With so much of our attention on science and technology these days, it’s wise to remember that there are also such things as human emotions. Social progress generally and our public discourse specifically doesn’t suffer as much today from lack of knowledge as from lack of emotional control. Emotions are as real as the soil we walk on. Love, hate, joy and sadness are everywhere. The question is, which emotions will we embrace and which ones will we reject?
Algebra, geometry, biology, astronomy, sociology, computer science, agri-business, simple arithmetic and all other such “sciences” do not and cannot help us understand or control our emotions or human relations, nor are they meant to. Psychology presumes to but is usually found lacking. An honorable field, psychology is horrendously term-laden and also too ridden with psycho-quackery.
History could help except for the fact that in education, history actually means political history, with emphasis solely on dates, wars, power struggles and elections. Why not also intellectual history, meaning the study of ideas and of the individuals who first submitted and argued for them: the ideas of Newton, Marx, Jefferson, Darwin, Einstein, Charlie Brown (seriously) and so many others who have stirred our minds. Ideas provoke thinking and debate. Memorization of dates does not. Genuine debate teaches civility, a commodity most lacking.
There is one often disdained field of study that can teach us about our emotions, and that is literature. Doubtless, literature has often been mis-taught. Novels much too long have been assigned. Poems so esoteric they would cure anyone’s insomnia have been discussed too early and too long. Stories that have the capacity to change hearts and challenge minds have been killed by the teacher’s search for symbolism. Biographies that could inspire have been crippled by professors who politicize them, imposing their own biases on the subject rather than letting students glean for themselves. Teachers and professors of literature haven’t always measured well the amounts of reading they dispense.
Even so, literature is like a keg of penicillin standing in the midst of an epidemic and few people over the centuries have chosen to even test the medicine. While the sciences address the mind, literature addresses the mind and the heart. Today humanity’s heart is in need of addressing. We’re not living together well. We’re “connected” for sure, but we know what that means: cell phones and screens.
The human heart languishes. Math and science can give us medicine and wealth, but not the joy of human interaction. Human interaction thrives only when we see each other eyeball to eyeball, touch to touch. Literature — good stories, time-honored poems — fosters such interaction.
Literature, that is the reading thereof, can help clarify one’s thinking and words. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Hamlet’s mother chides him for not casting off his moodiness. “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asks. “Seems, madam? I know not seems. ‘Tis!”
As Hamlet was implying, there are beliefs and there are certainties. One certainty is that we are all closer neighbors than ever before. We need and appreciate the sciences. They serve us well except when politicized and used as a bludgeon. If “global warming” was an unquestioned reality (‘tis), why is the term now abandoned for the broader/milder, “climate change” (seems)? Living closer together on the planet than ever, clear and honest un-politicized language is needed. Literary studies, not the sciences, help meet that need. Mark Twain addressed this need when he said, “Use the right word and not its second cousin.”
One of literature’s most valuable offerings is “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Vice President Pence has illustrated this certainty each time he and his coronavirus team have held news conferences. Pence’s employ of soft (but substantive) answer recalls the comment of P.T. Barnum — yes, that Barnum: “Literature is one of the most interesting and significant expressions of humanity.”
Since history and literature are so intertwined, literature can afford us both a leap into the past and a vision for the future. Most writers, even fiction writers, are lovers of history if not amateur historians. They see history as the skeletal bones on which the flesh of literature is laid. They understand that text without context is pretext.
More practically, literature can enrich our imagination and hence our imagining. Remember, Colonel Sanders was 62 when he imagined a little chicken restaurant franchise business.
So if a virus or anything else keeps us inside, it’s a good time to read some good literature — after finishing the morning paper, of course.