Does Literature Help Us Live?

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images

An illustration showing St. Marcia painting a self-portrait, from De Mulieribus Claris by Giovanni Boccaccio, fifteenth century

Is literature wise? In the sense, does it help us to live? And if not, what exactly is it good for?

One way into that question might be to look at how great writers themselves have benefited. Or haven’t. The situation is not immediately promising, since the list of writers who committed suicide, from Seneca the Younger to David Foster Wallace, would be long; Nerval, Hemingway, Plath, Pavese, Zweig, Mayakovsky, and Woolf all spring to mind. But I suppose you could argue that there are situations where suicide is the wise decision, or that without literature these talented people might have gone much earlier. The list of those who have driven themselves to an unhappy death would likely be longer still. Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Henry Green, Elsa Morante, and Dylan Thomas arguably fall in that category. Not to mention those forever frustrated by insufficient recognition and other occupational hazards; the gloom of Giacomo Leopardi would appear to have been oceanic. It is not that there aren’t cases of writers who have approached the end of their lives happily enough—Victor Hugo, Alberto Moravia, Natalia Ginzburg, Fyodor Dostoevsky of all unlikely candidates, even that great pessimist Thomas Hardy—simply that a few moments reflection will suffice to convince us that being a fine writer does not necessarily mean being “skilful” in the Buddhist sense of acting in such a way as to foster serenity, joy, happiness.

Is there, then, something in the nature of the literary that renders the author, but perhaps also the reader, more vulnerable than most people to unhappiness, being troubled, or perhaps simply to the kind of emotional turbulence that writers as far apart as Shelley and Simenon seem invariably to have created around themselves? In short, could it be that there is something about our conception of the literary that not only does not help us to live, but actually makes things more difficult?

Generalization is treacherous, but let’s posit that at the center of most modern storytelling, in particular most literary storytelling, lies the struggling self, or selves, individuals seeking some kind of definition or stability in a world that appears hostile to such aspirations: life is precarious, tumultuous, fickle, and the self seeks in vain, or manages only with great effort, to put together a personal narrative that is, even briefly, satisfying. Of course, the story can end in various ways, or simply stop at some convenient grace-point; happy endings are not entirely taboo, though certainly frowned on in the more elevated spheres of serious literary fiction. And even when things do come to a pleasing conclusion, it is either shot through with irony or presented as merely a new beginning, with everything still to fight for.

“They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed,” Dickens tells us of Little Dorrit and Clennam after their five hundred pages of misery, “and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.”

How promising is that?

In short, at the core of the literary experience, as it is generally construed and promoted, is the pathos of this unequal battle and of a self inevitably saddened—though perhaps galvanized, too, or, in any event, tempered and hardened—by the systematic betrayal of youth’s great expectations. Life promises so much, but then slips through one’s fingers. Leopardi offers the refrain of a thousand works of fiction from Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education to Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or any of a hundred Alice Munro stories, when he writes:

Ah, how truly
past you are,
Dear companion of my innocence,
My much-lamented hope!
Is this that world? Are these
The joys, love, deeds, experience
We talked so often of?

The experience of the literary, then, would seem to be seeing this bitter pill dressed up or administered in such a way that, at least in the telling, it becomes a pleasure. There is the excitement of drama, of complex and unstable situations, there is immersion in fine description, that heightened sense of engagement that comes with recognizing an accurate portrayal of things we know, and, of course, there is the satisfaction of seeing the desperate human condition brilliantly dissected. Sometimes, the more brilliantly pessimistic the dissection, the more stimulating the reading experience, the greater the sense of catastrophe, the more noble, profound, and grand the writer who eloquently expresses it. Here is Chateaubriand:

This impossibility of duration and continuity in human relations, the profound forgetfulness that follows us wherever we go, the invincible silence that fills our graves and stretches from there to our homes, puts me constantly in mind of our inexorable isolation. Any hand will do to give us the last glass of water we will ever need, when we lie sweating on our deathbed. Only let it not be a hand that we love! For how, without despair, can we let go of a hand we have covered with kisses, a hand that we would like to hold forever to our heart?

What is on offer, then, is the consolation of intelligent form and seductive style, but enlisted to deliver a content that invariably smacks of defeat, or at best a temporary stay of execution. In this sense, our literature seems locked into a systemic antagonism with the crasser side of Western civilization, the brash confidence that all could be improved, controlled, resolved, if only we were better organized and our science more advanced. Literature determinedly confounds such unwarranted optimism; we must face the grim truth, it says, though always armed with the artist’s ability to make the performance palatable.


“Works of [literary] genius,” Leopardi observed, “have this intrinsic quality, that even when they capture exactly the nothingness of things, or vividly reveal and make us feel life’s inevitable unhappiness, or express the most acute hopelessness… they are always a source of consolation and renewed enthusiasm.”

But what if one were to suggest that literature exacerbates the very condi­tion it then soothes, the way smoking a cigarette, say, increases the nervousness from which it offers a brief reprieve? This would have to be the position of someone who took, for example, a Buddhist approach to Western literature. With rare exceptions, such a person would surely observe, the literature of modern times exalts the self, the idea of self, the existence of self. Predicated on a hubris of individualism, literature shows the self forming in childhood, narrating itself into selfhood, as it were, in one Bildungsroman after another; then it shows the self struggling to maintain its supposed integrity and personhood in adult life. Where a character is conflicted, unable to decide between identities—and that would be the case of so many literary heroes from Hamlet to Stephen Dedalus—this is presented as torment and potential failure.

In short, if this belief in self, or in the construction of selfhood, is to be considered unwise, then literature, for all its magnificent achievements, becomes as much a part of the problem as the solution, an addiction that feeds the sufferings it consoles. One enjoys Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, one admires Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or Bernhard’s Gargoyles, but one comes away with a heightened sense of how much more literature will be required to console such a desperate human condition.

Any number of writers have sensed the trap involved in needing to offer ever more catastrophe and catharsis. If character is destiny and destiny disaster in Shake­speare’s tragedies, that conceit becomes far more malleable and open to transformation in the late plays as the bard prepares to bow out of writing altogether. In The Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline, one senses, as in myth, the coexistence of various versions of the same story, even a detachment of moral qualities and consequent behavior from personal identity. In those works, evil or compassion or envy is unfolding as an abstract entity, rather than such-and-such a person being evil, compassionate, or envious. When Cymbeline or King Polixenes behave rashly, what we have is not the inevitable product of a fatal flaw in a tragic figure, as with Lear or Macbeth, but simply a failure to guard against aberration provoked by special circumstances. So all becomes reversible, and seemingly ruinous behavior is set to right.

But who would not say that Lear and Macbeth are closer to the core of our narrative tradition than Cymbeline or The Winter’s Tale? Samuel Beckett, who repeatedly encourages readers to become aware of their expectations of fiction, making fun of their eagerness for “meaning” and identification, does all he can in his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, to suggest the absence of anything that might be described as selfhood. Molloy, Moran, Malone, McMann, the Unnamable, are all, apparently, the same “person,” but one who is quite unable to impose a coherent story or even a single name on their collective life—though they seem equally unable to stop trying to do so. “I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself,” worries Malone. “Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject? I feel the old dark gathering, the solitude preparing, by which I know myself, and the call of that ignorance which might be noble and is mere poltroonery.” Even where there is no selfhood, the nostalgia for self and the compulsive search for selfhood remains the central subject and guarantees unhappiness. The Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s most recent novel, To the Back of Beyond, in which a character simply splits in two, offering the tragic in one manifestation and the picaresque in the other, is another exploration of this territory.


Again, though, such novels are very much outsiders and, while admired, soon acquire the status of the dead end, the work that cannot influence writers in the mainstream tradition, as though to ditch the self would be to ditch literary fiction tout court. Perhaps, in a society so deeply invested in individualism, writers are inevitably drawn to a vision at once catastrophic and consoling, precisely because such a vision exalts the self. It’s an approach that finds its most extravagant expression in works like Chateaubriand’s René, or Byron’s Child Harolde, but is still powerfully present in novels as apparently different as The Catcher in the Rye or Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Leopardi catches the grandeur, misery, and comedy of it all in this note on a line from the Aeneid:

Moriemur inultae, Sed moriamur, ait. Sic sic iuvat ire sub umbras [I shall die unavenged, but let me die—Dido says—like this, like this it’s good to go down among the shades].”

Here Virgil wanted to get across… the pleasure the mind takes in dwelling on its downfall, its adversities, then picturing them for itself, not just intensely, but minutely, intimately, completely; in exaggerating them even, if it can (and if it can, it certainly will), in recognizing, or imagining, but definitely in persuading itself and making absolutely sure it persuades itself, beyond any doubt, that these adversities are extreme, endless, boundless, irremediable, unstoppable, beyond any redress …; in short in seeing and intensely feeling that its own personal tragedy is truly immense and perfect and as complete as it could be in all its parts.

The pleasure the mind takes in dwelling on its downfall… At this point, then, we may have our answer to what literature is good for. It is good, at least in a great majority of cases, for going on exactly as we always have, for keeping the market supplied.

Certainly, this was Tolstoy’s feeling when he gave up writing fiction after Anna Karenina. There were more serious things to be getting on with. But he went back to it years later, to write the tormented Kreutzer Sonata, and years later again, to write the distraught and penitential Resurrection. For when the fiction drug is pure, and with Tolstoy it always was, inebriation is guaranteed. This is not an easy habit to break.

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