Can literature save your life?
A study in expectations
This past week I took part in a panel discussion on “The Novel as Life-Saver,” organized by the Volkswagen Foundation in Hannover. Since I’m in Toronto this year I joined via Zoom, which I was glad to be able to do — the topic of what literature can do for us in times of crisis has been something of an obsession of mine over the past decade.
I’ve been thinking about the conversation ever since it ended. It was wide-ranging, touching on the different forms of fiction in the public sphere (from novels and stories to conspiracy theories), considering everything from high art to Netflix, and covering the full emotional range from optimistic to suspicious. What struck me though was what high expectations we have of literature, and of art and the humanities more widely. We expect literature to make people wiser, more ethical, more empathetic, more imaginative and at the same time more critical as thinkers, more in touch with reality, and more resilient.
Like all instances of the rhetorical “we”, the ones in the last sentence are a fudge, a slippery way to assume some kind of common ground between me, you reading this right now, a handful of German professors, the attendees of the live event in Hannover, the eventual listeners of the program on the north-German radio station NDR, and whoever runs across the recordings online. Which is to say, this “we” is a lie. It doesn’t describe me. Maybe it doesn’t even describe you. But those expectations do seem to be floating around in the intellectual ether, and to some extent it is worth asking — what is literature good for?
One thing I’m quite sure about: reading literature doesn’t make people behave better. If there were any correlation between the number of books we read and our ability to treat others humanely, English department faculty meetings would be jolly festivities of care and consensus.
Nor am I convinced that reading good writing, deeply and carefully, necessarily leads someone to be more critical, more independent in their thinking, less susceptible to cognitive bias. Most people, whatever their level of education or culture, tend to align their beliefs with those of the group they belong to. The difference is that some people have a better vocabulary to argue for the opinions they borrowed from their friends.
At the same time, I have no doubt that literature can save lives. I know it because it has happened. Ten years ago I looked into Romanian prison memoirs from the mid-twentieth century to see how political prisoners held on to their sanity, sometimes to their very sense of humanity. These prisoners — who were often artists or intellectuals — quite naturally turned to poetry, storytelling, music, even scholarship in order to survive the psychological torments of captivity, solitary confinement, and torture. They also played chess, taught each other languages, wrote down their beloved recipes, and prayed. Sometimes they danced.
I feel like a bit of a broken record sometimes when I bring up the Romanian prisoners again. (And I will be doing so in another piece soon.) I have to remind myself that most people don’t know these stories, don’t know the many other stories I’ve encountered since I did this research on people turning to the life of the mind to hold on to the past, endure the present, and believe in the future. To me these stories are argument enough for the importance of art, imagination, creativity. They are what I keep in mind when literature threatens to turn into labour or duty.
The thing is: just because literature can save lives doesn’t mean we can expect it to do so. I suspect there are many book lovers for whom books are entertainment, nothing more. (Though I could also argue seriously for the importance of distraction, not just for its own sake, but to preserve one’s mental health in periods when the stress just won’t quit.) Ultimately, each relationship between a reader and a book (or a poem, or a play, or a song) is individual and accidental. There are books that meet us at just the right point in our lives, offering words to give shape to our existence. But there are also so many bad dates, books that may be good matches for other people, but just not what we need right here, right now.
This is why I find it so strange when people put the question in such general terms. Can literature save lives? Well, can food save lives? It goes without saying that people who are starving will endure for longer if they have food, and that having no food at all will lead to death. In practice though, not all food, at all times, is life saving. Some food brings pleasure but little nutrition, some is downright noxious, and many of the things people eat make no difference at all, not even to their hunger. Still, no one would think to ask whether "food” has value. The instances in which it is clearly necessary are enough to prove the point.
Why does art bear the burden of always living up to its best possible use?
A serious answer to that question would take a long time and a closer relationship to Kant than I’ve ever wanted. My hunch is that at least part of the answer has to do with a suspicion of pleasure. As long as literature can be made into something else — a science, a medicine, a moral, a fashion — it can stay in the universities and on the (sparse) funding budgets of government bodies. It can remain a respectable way to spend leisure time, a kind of time that is increasingly felt to be theft from work. It can be an accessory used in social posturing — after all, the desire to make a rival feel bad is an ancient and noble emotion.
On its own, however, literature (and the other arts) offer too much of an escape from reality to seem serious. Maybe this is a more important reason to discount it than the pleasures it offers. What is more suspect than someone who doesn’t stay trapped in the here-and-now? What is more frivolous than a belief in other kinds of existence, not measured by clocks and rulers? What kind of person dares to bend time? The very qualities that made art so liberating to the prisoners I once studied are what makes it reviled in more peaceful times. Or what looks like them.
Thank you for reading this far. If you like, let me know what has saved your life.
A Few Updates
I reviewed Lauren Groff’s novel about Marie de France, Matrix, for the New York Review of Books. My review was mixed, but Barack Obama named it one of his favourite books of 2021, and all things considered I’m delighted at the thought of the former president reading about medieval nuns.
I also reviewed Saša Stanišić’s Where You Come From for the New York Times. I was delighted by this book in both German and English. What I didn’t get a chance to describe in the review was how casual Stanišić’s style is, how conversational and playful, which distracts you from the sophistication of the book’s structure, and from the quiet tension that develops as the story progresses.