The Magazine

Why Do We Read?

‘Wisdom and insight’ as the purpose of literature

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By JAMES SEATON
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Gary Saul Morson is a rarity in American academia. The holder of an endowed chair at Northwestern University and winner of prestigious literary awards such as the René Wellek Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association nevertheless admits publicly that he most often turns to literature “as a source of wisdom and insight.” Despite his renown, Morson has few followers among contemporary critics: The compendious Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism lists 12 modern and contemporary schools and movements, but none of the 12—representative examples include deconstruction and poststructuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, gay and lesbian criticism and queer theory—seems to have room for literary critics who search for “wisdom and insight.”

'...but let us never fear to negotiate' (John F. Kennedy)

'...but let us never fear to negotiate' (John F. Kennedy)

If the currently approved schools of criticism deal with Morson’s approach to literature mainly by ignoring it (even while his professional peers, to their credit, acknowledge his individual achievement), Morson himself goes far to explain the continuing appeal to academics of long-discredited approaches in this intriguing study of proverbs, maxims, apothegms, and related forms. To appreciate wisdom it is necessary to be able to recognize folly. For Morson, folly is located most prominently in the short, sweeping assertions he classifies as “dicta.” The author of a dictum claims, implicitly or explicitly, to have “not solved just a riddle, but the riddle, the one providing the key to all others.” A dictum cannot include qualifications; a dictum with qualifications is not a dictum at all but only a mundane rule of thumb. Dicta are appealing because “they promise rewards, the most important of which is the banishment of doubt.”  

Intellectuals are more likely than others to come under the spell of dicta because of their “belief in beliefs, and their still stronger belief in those who believe in beliefs—that is, in themselves.” Intellectuals may pride themselves on their lack of wealth and their putative resistance to the powers that be, but they find it hard to resist doctrines that offer an adherent “gratifying confidence in one’s own clear-sighted and worldly sophistication.” An intellectual who believes, with Freud, that he “discovered the scientific method by which the unconscious could be studied,” or, with Marx and Engels, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” is entitled to look down on all those unable or unwilling to grasp such all-important truths. 

Morson finds wisdom encapsulated most powerfully in what he calls “prosaic apothegms,” which “teach us to suspect hasty generalizations and to perceive ever finer distinctions.” Montaigne, who wrote, “When I confess myself religiously to myself, I find that the best goodness I have has some tincture of vice,” exemplifies this world view in his essays. Tolstoy and George Eliot likewise exemplify it in novels like War and Peace and Middlemarch, works whose lengths do not prevent them from including prosaic apothegms. Such novels encourage us to attend to “the texture of ordinary existence” by dramatizing both the complexity and “the supreme importance of the ordinary.” 

In War and Peace, Napoleon is not defeated by General Kutuzov’s superior military genius but by the consequences of myriad decisions made many times a day by people unknown to history about seemingly insignificant matters. In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke does not become a famous, revered figure like Saint Theresa, but she does become, in her own unheralded way, a source of goodness. Napoleon’s Russian campaign is truly disastrous, but Dorothea’s failure to become a saint is not really a failure at all; the effect of her undramatic goodness on those around her is (in Eliot’s wonderful phrase) “incalculably diffusive.” Ending her long novel with a prosaic apothegm, Eliot observes, “[T]hat things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

While the prosaic apothegm encourages one to look more closely at the everyday world, the “mystical apothegm” asserts that nothing could possibly clarify “the world’s fundamental mystery.” Bertrand Russell admired the logical prowess of the young Ludwig Wittgenstein but didn’t know what to make of the mystical apothegms that are, today, the best-known statements of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—statements such as the one that Wittgenstein asserted summed up the “whole meaning” of the book: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” 

However, the later Wittgenstein, as exemplified in Philosophical Investigations, writes in a very different way and works out a different view of the world. Morson contends that the difference between Wittgenstein’s earlier and later works may be understood “as a change in genre, from the mystical to the prosaic apothegm.” The young Wittgenstein believed our inability to understand the world was inevitable, because “the sense of the world must lie outside the world.” In contrast, in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein urges his readers not to accept the categories established by words but rather to “look and see” the world around them. In doing so, we are likely to find that the world is more complicated than language suggests. In Morson’s paraphrase, “If we ‘look and see’ we find a multiplicity and a diversity, numerous discrepant things likened to each other by ‘family resemblances.’ ”

Although Morson has a special fondness for the worldview of the prosaic apothegm, he does not, like the authors of dicta, refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of other worldviews. There are occasions when the search for “ever finer distinctions” is out of place, when instead a “summons” or “heroic pronouncement” is needed. In English history, Admiral Lord Nelson’s admonition at Trafalgar that “England expects that every man will do his duty” and Churchill’s “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” are examples of “summonses” that resonate long after the events that called them forth. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is perhaps the greatest American example of a summons; it shares with the words of Nelson and Churchill a “peculiar modesty.” All three speakers avoid “self-aggrandizement,” any hint of which, in Morson’s view, is fatal to the summons.

Disclaiming certainty (“I do not know whether my reaction is unique”), Morson offers his opinion that John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address ultimately fails as a summons. The speech “calls attention to itself” through overly clever wording, as in its “self-conscious reversals (‘Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate’; ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’)” and therefore lacks the “peculiar modesty” of a great summons. In an era of postmodernist skepticism, the call to arms of a Nelson, a Churchill, a Lincoln, or even a John F. Kennedy seems outmoded. Morson notes that “Educated people often wince at the rhetoric of honor. .  .  . No intellectual ever lost the respect of his peers by underestimating the need for war.” Skepticism about patriotism, religion, or traditional morality may, however, prepare the way for new beliefs and new summonses. Morson notes that “there are no unbelievers at Whole Foods.”

Inventing words to make his point, Morson argues that sometimes the context in which an aphorism appears robs it of its original profundity: “Place anything on a Celestial Seasoning box and it becomes a sappy saying. .  .  . Posters and greeting cards, especially if sold in expensive craft shops, sappify or treaclify anything.” Morson, who is more than willing to note folly when he sees it, remains aware that the motives for pointing out aesthetic or literary flaws in great writers may include vanity as well as intellectual probity: “The more refinement it takes to detect a sample of bad taste, the greater the status its detection confers.” Not content to make the point in prose, he emphasizes his idea with a heroic couplet: When Wordsworth stumbles, or when Johnson falls, / Not all, but us, the blackened page appalls. 

Whereas dicta must seem to “apply always and everywhere” and are “tied to no occasion,” witticisms “depend on timing.” A witticism on one’s deathbed achieves its full power not only because of its humor but because it seems to dramatize a triumph over death. The speaker refuses to succumb to fear by turning to wit. On his deathbed, Oscar Wilde insisted that “either that wall-paper goes, or I do.” Out of context, many of Wilde’s sayings are merely variations on what Morson calls “the reverse commonplace,” which might seem clever for a moment but on reflection are merely shallow: “I can resist everything except temptation” or “I can sympathize with everything except suffering” are amusing but lack the resonance of the kind of wit that dramatizes “the capacity of the mind to transcend circumstances.”

It is a reviewer’s cliché to say that a book is full of “wit and wisdom,” but here the cliché is an accurate description. And even though Morson favors prosaic apothegms, there is room in his world for all sorts of maxims and wise sayings, even dicta—“if rephrased as perceptive exaggerations”—and, sometimes, clichés. 

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the author, most recently, of Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: The Humanistic Alternative