UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 1999
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Literary competence and the ruling classes

By Robert Daly
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English and Comparative Literature

 

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
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-

Emily Dickinson


part 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 persiflage?
     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 notice.
     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.


Robert 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.

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