The short answer: because literature makes humans human. Literature benefits humanity in many ways. Aside from the general mental health benefits of reading and the associated activities, literature fosters empathy within readers; it connects the present to the past (or perhaps in genre fiction, to the future); its “story truth” gives way to a more clarified understanding of “true truth;” it asks questions and attempts to provide answers to in often nonconventional methods, and it provides a cloud of witnesses through characters and stories that act as models and companions through life.
A fairly recent study by the New School in New York showed that people who actively read literary fiction had a greater capacity for empathy. There are, of course, many speculations as to why this is, but perhaps the most significantly appropriate is that actively participating in reading a story draws the characters and situations into a form of reality within the mind of the reader. This literary reality becomes a living world with living people for whom the reader genuinely grows to care. The Modernists knew this at the beginning of the Twentieth-Century and began writing in ways that forced readers out of the state of lethargic, pacifistic reading and into the more active and important role of interacting with the text.
Through its empathetic powers, literature is connective. It connects people from times past to times yet to come. This happens not only on the obvious level of the past made present through the works of the past, but also through the power of narrative to connect the disparate. Charles Dickens, for example, in his Christmas Carol uses the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to make the entirety of Scrooge’s life tangible and alive to him in a single moment. A slew of science fiction authors all imagine the future and attempt to bring to the forefront of our minds the consequences of the choices of the present. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy tells of the far-reaching wisdom of a man who sought to learn how to deal with the future and the mistakes of the masses. The stories of literature, both fantastic and “real,” offer nearly infinite venues for the mind and heart to connect with. And it is in these places and stories, these far off planets and very familiar suburban towns, that the post-modern reader’s stoic, desensitized sensibilities are slowly worn down to the warm fleshiness of empathy, compassion, and honest humanity.
We are post-modern readers, and as such, we have become desensitized by the influx of entertainment and advertising media. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements, film, photography, and other such sensory distractions. Our artistic sensibilities have been spoiled with the instant gratification – often without a request – of something to fill in our time. Thoreau’s maxim still applies: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And it is in that quiet desperation that men are still seeking Truth* and still seeking important answers to important questions. Questions like TS Eliot’s in The Waste Land: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” Humanity is still begging this question. What life is there in the dead, rocky existence we are walking through? The onslaught of new media over-stimulating our sensibilities cannot seem to offer anything more than distraction from the broken condition of the post-modern reader.
Much has been said in literature about the predicament of the post-modern reader – or more openly, the post-modern individual. James Joyce’s Ulysses offers both a connection to the past through its parallelism to the Odyssey and an attempt at understanding the future (more specifically, what life looks like in the modern/post-modern world). Eliot offers that we cannot know or guess because all that we know is a “heap of broken images.” Joyce offers – in Ulysses – a heap of broken images pasted together to create a quasi-whole image of post-modern life. The image that Joyce pastes together is one of loneliness, confusion, and waywardness. Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist – if you can call him by such a positive title, is shown throughout the duration as a wanderer unsure of how to continue living his life after the shattering events of his son’s death and wife’s infidelity. This is the dilemma of the post-modern age: the seemingly bleak and dead future and the unfaithful and altogether unfair present.
ee cummings also offers a version of this wanton ambiguous post-modern person in his poetry. This is perhaps best exemplified in his poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” cummings’s style is one that often utilizes general nouns such as “anyone” or “someone” as proper nouns. In this way, cummings exemplifies the stripping of individuality in the post-modern age.
Literature offers some semblance of condolence to this broken heap through which the post-modern world is meandering. TS Eliot and Hemingway offer similar answers. Eliot pleads that his readers find “Shantih Shantih Shantih” which he translates in his end notes as “the peace that surpasses understanding.” Hemingway points to finding peace in our time, learning, as Nick Adams does at the end of “The Three Day Blow,” that “nothing is ever lost.”
Other answers are given to this question in many different forms. In the light of the depravity of another significant war, the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien writes The Things They Carried: a short story cycle set during the war and the years surrounding it. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien tells of a time when the main character (a version of himself) is asked if one of his stories about a friend’s horrific death is “really true.” His response is a returned question as to whether or not it matters if it is true, if the answer is yes, he says, then you have your answer. “Story truth,” he says, “is truer than true truth.”
This is not a novel principle. Even the ancients understood that a story can convey a truth stronger and more emphatically than a lecture – that is why we have the great pantheon of mythologies and folktales. Mythology and folklore are the beginnings of fiction and learning through story. Through the tales of supernatural myths and preternatural folktales, important truths about reality were able to be presented in a way that fostered change and inspiration without the amount of condemnation that can accompany a straightforward lecture. George Orwell understood this theory of myth and folktale and implemented it in many of his writings, most notably Animal Farm and 1984. By setting his disparaging views of certain governments and their treatment of people in a farm filled with only animals, he was able to escape some of the damning repercussions and his message was perhaps more likely to get out. In 1984, Orwell uses predictions of the future in order to critique his present society (again exemplifying the union of times, present and future and past).
One final answer that literature offers to the plight of the post-modern person is a companion to the empathy it produces. Literature offers to the reader the condolence that she is not alone. One of the many biblical concepts that recurs throughout the canon of literature is the concept of the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in the book of Hebrews. The great cloud of witnesses is theorized to represent many things: the most popular being that as we live our lives, we are under the watching eyes of those that came before us, whether as angels, or as spirits, as guides, or simply as audience. Tim O’Brien brings this concept to the forefront of his story “On the Rainy River.” The setting is a river between the US and Canada. The main character (again a version of O’Brien himself) is in a boat considering crossing the border to escape his draft notice. While he contemplates he begins to see apparitions around him of famous men and women and men and women he knew from childhood and college. Eventually, he is surrounded by apparitions of people; some he knew personally, others by their fame, and others not at all. This appearance of a “great cloud of witnesses” causes him to feel the weight of the past and the future on his present. JK Rowling in the fourth book of her
Tim O’Brien brings this concept to the forefront of his story “On the Rainy River.” The setting is a river between the US and Canada. The main character (again a version of O’Brien himself) is in a boat considering crossing the border to escape his draft notice. While he contemplates his dilemma, he begins to see apparitions around him: famous men and women, men and women he knew from childhood and college, and others whom he had never met or recognized. Eventually, he is surrounded by apparitions of people; some he knew personally, others by their fame, and others not at all. This appearance of a “great cloud of witnesses” causes him to feel the weight of the past and the future on his present. JK Rowling in the fourth book of her Harry Potter Series – The Goblet of Fire – utilizes this concept when Harry faces the dark lord toward the end of the book. His parents, who are dead, and a friend of his who just died appear around him and offer a small bit of aid that helps him escape the dark lord.
The great cloud of witnesses is not just present in the stories of the literary canon, but in the canon of literature itself. TS Eliot refers to it as the Tradition in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Tradition, says Eliot, should carry weight in how we evaluate every new piece of art. The new piece should not be compared to the Tradition in terms of “better or worse,” but rather in similarities – its heritage as it were. Every new work must be crafted in the light of all the works that have come before it. Perhaps that is how the post-modern individual must learn to live his life: in light of the continuum of people and art and events that have come before as well as those that are happening and living contemporaneously.
Literature helps facilitate that consciousness. Mark Doty, in a lecture explained the need for poetry, and it does apply to all of literature. He said that poetry takes someone a million miles away, who may only be part of a statistic or part of an abstract idea that we have of what a certain place might be like, and turns them into a passion, a lover, a mother, a father, a human being. And when everyone in the world is a human being to you, he says, then “you won’t carpet bomb them, or drive a plane into the place they work, or grotesquely hate them for an obscure reason.” Literature makes people human by connecting everyone past and present and future. It makes people human by fostering empathy and softening hardened sensibilities and emotions. It makes people human by pointing us in the direction of the peace that surpasses all understanding; and maybe by showing us the way to find it together.
*Capital-T Truth differing from lowercase-t truth in the Platonic sense. Truth meaning the ultimate Truth that surpasses our temporal understanding and. truth meaning the lesser and more observable truth: face value truth.