table of contents


Joshua Landy on the Uses of Literature

JOSHUA LANDY is associate professor of French and co-director of the Literature and Philosophy Initiative at Stanford. Professor Landy is the author of Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (Oxford University Press, 2004) and the co-editor of two volumes, Thematics: New Approaches (SUNY, 1995, with Claude Bremond and Thomas Pavel) and The […]

download transcript [vtt]
[ Music ]
This is KZSU, Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
We're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
[ Music ]
[ Music ]
We keep saying entitled opinions, but let's not forget that the full name of this show is entitled opinions on life and literature.
As Heidegger once said of being in time, it's all in the end.
Some of you may have noticed that on our website we've posted a link to an interview I recently gave to the journal Word and Image.
In his opening question to me, Ben De Bruin references this radio show, I quote,
"In the first installment of entitled opinions, you mentioned that your own research developed as a critical response to the anti-referential program of deconstructural research.
Literature as the subtitle of your show underlines is not divorced from, but fundamentally related to life.
At the same time, you mentioned that deconstruction has or had certain merits as well.
Would you mind elaborating on this intellectual background of yours?
I would be happy to Ben right after this.
[ Music ]
I was introduced to deconstruction after being steeped in Heidegger, who after Kant and Nietzsche was my baptismal philosopher.
It was the early Heidegger who won me over for the first time, the author of being in time, whose avowed objective was to bring philosophy back to the things themselves, in other words back to the phenomena of our life worlds.
It was Heidegger's drive to return to the facticity of lived experience which captivated me.
By contrast, deconstruction always gave me a sense of claustrophobia of being trapped in a dark, indoor theater where the drama revolved exclusively around the meaning of words, the mesonabim of semantic wordplay.
Deconstructions, textual choreographies did not mesmerize me as they did many of my academic peers in the 80s and early 90s because I failed to see the phenomenon on display there.
The natural home for deconstructions, textualization of the history of philosophy is the academy, which I'm sorry to say is not particularly devoted to lived experience or the wonders of appearance.
On the contrary, the academic humanities are where mostly photophobic people come together to analyze texts, found disciplines, and squabbled with each other.
So even after I saw a asylum in the academy, I remained and remained to this day a phenomenologist at heart.
So much for that part of my intellectual biography.
I have a guess with me in the studio who is not a deconstructionist, nor a photophobe, and who like me is interested in the intersections between philosophy and literature.
Joshua Landi is well known to our regular listeners.
I did a show with him on much said "pose" during the infancy of entitled opinions, and he has guest hosted two shows of his own since then.
Joshua is interested in theories of literature, although I suspect that he is not especially interested in what goes by the name of literary theory, a term that came into vogue with the advent of deconstruction.
Joshua will speak for himself on this score, but let me state for the record that while I think I know what philosophy is and think I know what literature is, I'm not sure what literary theory has to do with either of them.
Literary theories usually know in advance what they will find in a literary work.
Deconstructors will find defejans, displacement, dissemination, and invagination.
Marxists will find false consciousness, ideology, and the political unconscious, and queer theorists will find something queer, either overt or closeted.
I am not a theorist precisely because I am a phenomenologist who approaches literature in the spirit of inquiry and discovery, the discovery of something you did not know, or even suspect beforehand, was lurking within the folds of the literary artifact.
Literary theory is not adventurous, but tends to be contemptuous of what I take to be the hallmark of any great literary work, namely its strange singularity.
If there is something distinctive about phenomenological reading, as I understand it, it is its insistent listening to the voice of the poet, or to the voice of literature as such.
Such listening is, in its ideal form, without prejudice.
When it comes to the relation between literature and philosophy, for example, I start from the conviction that literature knows better than philosophy, what philosophy seeks to articulate and abstract terms.
Knows it not only more intuitively, but also less naively.
Literature is a phenomenon Pareks et alce, not because it represents or tells us something, but because it intimates or shows us something that otherwise remains unapparent and unthematized.
Sometimes literature rests truth from concealment, yet more often than not it merely reveals how much of the truth remains enveloped in shadows.
Where truth makes an appearance in literature, it brings to light the penumbra that surrounds or suffuses its revelations.
That's why I believe literature is the phenomenological medium Pareks et alce. It unveils the world as it were, as well as are being in it.
In the art of the novel, Milan Kundera speaks of how the Whoserlean Project of Recovering the Labans' Belt, the lived world, is realized, most fully in the novel.
Not in Whoserlean or Heideggerian philosophy, and I agree with him about that.
Literature is the flesh of philosophy, not its figurative representation, but its incarnate truth as it were.
But it's time to find out what my guest thinks of this and other related issues, Josh. Welcome back to entitled opinions.
Thanks very much for having me back, Rort.
I made what some people might consider subtle or over subtle distinction between theory of literature and literary theory.
I don't know if you have any thoughts on that and whether you think there is a difference in the way I do.
I love the way you put it. I think that there's a tremendous difference between the kind of thinking about literature in general that allows literary texts and genres and modes and so on to differ among each other.
On the one hand, on the one hand, on the other hand, this literary theory that is the cookie cutter approach, where it's one size fits all and you know in advance where you're going to get out of any given text or tradition.
So I couldn't agree more. I think that what we need to be doing more and more of these days is literary, sorry, is theory of literature in your terms rather than literary theory.
Or reading of literature if that's what my theory of literature amounts to, it calls for reading, not just close reading in the old sense of kind of formalism, but a reading which is in my view attentive to what may lie hidden again as I said in the shadows and to spy out what's uncanny in a work.
Right and you know it can go of course beyond the level of an individual work. I mean there's nothing wrong with finding something out about a group of works, but that's very different from making one of these grand claims about literature in general or we're still art in general, something like that which is the kind of gesture that sells a lot of books, but is unlikely to yield as much truth.
Do you think that's one reason why literary theory has had such a run in the academy is because it does have this presumption of having a grand theory and therefore it sells a lot of books and allows students to write dissertations on the basis of a certain set of pre-established principles?
Look I don't want to dismiss everything that's ever happened in the name of theory. I think many very interesting things have been discovered, but there is something a little troubling about the grand gesture which yes encourages students to write on coattails and makes it easy to do so.
I think of it this way I think of literary scholars and people interested in literature as those people for whom beauty is the most important thing.
And unfortunately this spills over into thinking and we become accustomed to evaluating everything on the basis of its power and beauty and including ideas.
So that's why I think we are particularly susceptible to these grand gestures, some of which I think of as the beautiful, some of which I think of as the sublime.
So some of them are are are fallaciously comforting and some of them are fallaciously un
I think of the question why these things have been so successful. Why does such a market for them especially among lovers of literature?
I think you know unfortunately people are playing the same standards to the theories as the artillery works and asking rather than asking the question does this whole true they're asking the question is this
is this powerful is this exciting? Well it may well be but that's a different question. I'll tell you where I stand on this I would not want to take any literary theories you know out of play.
I think that the fact that they exist in rich the possibilities of you know the reading of literature I just don't want to subscribe to one in a sort of manner in which I'm condemned to reiterate it's you know its founding premises when I encounter a work of literature of any sort.
Personally I find that deconstruction can help me in certain cases to unravel something that's enigmatic in a work on Marxist.
I'm pretty supposition is called for in some cases I'm persuaded by that and other cases yeah I'm glad that queer theory exists because there are works where it seems to be in play.
So I'm not one of these I don't know where you come down on this but I would not want to banish them from our Republic of letters as it were I don't know. Would you banish them?
I would banish almost none but not quite none. So I agree completely with you that we need queer theory we need feminist theory very I mean maybe more than anything we certainly need Marxism and so on but I don't think that the kinds of things that one can do with deconstruction cannot be done using other tools.
I think the kinds of things you can usefully do can be done otherwise and I think what tends to be done with deconstruction is the grand gesture.
I think it almost it almost requires you to make the grand gesture.
So how do you conjugate this kind of uneasy relationship you have to literary theory with your own very strong commitment to studying literature in relation to philosophy you founded a whole program here at Stanford on literature and philosophy.
So obviously you are not at all a verse to a kind of grand speculation when it comes to literature and in fact you have a theory of literature of your own which we're going to talk about in a moment but how do you see yourself avoiding what you call the cookie cutter.
I think it's possible to be a pluralist and it's not a sexy and it doesn't solve many books but you mean a pluralist you can use all of the various theories you can use it right some number.
I tend to think when you look at the history of aesthetics every esthetician has a single view.
So Kant has one view about what the experience of the aesthetic is.
Well two maybe if you include the beautiful and sublime is different.
Plato has one view, Aristotle and so on.
My sense is that most of them are right about some texts and maybe there are other views that haven't been articulated yet.
They're also right about some texts and so you are going slightly beyond the level of individual texts so you can call it a theory lowercase t but it's not this all purpose everything included capital T theory.
Well that's you would fit right in at Chicago the school of pluralistic thinking I've always had a little suspicion about pluralism in so far as it seems to have a kind of everything goes within its proper proportion.
Whereas I find that a lot of things actually get revealed as a phenomenon I'm speaking as a phenomenologist that sometimes very strong commitments to a particular agenda or particular theory or particular ideology can provoke revelations also through the
the polemics between competing schools so rather than this sort of tolerant pluralism where everyone has equal rights as citizenship sometimes the ground of battle between one theory and another I think can I wouldn't want to get that.
Well mine is an intolerant pluralism.
What that means is I'm willing to entertain and I think it's necessary to entertain many different understanding of what literary texts can do.
In individual cases I tend to think that there's often a best way of reading a given text.
I think certain texts just would be the best way of reading a text is something that is determined by the best theory to use in a particular instance or do you take your lesson from the work itself which teaches us how to read it which is what I believe.
I'm one of those who think along with people like Kalinescu and Todorov that each work teaches us to read it which work has a kind of inset manual for use and it's up to us to seek out that manual and follow it.
And if we do we'll get what the work uniquely has to offer us and if we don't well too bad for us and it's always possible to resist.
And by the way another gripe I have with these theories is they often think that something happens automatically in our relationship with text.
It never happens automatically.
We always have a choice to read in attentively to skip to stop halfway through and certainly not to bother to locate this manual for use and to read it wrong.
Well let me see let me test how far I agree with you and where we may actually disagree on this because the manual for use seems to suggest that there is an inbuilt set of rules that the work brings to bear in its own textuality or its artifactuality if you want to use that word.
And that once we learn how to read it then we arrive at the correct reading of it.
Whereas what I found more often than not or at least what I found most interesting in my readings is when I feel that I am reading the work on its own terms and I find that it leads me to an edge of complete opacity in
and that there is no way to penetrate into some kind of ultimate revelation about what it's about and therefore that there is no ultimately correct reading of it and it's not a manual for defamiliarization or disorientation if anything in some cases.
Yes, but that's entirely consistent with my view. And I'm glad you asked that question because I wouldn't want to be taken to be saying that you end up with a reading in the sense of an interpretation in the sense of a meaning that would be a stake through my heart.
I think that the whole idea of looking for meanings in literary texts is a complete mistake.
And some of them by all means some of them invite you to that precipice and that's exactly the right way of reading them.
That's what it means to read them well. So reading something well doesn't mean having a reading which is to say extracting some kind of propositional content.
I think that's almost always a mistake.
So when it comes to the relationship between philosophy and literature in what way does this mode of reading you're describing intersect with philosophy or at what point does philosophy come to your aid or is there a yield in literature that translates into kind of philosophical wisdom at a certain point beyond literary wisdom?
Well, that's a big question and of course there are a number of ways. Let me just give one example.
If we think about philosophy not just as a set of ideas but also as a way of life, then I think there's a huge intersection.
Because philosophers have for a very long time been interested in what it means to live well.
And that could mean living morally well, it might mean just you've done many years in kind of contentment.
I mean at our exeater freedom from care, if these are properly understood as philosophical goals, well then literary texts properly read can help us to attain them.
So there's a kind of philosophical payoff. How would a literary text do that?
So one of the strands of lowercase literary theory that I hold to is the idea that the reading of certain literary texts is a formal spiritual exercise, which is to say it's a way of fine tuning certain capacities that we have.
So we all have these capacities already but they can be more or less developed.
What sort of capacities?
For example is reason. So you read a dialogue by Plato. It's very weird. The character's Socrates is making all kinds of mistakes.
This is a controversial view but I'm just going to insert it in there.
And what we're doing, we're reading those dialogues is fighting.
Finding problems, fixing the problems. If we're doing that, then we're doing philosophy.
And if we're doing philosophy then we're fine tuning our capacity for reason.
And that according to various thinkers is what it takes to be living the good life.
So there's a clear connection between a literary form, which is the dialogue form in which none of the characters can fully be trusted.
And a kind of work that you're doing that's in support of a philosophical way of life.
Would the same exercise of reason apply to a work that we would consider more traditionally literary rather than Plato's dialogues?
Many people consider them actually works of philosophy rather than literature.
I'm sure that it's ambiguous.
Absolutely. I mean I think that the same holds true in different ways for a Beckett, for example, not May.
The parables of the New Testament, which of course are embedded within a non-fictional frame.
But are themselves fiction? Those stories that everyone knows they didn't really happen.
But I think that they're designed to do a certain kind of work on us.
To exercise reason.
Sorry. Okay. So in this case, the exercise is our capacity for figurative thought.
Figurative thought.
So here, it's a very different understanding of what the right way of life is.
Here the right way of life is a way of life in which you leave behind the literal and you move to the figure role.
You move from the letter to the spirit. You move towards God's perspective on the world.
What better way to do that than by playing with the figurative capacities of language?
And I think that's what the parable form is all about. That's why Jesus is so insistent on using it over and over again.
In spite of the fact that people don't understand it, even his disciples don't understand what the parables are actually about.
Yeah, I rarely understand them.
But on the other hand, he says in answer to the question, why do you speak in parables so that those who don't believe will not understand?
So that's in Mark IV. It's an extraordinary moment.
We expect him to say I speak in parables so that people will understand me.
It's a much clearer way of expressing myself.
No, you're quite right. He says the exact opposite.
I don't want the outsiders to be let in.
But he also says another thing. He says to him who has will more be given.
And from him who has not, even that which he hasn't been taken away.
So it's not just to keep the outsiders out.
It's also to reward the insiders with more of what they already had, which I think is the capacity to handle figurative language.
I like that.
It reminds me of my monologues to entitled it because I often considered a form of parable to exclude the outside.
That you have to, it's a barrier that if you can get to the other side and you can get into it.
And then you get more.
Then you get more.
So we've spiritual exercises. We've talked about reason and in the parables, the case of figurative thought.
Any other capacities?
So I gave the example of Malaure May, but you could generalize to self-reflexive fiction.
Self-reflexive fiction and poetry gets a kind of a heyday.
And you've got to ask yourself why.
Why all of a sudden?
It's going to be talked about way earlier.
So the German romantic is talking about it almost 100 years earlier.
But it really achieves a kind of peak at a time when disenchantment is hitting its peak towards the end of the 19th century.
And it seems to me, as you know already, I'm a big fan of the notion of reenchantment.
You wrote a beautiful piece for a boyly my editor.
You got a great show on title opinions about it with Mike Sailor.
So my thought about reflexivity of this period is, I mean, most people say it's a kind of reflection of the way people are thinking about the world.
I actually think it's more active than that.
I think it's a corrective to the way people are thinking about the world.
It's offering us the opportunity to find two in our capacity to believe and disbelieve at the same time.
Because that's what we're going to need in this newly disenchanted world.
So that's another example.
If I'm right, obviously it's very speculative of a literary case in which the aim is to offer us a kind of training ground on which to find you in our capacities.
So in this vein, I know that you, along with spiritual exercise, you have other, let's say, views about the uses of literature.
And by the uses of literature, we don't mean some kind of functionalistic payoff.
But somehow where literature gives us something that no other kind of discourse or phenomenon can give us.
And in this regard, you speak about clarification.
What do you mean by clarification?
Well, what I mean by that is actually a slight, I think it would place a slight difference between what you were saying in part of your monologue and what I take to be the function of literature on this dimension.
I took you to be saying that literature has the power to reveal something that's remained hidden.
And I'm a little less angry about that. I'm not quite sure that happens.
And I think actually I would be a little worried if people were to read Dante and take very seriously some of the things that are represented there.
We can talk about that.
My take is closer to buff teams, for example, which is, well, he says the word in language is half someone else's.
It becomes one's own, only when the speaker populates it with his own intention.
And he has this idea that literary checks were at least novels, especially in the 19th century novels, are full of characters running around talking in different ways about life.
And these different ways of talking about life are points of view on the world.
And what we're doing as readers in entering into that discussion is finding our own way of speaking.
So, clarification for me doesn't mean the revelation of something we didn't know about the world.
What it means is knowing what it is we already knew, feeling what it is we already felt, thinking, understanding what it is we already thought.
Well, here, let's take that. It's very interesting.
The comment that also is echoed by Ithalo Calvino, actually in a book which in English is called The Uses of Literature, given that we're talking about the uses of literature.
I can quote to you from his 8th definition of what is a classic.
He says, "A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before.
In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known or thought we knew, but without knowing that this author said it first or at least is associated with it in a special way.
And this too is a surprise that gives a lot of pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an orangent, origin, a relationship, an affinity.
So this, I believe with you, if I understand you correctly, that literature reveals is not something that is hidden, but it's hidden in the literary fabric itself.
And that sometimes one can go for centuries without actually noticing it until some theorist actually, or reader, comes along and point something out, which then it looks like it's been there all along.
And we didn't need that person to reveal it for us because it was revealed in the literature.
And this is where I think our colleague Renégita had, for example, who I can ask you later whether you think that he is his memetic theory of human desire is a literary theory or not.
But he can read any number of literary works, mostly novels, but he can also read the count of five of the Inferno of Paolo and Francesca and show what has been there ever since that work was written in the early 14th century, which is that there's this memetic mechanism whereby there's a mediator, the book and the lovers are creatures of a certain kind of memetic mechanism.
And then you can say, well, we didn't need Gerard to tell us that.
Dante tells us that. Yes, but sometimes you need a Gerard to reveal what is already revealed in the work, but somehow escapes our attention.
I wouldn't say that's quite the same as the view that I'm pushing, the view I'm attributing to Bactin, which I also think is Kondair's view.
My version of you is that we as individuals are hidden from ourselves.
We operate based on commitments, so we have what you might call beliefs, but they don't really rise to the level of beliefs in the sense that we're not fully aware of them.
And what an encounter with powerful literary texts does, I think, among other things, is to force us to take a stand and bring that commitment out of the light.
That's a bit different from the point you're making, which is something about the nature of the world is revealed to all of us, thanks to a literary critic and I guess certain literary texts.
Or not thanks to the literary critic, but the literature reveals it, but sometimes it lays dormant for centuries before someone actually sees it and then once it's seen, then it, as Colveno says, you recognize it as something that was always there to start with.
I'm still a little bit leery of this approach because it still sounds like an approach that attributes to literature, the power to transmit propositional information.
So we didn't know before that desire is my metric and now we do know thanks to literature.
And I'm a little nervous of those kinds of views because there are all kinds of literary works and they're subtended by very different beliefs about the world.
So for example, you might read the Iliad and think, "Aha, glory is more important than life."
And then you read the Odyssey and you're thinking, "Oh, okay, life is more important than glory."
So it makes me a little nervous to think that the point of literature would be to learn some kind of lesson about life.
Well, it's, I didn't use a word lesson, but I would say that while I agree with you that you don't want to totalize any kind of theory of desire as you would find it in one specific instance, like in Paolo and Francesca, but someone like
Girard has been able to canvas a great many literary works. He would like to think all of literature can be subsumed under his mimetic theory, which I'll agree with you that it's not going to apply in every case.
But he makes a pretty compelling case that literature is first and foremost a place where human desires are put into play and are engaged in endless conflicts.
And that literature tells us something about who we are insofar as we are creatures of desire.
Now, I don't know if you would agree with that as a characterization and as a premise, but if that is the case,
then desire has a privileged role to play in literature.
And if it comes to an agenda where literature helps us on the path to self-knowledge, then one of the first things we have to confront is what is the nature of what motivations actually move my desire.
Do I really know them?
Right. And so I think we're a green imparted disagreement.
I definitely agree very much for that last month. Let me give an example.
I'm taken from the area I know best, Prust.
So one of our Stanford PhDs, L.A. Pishui, wrote a lovely paper on the subject of desire in Prust.
So he asked the following question.
Why does Swan fall in love with Odette in Swan in Love?
So those of you listening at home who've read Prust, think about this question.
Why does Swan fall in love with Odette?
If you have your answer, it turns out he falls in love with Odette eight times.
So eight first times when he falls in love with her.
And each time for a different reason.
And the reasons are conflicting.
So for example, he falls in love with her because she's remote, but he also falls in love with her because she's available.
And he falls in love with her because she reminds him of a painting and he falls in love with her because he's listening to this music.
And yes, he falls in love with her because of my manic desire.
Yeah, very claim, and I think it's an brilliant one is that what we're, you know, the manual for reading here is learn from this that this is a novel which doesn't work the way that other novels do.
And what it's actually doing is tempting you to take up a position and pick one.
You pick one of these eight and you discard the others.
What's on offer here? Self knowledge. Because if you notice that you've done this, you could read back from that to learning something about yourself.
You could learn, oh, I must be the kind of guy who's tempted by this theory of my manic desire.
I'm the kind of guy that's tempted by an aesthetic theory of love or something like this.
Unfortunately, of course, the Giorh theory of proof is it's all my manic desire.
So that's a case where I think the offer of the manual for reading was not accepted.
But you wouldn't deny that sometimes that mimetic desire is exactly what is that work.
Sometimes, but that's the crucial difference between me and Giorh.
Sure. But I think yes, of course, sometimes some people fall in love because there's a mediator.
But plenty of times they don't. I mean, I think, you know, why do you love Dante? You don't love Dante because just because somebody put you on to it or something.
Well, you love Dante for for real reasons because it's an extraordinary work of literature.
And I think to be sure my manic desire is a real phenomenon and it's somewhat widespread, but it's not universal.
And I'm not sure how much. I mean, there's a danger, of course, in overreading.
So you pick up proof and you think, "Aha, it's another instance of my manic desire."
When in fact, what's really interesting about that story with Swam Nodet is that it's resisting any easy reading in terms of any one given theory of how love works.
I agree with that entirely, but if there are eight different reasons why Swam falls in love, it could be because the nature of desire itself is one that is in gender as a kind of hallucinogenic relationship to the object,
where what Stondat called crystallization that you can, it is able to accommodate contraries. It defies the law of contradiction so he can fall in love with her because she's available and because she's remote.
And because the imagination will crystallize the beloved or the object in ways that, you know, defy the normal operations of the psyche, which is itself a revelation about the insta,
unstable nature of desire and how that's one thing we can learn, which is we cannot submit desire in all instances to any kind of pre-established formal models of behavior.
So that could be one way of reading it. But again, I'd want to say, "Look, let's say you were right about proofed." I'd still, which I'm going to resist.
But let's say, you know, I'd still want to preserve a space for works of fiction which don't have the aim of revealing something about the nature of desire or about the human condition or something like that.
But rather have the aim of revealing us to ourselves.
I take that to be Kanderas way of thinking too. He says that novelistic thinking is fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas.
It does not judge, it does not proclaim truths, it questions, it marvels, it plums.
And I think, again, I wouldn't want to apply that to all works of fiction.
But certainly all of Kanderas would fall into this.
They're not designed to reveal something about the nature of desire, for example.
They're designed to enable us to discover ourselves through the experience of reading them.
What I know of Kanderas' theory of the novel is that, to begin with, it's a deeply historic understanding of the novel as a genre that evolves through time.
He starts with Cetavanthis and he goes all the way up to himself and he calls this to the legacy of Cetavanthis.
And he also realizes just how fragile the genre is and it's very dependent on historical, social and political circumstance.
And he says people talk about the end of the novel. We've seen the end of the novel in Soviet Russia, where this grand, novelistic tradition within just a few decades was just stamped out.
And it's a kind of catastrophe that happens silently.
And therefore, the novel cannot exist, cannot further its history in totalitarian regimes.
And he also goes on to suggest, I'm reading from his essay, The Depreciated Legacy of Cetavanthis, that we live in an age of homogenization and globalization, which for him is equally hostile in some points of view to the novel and to literature as totalitarianism.
And if you'll bear with me, the unification of the planet's history, that humanist dream which God had spitefully allowed to come true, has been accompanied by a process of dizzying reduction.
True, the termites of reduction have always not a way at life. Even the greatest love ends up as a skeleton of feeble memories, but the character of modern society, hideously exacerbates this curse.
It reduces man's life to its social function, the history of a people to a small set of events that are themselves reduced to a ten dentious interpretation.
Social life is reduced to political struggle, and that in turn to the confrontation of just two great global powers, man is caught in a veritable whirlpool of reduction, where Husserl's life world is fatally obscured and being is forgotten.
And so he says, if the novel is on death, to keep the world of life under a permanent light, and to protect us against the oblivion of being, is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist.
He says, yes, but alas, the novel is to ravage by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world, but also the meaning of works of art.
So what sort of importance do you accord to historical and political circumstance when it comes to literature's power to maintain its vocation as a privileged place of self-knowledge?
And do you historicize your theory of it?
Absolutely, and it's one of the great tragic facts about human experience that great things are extremely hard to build and extremely easy to destroy.
And the same is true of the great benefits that can be conferred on all of us through the reading of these works.
And I include the poetry and I include film, and I include all cultural productions of a certain seriousness.
But for us to be able to get what they have to give us, institutions of reading are all important.
And one of the points that Kondera makes so powerfully is that these days everyone is driven to extract a message.
They want everything, including works of fiction, to deliver them what he calls easy answers, whereas as he sees it, the whole point of novels is to tell you things are not as simple as you think.
And I think he's right.
I think you're referring earlier to a certain false kind of utilitarianism.
I think there's a good, if you like, if you want to call it, I mean, utilitarianism is a bad name, but there are uses of literature.
But literature is only useful if we approach it and so to speak a non-utilitarian spirit.
If we don't try to put it through some kind of mincemeat maker to extract a simple, propositional message at the end.
I recommend it to a friend recently to read Tony Morrison's Song of Song, which is one of my favorite novels of all time.
And he said, "Yeah, it's pretty good, but it takes too long getting to the point."
So this is where literature is really, I completely agree with you, totally at the mercy of history,
in the sense of the history of institutions of reading. If we tell people the whole reason to read novels is because you will learn something, some message that you can take away.
Well, then they're going to be impatient when it turns out the message isn't revealed to them on page 10.
So we need a different way of talking about novels that's going to keep it alive.
Well, that's assuming that all the burden falls on us as teachers of literature,
whereas I think Kundera is suggesting that there are certain geopolitical realities that determine the fate of the novel and of literature.
And that literature can heroically resist reductionism,
but that reductionism is going to finally win out in the end.
That's the pessimism that we get there.
And the depreciated legacy of said, "Vanthes is just going to be that depreciated, a depreciated legacy."
And I have to say that I find myself in a quandary when it comes to this question more and more as a teacher of literature.
And for you and I have taught in our freshman introduction to the humanities course where it's a two-part sequence where in the winter quarter,
you know, we do the epic tradition from Homer through Dante.
And then the second one is the modern era. And I was speaking to a student after class just last week who said that he likes this quarter because it's about the epic tradition.
And you have all these moral certainties that are proposed by the authors and that they have a distinct worldview.
Whereas his experience in the previous quarter, the fall quarter, which is preparatory to that everyone was trying to get the students to approve the
and appreciate that literature doesn't give them any answers, doesn't give them any moral thing.
But this kind of ambiguity and ambivalence is something that one, I think, runs the risk of starving the student of certain fundamentals.
And I think that before you can appreciate ambivalence and ambiguity and the impossible contradictions that first you have to engage in a massive effort of reconstruction before you can start deconstructing.
Well, that's true, but I want to say two things. First, people have to have strong views on the table.
But what if they don't? But then you give them those views, but you don't have to give them those views through literature.
Which is a very inefficient way of delivering strong views. You have them read, well, the Bible say, right? It doesn't have to be fiction.
And also, when it comes to reading fictions, I agree with your impatience. I think just saying this work is ambiguous, is not sufficient.
What you have to say, you have to get much clearer lines and say this particular work is forcing a choice between x and y.
And you have to narrow it down, you have to give reasons for x and reasons for y. And by doing that you can actually do the students a favor. You can actually put some more things on the table.
So I do want to agree with you that there is a way of talking about ambiguity that I would shy away from.
But I don't think that the solution is to introduce positive views solely through works of fiction.
And I think that's misleading. And I ultimately think it's the death of fiction. Because if readers today become convinced that the only value of reading fiction is to extract some kind of view, then in the long run that is a recipe for its death.
No, listen, I mean sympathetic with that for sure. I just find it challenging as a pedagogue sometimes to have as my primary purpose, you know, to point out all the intricacies and complexities, everything that Kundeira identifies as the virtues of the novel, which is that it militates against totalitarian views.
It militates against reductionism against simplicity, ideology. And it shows that our lived experience is far more ambiguous if you want to use that trike term or hard to categorize.
And that it does more justice to the real dilemmas that we face. But as you said, a lot of people, because of the age, are resistant to this sort of pedagogies. They want to know what's the point. Is it good or bad? Is this character on the right side or the bad side and so forth?
And he comes there in this case, when I spoke about his pessimism, he's not sure that the novel, for example, has a future in Europe.
And he says that the future is not a value for him because, and I love this because he says, once upon a time, I thought the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions.
Later on, I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty, for the future is always my dear and the present. It will pass judgment on us, of course, and without any competence.
It will pass judgment, but without any competence. So if the future is not a value for me, then what am I attached to? God, country, the people, the individual.
My answer is as ridiculous as it is sincere. I am attached to nothing, but the depreciated legacy of Sedwan.
That's beautiful.
And he's right. He's constantly, I love these questions he asks. He says, so who's right?
Charles Boverer or Emma Boverer, who's right? Karen in or 11.
And he says, everyone always wants to know who's right. And nobody's right and wrong in these great novels.
And then, of course, someone wants to resort to then a secondary message, which is, aha, well, now I have the message, and that is that everyone is right and wrong, and no one has an opagal in the truth.
But this isn't what reading those novels is about. Reading those novels is about undergoing an experience. It's not about extracting some message, whether it's the message that Karen and his right and that.
It's wrong or whether it's this higher order message. Nobody's right. No, no, no, no. The whole point, I think that that Madame Boverer, for example, is supposed to be an almost Zen-like experience, where we come in with deep passion of attachments.
And we allow them to get attached to these two characters who have antithetical interests. And ultimately, I think the point is for those two conflicting designers to cancel each other out and leave us beyond desire.
That's not a message. That's an experience. That's some kind of result of a loving and patient encounter with a text.
But again, I think Kundera is right to worry that it's less and less likely to happen.
The other issue I'd like to raise with you, Josh, because I know you've done a lot of work on it, is self-deception.
Because as you know, on this show, I've often argued that it's one of the pathologies of our kind of time.
Our capacity to deceive ourselves seems endless one way or another. And if one thing that literature can't, one use it can have, is to serve as an antidote to our almost native intrinsic capacity for self-deception by unmasking the ways in which characters themselves are deceiving themselves.
Do you think that's an important aspect of it?
Yes, and no. So again, I do think it's an offer and it's important to offer.
I completely agree with you that we are desperately opaque to ourselves, and we understand ourselves generally much less well than we think.
And I also think that a certain kind of reading of a certain kind of literary text can really help us to overcome that.
The only question for me is, is it necessarily going to happen? And my sense is, no, it's not.
And I could give you all kinds of lovely examples of cases where people point to certain literary texts as great evidence that such and such happens in somebody else.
When, of course, it's a Moton Beam and they don't realize that it's, the text could apply beautifully to their own situation.
So it seems to me that self-deception is still possible even when you're reading a literary text.
Well, given that, if you believe that, then how do you reconcile that with your assumption that we can learn from literature almost as a manual in order to get a fuller understanding of ourselves, is there something in us which will resist ever learning the lessons when it comes to
close to home? Maybe, and that's a really interesting question that I hadn't thought about.
My feeling is, of course, many people just won't take the offer at all.
But some people, if they know that its possibility might well take the work up on it, might well take the opportunity to read, let's say, ignorance by
chondera. As a way to start thinking really seriously and emotively about their relationship to their past, is there a point at which it becomes too uncomfortable?
Maybe. I don't know. As I said, I hadn't thought about that question. But maybe at least you can get some of the way.
Maybe at least you can start getting more serious about where you stand on the question of, in the case of ignorance, the question of to what extent we can and should own our past.
And what if I were a psychoanalytic theorist of literature, because psychoanalysis had a thriving heyday for a while in literary theory.
But even the professional psychoanalysts were to say to you and me that everything you've been talking about in the last hour about literature and its ability to serve a spiritual exercise and further self knowledge and clarify that actually,
it's a much more effective place for it is in dialogue with the psychoanalysts who can is professionally and clinically qualified to go step by step and lead you to that promise land rather than rely on the randomness of works of literature. How would you answer a psychoanalyst in this regard?
I think he'd have an easier time of it or she in the case of clarification than the case of the spiritual exercise.
I think you, or let's say you'd need to specially train an analyst to lead you through the spiritual exercise.
Now, of course time was when there were such people and we had the Epicurees, you know, we had the skeptics and it was clear to everyone in those schools what the good life was
and how to achieve it and everyone understood that it required an awful lot of work and you had a teacher and you could be guided step by step through that.
But they too had their writings and writings even for them were a necessarily adjunct to the pedagogy.
Oh absolutely, this is what makes Freudian psychoanalysts so closely akin to literature and it's not by chance that Freud spends a lot of time writing about works of literature and finding a literature goldmine for the exercise of psychoanalytic interpretation.
And I think it's not by chance that many of the so-called founders of schools that then become literary theory were really nourished on literature.
It's the deconstructors who read Dettie Dah and maybe the philosophers at days I was reading and hardly ever read the literature that day I was reading forget that he was nourished on Beckett and on Joyce and on Paul's series of literary authors,
the same with Michel Foucault who is now the guru of a whole school of academic interpretation that it's again he found in literature the inspiration for a lot of things, same with Marx, reader of literature, he died.
It seems like where you have a kind of vibrant and beautiful grand theories of the sort that you're wary of and skeptical of with good reason.
I don't think it's by accident that literature is one of the primary source of inspiration for those people.
Not to mention that these days, therapists are more and more turning to narrative theories of therapy.
They're more and more interested in this notion which we haven't talked about today, maybe we can talk about it just very briefly, that one of the things that human beings powerfully need is a sense of their life as a totality.
In order to do that, the only resource we have is stories.
Our language isn't very rich in terms for things that have some kind of unity even though they change across time.
So you always think the question will colors it tomato.
Well, the real answer is green then red or green then yellow.
We have no adjective for that.
That's why we need stories.
We need to have heard lots and lots of stories so we can abstract from the specific content and just feel our way into the form because that's the way that we can experience our life as a totality.
And so rather than the psychoanalysts coming in here and berating you and me and saying, "You guys have it all wrong.
I prefer to think of him or her coming in and saying, "Thanks a lot. You literary theorists gave us a lot to think about."
I agree. In this regard, one of my favorite books of literary criticism is Frank Kermod's The Sense of an Ending where he points out that a human existence does not conform to stories because there's always a before and always an after.
And human time is lived in the meantime.
And therefore, this is the basis for our profound need for stories that have a kind of coherent beginning, middle and end because it's the only way that meaning is actually produces through this sort of thing,
by a certain kind of classical literature for a lot of people and students.
It's ultimately more satisfying than a certain kind of high modernist or even postmodernist fragmentary, non-unitaries or forms of narration.
Well, I guess Josh to conclude, I'm tempted to read a passage from Colvino who has this essay I've referred to already. Why read the classics and fantastic insight.
I'm talking about the uses of literature here with Professor Joshua Landy who teaches in Department of French and Italian here at Stanford.
And after he gives about 14 reasons why you read the classics, he goes on to say, "Now that I've given these, I should rewrite this whole article to make it perfectly clear that the classics help us to understand who we are and where we stand, a purpose for which it is indispensable to compare Italians with foreigners and foreigners with Italian.
Then I ought to rewrite it again lest anyone believe that the classics ought to be read because they "serve any purpose" whatever.
The only reason one can possibly induce is that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics.
That's beautiful.
Yeah, I think that's where the truth has to reside in that.
Your literature's ultimate justification is that we're better off having it than not having it.
Well, let's hope we can convince everybody else to ban.
Thanks for coming on Josh. It's been a pleasure and we'll have you back and you will be hosting some shows in the future.
Take care.
Thank you very much.
(gentle music)