Literature: Quid Est? (II)

Lately, I’ve been exploring the questions, what is literature? and what does it mean to study literature? There’s so much great stuff to think about.

Another thought-provoking angle comes from a 1994 TIME article “Hurrah for Dead White Males!” by Paul Gray. Gray addresses literary scholar and critic Harold Bloom’s ideas about the purpose of literature.

In his book The Western Canon, Bloom argues “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

The article’s author suggests that “Such guidance was once the province of religion, and it is ultimately the religious experience that Bloom seeks in secular writing.” He quotes Bloom again: “Since I myself am partial to finding the voice of God in Shakespeare or Emerson or Freud, depending on my needs, I have no difficulty in finding Dante’s Comedy to be divine.”

The instinct to seek truth — or, as Bloom says, to seek  meaning and religious experience — in literature is, I think, somehow human. We are granted a glimpse of something bigger, grander, in truly powerful works of literature. (C.S. Lewis might have called it sehnsucht, fulfillment tinged with longing.)

Unfortunately, the nature of literary language (unlike the quality of mercy) is often strained between an attempt to mimic reality and an awareness that language is insufficient for even this task, let alone for describing Truth.

I am repeatedly brought back to the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his theories of the Real. Lacan defines the Real as that for which we long, but which we can know only as the lack or gap we experience in the symbolic (language-mediated) world.

I wonder, then, if it is wiser to understand literature not as containing truth (which supposes truth to fit into the human mind and human language and would be a small truth indeed), but as pointing toward truth, truth being always just out of reach of explanation.

If so, it is a problem, unfortunately, that my blog is doomed to share.

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