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‘Studying English as Transformational’ Part II: HOW TO LIVE

Catherine Brown | April 17, 2018

…Studying English as Transformational: Part II

So much for canniness. But then there is fulness and wisdom of living – what my philosopher colleagues would call eudaimonia. I would say that the reading and study of literature promotes this in a number of ways. Literature is at many levels about emotion, and is emotional. You cannot engage properly with literature without having experienced it and being able to imagine it in others. But you also can’t engage with it properly without being able to describe it, and therefore gain distance from it. Being able to both feel, and understand and describe, your emotion makes for much emotionally safer, yet also bolder, living – in short, for wisdom.


So does the discipline of trying to excel at literary criticism. As one of New College of the Humanity’s Visiting Professors of English, Sir Christopher Ricks, puts it, the requirement of literary criticism is to say something that is both new and true. One’s writings about literature must say something new about it (they must not simply repeat the findings of earlier critics or of lecturers); but they must also say something that is true to the literature, not subjectively true to the critic.


The latter is a common mistake that young students make; they think that what is wanted is a description of their subjectivity. That isn’t the case; but what is wanted is their unique perception one that only they have made or could make in exactly that form. Rather than it being the case that (as is sometimes claimed of English) ‘there are no right answers’, it is the case that ‘there is no right answer [singular]’. And this in itself, perhaps in contrast to some other academic disciplines, provides a moral training. To allow both for the fact that there is untruth, and that truth is heterogenous and that every individual is equipped to perceive different parts of it, is an excellent basis for ethical interaction with others.


Then there is the fact that on the scale from the ideal to the real, or the abstract to the concrete, literature lies part way along. Rather than handling abstractions, one is handling something that mediates between abstraction and reality. Literature bears philosophical ideas, and can in turn be philosophically interpreted, but there is something in its nature as art which is resistant to being flattened into ideas. One must be able to respond to, and describe, that something, and handle the philosophical content whilst being mindful of it.


Again, I think that thinking in this way – the way of art – is helpful in life. We ourselves exist at the intersection of the particular and the general, the concrete and the ideal, the body and the mind. Therefore in learning to think about art, which occupies this position, we are learning to think about ourselves.


The process of living involves negotiating with realities, but also with the imagined. We cannot plan for the future if we cannot imagine it; ambition is imaginative, just as much as compassion is. We process life through narrative, which is why so many of the terms that have been found to describe art are quickly transposed to describe our own lives. On getting to know someone we gradually reveal the story of our lives. We consciously end chapters in our lives, and start new ones. We turn over new pages.

We simultaneously create our lives and narrate it to ourselves, which is precisely what narrators do, creating as they describe. We feel that our lives fluctuate between genres. We may feel that a short story of an episode in our day is in the genre of farce. If our heart is broken, our story becomes, for as long as this remains the case, tragic.

And as we create and analyse our lives we are practising that relation between criticism and creation which literary criticism is peculiarly well placed to help us to think about. We can see literature both as creative, and as critical, and analytical, of life. Some great artists are also great critics, as is the case of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. But sometimes, unlike as in these cases, there is no difference between them; the critical and the creative are one, as in D.H. Lawrence.


So peculiarly powerful a mode is literature for reflecting on, manifesting, and expanding the sense of life that it is no wonder that in the late nineteenth century it began to take on the role of a substitute religion, which was carried further by the high modernists of the early twentieth century. Literature serves many of the same roles of moral and existential guidance and expansiveness – and in many cases cooperates fully with religion itself, as in the case for example of T.S. Eliot. Literature also allows us to rehearse death, as we see the death of fictional characters, if not within the narrative, then by relinquishing them at the end of the novel. They exist, forever, in a similar way to real people, having created and lived their stories.


All these ways of thinking and feeling are permanently engendered by the intense study of literature for a period. Literary study breaks down the barrier between work and life, thought and life, in a way which enhances both durably. One is, if one is thinking about anything concerning humanity, never not thinking in a way which can enhance one’s study of literature, and when studying literature one is never not becoming able to live better.


At a more obvious level, one can read literature with greater penetration and pleasure for the rest of one’s life, having once learned and become practised at doing it well. One enters a freemasonry of knowledge of texts; one is linked, particularly in knowledge of Shakespeare, to most other English graduates, not only in the UK but all over the world.


For these reasons such as all those above, the critic F.R. Leavis, in his 1943 book Education and the University, thought that English Literature was the central subject at university level. One studies English, and then goes out into the world to become a teacher, or politician, or whatever else, permanently enhanced – transformed – by the study that one has undertaken. My claims for my subject are as big as that.

Click here to read part 1 of this blog ‘Beauty Everywhere’

Catherine Brown

Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in English