along with “parallels” in Ancient Babylon. If all of poetry’s civilizing effect stretches so far and wide then what violence were we worried about in the first place?

The main point of the essay though is that the rise of the novel coincided with gains in civil society, though Scarry leaves the degree of influence open when she writes of literacy’s sudden rise as “instigating (or at least assisting) the legal reforms that together form the Humanitarian Revolution in the eighteenth century …” (my italics) I vote for assisting.

Scarry’s analysis really goes downhill when she claims that literature’s beauty is another factor in creating greater empathy and love of justice. Besides containing a host of silly examples, the idea makes her other arguments nonsensical. There was a lot of literary and artistic beauty before the eighteenth century and it accompanied the violent, strife-filled times the novel readers supposedly rescued us from later on.

This question mark of our supposed rescue from barbarism by reading novels is underlined all the more by the fact that for all her mention of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, Socrates, Rousseau and Middle English, there is no reference to the twentieth century – at all, as if the essay might be a reprint from the magazine’s archives from 1913. Yes, the problematic twentieth century, the one where well-read people perpetrated and encouraged a level and degree of violence that was unprecedented in history.

With a superficial picture of illiterate Nazi thugs and Soviet butchers brainwashed on socialist realist kitsch some might argue Scarry’s points are confirmed all the more. The reality is that there were many educated readers of many of the novels she mentions who were also convinced Nazis. The novels of Tolstoy would seem ideal representatives of the ethical power of literature yet I can’t even count the number of Russians I have met who haven’t been able to overcome their aversion to his books after having been forced to study them in Soviet schools. And what moral consequences did the love of beauty bring for those members of right-wing fascist movements across Europe from the 1930s through the end of the war – many of whom were genuinely artistically and intellectually gifted, but whose empathy remains hard to locate?

Scarry isn’t wrong to point out the ethical power of literature, but it is only one of the many powers it has. And while literature partaking of black magic along with white may have had some hideous consequences in the world as of late (assuming you can connect “acts of injuring” to literature at all) it has resulted in the ongoing vivacity of the novel form into the twenty-first century.

Richardson’s Pamela may have helped people feel greater empathy but I would rather read 2666, Confessions of a Murderer or Death in Rome.

Photo – Charles “Lucky” Luciano in exile in Rome, 1948 (Excelsior Hotel), possibly reflecting on all the beauty in the city surrounding him and its effect in making him want to work for greater justice in the world (or, then again, thinking about something else entirely).

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Categories: Essays


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4 Comments on “The Darker Side of Reading”

  1. paulstoutonghi
    01/08/2012 at 4:28 pm #

    This is a terrific response to Scarry’s essay, which I just read this morning in my hotel room in Butte, Montana. Anyhow — I think that I do agree with you, and fall on your side of the question. But it’s interesting: Instinctively, I side with Scarry. Or, rather, I “feel” her argument. Perhaps what I actually feel is the wish for her argument to be true. Because nothing would be better for writers than the sense that there is some kind of concrete contribution to the world, from their art.

    I think that Scarry — whose work I like, generally — is responding to the utter marginalization of the writer in American culture. And so she overreaches, perhaps out of defensiveness. I like your argument, though — especially the point about the lack of 20th century examples in Scarry’s piece. Great stuff, as always.

  2. 01/08/2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Thanks, and think the marginalization argument and sympathy with her intentions is just as true, say, in places in Europe that are going scarily rightward – again. I’d like the contributions to be there – and I think they are to a degree – but she marginalizes too much great literature that does something different while being beautiful in its own right.
    Was reading up on your book tour and thinking I’ll have to make it to Portland one day (never been). Good luck with the novel.

  3. The Tripping Pencil
    02/08/2012 at 2:49 am #

    Your statement about the unfortunately titled essay made me laugh. I must agree with your early comment about the difficulty of what Scarry proposes (that engaging with literature can reduce harm) in the face of being taken into the minds of dangerous characters such as The Joker. Like paulstoutonghi says above, I too want to believe that Scarry’s overall point is true. I do, to a large extent believe that reading literature does exercise our creative abilities to empathise. But empathising with a character like The Joker reminds me of the failure of John Keats’ negative capability – the ability to transcend any given context, which for Keats was largely through the medium of literature. Empathising is fine and great, until it’s for a bird with a broken wing. Your point about the ethical power of literature being only one of its powers is also just, because, indeed, our engagement with and interpretations of language have been responsible for many violent acts.

  4. 02/08/2012 at 3:15 am #

    I think the poetry argument she made (which, honestly was full of lingo, too many names and various eras) was only distantly connected to the main point about novel reading and empathy from the 18th cent. on
    And not that I could get into this in the article, but empathising with The Joker is obviously bad if you go on a killing spree, but fine if you’re like my 5-yr old twin boys who, like me, just think bad guys are way cooler than superheroes and do-gooders,

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