Is Good Literature Bad for Life?

“Is literature wise? In the sense, does it help us to live? And if not, what exactly is it good for?” Tim Parks’ essay in The New York Review of Books opens with this great question.

And he has the courage to push a discussion about the value of literature for life to its Nietzschean limit by asking if reading literature might actually make living more difficult.

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James McNeill Whistler, The Novel: Girl Reading (c. 1889) | Source: National Gallery of Art

There’s wisdom in this risky essay about the “bitter pill” of literature.

Most literary fiction, Parks thinks, does offer some consolation for life’s inevitable suffering. We swallow fiction’s pessimism as an antibody to modernism’s relentless optimism. Parks writes:

What is on offer, then, is the consolation of intelligent form and seductive style, but enlisted to deliver a content that invariably smacks of defeat, or at best a temporary stay of execution. Our literature seems locked into a systemic antagonism with the crasser side of Western civilization, the brash confidence that all could be improved, controlled, resolved, if only we were better organized and our science more advanced. Literature determinedly confounds such unwarranted optimism; we must face the grim truth, it says, though always armed with the artist’s ability to make the performance palatable.

Parks reworks a sentiment captured by Leopardi:

Works of [literary] genius, have this intrinsic quality, that even when they capture exactly the nothingness of things, or vividly reveal and make us feel life’s inevitable unhappiness, or express the most acute hopelessness… they are always a source of consolation and renewed enthusiasm.

Unfortunately Parks reaches the dazed and confused conclusion that fiction is a drug addition and novelists keep “the market supplied.” Literature, he thinks, is a kind of social soporific, the opium of the well-read masses. This cultural commodity “argument” is Karl Marx sleepwalking, a dead tired Frankfurt School cultural critique.

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Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing (c. 1665) | National Gallery of Art

Parks’ lapse into cynical materialism drives me crazy. It is lazy and flat out wrong.

Open your eyes, Tim! Opiates are the opium of the masses. And neo-Marxism is the opium of the intellectuals.

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Honoré Daumier, O plaisir de l’opium que tu me ravis!…(1844)| National Gallery of Art

Opiates are the opium of the masses. And neo-Marxism is the opium of the intellectuals.

Great fiction wanders us through weird places, but it’s no drug trip. Where novels open up the world, narcotics shut it out.

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Kusakabe Kimbei [Woman Reclining with Pipe], 1870s – 1890s, Hand-colored albumen silver print | The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
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An illustration showing St. Marcia painting a self-portrait, from De Mulieribus Claris by Giovanni Boccaccio (fifteenth century) | Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images

 

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