Why literature cannot be a moral lesson for anyone

Why literature cannot be a moral lesson for anyone

By VINEET GILL | | 13 June, 2015
A still from Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), based on Nabokov’s novel of the same name.
Vineet Gill is sceptical of the search for moral redemption through literature. Could the whole exercise of “self-improvement” be a sneaky backdoor way of denying you certain kinds of books?

Reading fiction, in the busy context of modern life, is a waste of time, second only to reading poetry. The activity demands of us a great deal of attention and effort, and what we get in return is scarcely more than a tingling sensation on some of our nerve endings; those pleasure points attuned to appreciating euphony or minor emotional catharses. True, literature deepens our engagement with the world, with history, with what some artists contentiously call beauty. It makes us see things we otherwise wouldn't. But what use, really, is this form of engagement to our immediate, real-life concerns?

Oscar Wilde — that most beloved dispenser of aphorisms — once said that all art is "quite useless". In this he prefigured the modernists, who were soon to advance their radical theories of aesthetic belief and take the Wildean definition of art one step further. Art, they claimed, is of value only when it is useless. Today, the rules of the game have changed. It's fashionable these days to ascribe value and ordinary rules of usability to art. The same modernists who once rebelled against the bourgeois society have had their works turned into capital assets; their paintings are the life of the marketplace, changing hands for millions of dollars. And literature itself has turned into an extension of the self-help industry, an enhancer of tastes and morals.

It's an age-old argument: whether reading fiction or poetry makes us better people. And both the sides have made their cases — yes it does; no it doesn't — to the point of exhaustion. The scientific community seems to be drifting towards the side of the yea-sayers. Every so often a research is published to the effect that literature "improves empathy", as a 2013 study conducted at the New School for Social Research in New York put it. The implication here does indeed have a discriminatory overtone: those who read books are somehow more capable of empathy than those who don't. But that's only half of it, for the central point of this study seems to be its emphasis on the role of reading in self-improvement, the redemptive possibility it presents to the philistines.

In other words, this whole business of books being good for us makes immense market sense, mainly to those who sell or produce books. Even better if the book is about how books can be good for you. This surely explains the burgeoning on the publishing scene of titles like Reading Matters and (my favourite) How to Read A Book.

But what does literature itself has to say on this matter? Let's return to the old masters for a while — to Flaubert's Emma Bovary, and look at how her habit of reading, developed early on in life, is directly to blame for her doomed future. In Madame Bovary, we are given a window into its protagonist's taste for books and the kind of stories they told: "They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions...heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, 'gentlemen' brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains."

Dropcap OnEmma, poor soul, is corrupted by her reading; she's done for, thanks to those admittedly lowbrow books. Her urge to seek out in real life that sense of adventure she found in the romances she has read — to seek out her well-dressed "gentleman" — drives her to the edge of despair, finally bringing her life to a disastrous end. And if she becomes more empathetic during the course of the novel, it has less to do with her avid reading than with her lived experience, marred though it was with nothing but sadness. 

This debate on whether reading is good for our moral development takes a political colour when books like Lolita are in question. Historically, the reading-for-self-improvement school has been very particular about prescribing the kind of books we must be reading, and even more strident in its condemnation of the kind of books we mustn’t.

Some would say that the kind of books Emma read is to blame here. If only she'd had a more refined taste in literature. Like someone...who? Like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, the arch villain and evil incarnate narrator of his 1955 novel Lolita. As a child, Humbert tells us, his dad read out to him such canonical titles as Les Misérables and Don Quixote (which is another story, by the way, about the pernicious influence of reading too much guff). Nabokov's novel, written from the point-of-view of a paedophile, was attacked by moralists wherever it was published, although its narrator has since become an archetype of the evil aesthete in popular culture: someone corrupted by the demonic influence of high art, and corrupted big time.

This debate on whether reading is good for our moral development takes a political colour when books like Lolita are in question. Historically, the reading-for-self-improvement school has been very particular about prescribing the kind of books we must be reading, and even more strident in its condemnation of the kind of books we mustn't. Are we to develop, some may ask, our faculty for human goodness reading about child abuse or murder? The short answer to this is, no. And just as we don't become rapists or murderers by reading a novel about them, we are unlikely to end up as paragons of virtue if we decide to go through a complete run of Middlemarch twice a year.

Writers draw from life to weave their tales, and as readers we share a similar responsibility. Literature cannot be consumed in an existential vacuum, where the work of art is a whole universe unto itself that slowly draws us in. It has a twofold context, that of the past, when it was composed, and of the present when it is being consumed. And the life of books yields its riches only to those readers who bear both these contexts in mind: who while being aware of its past, bring to a work of art something of their own life, their own experience. This reminds me of what a writer once said about art and ethics: you don't get your morality from a book; you bring your morality to it. That's a lesson to remember. And it's also worth remembering not to let books play too big a part in our lives, lest we end up like Emma Bovary or, worse, like Humbert Humbert.

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