In my final semester of undergraduate study, I took a class called “The Brain and Literature.” I found this class torturous because of its strong scientific bent. We had to peruse numerous articles dealing with neuroscience and psychology. The class was heavy on brain and light on literature. At the end of this arduous course, our professor offered us the conclusion, based on these neurological studies of the effects of reading literature on the brain, that the first and foremost purpose of reading literature is…to have fun.
Perhaps it was having to endure this class that made me resistant to the conclusion that literature’s primary function is enjoyment. Perhaps it was the need to have my major—and eventually my career—taken seriously. Am I really going to invest time, energy, and money into the neurological equivalent of a barrel of monkeys? Whatever the motivation, I was determined that literature had a more lofty purpose than tomfoolery and merrymaking.
Eleven years later, here I am, after having read one abstruse and ponderous article after another in which the scholar dresses up a good point about a literary work with so many complicated clauses and unnecessary political, philosophical, or religious convolutions. I feel as if we’ve pulled the monkeys out of the barrel and clothed them in tweed jackets, spectacles, and pipes.
The thing is, I’ve always thought reading and interpreting literature—or any art, really—is fun (well, maybe not during my dissertation—okay, yes, then too). I remember teaching a class on Flannery O’Connor once during my doctoral program, while my professor observed; at one point in the discussion my professor wanted to join the conversation and asked if she could “play too.” When a class is going well, “play” is exactly what it feels like. Not that everyone involved isn’t working hard—we’re analyzing, listening, critiquing, questioning—it’s just that the work is accompanied by delight.
Maybe my bristling at the idea that literature is fun stemmed from my not understanding the significance of that fun. At the risk of sprucing up the monkey, I offer this observation of Jacques Maritain’s: “Art teaches men the delectations [pleasures, delights, enjoyments] of the spirit, and because it is itself sensible and adapted to their nature, it can best lead them to what is nobler than itself” (75-6). Literature and the other arts are fun because they meet people where they’re at and hint at even greater delight.
Maritain continues, “[F]rom very far, and unconsciously, [art] prepares the human race for contemplation (the contemplation of the saints), whose spiritual delectation exceeds all delectation, and which seems to be the end of all the operations of men” (76). The arts provide delight, and in apprehending that delight, we somehow know it’s incomplete and that there is greater delight to be had. As a result, we are prompted to seek communion with God. Lewis’s discussion of his search for Joy echoes this notion: “[A]ll images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?’” (220).
Of course, art is not a foolproof sign pointing to Someone Greater. Lewis and Maritain admit the risk of idolatry in the enjoyment of art, not only of the artwork itself but also of the many false gods lurking in the fallen world and possibly in the minds of the author and reader. Perhaps these misperceptions of literature’s delight have brought about the convoluted writing about literature that can turn the chocolate-cake experience of reading a novel into a bunch of wilted broccoli.
At the university I taught at previously, I had a conversation one morning with my department chair. After we bemoaned once again American society’s general lack of regard for the humanities, he mentioned to me that he was adopting a strategy of teaching the texts he enjoyed the most, maybe even assigning the specific passage(s) of a work in which he found the most delight, in hopes that they would elicit greater enthusiasm from his students, most of whom are non-English majors.
What a novel idea! (Pun intended.) If we want students to take literature more seriously, why don’t we show them how much fun there is in doing so? Especially in freshman or sophomore-level, general education classes, perhaps the more we can proffer literature’s delightful qualities and demonstrate how its good-for-you qualities derive from that delight, the more students will see the value of literature and its ability to propel us on our search for the spiritual good of relationship with God.
Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. San Diego: Harcourt, 1955. Print.
Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. Print.