A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Why Study Literature?

I’ve been pretty busy for the last few days and haven’t had the opportunity to figure out things for the blog, but now, after a strenuous workout, when I’ve found that the blundering builders who are doing work on our building have cut off our water supply, I can use this time, which would otherwise be spent having a refreshing shower, to ponder on something that often troubles those of us who study literature.

There are of course many reasons to study literature and I can offer but one more here. The typical attitude of many who are in the business of attending to the more serious things in life is reflected in an utterance reported to me by a friend of mine. Someone asked him something like this: “Isn’t literature merely emoting? Why waste your time on it?” This business with emoting is supposed to make it of secondary importance. Apparently collecting yet more corpora or thinking of new ways to sell mobile phones is a more worthy enterprise. At least it’s easier to write apologies for those things.

Let’s try out an apology for literature that relies on the models of analogy, metaphor, and allegory we’ve outlined below. If we think of analogy as a basis for systematic thought, we can say that we make sense of new things by relating them to the things we already know. This is either vague or banal without any elaboration, so let’s elaborate. We come into contact with metaphor every day and most of the time we more or less grasp what metaphoric tropes wish to convey, that is unless we are autistic or dealing with a language that is still strange to us. These metaphors are rarely if ever spelled out as analogies and show their superior terms only, their tenor and vehicle. Or it might be the case that only the vehicle is shown, but you should be able to adduce some tenor level of meaning.The ambiguity of metaphor can be said to stem from the unaddressed terms (B and D) which, you guessed it, you have to address somehow in order to resolve the meaning of the metaphor in some way. As you read a metaphor, a whole wave of analogies come to mind, different possibilities make themselves known and you have to figure out which ones are relevant. You must also decide what information is relevant for choosing the best explanation to make sense of the situation.

This is not to say that once you’ve nailed the one pair of inferior terms you will have figured out what the metaphor is actually saying. Far from it. The more options you can think of, the better off you are and the more competence you have in choosing among possible meanings with the help of additional information of the particular situation, your interlocutor, textual conventions, and so on. Precision is not necessarily the key here and hence we don’t become catatonic when we fill our heads with literature — although there are certainly enough stories to warn us about that. Broadness of understanding is the best term I can come up with for now, and that’s what can be gained from literature and fiction.

Of course, if you read rubbish this broadness cannot be reached. Because we are talking about things that happen in our common languages in our common world, there is very little room for the argument that because the pleasures of fiction are subjective we should just read whatever pleases us most. Some stuff makes your understanding grow while other stuff does not. Neither is it the case that now that high and low culture are valued more or less alike, it really should not matter from which source we go a-foraging our daily sustenance. Nor is it the case that all high culture is fantastic and popular culture rubbish. Things are a bit more complicated than that and that is why there are literature departments in universities. I suggest you take advantage of them and their productions while they are still around.

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