Why study Literature? Frustration and Enthusiasm

I never expected that I will study something “boring” (that is what we all said in puberty) like *cough* literature. Media, Journalism etc…didn’t we all want to work for television or newspapers at one point in our lives?

Now I am sitting in Bristol and read lots of books, and as I am stuck with an essay, am frustrated about everything and and and…I wonder why I still like studying literature so much. Or better to say: I began appreciating it in the last 5 months (Before, I rather read snippets, theory, essays or literature in the culture parts of the newspaper). Now:  Sitting around, reading whole books, being happy about it like 50:50 of the studying time. 50% enthusiastic, 50% frustrated.

Back in the school days pupils  said — at least in Germany — the subject literature is easy/soft, compared to maths:  one just needs to write some uncertain/vague stuff about 20 of 500 unread pages or so. And now, in university? Some of my seminars are way to superficial and somehow appear to be futile, but we all need a reason to wake up and go to the university. I don’t feel intellectually unchallenged, but sometimes I hear the lecturer’s question “What do you think is interesting in this book” too much. Phrases like “higher individualism in this period”, “The city is a character”, “It’s a vague, ambivalent character/setting/plot whatsover”, “Form and content are linked” are getting on my nerves. There is a feeling of emptiness and futility sometimes. Why do I study the work of a single person (the author) in respect of very abstract theories that don’t seem to fulfill any higher purpose or insight into our society?

Warning: polemic theory following. Maybe literature or other humanities at university fulfil the same role in society than churches and Art Galleries/Museums: Most people go to them rarely (me included), but they simply should be there to have a “good-conscience-institution” somewhere and having the soothing feeling that there is something else than running after money and the next thrill. Isn’t this a bit similar to the father/mother saying to his/her children:

“Yes, you should read Shakespeare, Aristotles…but please don’t study something unprofitable, vague, lazy like literature, politics, history, classics whatever. Study economics, business etc…!”

Literature and arts need to be there, but nobody wants to involve in it. And if, you face depreciation. Recently I read that McEwan (writer of, among other novels, Atonement — this famous movie with Keira Knightly) has a similar perspective:

“You do a soft subject like French or English, you tumble out of bed at midday for three years, you have occasional panics with essays and a bit of reading. But on the whole, you’re on holiday compared to the scientists. When [my son] Will studied biology at UCL, 9-5 lectures, practicals and weekend work meant that “It’s a job – and a whole body of knowledge is being absorbed.” Meanwhile, in Solar [McEwan’s new novel], “I honestly felt a slightly wicked and not entirely defensible impulse to say: it is a lot harder to get your mind around the General Theory of Relativity than to understand Paradise Lost.”

So why are there people like me studying literature, as no money and good job prospects are involved? And not even respect from writers and ex-philology students like McEwan?

I cannot clearly say, but I guess the reason that I discovered the last months might have to do something with a late spiritual discovery. I never had any religious feelings, I think, but if such religious feelings are something like an “oceanic feeling” (Freud/Rolland), then I felt this spirit when reading good literature and being able to recognize patterns and adapting theories (mostly Psychoanalytic, Marxist, Deconstructionist, Postmodernist — my favourite one). It’s a scraping on the surface of a seeming reality and I feel satisfaction in permeating the fog to discover universal truths. It’s the discovery of another world, where I guess every cinemagoer is familiar with (Particularly these days with Matrix, Avatar  and Alice — worlds more real than the real). I don’t like the idea that literature or art is a substitute for religion, but I cannot think of a more suitable metaphor. Literature, of course I need to speak in favour of it, has a higher steadiness in its subversive power. Literature has no institutions (The church for example); though it has a strong influence on mindsets of individuals the danger of institutions abusing literature is lower. Literature is more individual, to use one of these cr*p phrase I quoted above. But now I am ranting…

When I began writing this post 2 weeks ago, I felt I should begin this post with a justification on why to study literature, in comparison to Sciences. But I think there is no conflict between these faculties. I put it as easy and stupid as this: there is a certain output in the world — from financial crashes to great, profitable artistic masterpieces — that simply needs to be analyzed to keep our society innovative and forward-looking.

Thanks to TD for discussion and feedback. Waiting for your comment!


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