This week the Lion’s Roar article has been written by Brian Taylor our Curriculum Leader for Senior School English.
Why do we need stories? Why do we bother reading Literature? Most parents are far too polite to ask such questions, but I expect, given the number of our students that study Business at university as opposed to Literature, there is some doubt in their minds as to its value.
At the most basic level, the ability to decode language and create a convincing interpretation of a text is an essential life skill. Anything of any value to humanity has been written down in a language code (the religious texts, the scientific theories, constitutions of countries and legal frameworks, to name but a few). The ability to interpret that code accurately is essential to a species that thrives through its ability to transmit information over time and space. Without literacy, access to information and education is significantly reduced and so too are the opportunities that go hand in hand with it. (It is no coincidence that illiteracy in the prison system is approximately 75%.) However, that skill can, and is, practised sufficiently well through the study of a whole range of non-fiction texts. It is not a skill that is peculiar to Literature alone.
There is evidence that reading Literature promotes empathy – that is the ability to understand the perspective of others. Authors often use first person narratives, or free direct thought and stream of consciousness techniques to immerse the reader into the alien or unusual world and thoughts of their protagonists. Some famous examples are the Sherlock Holmes stories (Watson’s perspective), To Kill a Mockingbird, The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Flowers for Algernon. Although this may be defined as a ‘soft’ skill, it is not one to be underestimated. It is through empathy that much of the satisfaction and pleasure we derive from our lives comes. Empathy helps create and maintain meaningful bonds with close friends and family. Only with repeated endeavour to understand the point of view of the other, can we sustain meaningful relationships. Literature helps promote this endeavour. Without it, we are like Raskalnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – deluded, isolated and bitter.
The great stories though, offer us something else. The domain of science might be to explore what exists. The domain Literature explores how to exist. Through Literature, authors manipulate character and plot to explore political, philosophical or psychological theories. Shakespeare, in Macbeth, explores the psychological fallout of ambition without integrity; Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment explores both Nietzche’s Ubermensche idea and Collectivism which gave credence to Nazi ideology and Communism. It did not turn out well, as Dostoevsky foresaw, either for characters in his book or their Political manifestations in the 20th century. Beckett also places his characters on a post-Darwin stage in Waiting for Godot. The uncertainty of Godot’s attributes and his failure to appear at the appointed time, combined with the protagonist’s inability to reflect won Beckett the Nobel prize for Literature. The Nobel Foundation declared Beckett’s work dramatized ‘the destitution of modern man.’
We read Literature because the great stories of the world offer insight into the spiritual, psychological and political conflicts that besiege man.
Next week is Week B.