Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-Emily Dickinson
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truthís superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind-
from fancy vocabulary and insufferable attitude, what
do you get from a literature major? Admit it: You did
not expect a simple and direct answer. Ask a simple question,
get a complex story. Itís maddening. No wonder Plato wanted
poets kept out of his ideal republic, though of course
he continued to read them for himself. And why did he?
Why wonít Emily Dickinson just tell those kids the truth
about lightning and let it go at that? Why do apparently
bright people spend so much time and money on lies, on
things that other people just make up? And why do so many
of those people appear to be having more fun and acquiring
more good things (joy, knowledge, wisdom, friends, money,
power) than other people are? Itís obviously a conspiracy.
So what is the point of all this circumlocutory and caliginous
Those are obscure words,
and I shall not tell you what they mean. If you do not
know what they mean, you will have to find out for yourself.
And that is just the point. The skill, the virtue-what
Aristotle called the excellence (arete)-that you develop
in your reaction to this harmless annoyance and your search
for these easy meanings will be a part of the skills,
strengths and excellences you will need in the rest of
your life, in which the meanings are more important and
harder to find or figure out. Frank Kermode, for example,
argues that when we are reading literature, we are "making
sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives."
One could argue, of course,
that since literature and life require the same interpretive
skills and virtues, one should simply ignore literature
and learn from life, since experience is, after all, the
best teacher. Even in the 16th century, however, Roger
Ascham already knew the weakness of that argument: The
trouble with experience
as a teacher is that too many people die from it. At the
cost of an arm or a leg or a life, experience teaches
us some rather simple things: Be careful, read the instructions,
pay attention. In such representations as literature we
can learn more complex lessons without going broke, losing
our love, or dying the first time out, a tolerance
for error rarely available in the simplistic and murderous
school of experience. We could never experience directly,
moreover, more than a small fraction of what we can engage
indirectly through these representations.
Perhaps for that reason,
as Barbara Herrnstein Smith observes, "those with cultural
power and commonly other forms of power as well - are those
with - competence in a large number of cultural codes."
For the past twenty-five hundred years or so, the ruling
classes have acquired competence in those codes through
a literary education. In a democracy, we have at least
the chance-at least in part, at least some of the time-to
rule ourselves. So we all need and will benefit from that
education for ruling. We need to become like polymetis
Odysseus, that man of many measures, better able to take
the measure of the world and then to take measures to
better our lot, and the common lot, within it.
One way of doing so is through
the interpretive skills we gain by reading literature.
Geoffrey Hartman argues that literary texts afford us
instruction and practice in the arts of interpretation,
that "the capaciousness and excitement of interpretive
reading can be taught," and that "teaching slow reading"
to others - to lots of others - can transform the elite mystery
. . . into a conscious endowment." The power of that endowment
increases exponentially. The more we know, the more we
Simone Weil has suggested
that the 'only serious aim' of education 'is to train
the attention.' We must learn to see. We must learn to
learn. And we do that less through prepackaged conclusions
than through the circuitous pursuit of truth suggested
by Emily Dickinson. Static data and information are necessary
but not sufficient. If you want to read well and to rewrite
and reshape the story of your own life, you will need
to learn the pleasures and skills waiting for you in the
well-written fictions of others. You are in for a treat,
and you havenít a moment to lose.
Daly is a Leverhulme Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, National
Endowment for the Humanities seminar director, and holder
of visiting appointments at Cambridge, Cornell, Chapman
and Essex. He is also on the Doylestown High School Wall
of Fame, and it was once said of him that he stacked the
best wagonload of hay in Wayne County, Ohio.