Imagination vs. imitation of reality.

Daumier vint un jour trouver un voisin de campagne: « J'ai besoin d'un canard pour une lithographie, mais j'ai oublié comment c'est fait. Peux-tu m'en montrer un? » L'ami le conduisit à la mare au fond de son jardin et, comme Daumier s'absorbait dans la contemplation des canards, l'autre lui demanda: « Veux-tu un carnet et un crayon? » « Penses-tu! Je ne peux pas dessiner d'après nature!» Enfin, l'image des canards gravée dans son esprit, Daumier prit congé. Et la semaine suivante, le Charivari publiait des canards signés Daumier, d'une vie et d'une vérité saisissantes.

—Simon Leys, Le bonheur des petits poissons, p. 27.

Why English?

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Literature is more than entertainment. You want pure entertainment? Go bowling. Read Steven King. Neither is literature a sack of facts that you pour into your brain (that's the wrong metaphor). In practical terms, literature read well helps to develop habits of judgment, argument, and intellect. A literary education, consequently, comprises not merely familiarity with a set of ideas, but a methodology. This methodology is applicable to the fields of law, politics, and business. It is also the heart of advertising and politics.


None of this, obviously, is necessary. As Governor (later Senator) Zell Miller of Georgia once said, "Who in his right mind would want to go into debt for the privilege of reading Beowulf when he can make $30,000 a year in air-conditioner maintenance right out of high school?" (Massachusetts Turnpike cops make an average of $150,537.00 per year, UMass Amherst Associate Professors average $98,730, and Pike toll collectors averaged $41,582.00.) Car, house, job, and cable t.v.—you don't need to read Beowulf for that.

But for all the talk of practicality and common sense, most people aren't practical when they make decisions. Consider relationships. When we contemplate relationships, we don't check actuarial tables, demographics, and divorce statistics to gauge chances of success. But wouldn't it make sense to do that? We do it for life insurance, why not marriage? And if common sense works so well, why the high divorce rates and illegitimacy rates? (Humans may be rational animals, but we rarely act that way.)


Your brain takes shortcuts. When you read, assess people, make political decisions—your brain is taking shortcuts. Here's an example from the tv show Brain Games. What does this sign say? Are you sure? Read it again. Trace out each word with your finger.

Instead of acting rationally according to data, we seem to understand relationships through fictions, according to narrative models transmitted primarily through stories (storybook knights and ladies, romances, and television dramas). Imagination, not actuarial tables, drives the lives of most people. When we wonder about our futures, we deploy a logic learned in storytelling—we imagine a beginning, a significant middle, and a conclusive and meaningful end. We happily watch movies that confirm our narratives. When we think about villains, we employ models garnered from the evil characters, both great and small, of song and story. In fact, we assess each new experience according to increasingly complex syntactic, narrative, and semantic models we take from stories. It is often our inability to find sufficient models for current experience that creates the tensions which drive us to seek out new literature and new art—writers and artists offer people new if vague ways of making sense of the world around them.

Language itself is built out of metaphors, implications, and narrative models formed and manipulated by successive generations of writers and artists. What was novel for Shakespeare is now old hat to us. Metaphor becomes idiom. Notwithstanding the distortions of metaphor and cliché, language is still the primary tool we use for dissecting the world. Some argue (wrongly) that language actually makes the world for us. But we live in this world with language, not because of it. (Otherwise, you'd never know what you wanted to say until after you said it!) To study literature is to study the most compelling language as it dissects experience. In practical terms, studying literature trains us in cognitive models by which we live, function, and prosper in the world.

Consider this example (adapted from the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson): Mr. Jones is having trouble in a relationship with Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith claims Jones is refusing to go to the next stage in the relationship. They argue about where the relationship is going, where it's been, how it's progressing, and so on. Now consider the tired metaphors they are using: going, progressing, stages. If you think about this literally, they are not really speaking about a relationship at all, but about a journey. The relationship starts somewhere, it goes along, passes certain stages (think "stage coach" here), goes off in the wrong direction, comes to an end. Any argument they have is therefore subject to the logic of journeys. And the success of their relationship may depend on how closely they live up to the demands of this logic. But are relationships really journeys? Do they really occur in stages? Smith and Jones have been constrained by a cliché to think about relationships in a certain way, and the logic of their metaphor, more than the facts of their relationship, drives their future. A related question is whether or not a relationship is a thing, a thing that can be described or dissected.

While it's true you can live your life thinking about relationships as things that are like journeys, you can lead a richer life with a larger and subtler metaphorical toolkit. And it isn't just relationships that are at stake. Loyalty, honor, duty, truth, faith, anger, family, community, race, gender, freedom, self, nature, law, justice, thought—all of these are articulated according to dominant metaphors which develop from an inherited literary and artistic tradition. To read Shakespeare is not only to appreciate superlative craftsmanship, but also to understand our inherited ideas about villainy, indecision, wrath, and so on. Facility with these metaphors, with their implications, and with the logic they demand prepares you to be persuasive and to use language adroitly. In a market that prizes information and its uses, this is a very, very marketable skill.