Why literature is our most important cultural tool

Literature is a tool which shapes culture, and then edifies it. It creates vicarious experiences within the reader, therefore allowing us to live the lives of others. In this way, it is also a tool which crafts us into the individuals we become. Its twofold purpose of crafting culture and individuals is a contiguous, symbiotic process. As individuals are refined by culture, such as literature, so they place their own works into the world, for new people to read.

The cultural phenomenon which is literature is a valuable asset to the world, not merely because of its enjoyable quality. We all know the joys of opening a book and being transported to another place, via the idiosyncratic cogitations of the literary world’s most inspiring and fascinating minds. It is also valuable because of its importance to us as constantly developing people within societies, and within our own minds.

There is a limit to how much we can know about the world outside of our own lives. We can know facts about the world, such as that London is the capital of England, or that 2 + 2 = 4. However, there are certain elements which are unknowable in everyday life, such as other people’s personal experiences of things. It is undoubtedly true that my experience of the world is different from yours. To demonstrate how vastly experiences of things can differ from person to person and over time, John Berger says-

An ancient middle eastern depiction of the fires of hell
An ancient depiction of hell

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the middle ages when men believed in the physical existence of Hell the sight of fire must have meant something different from what it means today. ” (p. 8).

This means that we are kept in a bubble of our own experience, seeing the world singly through our own mind’s eye. I shall show that literature helps us break through this bubble.

Another limitation to us beyond the bubble of experience is that of knowledge. In our everyday lives, our knowledge of the world is limited by what we experience in the world. Books and other media have stretched this by allowing a veritably endless ocean of information to the accessed at a moments notice. I shall demonstrate that literature is the way we actually make this information meaningful, and therefore, useful, to us personally. It fits the outside world into our experience bubble.

To demonstrate the bubble of experience further, I refer to Jean-Paul Sartre, who called this problem Subjectivism

“The freedom of the individual… cannot pass beyond human subjectivity” (p. 29).

Sartre took this to mean that since we cannot know what it is like for other people to experience the world, we must take our experience of the world and extrapolate to the distance of other minds. When we imagine what it is like for other people to experience the world, we are really imagining what it would be like for us as other people to experience the world. Sartre believed that this meant that

“In choosing for himself he chooses for all men… In fashioning myself I fashion man” (pp. 29 – 30).

Therefore, if I pause to imagine the world through your eyes, I imagine myself through your eyes, not the experience of you behind your eyes. He therefore believed that deciding in the world was deciding for everyone, since everyone is merely, by the limits of our nature, an extrapolated identity from our own identity. Thomas Nagel said that “There are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language” (p. 267). It isn’t the case that the world really is how Sartre proposed it, merely that human subjectivity seems to limit us to that.

Despite the fact that we exist in bubbles of subjectivity, it doesn’t mean that we should comfortably allow those bubbles to become the limits of our world; to do so would be to maintain a narrow view of the world, resistant to culture, and diversity of ideas and people. Literature has been an invaluable tool for stretching these bubbles. Bertrand Russel says, in his History of Western Philosophy, that

“When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true [or false], but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking…” (p. 47).

Bertrand_Russell_in_1924
Bertrand Russell, philosopher (1924)

It is indubitably true that we are each having our own unique experiences of the world. It is also true that our attempts to bridge the gap merely impose our mindsets into the mindsets of others vicariously. However, it is not true that we have hit a wall. For as Russell says, understanding how things are considered true gives us sympathy and appreciation towards the views of others. What we can’t do is have the direct subjective experiences of other people. What we can do is place our minds in the contexts which created the experiences they have had, and are having.

This is the power of literature. It is a tool which displaces our consciousnesses from our bubble, into the conditions which built other people’s bubbles. It therefore becomes a social tool which helps people live together. It gives us the power of understanding and appreciation that the world isn’t just the world which I have learned it to be, nor is it the world you have learned it to be. Further, it isn’t the case that either one of us is wrong or right. It is the case that the world has the potential for experience. This potentiality becomes experience when we have phenomenal engagement with the world, which creates our bubbles. Each series of experiences creates each individual world. With literature, we can taste the experiences which build other bubbles.

Literature is a tool which displaces our consciousnesses into the worlds of other people

We shall therefore politely disagree with Nagel, in part, when he said that ‘there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language’. I say ‘in part’ because Nagel was right in saying that we cannot simply convey a subjective experience by expressing something. However, he was wrong that human language couldn’t express these truths at all. What we must do, which is a hallmark of a great author, is express the conditions which led to these personal experiences.

Frank Jackson had a famous thought experiment in which he asks us to suppose a woman named Mary, trapped in a room. She has never actually experienced any colour in this room, only black and white. However, she is a neuroscientist who has studied everything relating to colour, and knows every fact there is to know about colour. If she was let out of the room to see colour, would she learn a new fact about colour by experiencing it? Jackson thought, at the time, that “it seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it” (p. 128).

I do not believe that she would, nor does Jackson anymore. That isn’t important here. What is important is the value of experience. The fact that Mary had such a profound experience made you think about Mary’s mind in a way which helps this discussion. Mary’s world is different from ours, and by expressing a turning point in her life, about something which is meaningful to us, we gain some sympathy to her mindset, to her bubble. We also see how much experience plays in building our individual identities.
klintWhat we can use this to demonstrate is that experiences of things cause us to interact with the world differently. Yellow is used for danger signs because we have learned to be wary of yellow, blue is a calming colour, and so forth. The experience of colour gives the objects in Mary’s life new meaning, not because she has new information, but because she relates to the colours in a new way. When we experience a new world through literature, we veritably experience the colours of a new world.

Because our biographies teach us to feel in individual ways about things, our experiences of colours, tastes, people, facts, will all be conditioned by our dispositions towards these new experiences. Nobody can come away from having read James Joyce’s Dubliners without having a new, deep appreciation for the toil of the poor in Ireland during Joyce’s lifetime. Terrence Brown says that “detail in Dubliners is disposed like brush strokes in a complex canvas to compose a settled impression of a society in the grip of paralytic forces” (xxxviii).

One could ask whether reading literature could make us less like ourselves, and more like others. This could not be the case because we always return to ourselves at the end of a passage of reading. We retain some of the impressions left from the experience, and reject others. But once we have had the experience, it must be translated into subjective values, experience-data, if you will. For want of a better phrase, we become ourselves, but more enlightened versions of ourselves. We must also accept that whatever experiences we could have in the future are unknown, and the experiences of others are just as useful to have as further experiences of our own world.

We retain some of the experiences we’ve had from our literary ventures, and these make us more enlightened versions of ourselves

As well as making us more understanding of other people, and therefore making us better fitting into the social and cultural world around us, literature also helps us understand ourselves, and helps us prepare for our futures. It can help us make better future choices, by experiencing imagined futures. It can also make us think about what we wish to see in our personal futures. We shall draw on Leo Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich to demonstrate this.

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (1897)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story about a man who goes through the process of dying, and of slowly coming to terms with his death. Tolstoy delivers the cogitations of Ivan Ilyich with a highly enlightened understanding of the experience at hand. One aspect he covers is the difficulty of accepting the fate of impending death, a phenomenon which, despite being ineluctable a fate for all alive, seems incongruous to our biographical futures. He writes

“The example of the syllogism that he had learned in Kiseveter’s logic – Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal – had seemed to him all his life correct only as regards Caius, but not at all as regards himself. In that case it was a question of Caius, a man, an abstract man, and it was perfectly true, but he was not Caius, and was not an abstract man; he had always been a creature quite, quite different from all others; he had been little Vanya with a mamma and papa, and Mitya and Volodya, with playthings and a coachman and a nurse; afterwards with Katenka, with all the joys and griefs and ecstasies of childhood, boyhood and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of the leathern ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that? Caius had not heard the silk rustle of his mother’s skirts. He had not made a riot at school over the pudding. Had Caius been in love like that?  Could Caius preside over the sittings of the court?

And Caius certainly was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my feelings and ideas – for me it’s a different matter. And it cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too awful” (p. 110).

This extract shows a dying man reviewing his life, his various memories, the things which deeply meant something to him, and struggling to fit an end into the picture. It demonstrates the fact that we can know something intellectually, but without experience, knowledge is sometimes incomprehensible. Sarah Bakewell says that this is why “[Jean-Paul] Sartre wrote like a novelist” (p. 6). This extract appositely demonstrates my argument. Witnessing this episode, within the context of the story, certainly makes the reader feel the anguish of Ivan Ilyich. It fits new ideas into our worldview, and makes the feelings and experiences of others make much more sense to us.

We can have knowledge of life, but without experience, it is often incomprehensible

One further thing which literature can do is make us experience multiple viewpoints. This helps us become comfortable with the fact that the world is multifarious, not singular. Because our experience of the world is singular, it can take a conscious effort to remember that the world isn’t singular in any way. Tolstoy shows us this well by starting the story of Ivan Ilyich with his wake, and then going back to his life. After his colleagues at work receive the news that he has died, the story continues-

“’Only think! He is dead, but here am I all right,’ each one thought or felt. The more intimate acquaintances, the so-called friends of Ivan Ilyich, could not help thinking too that now they had the exceedingly tiresome social duties to perform of going to the funeral service and paying the widow a visit of condolence…

Telling his wife at dinner of the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death and his reflections as to the possibility of getting her brother transferred into their circuit, Pyotr Ivanovich, without lying down for his usual nap, put on his frockcoat and drove to Ivan Ilyich’s” (p. 80).

This is particularly clever because the story opens with one set of attitudes towards our protagonist, before experiencing the world through the eyes of our protagonist, meaning that whilst we experience his view, it is also tinged by our understanding of what others felt or thought of him. There is also a real sense in which Tolstoy is telling a story, not merely of Ivan Ilyich, but of all of us. It is a device which allows us to have multiple perspectives in mind at once, all informed by experience. Literature gives us multiple experience-formed perspectives, and lets us carry them from the page and into our lives.

We return, now, to the idea that literature helps us understand ourselves. Ivan Ilyich has demonstrated that literature can help us understand our personal biographies. By looking at death through the eyes of Ivan Ilyich, we gain insight into our own feelings about our death, the narrative arcs of our lives, how we want our lives to develop, and what we would and would not be happy to look back on as our biographical legacy. When we read a story, we read a myth, which is

“the ability of story to explain ourselves to ourselves in ways that physics, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry—all very highly useful and informative in their own right—can’t…. they [myths] constitute a way of seeing by which we read the world and, ultimately, ourselves” (Foster, T. p. 60).

Roland Barthes explains that

“myth has an imperative, buttonholing character: stemming from an historical concept… it is I whom it has come to seek… it transforms history into nature… for the myth reader everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept… the myth-consumer takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system” (pp. 148 – 156).

Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes

Foster tells us that myths explain ourselves to ourselves by reading the world. Since myths transmit human truths, those facts about the world are facts about us, individually, and as a whole. Barthes tells us that when we open a book and read a myth, our  experience is of the myth and our mind meeting. A human truth (the myth) is then reconstituted by our mind into nature. By nature, we mean that that which is being read becomes an aspect of that world within which we live. To read it is to make it real. We feel, and have the experience, that we are merely reading a story, but we are in fact unpacking vast amounts of cultural ideology and symbolism contained in the structure and objects of the myth. We then relate them into our own world. In this way, literature has the didactic function of teaching us what it is to be human, and what in life is congruent with being human. It allows us to ‘try out’ what is fitting with our particular human existence.

Jonathan Culler says that “we become who we are by identifying with figures we read about” (p. 114). This can be a positive identification in which we relate to the protagonist, and therefore subsume their character into our own character. It can also be a negative identification, in which we reject the character of the protagonist, reinforcing within us anything which opposes the character we’re involved with. An example of this can be found in the opening lines of the Gothic horror We Have Always Lived in the Castle

“I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita Phalloides, the death cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p. 1).

The protagonist, Mary Katherine Blackwood, is meant to unsettle the reader by displaying a disturbing mindset. Her character also provides mystery within the story, which further emphasises the unsettling nature she has. The reader of this story is unlikely to want to be like her. This encourages a mindset in the reader which contradicts the unpleasant, transgressive nature of Mary Katherine Blackwood. If we look at it with what we’ve learned from both Foster and Barthes, we see that we’re actively experiencing ourselves in the world of the novel as made real, having unpacked, and engaged in intercourse with a solid mythic human truth within this gothic horror framework. The human truth is anything we take away from the story, through the combination of the experience and knowledge of it. However, one may read the H. E. Bates novels of Ma and Pa Larkin and find their jovial, relaxed life quite an inviting prospect.

Life provides us with an immediate set of experiences. Objects of culture, such as literature, allow us to extend those experiences. Literature extends them beyond our subjective bubble, making us better connected with the world, and as a corollary, making the world more connected. It’s a valuable tool for society because it breaks down barriers between people, and between their cultures. It also helps us become the people we aim to be, or the people we never would have thought we aimed to become. In this way, literature is more than merely a social and cultural tool, it’s a tool for the reader individually.

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Thank you for reading.

Works cited

Bakewell, S. (2017) At The Existentialist Cafe. London: Penguin Random House

Barthes, R. (1972) ‘Myth Today’, in Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. Reprint, Vintage: London, 2009

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. Reprint, Penguin Books: London, 2008

Brown, T. (1992) ‘introduction’, in Joyce, J. Dubliners. Reprint, Penguin Group: London, 2000

Culler, J. (1997) Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction. Reprint, Oxford University Press: New York, 2011

Foster, T. C. (2014) How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Harper Perenial: United States of America

Jackson, F. (1982) “epiphenomenal Qualia,” in Philosophical Quarterly, 32, pp. 127 – 136

Jackson, S. (1962) We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Reprint, Penguin Group: London, 2009

Nagel, T (2008) ‘The Subjective Dimension of Consciousness: Thomas Nagel, what is it like to be a bat?’ in Cottingham, J. (ed.) Western Philosophy, an Anthology. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, pp. 263 – 269

Russell, B (1946) History of Western Philosophy. Reprint, Routledge Classics: Oxon, 2004

Sartre, J-P. (1948) Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet. Reprint, Random House UK Limited: London, 1997

Tolstoy, L. (date not provided) The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Reprint, Wordsworth Editions Limited: Hertfordshire, 2004,

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