A principios de semana se publicó en la Sunday Book Review, en la sección “Bookends”, una discusión a propósito de si la literatura debe considerarse útil o no (un debate muy recurrente, por cierto). El editor y crítico Adam Kirsch opina que si reducimos la literatura a su utilidad perdemos de vista la textura verbal, el placer de la palabra y el sonido que la hacen ser, precisamente, literatura. Por su parte, la crítica de cine Dana Stevens considera que la literatura puede relacionarse, más bien, con el placer, el ocio y el juego; la literatura es el registro que tenemos de una conversación entre quienes hemos habitado (y los que habitarán) la tierra, el depósito acumulativo de nuestro asombro, conocimiento, curiosidad, pasión, rabia…
¿Debe considerarse útil la literatura? Dos críticos responden:
In his essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Kenneth Burke invites the reader to consider literature in the light of the proverb. Proverbs, he writes, “name typical, recurrent situations,” in ways that tell us “what to expect, what to look out for”: They are verbal condensations of experience, formulas of practical wisdom. And with certain kinds of literary works, viewing them as a proverb or strategy — as active, useful knowledge, designed to clarify the reader’s world — is eminently sensible. “A Doll’s House” is useful in one way, “Gulliver’s Travels” in another, “Othello” in yet another: These works tell us something we need to know about sexual oppression, social convention, jealousy. Yet it’s immediately obvious that this approach does not help us make sense of other kinds of literary works. People have been debating for centuries what exactly we are supposed to learn from “Hamlet,” which presents us with a character whose equipment for living is highly defective. Lyric poetry, too, does not seem very proverb-like: What is the practical wisdom behind “Lycidas” or “Ode to a Nightingale”?
More important, however, is that even when a literary work has an obvious message, the articulation of that message is far in excess of its meaning. You could say that “Othello” is a long way of saying, “Be careful whom you trust,” but if that were so, why did Shakespeare bother to write, “Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars. . . . Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump”? To reduce literature to its usefulness is to miss the verbal texture, the excess, the sheer pleasure of word and sound, that make it literature in the first place. The idea of literature as equipment for living seems puritanically utilitarian — as if you were to listen to a symphony in order to sharpen your hearing, or look at a painting to improve your vision.
Yet there is a persistent impulse in our culture to offer such pragmatic excuses for art, as if only something that helped us gain an advantage in the struggle for life were worthy of respect. Nearly a century ago, the critic I. A. Richards advanced a psychological argument that reading poetry improved the responsiveness and organization of the brain. Today, the same argument is often made in Darwinian terms. There is a whole school of Darwinian aesthetics that explains art as a useful adaptation, which historically must have helped those who made it or those who enjoyed it to improve their chances at reproduction.
To Martin Heidegger, however, this way of looking at art would appear exactly backward. Equipment, tools, “gear,” are for Heidegger what we don’t notice or pay attention to so long as it is working. A hammer in good condition is like an extension of the person using it, a way for him to work his will. It is only when the tool breaks that it escapes the banality of usefulness and takes on determinate existence as a piece of wood and a piece of metal, with its own weight, hardness and luster.
Literature, in this sense, is a tool that is always broken. A functional linguistic tool is like a stop sign, which we barely even read, much less think about; we simply see it and put our foot on the brake. A poem stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from a stop sign, in that it demands attention for itself, its specific verbal weight and nuance, rather than immediately directing us to take an action. Indeed, literature famously has the power to impede action altogether, to sever our relations with the real world in ways that can lead to harm — that is one of the messages of “Madame Bovary,” to use Burke’s example. The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to “getting and spending,” but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who do not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.
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