(Fotomontaje de Dan Murrel)
¿En qué sentido los libros (mejor dicho, las obras literarias) pueden ayudarnos a ser mejores seres humanos? ¿La literatura puede servir de terapia o es una ruta para el conocimiento de uno mismo, para el autoexamen y la empatía por el otro (como afirma Martha Nussbaum)?
Jonathan Bate, a propósito de la lectura de cuatro libros, Curiosity, de Alberto Manguel, Where have you been? Selected essays, de Michael Hofmann, The nearest thing to life, de James Wood, y Latest readings, de Clive James, cuyo tema en común podría simplificarse en la experiencia placentera de leer, en la literatura como aquella cosa cercana a la vida, considera que ciertos libros como las obras clásicas de la literatura nos ayudan a ser reflexivos, a sentirnos seres humanos. La experiencia de leer a los clásicos es un diálogo genuino con el muerto; la gran conversación con los muertos de la que también hablaba George Steiner. Para Manguel, por ejemplo, Dante y Montaigne son presencias vivas: respiro, palpitar, lectura para la vida.
Van los primeros párrafos de este ensayo publicado en New Statesman:
Last month, the American literature expert Sarah Churchwell, a familiar figure from review columns and literary prize judging panels, was appointed to the position of Professor of the Public Understanding of the Humanities in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. The name of the chair is adapted from one established in Oxford 20 years ago when Charles Simonyi, then head of Microsoft’s intentional programming team, endowed a professorship for the public understanding of science. The remit of that chair was “to communicate science to the public without, in doing so, losing those elements of scholarship which constitute the essence of true understanding”. In reality, the original purpose was to give a platform to Richard Dawkins. Simonyi, who was, I think, the first to call him “Darwin’s Rottweiler”, was a great admirer of the clarity of exposition in Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Since Dawkins’s retirement, the Oxford chair has been held by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy.
Most members of the public will readily understand the need for a professorship of the public understanding of such important but difficult disciplines as biology and mathematics. During the past 20 years, enormous benefits have flowed from the work of “popular” science writers and broadcasters (some say that the pop-star scientist Brian Cox single-handedly arrested the alarming decline in the number of students applying to university to study physics). But why do we need a parallel position for the humanities?
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;/The proper study of mankind is man,” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century (ignore, for now, the gendering of the pronoun): the humanities is the blanket term for the study of human beings, ourselves, our ideas and our passions, our cultures and our histories. Does the public really need a professorship devoted to the communication of such disciplines as literature and history? Shouldn’t all work in the humanities be accessible to the public anyway? Do Socrates, Shakespeare and Hitler need the same kind of “translation” (or simplification) that is necessary to create wide understanding of black holes, the phenotypic effects of a gene or the reconciliation of general relativity with quantum mechanics?
When Melvyn Bragg treats a science subject on In Our Time on Radio 4, most of us get lost at some point in the course of the programme. This doesn’t usually – and certainly shouldn’t – happen when the subject is the Russian Revolution, Romantic poetry or the Yoruba religion. The intuitive view would be that the humanities become “difficult” only when they approach the sciences; for instance, when you try to explain advanced formal logic or Chomskyan transformational grammar. Might the very creation of a chair in the public understanding of the humanities suggest that something has gone badly wrong with the way that the humanities are now studied in universities? And might that be one cause of the haemorrhaging of students away from the humanities in the US in recent years?
In a learned book published last year, Philology: the Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton), the scholar James Turner argued that such academic subjects as classics, literary study, history, art history, anthropology, comparative religious studies and, for that matter, the bedevilling division between the natural and the human sciences, can be traced back to the splintering of the master discipline of “philology” – the pursuit of wisdom through the study of written words – in the late 19th century.
Before the age of overspecialisation, a Harvard professor such as Charles Eliot Norton (an admirer of the polymath John Ruskin) could move with ease between textual editing of John Donne’s poetry, the linguistic study of Dante’s Divine Comedy, medieval architecture, art history and classical archaeology. He was a professor of the public understanding of the humanities avant la lettre, but he wouldn’t get tenure in today’s academe, where it is necessary for young scholars to prove themselves by way of “original research” on ever narrower themes. The more specialised the object of study, the less accessible – or, for the most part, of interest – it will be to the public.
Literature ought to be the most accessible of disciplines. Yes, it will help with your in-depth understanding of the character of Levin in Anna Karenina if you know a little bit about the history of the emancipation of the serfs, but “public understanding” of the novel’s core matter – getting married, getting bored, falling in love with someone else, committing adultery – is within the grasp of any literate grown-up human being. In the late 20th century, however, there was a sustained assault from within the profession of literary studies on the very idea of common humanity and (Virginia Woolf’s phrase) the “common reader”. If a student said, “Yes, I know that Anna Karenina is a fictional creation but I understand how she must have felt and this understanding helps me to understand myself,” they would be told, “It is an error to treat a literary character as anything other than a rhetorical or linguistic or formal or historical or social or gendered construct; all literary texts are racked with fissures, gaps and self-contradictions, and all authors are locked within the ideological frameworks of their age; that is what it is our business to unpack, critique and deconstruct.” And the student would become rather miserable, lose their love of books and go off to do a postgraduate law conversion course…