What is Literature?

Literature of Engagement The title I stole from Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote a polemic describing his idea of the literature of commitment, by which he meant that literature needs to be politically engaged.

Let me tell you a story that offers a competing vision of literature.

I was teaching a Borges short story, "The Gospel According to Mark," to my short story class. (One student had mistakenly read the biblical book of Mark, and so was very confused when we started talking about Buenos Aires). I chose that story because I try to introduce students to authors gently, not to wallop them with the critical masterpiece that estranges them more than seduces them. You have to warm students up to "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "The Swimmer" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Those should be the second or third story you have them read by Borges or Cheever or O'Connor, so they're contextually prepared.

Anyways. Borges-collected-fictions

We were discussing a particular passage where the daughter of the Gutres, a superstitious family on the pampas, sleeps with the protagonist Espinosa, a young medical student. Here's the big question: Why? It's difficult to reconcile that action with the ensuing crucifixion.

And so, because one student kept hounding me for the answer, I yelled, "I have no idea!" (which was not exactly true, but certainly provocative).

And the whole class laughed, as if I'd made a huge gaffe. I said I was deathly serious, and justified myself by telling them how I picked stories for the class. The stories I picked were the ones that I could not reduce to understandable bits, the ones that weren't managable, which didn't have easy interpretations. I only picked stories that deeply disturbed me, that haunted me, that I could never completely critically dissect. I wanted stories that never gave themselves over wholly to critical analysis, ones that even after the best critics had julietted the prose into theoretical piles, something intangible and illusory still remained just out of touch. Stories where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

It's not just the way I picked stories for the class, though, that's more a description of how I think of literature. It's why I love Kafka. It's why I let my classes read Borges, who strongly believed in this view of literature. In fact, in "Other Inquisitions," Borges' wonderful book of literary interpretations, he critiques Hawthorne's over-simplistic allegories, quoting from Hawthorne's journal to support how Hawthorne conceived of stories:

"A snake taken into a man’s stomach and nourished there from fifteen years to thirty-five, tormenting him most horribly." That is enough, but Hawthorne considers himself obliged to add: "A type of envy or some other evil passion."

And another example:

"A series of strange mysterious and dreadful events to occur, wholly destructive of a person’s happiness. He to impute them to various persons and causes, but ultimately finds that he is himself the sole agent. Moral: that our welfare depends on ourselves." Better are those fantasies that do not look for a justification or moral and that seem to have no other substance than an obscure terror.

Roberto Bolano understood the "obscure terror" at the heart of literature. In "2666" Bolano expresses this view of literature when describing the poor literary taste of a character known as "The Pharmacist":

"[The pharmacist] chose the Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."

I love the stories that still mystify me years after reading them, that spur me on amid the blood and mortal wounds, novellas like "The Turn of the Screw" and "Heart of Darkness." Every time I read them I understand something more, and every time there is yet more waiting, just out of reach. That's the kind of feeling I want my students to get from reading. That's what literature is.

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3 thoughts on “What is Literature?

  1. Jay Miller says:

    Thank you for being the nth blogger to quote Bolaño this theme, it is a critical quote that needs to flood the readership of literary blogs. You are absolutely correct about this theme, that the unknown must be embraced in literature, and you have embellished the theme with your intertextual references. I loved the anecdote about The Gospel of Mark.

  2. Katy says:

    Hey Prof Fox -
    This post reminded me of reading Borges, O’Connor, Kafka (the thought of “In the Penal Colony” still terrifies me!), and others in your class during undergrad.
    I’m glad you chose the literature you did when you were my professor; I still love those stories & authors you introduced me to!
    -Katy Vold (now Catron) graduated TMC 2008

  3. BookFox says:

    Katy! Good to hear from you. Glad those stories have stuck with you, and hope you’re enjoying some current reading.
    Yep, I still enjoy passing those stories on to others. Have found another couple of terrifying ones as well — check out Chris Adrian’s “The Changling,” about a kid possessed by the spirits of 9/11 victims. So dark but so good.

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