The Reading Room

Thinking about Literature: Not just Good and Evil

The story repeats itself every time I teach literature. The discussion about texts, almost inexorably, ends up with students trying to figure out whether the text is 'good' or 'bad'. As if, in the end, as judges on a pedestal, our only objective in reading was to rule: this is worth it, this should be placed in the dustbin of history.
This dichotomy, I want to argue, is not random. Rather, it is an example of the problem that arises when, as Hayek has explained, it is not understood that “the role of experience in these fields of knowledge is fundamentally different from that which it plays in the natural sciences”.
Let us turn for a second to a debate in which literature can only fall into one of two categories: good or bad. For instance, we are reading Pedro Páramo in my class (one of the masterpieces of twentieth century Latin American literature) and my students and I agree that it is a good novel. What should we do next? Re-read it? No, because if the goal of reading is to decide whether the work is good, and we already did that, there is no need to read it again. It would be like being interested in my weight, getting on the weighing machine, writing down the number of pounds my body is equivalent to and immediately doing it again: unnecessary.
If rereading is not the answer, then perhaps it is to convince those who think it is not good that it is, or convince those who have not read it to read it. However, unless we believe that literature is just another form of advertising, that will not be stimulating either. Harry Potter fans recommend the saga whenever they can, but even if other people do not want to read the books they will still enjoy it.
What about the opposite? We conclude that Pedro Páramo (or for that matter any other work of literature) is not worth it; it is simply a bad book. Why reread something that is bad? Of course, we do not recommend something bad and, although it might be annoying for someone to admire a movie that we dislike, we can let everyone watch and read whatever they want. So, what do we get out of knowing that a work is good (or bad)? My answer is that, apart from the feeling that a book discussion is boring, it leaves nothing behind.
Then, why are we so often drawn into this dichotomy? Hayek’s ideas about the nature of the facts studied by the social sciences might help us shed some light on it. First, Hayek explains that the objects we deal with in the social sciences, unlike objects in the natural sciences, “may be physically completely dissimilar and which we can never enumerate”. The only reason we know they belong to the same category is “because the attitude of X towards them all is similar”. In turn, however, this similar attitude can only be defined by a set of reactions, “which again may be physically dissimilar and which we will not be able to enumerate exhaustively, but which we just know to ‘mean’ the same thing”.
This is what happens in literature, not only with the particular elements of what we call literary theory, but with literature itself. Apart from the fact that we think of it as composed of words written on a page, there is very little in common between the poems of Gertrude Stein, the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the essays of Montaigne. The mere notion of words on a page is challenged today by literature on the internet. Moreover, what is considered literature today was not necessarily considered literature in the past. Take, for example, Homer’s Iliad. It was meant to educate people, as much about what a good life is as about the gods. Today, however, we read it as one of the great works in the history of literature. Even the Bible, which so many people read as a sacred text, is also read and studied by many as part of our literary tradition. What defines literature changes over time, because our reactions to the texts evolve as we do.
Because the objects that the social sciences deal with (as well as literature) are not definable in physical terms, the theories in these fields, says Hayek, “do not consist of ‘laws’ in the sense of empirical rules about the behavior of objects”. Instead, the only thing we can expect from theory in the social sciences is “to provide a technique of reasoning which assists us in connecting individual facts, but which, like logic or mathematics, is not about the facts”. Literary theory will never allow us to predict how any book we pick will work, it will also not allow us to decide whether a book is good or not, but that has never been the purpose of it. We can only talk about facts in literature as long as we are only dealing with a particular book. What literary theory can do is help us understand how a particular book works, how it is constructed and how it engages in a dialogue with other works of literature and, more generally, with its time.
To assert that we are not dealing with facts has a crucial consequence. When we say that a chair is made of wood, we can go out and corroborate whether the chair is actually made of that material. We can see it and touch it. We can therefore conclude that the assertion is true or false. In other words, we can either verify or falsify our statements by reference to the facts. Because we are not dealing with facts in the social sciences, our theories, says Hayek, “can never be ‘verified’ but only tested for its consistency”. As a result, a certain theory “may be irrelevant because the conditions to which it refers never occur; or it may prove inadequate because it does not take account of a sufficient number of conditions. But it can no more be disproved by facts than can logic or mathematics”.
Similarly, our literary theories can never be verified. If we think, for example, of "Casa tomada", a short story written by the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, in which there is a ghost that is overtaking a house, and we have a theory arguing that the ghost is a representation of the oppressive dictatorship in Argentina, we can neither corroborate nor refute the theory. We can (and we should) evaluate its consistency. Maybe the theory of the ghost as a metaphor for the oppressive regime is unable to explain some parts of the story and therefore proves unhelpful in reading it, but that says nothing about its verifiability, because we are not dealing with facts.
Trying to understand literature in dichotomic terms is not only unproductive for any conversation in the field, but harmful, since it misses an essential point about literature. While in the natural sciences we look for straightforward answers, of the type ‘this fertilizer should be used for plant X’, ‘drug W does not help patients suffering from disease Z’, in literature there is no such thing. When it comes to a work of art, often there are no clear conclusions, because the goal in itself is the entire conversation.