Elaine Scarry’s fascinating article in the Boston Review last summer, which draws parallels between literature and the establishment of social structures intended to “diminish acts of injuring,” is worth reading. Among a sea of articles that trendily and superficially question the good of literary scholarship, or even literature itself, “Poetry Changed the World” is a smart summary of Scarry’s ideas about the ethics of reading.
She starts with Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which asserts the diminution of certain types of violence over the past fifty centuries and attempts to give explanations for how reading played a part. Scarry is rightly suspicious of Pinker’s general claim, but is persuaded by “his documentation of the many specific forms of cruelty that have subsided.” The telling link between this ebb of violent acts and literature is the simultaneity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of an increase in book production (as well as literacy rates) and the abatement of “an array of brutal acts—executing accused witches, imprisoning debtors, torturing animals, torturing humans, inflicting the death penalty, [and] enslaving fellow human beings.”
But Scarry is convinced that the link can be established even earlier with ancient and medieval disputation poetry. “In their own time,” she says, “these poems helped to give rise to new civic institutions in which disputation was carried out obsessively.” The twelfth through fifteenth centuries show a simultaneous burgeoning of poetic disputation and public institutions like universities, Inns of Court, and Parliament akin to the rise of the novel and the Humanitarian Revolution in a later period.
Scarry is careful to point out that these connections only imply correlation and that the direction of influence is more complex and probably reciprocal. But these points serve to support a more general one: that literature does, after all, have the capacity to change us in very particular ways by providing a space in which we can practice experiencing the counterfactual, the points of view that our own convictions would keep us from fully investigating otherwise. The power of, what are for Scarry, some of literature’s most useful tools—its beauty and its promotion of empathy—seem to echo those espoused in Eric Wilson’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Literature promotes an “ethical imagination,” he claims, citing Keats’ “negative capability” as an example. And that ethical imagination challenges preconceived assumptions about the world; “The purpose of suspending stereotypes is to make one more sensitive to the irreducible intricacies of the real, and so be better able to forge informed judgments about what is right and wrong.” In Scarry’s parlance: “Imagine Pamela, and her right to be free of injury will become self-evident to you.” This translates to the law—in her expression of the formula used by Hunt and Pinker—as, “We are not interested in your imaginative abilities or disabilities; whether or not you can imagine Pamela, you are prohibited from injuring her.”
This highlights something crucial about the importance of literary studies, something that seems to be missing from much of the discourse around their decline. Imaginative meditation through a specific text is necessarily, at least in part, a consideration of the particular over the general. Yes, we can and should and do extrapolate from Pamela to ideas about women and domesticity or the novel in general. But we are all the while still talking about Pamela in particular. For Wilson, this takes the form of an encounter with the uncanny and is paramount to ethical considerations of reality, pedagogy, and the strategies of thinking that should be employed as part of good scholarship. “I continue to hope,” he concludes his article, “that during a Monday-morning class, when the weather and the mood are right, I can chant Keats’s reverie of the ‘murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves’ and a drowsy student will jerk awake. Green-blue bugs will buzz eerily in his head. Suddenly nothing is right. Something has happened.” Elaine Scarry’s article convincingly argues that the “something” can add up to “shifts in ethical behavior” and to the “sea change across wide populations of readers” that they require.