The cup, the knife, the coat, the remedy

The discussion about Stanley Fish’s column on the uses of the arts and the humanities at the Valve (here and here) reminded me of the Belle van Zuylen lecture that Jeanette Winterson gave in Utrecht, just before Christmas. Her thesis was that art is essential equipment for the task of being human — a “basic kit for life.” The entire text, in English and in Dutch is on the SLAU website.

The person who introduced her spoke about truth and beauty, and despite being a fan of Winterson’s novels, I was a little worried that the evening was going to be a little too Harold-Bloomian. Then Winterson’s sheer enthusiasm and her engaging style grabbed me.

By cutting through the non-speak and the triviality that surrounds us, art’s language finds the truth about ourselves that we whisper in the night, find revealed in dreams, fend off with good works and good intentions. Under the babble is everything we are not saying about the way we live, privately and collectively, and it is not enough to try and say it in conference notes or essays, or even in the best journalism and non-fiction. We still need the numinous, metaphorical, allusive complex language of poetry – the heightened dialogue of the dramatic text, the strange journeys of fiction.

Next to popular culture and capitalism, Winterson targeted literature courses in academia :

Even people who are supposed to be in charge of education worry about whether the canon of Western art will be too racist, too sexist, too offensive, or just too difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly that a teacher’s enthusiasm is vital in order to stimulate students to read more literature outside class, to go out and explore on their own. Winterson’s lecture really infected me with the desire to do so even more.

I do not quite agree, however, with the critique on modern literary theory that seems to underly this statement. I think that literary and cultural theory, too, are part of the toolkit that can make you see differently and make you think around different corners. Like the strange journeys of fiction, theory can take you out of your familiar ways of thinking.

This idea that theory stands in the way of enjoying literature is alive in Dutch academia, too. The worry is that if we include theory into the curriculum, students will not read enough literature. I agree that students could read more, and it sure would be nice if they also read books in their spare time every now and then. But I do not think that introducing students to the basics of literary theory stands in the way of that. I think it would be good if in addition to being able to close read and analyze a literary text, they could view a book from different perspectives and to see how their reading related to bigger ideas. I even think it could make them enjoy reading literature more.

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