A Literary Education

In an essay in the June 16th, 2008 New Criterion Joseph Epstein discusses his literary education and why it drew him to the literary life he now leads. To a large extent this is reflected in the very fine essays he writes, as well as the fictional forays he makes from time to time.

Throughout this piece Epstein tries to identify what he learned from his literary education. In turn, while my literary education has been much briefer, I was led to ask the same question as I read his piece. Over the years, I have been continually surprised by what I have discovered.

In the most general sense, I now realize there are as many truths to be found in literature as in the psychological science I have been studying for most of my life. Indeed, in many respects literary truths tell me more about life, especially my life, than the more formal generalizations of psychology.

Literary truths hold for the individual. They make no claims on anyone beyond the reader who chances upon them in the books or essays they read. The truths of any single reader are usually quite different than the truths of any other reader. That is the wonderful thing about literature and the reason why it is such a gold mine of truths.

In writing about the work of social scientists Epstein expresses a somewhat similar view: “Scientists and social scientists claim to operate by induction, but there are grounds for thinking that they do not, not really; that instead they are testing hopefully, hunches, which they call hypotheses. But novelists and poets, if they are true to their craft, are not out to prove anything.”

And later: “One of the most important functions of literature in the current day is to cultivate a healthy distrust of the ideas thrown up by journalism and social science.”

This leaves open the question how and in what ways literature gives rise to this skepticism. For it was something I learned very early on in my own studies of social science, particularly from its methodology and mode of analysis.

Epstein reminds readers of Freud’s well-known claim that most of what he knew he learned from poets. I’ve always wondered exactly what Freud meant by this. To be sure his conjectures based on the Sophocles Oedipus Trilogy made him famous. But while he was clearly well read in the classics, my sense is that he learned far more from his patients than the writers whose work he admired.

In speaking of the truths to be found in literature Epstein writes that “James [Henry] felt that there were truths above the level of ideas, truths of the instincts, of the heart, of the soul, and these were truths that James, once he had attained to his literary mastery, attempted to plumb in his novels and stories.”

At the outset of his study of literature is Epstein hoped that the “thoughts of imaginary characters, the dramatization of large themes through carefully constructed plots, the portrayals of how the world works, really works---these were among the things that literature, carefully attended to, might one day help me to learn.” Epstein admits that a literary education is largely a private affair and that our real teachers are the books we happen to read.

He concludes: “So from the study of literature we learn that life is sad, comic, heroic, vicious, dignified, ridiculous, and endlessly amusing…” Not every writer can so readily translate his education into the life he leads, but Epstein is clearly one who has.

Can this be learned in other ways? In the end, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t to be obtained in psychology. Many writers, perhaps not surprisingly, say it can only be learned through the study of literature. Here are the views of four who I admire.

Eliot Perlman: Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we would never have gained elsewhere.

Salman Rushdie: Its [literature] cultural importance derives…from its success in telling us things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter.

Richard Ford: He liked novels because they dealt with the incommensurables in life, with the things that couldn’t be expressed another way.

John Updike: We look to fiction for images of reality—real life rendered as vicarious experience, with a circumstantial intimacy that more factual, explanatory accounts cannot quite supply.
John Updike