Yesterday I posted on the first part of an Elaine Scarry article where she discusses how the novel, by fostering empathy, has helped lessen violence–or so Steven Pinker claims in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Today I look at two other ways, according to Scarry, that literature contributes to a more humane world: poetry’s ability to foster debate and the humanizing power of beauty.
What Scarry calls “the dispute poem” can be traced back to Homer but it came into its own in the Middle Ages:
Thomas L. Reed shows that although many Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems feature a “right” position to which the wrong thinker can be converted, in many others the disputants are equals and no final decision is made.
Reed demonstrates that in addition to all of the explicitly titled dispute poems, many of the major English works are debates: Beowulf with its “sparrings” and formal flytings; Piers Plowman with its wayward and “enigmatic” path; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with its disputations between green and gold, winter and summer, Christianity and chivalry, youth and age, sinner and mercy, discourtesy and treachery. The Canterbury Tales also features a “debate on marriage” extending across the tales of the Merchant, the Clerk, the Wife of Bath, and the Franklin; the “flytings” between Reeve, Miller, Summoner, and Friar; and the overall “narrative competition” among the taletellers to be judged by Harry Bailly [the innkeeper].
In their own time, these poems helped to give rise to new civic institutions in which disputation was carried out obsessively. Thomas Reed and Howard Bloch show the intimate connection between the “unprecedented burgeoning” of poetic disputation in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries and the simultaneous growth of three institutions: the universities, where disputation, in the forms of logic and dialectic, dominated the liberal arts; the courts of law and the accompanying law school–like Inns of Court, where law cases and legal questions were debated in sessions called “doubts and questions,” “mootings,” and “boltings”; and the Parliament, with its assembly structure and roll call votes.
I particularly appreciate Scarry’s inclusion of Chaucer here because I believe that Chaucer’s immense capacity for entering into the minds of his pilgrims makes her point. For instance, Chaucer’s ability to listen to the Wife of Bath allows him to find the woman underneath the words in a way that is centuries ahead of his time. Scarry has this to say about the relationship of dispute and empathy:
In fact the claims made about dispute greatly resemble what we can say about empathy. What they have in common is not just the recognition that there are multiple points of view, two sides to every coin, but also the chance to practice, and thereby to deepen and strengthen that recognition. . .
Having looked at disputation, Scarry then turns her attention to the power of beauty to humanize. She identifies three ways that beauty leads to an appreciation of justice.
Scarry first looks at poetry’s formal attributes. Meter and symmetry, she says, open our minds to “symmetry in the realm of justice,”
whether it is John Rawls’s justice as fairness, which requires “the symmetry of everyone’s relations to each another”; or Plato’s aspiration for a symmetry between crimes and punishments, which we are still a very long way from; or Hume’s symmetry between expectations and their fulfillment.
Scarry draws on Iris Murdoch for a second way that beauty leads to justice. Beauty, she says, “unselfs” us and moves us past “self-preoccupation.” Or to use a Simone Weil phrase, it leads to a “radical decentering.” One is more open to fairness for others when, in the grip of beauty, one steps beyond the self.
Finally, Scarry says, “contact with the beautiful” creates the desire to make positive change in the world. She quotes Socrates in Plato’s Symposium talking about the female seer Dotima, who once told him that
coming into the presence of a beautiful person or thing gives rise to the desire to bring children into the world. Diotima says contact with the beautiful also gives rise to the desire to create poems, legal treatises, and works of philosophy. Modern philosophers such as Wittgenstein have said the same. Recognizing our own capacity for creating is again a prerequisite for working for justice . . . So anything that awakens us to our own power of creation is a first step in working to eliminate asymmetries and injuries.
Scarry makes one other point in her article, which involves the teaching of literature. It is not enough, she says, for teachers to “ensure that books are placed in the hands of each incoming wave of students and carried back out to sea.” Teachers must also explicitly draw connections between the works and the promotion of social justice. “For even if changes in sensibility will occur without instruction or explicit intervention,” she argues, “less mystification and more clarity might make it easier for people to find their way.”
She then gives some great examples of novelists and poets who, because of their intimate acquaintance with beauty, have made significant contributions to social justice:
Daniel Defoe, the originator of the English novel, also helped originate the idea that constitutions must be written, as the legal scholar Bernadette Meyler has argued persuasively. The novel Julie—one of the best-selling novels with which we began—was written by Rousseau, the author of the Social Contract. Hobbes, whose Leviathan has as its central goal “getting us out of the miserable condition of warre,” read the Iliad often enough and rigorously enough to translate all 16,000 lines, as he also read the Odyssey enough to translate that poem.
While Scarry’s article is triggered by Steven Pinker’s book on the decline of violence, it both goes beyond it and undermines its point. Piinker is focused on a particular time in human history—Europe since the Renaissance—and he sees the novel as having made a particular contribution. By opening up her argument to include literature as far back as Homer, Scarry can’t argue as forcefully as Pinker that literature has lessened violence. After all, many of the horrors that Pinker describes lasted for centuries after the literature of 8th century BCE. For that matter, they were still alive and well while dispute poetry was being composed in the Middle Ages. If literature lessens human violence, it works very, very slowly.
Even Pinker would have to admit that the fully developed novel couldn’t stop the 20th century horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. He and perhaps Scarry seem to be under the illusion that Enlightenment values can’t be reversed, even though, in recent years, they have seen their own country change the status of waterboarding from “torture” to “acceptable interrogation procedure.” Nevertheless, I still appreciate the way they make a case for literature’s impact.
As I see the role of artistic beauty, it is a dike thrown up against the raging sea of human barbarism. Enlightenment breakthroughs don’t last forever, and artists must keep on creating works to counter the new twists and turns that violence can take. It’s an ongoing battle.