What is Literature Anyway?

When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

Let me press this just a little further. Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

 But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

Since then, the tradition has been broken. Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.

They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.

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One Response

  1. […] one thoughtful perspective from Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute. It starts with this post, What is Literature Anyway?. Kern […]

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