I should admit at the outset to a guilty conscience. I should have been a physicist (it was my best subject), but around the age of fifteen was converted to the humanities by an enthusiastic English teacher who had been a professional actor. Plato’s suspicion of the artist survives in me somewhere. When I went to university to read English and history, I thought studying literature would help me be a better person, that it would lead to some kind of moral and ethical wisdom, and that may finally be true, but not in any straightforward or obvious way. It did at least keep me out of harm’s way by making the library the place I most wanted to be, reading books.
Since at least the eighteenth century, our sense of literature, when compared with science, has been characterized at a certain aesthetic extreme. Oscar Wilde’s much quoted statement in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of its best versions: “All art is quite useless.” To be literature, a work of literary creativity must dissociate itself from that which is useful. In this sense, utility and artistic value must be separated, like Immanuel Kant’s “purposeful purposelessness.”
Yet even with these arguments in mind, we live with the inescapability of literature, and that its greatest examples elicit enthusiastic admiration and, in the reading, great pleasure. One typical lunchtime conversation in my year at IAS was concerned with the significance of Giovanni Boccaccio, drawing in a classical philosopher, an ancient historian, and a literary critic. Another was on the considerable influence of Cornelius Tacitus as a writer. In nearly every Monday lunchtime talk in the School of Historical Studies during the past academic year, the issue of the function of metaphor—one of the most central literary issues— surfaced. The case has recently been made that Kant derived an important part of his philosophy from an encounter with some of John Milton’s lyrics, triggering effectively a revolution in the philosophy of mind.1READ MORE>