Can Literature Heal?

Fairie Queen

“If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”
Ezra Pound

Signs of atrophy and decay are inescapable these days. The coarseness of mass entertainment, the malignancy of political discourse, the creeping alienation affecting young and old alike which swells up and all too often releases itself in violence — all point to the realization that we have lost our way.

Before we can propose a way back, we have to figure out how we got lost.

I’m reminded of a flash of insight from one of my favorite nature writers, Charlene Spretnak. In The Resurgence of the Real, she noted that in our frenzy to reconstruct the world to cater to endless consumption and personal gratification, we have become our own Frankenstein monsters:

Ten years ago, I attended an all-day presentation by two of our finest writers on the natural world, Barry Lopez and Richard Nelson. A love of language and nature–and a humility before both–permeated their comments, but one observation in particular lodged vividly in my memory. After speaking about the ways in which wild animals are so acutely aware of minute events in their considerable range of attention that their consciousness extends far beyond their fur into the sensate forest, Lopez observed that a bear taken out of its habitat and put into a zoo is still a form of mammalian life, but it’s not a bear.

It’s not a bear.

It’s not a human if its felt connections with the unfolding story of the bioregion, the Earth community, and the cosmos are atrophied, denied, and replaced. It’s not a human if it can no longer experience awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of life, seeing nothing but resources and restraints. It’s not a human if it is socialized to be oblivious to the unity of life, so lonely that it is vulnerable to all compensatory snares.

The destruction of community connections is not an accident. So-called “liberals” want to free the individual from social constraints, while so-called “libertarians” seek to free the individual from government constraints. But rather than feeling free, the individual is left psychologically isolated, aware of no obligations or duties, but insistent on his growing list of rights.

No wonder so many are resentful and distrustful of others. Meanwhile, the cultural ideal is individual differentiation as an end in itself. One who isn’t sufficiently differentiated is not authentic. Authenticity, however, is available on the retail level. We are what we buy.

So what can be done to break the barriers we’ve erected around ourselves? Literary critic Gary Saul Morson proposes a process that can be described as literary therapy:

It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior.

In other words, sharing a character’s joys, fears, and triumphs nurtures our natural impulse to empathize with others, thus breaking down the solipsistic illusion that none but the One True Self thinks, feels, and exists.

Is it possible to rediscover our humanity by freeing ourselves from our addiction to iPods, iPads, and shoot-’em-up video games, and instead spend our precious free time with good books? I think it’s worth a try.

20 thoughts on “Can Literature Heal?”

  1. Wonderful post, Mike. And I learned a new word, too! Now if we can just do something about those waning attention spans! What will become of books if no one will set the time aside to read them?


  2. If you ask me, I still see value in the Internet, but hey, too much time in it is poisonous. Internet enthusiasts can complain all they want about people who stereotype Internet users, but they should remember that things like Internet addiction are real and that the Internet isn’t everything. And this post reminds me of people who consider literature as an escape from reality. Yes, we look for escape from reality because of reality’s harshness, and some wish that they lived in their favorite fictional worlds, but running away from reality is very unhealthy, and fictional worlds aren’t as perfect as we think, which is why I agree with your view on literature here. In order to live better, we need other people, and we shouldn’t throw them away like they’re trash. People are more than just numbers. Saying that “There should be no rules” is saying “Let’s go to Hell.” And if you ask me, literature is supposed to be something like a reality simulator (maybe a strange sort of reality simulator, too) or a guide to facing reality properly, and one book or story isn’t enough for it to be a great help in one’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on artattackunlimited and commented:
    Quite insightful. Ironically the very technology that has brought the world to our homes has robbed us of the time to engage in the simplest pleasures that bring about the most profound of changes. A nature walk, and a good book what could be better for one’s soul?


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