“There is no part of history so generally useful …”

“There is no part of history so generally useful at that which relates to the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of reason, the successive advances of science, the vicissitudes of learning and ignorance (which are the light and darkness of thinking beings), the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and the revolutions of the intellectual world. If accounts of battles and invasions are peculiarly the business of princes, the useful or elegant arts are not to be neglected; those who have kingdoms to govern have understandings to cultivate.

Example is always more efficacious than precept. A soldier is formed in war, and a painter must copy pictures. In this, the contemplative life has the advantage. Great actions are seldom seen, but the labours of art are always at hand for those who desire to know what art has been able to perform.” p. 113

Imlac, “the poet,” to Prince Rasselas and Princess Nekayah, touching on what will become intellectual history.

From: Samuel Johnson. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. 2008/1759. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.

History as a branch of literature

His first ambitions, he has told us, were literary. He has also said that once he turned to history, his permanent inspiration became Auerbach’s Mimesis, the reconstruction by a literary scholar of the path to modern realism, from the Odyssey to Virginia Woolf, whose route included Ammianus, Gregory of Tours, Saint-Simon, historians and memorialists along with poets and novelists. Literature thus both preceded history in Ginzburg’s cursus, and has always thereafter lain adjacent to it. There is a long tradition of the practice of history as a branch of literature, but what this has usually meant is either a studied elegance (or unbridled flamboyance) of style – Gibbon or Michelet – closer to works of imagination than of record, or the quasi-reproduction of literary genres in the construction of narratives: for obvious reasons, epic and tragedy – Motley or Deutscher – more frequently than comedy or romance.

Perry Anderson reviews ‘Threads and Traces’ by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by Anne Tedeschi and John Tedeschi · LRB 26 April 2012 Mostly for the Auerbach reference and history as a branch of literature. From a lengthy book review.

Nussbaum on literature and morality

Nussbaum credits this as a good way to live a life — both because it’s more personally fulfilling and because it leads to more accurate judgments. “It is somehow a key to all the rest,” Nussbaum argues, “that a willingness to surrender invincibility, to take a posture of agency that is porous and susceptible of influence, is of the highest importance in getting an accurate perception of particular things in the world.” She follows Aristotle who believed that the way to arrive at good judgments was to circle in on the truth: to revise old views in light of new information while striving to preserve “the greatest number and the most basic” of the original beliefs. Nussbaum calls the end point (or resting point) of this process the state of “perceptive equilibrium.”

Nussbaum argues that literature is particularly good at driving us towards perceptive equilibrium. Literature, she writes, “searches for patterns of possibility — of choice, and circumstance, and the interaction between choice and circumstance –€“ that turn up in human lives with such a persistence that they must be regarded as our possibilities.” Put another way, literature presents us with the options by which we might live our own lives — and it teaches us to go beyond superficial judgments in order to try and imagine the interior lives of other people.

The Millions : The Moral Value of Surprise: Lessons from Literature for a Fracturing Country Nussbaum on literature and morality

Teaching what is worthwhile in literature

Here is something else I know: the power of literature to “renew a sense of purpose in our lives” gets killed in literature classrooms — unintentionally, no doubt, but killed nonetheless.

This isn’t an indictment. Writer Richard Ford found himself teaching literature as a graduate assistant in 1969 and realized, “What seemed worthwhile to teach was what I felt about literature … [literature] had mystery, denseness, authority, connectedness, closure, resolution, perception, variety, magnitude — value in other words … Literature appealed to me. But I had no idea how to teach its appealing qualities, how to find and impart the origins of what I felt.” This is a difficult question.

With the guidance of his mentor, Ford discovered access to these origins through the formal aspects of literature, its elements. He discovered a way in by asking, What formal feature of any given text is most significant? Too often — and I have been complicit — students are not pushed beyond this noticing of formal features. More than a decade of pressure from the paradoxically-named No Child Left Behind legislation has only exacerbated the problem by privileging the easily quantifiable, the standard. Derrick Jensen argues that the process of standardization is one of turning the living into the dead. The standard for a fish, he points out, is a fish stick. What is the standard for a novel … Sparknotes? Cliff Notes?

Rethinking the Literature Classroom | Full Stop On teaching literature; includes discussion of a useful looking exercise.

A different kind of difficult book (excerpt)

I’ve been posting about books that I love in spite of–or because of–their challenging material in terms of philosophical thinking or complex scientific explanations. It occurs to me there are other forms of “difficult,” and that topic is yet another challenge for the reader to encounter. These are books I found hard to read because of subject matter, events, descriptions of things I cannot imagine, or maybe can imagine, facing.

But I will hearken again to something I heard Marilynne Robinson talk about (see my previous post on AWP). She suggested that literature teaches us compassion. Good art of any kind opens up a new kind of perspective, one that thrusts us out of our own comfortable, individual points of view and therefore allows us–in the safety of our own homes, secure in the knowledge that this is only a book and is not happening to us–to engage with the “other.” When we feel empathy for a problematic character, when we feel we understand another person’s plight, even a fictional person, we move away from narcissistic isolation and into engagement with other beings. And that is compassion.

And that is also art.

A different kind of difficult book « annemichael

The New Value of Text (excerpt)

Text lasts. It’s not platform-dependant, you don’t just get it from one source, read it in one place, understand it in one way. It is not dependent on technology: it is what we make technology out of. Code is text, it is the fundamental nature of technology. We’ve been trying for decades, since the advent of hypertext fiction, of media-rich CD-ROMs, to enhance the experience of literature with multimedia. And it has failed, every time.

Yet we are terrified that in the digital age, people are constantly distracted. That they’re shallower, lazier, more dazzled. If they are, then the text is not speaking clearly enough. We are not speaking clearly enough. Like over-stuffed attendees at a dull banquet, the mind wanders. We are terrified that people are dumbing down, and so we provide them with ever dumber entertainment. We sell them ever greater distractions, hoping to dazzle them further.

The New Value of Text (via ayjay) I don’t agree with everything the author says in the full piece but it contains some valuable thoughts.

Virginia Woolf and reading

Woolf, by contrast, confronts both her reading and her readers with total immediacy. Free–and fearless enough–to say just what she thinks, she reminds us that reading is, after all (above all) no more than the encounter of one mind with another. She knew that critics “are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading.” But such is the quality of her mind that she achieves what most readers cannot: “those profound general statements which are caught up by the mind when hot with the friction of reading as if they were of the soul of the book itself.

Rohan Maitzen on Virginia Woolf | Open Letters Monthly – an Arts and Literature Review