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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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