Adam Komisarak Essay
When I was a teenager, I once spent a summer afternoon on Cape Cod with a cousin of mine, flying kites. He showed me this device, a little box with wheels and retractable wings that you would attach to the string while the kite was airborne. When the wind caught in the wings, the device would sail up to the top of the string. I was impressed but asked, “So…what’s the purpose of it?” My cousin replied, “What’s the purpose of it? What’s the purpose of a kite?” I look at questions like “Why read and write literature?” in much the same way: the “Why” is a distraction from the more interesting “What” and “How.”
When Jeremy Bentham founded utilitarianism in the late eighteenth century, he insisted on the centrality of pleasure to an ethical life. In fact, he said, pleasure was what defined usefulness, and usefulness was what defined goodness. A generation later, Percy Shelley extended this formula to encompass pleasures immaterial as well as material, imaginative as well as rational. Poetry was integral to social justice, because it facilitated what Shelley called “the great secret of morals….Love, or a going-out of our own nature.” That’s not to say you should read poetry for its “direct moral purpose”, Shelley said. You’re not necessarily going to learn how to be a better lover from John Keats. But as an act of love and a source of wonder, poetry involves what Keats himself called “negative capability”—the ability to negate the self—and that is indeed highly moral. By this light, the pleasure of reading and writing literature is useful in the truest, Benthamite-Shelleyan sense of the word—as useful as a kiss, as useful as flying a kite.
When TWA flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on the evening of July 17, 1996, one of the more interesting investigations was conducted by a literary scholar at Harvard named Elaine Scarry. She didn’t have any training either as an engineer or in forensics—just a hunch that something didn’t add up—so she did what she was good at. She read. Everything. Civil and military aviation journals, the Congressional Record, FAA directives, NASA studies, cockpit voice-recorder data. She then wrote a series of lengthy articles that raised a hypothesis (that electromagnetic interference from nearby military craft had caused the crash) and called for it to be followed up by the appropriate authorities. It was, and it was ruled out. But that’s not the point. She opened up a serious line of inquiry and got the public to think about it seriously. “There is nothing about being an English professor that exempts you from the normal obligations of citizenship”, Scarry said. “In fact, you have an increased obligation, because you know how to do research.”
I say amen. The people who drive our public discourse today…well, you know the type. They’re the ones who didn’t do the reading. Maybe you sat next to them in class. Now they’re running the country. It amazes me that our opinion-makers often lack the most elementary research methods, or the discipline to scrutinize their own source-texts. In the most urgent debates of our day, from health care to the war on terror, I see a catastrophic failure of critical reading and critical thinking. I only wish we were debating principles; instead, our discourse often starts with misreadings and deteriorates from there. More than ever, our duty as social beings involves reading the world with patience, sensitivity and care. I can’t think of any better foundation than literature.