On Fairy Stories

Because I study literature and languages, people often ask me for recommendations as to what they should read. Usually, I don’t give a straight answer, because different people look for different things in literature and my own interests are professional and hence a bit strange compared to most tastes. But something can be said about the reasons why one should read literature in general. And by literature I mean mostly fiction, although strictly speaking one should not exclude things like Ruskin’s criticism or Newton’s Principia, for example, from the category of great literature.

One of my childhood favorites, the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft once reportedly said: “I’ve always had [the] subconscious feeling that everything since the 18th century is unreal and illusory.” This is something I’ve come to believe as well, not because of any subconscious feeling but thanks to study. When one studies literary history, especially that of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, what one finds is something akin to rhetorical bootstrapping of literary registers. This has to do with the political theater of the court and many other things too complicated to go into here, but something like the final destruction of the link between res and verba seems to have occurred. That is, in some sense polite culture did become unreal and illusory.

Things like this happen in literary history once in a while. Something like it happened with Dante and with Shakespeare. The title of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human gives a hint of what happened with the latter. In the eighteenth century, however, this phenomenon — whatever we want to call it — happened on an industrial scale. With the Restoration, the English found themselves emerging from an Hobbesian world where the interpretation of the actions and words of men became more than an art. Rhetoric was no more mere ornament, it was a battlefield that required skills of skeptical reading and careful interpretation.

Dwelling on the subject for a few years will heighten one’s awareness of the doubleness of people and their words. It’s something close to paranoia if one does not keep it in check. Puritan critics of the Elizabethan period were still able to call for transparency in language and romances were one of their main targets. Moral improvement was for them the primary function of literature and what silly fairy stories did to readers was dangerous. And, in some sense, they had a point in their Platonic objections to poetry of this kind. It does make readers immoral in the sense that it will familiarize the reader with a different register that may overtake the plain speech the Puritans preferred. The unreal and illusory infect the register of plain speech and one has to deal with a new type of register that is morally dubious.

On the other hand, studying literature may also familiarize one with fiction in a way that enables one to recognize bullshit when one sees it. Romantic literature, for one, is notorious even in our time for installing silly ideas of romance into the heads of people who will look for transcendent love as if they were the heroes or heroines of cheesy novels or, more likely nowadays, soap operas. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope was once asked what the point of his novels was, to which he replied that they helped young ladies decide on marriage. He was a great admirer of Jane Austen and she of course is widely recognized as the greatest writer of his genre. Every man contemplating marriage, I would say, should read Austen just to see how carefully the young ladies in her books weigh their options and pay special attention to the role money plays in their decisions. Austen, despite her reputation as romantic fluff, is fantastically brutal in the way she destroys whatever fairy stories one may have heard of marriage. She is one of the most unromantic writers I’ve come across and well worth reading, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to recommend her to anyone. Perhaps next time someone asks I will, because she teaches skills in ruthless judgment that might save lives.

However, where to begin one’s reading if one is interested in something else besides reining in one’s hormones? The one answer that I’ve given a couple of times and been happy with is that one should start with the ancient dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In this at least, my education in literature didn’t really differ that much from eighteenth-century schoolboys — although I didn’t learn Greek as a boy in order to read them. They show the lengths to which human beings are able to go and what they are willing to do in order to survive, to love, to exact revenge or to defend what is theirs. They also show that since the ancients people have struggled with problems related to distinguishing illusion from reality. They taught me that if you are willing to assume that everything you know is wrong, you are on your way to finding answers. It will probably not be a pleasant experience, but at least it gets you a little closer to something like the truth.

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