Studying Literature

hwaet Last semester I was faced with my first major research paper of graduate school. Since Beowulf is one of my favorite works of medieval literature, I hoped to write a piece about it. The professor of the class instructed us to come up with something new for our topic. Of course, Beowulf has been a popular text of study for at least the last two-hundred years. How could I, a first year graduate student, add something new to the sea of existing Beowulf scholarship?

I won’t say how I answered this question, if in fact I did. Rather, this question draws attention to a larger question that I find myself constantly wrestling with. The question is: Why spend one’s life studying literature? A scientist can discover something new that will potentially change the course of history for the better, a vaccine for polio or a new source of clean energy. The opposite tends to happen in studying literature. The more one specializes in order to break new ground, the less likely he or she is to find something of widespread significance. Discovering an unknown meaning for a word in Beowulf is unlikely to cure cancer. So what is the value of studying literature?

There are two metaphors which I have come up with to satisfy this question. The first is the metaphor of a curator. A curator usually works in a museum. She watches over a collection of art and makes it accessible to the public. A piece of literature, though expressed in physical form, is not a physical object. It is unlikely that the letters of Romeo and Juliet will fade or be stolen as one might steal the Mona Lisa. However, the memory of a piece and familiarity with it can be lost. Jewels and masterpieces are always in danger of being forgotten in dusty attics. Someone needs to be there to pull them out of the closet, to polish them, and to put them on display. I am a curator of texts, helping them remain accessible to each new generation.

The other metaphor is of a farmer. Farmers plow the same piece of land year after year. They do so because they know that the soil and environment can produce a harvest. This is the same reason why we return to great works of literature again and again. When we “cultivate” them, they produce a harvest. I think this is a part of what makes a piece of literature great, that people in each generation, for whatever reason, choose to turn to it again and again.

A good professor, then, is like a good farmer. Year after year she brings a new batch of students into what she knows to be good soil, the text. With proper care something will grow in the students. This presupposes that what literature produces in us is valuable. To explain the benefits of literature would require many more pages and others have done it better.

However, I will say a few things about what literature provides us with. Literature, like other forms of art, provides us with beauty. Beauty is something all humans need and it in turn can produce beauty in us. Art presents us with truth, in all its vivid complexity. Art also teaches us what it means to be human. To paraphrase something that scholar Jerry Root has said many times, there is no such thing as a Baroque period in beehives or a Georgian style in anthills. Animals create beautiful and complex things, but they are always intensely pragmatic. Humans are the only animals which have artistic periods. Art and ornamentation, which are in one sense the most frivolous parts of human creation, are also what help to make us human. By studying art we better understand the art of being human.

I will also add that knowledge gained via scientific methods tends to be privileged more than knowledge gained in other ways. In fact, some consider science to be the only way of obtaining knowledge about reality. Such a view is a fairly modern one. Privileging scientific knowledge is like looking at the universe through a knothole. We need to learn to expand our gaze. There are some things that can only be learned through a piece of literature.


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