Monday, June 25, 2012

Literature, Last

So just to explain why I quoted Plato's Charmides two posts ago:

If temperance abides in you, you must have an opinion about her; she must give some intimation of her nature and qualities, which may enable you to form a notion of her...
and what I meant by item 2 of the 'form' of good literature last post:

It is perceptive. This is the quality that elicits both emotional reaction (usually pleasure) and intellectual interest. This is the basis of moral edification. Edification is the result of perceptiveness. It is not a direct product.

These two statements are related in my mind.

Charmides seems to imply that if one has a virtue one has knowledge of that virtue. And it is this fact - if it is a fact - to which I look as the rationale underlying literary study. Yet with my definition of perceptive literature I have set up some opposition between writing and knowledge. I am implying that poor literature does not lead to knoweldge, a certain kind of knowledge, called, whatever, human knowledge, wisdom, knowlegde of virtue, etc. I seem to be suggesting that a celebration of vice - say that so well executed by Nietzsche, disqualifies it as good literature.


There are different kinds of celebrations of sin. Nietszche's is one kind and is literature; in fact, it is brilliant literature at times. Another kind, let me just chose a straw-man example for sake of expedience, a Harlequin Romance. I would agree to some extent with Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, wherein he tells us "why he is so wise," etc. (yes, he actually does!). Sounds like bunk? Only when you look at it as proffering a single proposition: Nietszche is wise. But, obviously, that is not the fruit of the read. In other words, one can learn a great deal about 'life' from that work, irrespective of this assertion, to which one need not, finally, adhere. In other words, one can gain something from his works even if not what he really wanted you to gain. For instance, his Antichrist is one of the most brilliant critiques of Christianity ever made. I agree with most of it, but I wouldn't end up, thereby, espousing his atheistic philosophy. Luther and Kierkegaard also put forth brilliant critiques of certain forms of Christianity. A work needn't be completely true to be perceptive, and, thus, to qualify as good literature. In clearing a great number of trees from the forrest Nietszche has revealed something of the forrest floor, and that was his genius.

Is Othello a celebration of the sins of jealousy and wrath? Hardly, but an author may call good evil, and it happens all the time, when, sin and defect are granted graces they do not deserve. Usually this is effected through the success or failure of the protagonist: success in the case of the objectively evil person, failure in the case of the objectively good. Voltaire takes this to an all-time high of tedium in Candide. Yet, the value of Candide lies in that he obfuscates facile views of theodicy (the nature of evil in the world) that came to the fore in popularized readings of Leibniz. Shakespeare, now that I think of it, seems not to tolerate the glorification of vice, and is, accordingly, a fine student of Aristotle.

I didn't like it when a blogger I regularly read recently stated in so many words that being 'into' social justice means one is morally (read sexually) depraved. Two things, though. One, his equation is, strictly speaking, false. Two, there is something to it, and that is interesting and worth exploring. A great writer would be one who could make some kind of insightful presentation of why this is or is not, but, whatever side he came down on, we would be all the wiser for it because of the process. Such is the greatness of Anna Karenina, a story of adultery, unglorified, but not, for all that, unsympathetic.

Great literature leads to wisdom. A discussion of temperance may help one to become temperate. A good treatment of jealousy may turn one away from jealousy. A poor discussion of jealousy won't turn one away from it at all. An argument against poorer Christian literature and music. Poor Christian literature is an innoculation against Christianity. Such has been aptly said against a poor Catholic school system. Nietszche has done more for the Gospel than I fear the Ontario Catholic school system has.

1 comment:

  1. "Je ne peux supporter Nietzsche: il me rend malade, meme quand il exprime des choses que je pense..." - Simone Weil

    Any sympathy for Simone?