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.”