Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this interview— we look forward to your valuable insight! 😊
What is the value of studying literature?
There are a few unchanging facts of life that are indisputable. People may contest whether the 2015 Hawthorn Hawks teams is the greatest ever AFL side, or even whether the earth is flat (believe it or not). But two indisputable facts of life are that the human condition is messy and negotiating the messiness of life is a challenge for us all. We all must make our way through and there is a seemingly infinite array of guidebooks, maps, and hacks that profess to be able to help us with this fundamental task – these of course come in the form of religions, philosophies, pseudo-philosophies and pseudo-religions. Literature helps us too, and it does so in a way that is unlike anything that fad diets, Yoga, Scientology, or the Stoics’ might offer us.
What literature offers is a human perspective on a very human problem, that being the human condition. In the western tradition, it might be said that the blind poet Homer first stumbled upon this. Instead of providing a bird’s eye view of a complex and dynamic problem – the Trojan war – Homer chose to focus on just 54 days of the 10 year war. In particular, as phrased in those iconic opening lines of the Iliad, he focuses our attention on one individual’s experience of those 54 days.
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, (trans. Jenkin, 2012)
What Homer bequeathed to the world was a mode of representation that has been elaborated upon by the poets and writers of history. As in the case of the Trojan war, where a particularly complex and dynamic problem is rendered intelligible through the struggles of the fleet footed Achilles, it is through the eyes of characters to whom we can relate that we come to see and understand the mess of the human condition. This is what literature offers us, and for which we should be grateful. What a mess the world would be in if all we had were self-help books!
What is the value of reading?
Reading allows us to encounter stories and ideas that lift us up. And I don’t just mean reading books.
One of the characters in one of my favourite Russian novels, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, makes the throw away remark that “Beauty will save the world”. This comment about beauty was the subject of a lecture given by another of my favourite Russian novelists, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when he received the Nobel Prize in 1970. Solzhenitsyn initially comments in disbelief, “Beauty will save the world”. What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes – but whom has it saved?” Solzhenitsyn goes on to consider the possibility that Dostoyevsky might have been right, and in his speech he considers the place of beauty and beautiful things – what he calls Art – in our lives. Solzhenitsyn’s speech stands as a compelling thesis in defence of the arts, not merely from an aesthetic standpoint but from an existential one. Art saves us because it challenges us to look at the world, not just be in it. Great Art saves us, and I use the term knowing it is loaded with many questionable assumptions, because it hits us squarely between the eyes and pierces into our heart at the same time. I would add that for art to save us, we must read it – not just see it, or know about it – but notice it, consider it, chew on it… read it!
I would argue that the value of reading is that through our reading, we lift ourselves up.
What got you into literature? Did you have a role model or a favourite book?
I was a reluctant reader and greatly impeded by host of insecurities and impediments, all of which conspired against my early efforts to “read well.” As such I was not a good reader in my youth. Although reading did not come naturally to me, a love of stories – particularly a fascination with myths – is as familiar to me as my own voice. I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated by stories. At first, I was enthralled by the imaginative landscapes that stories created, and I tended to romp around in these when my mind, some might argue, should have been elsewhere. Later, I have become fascinated by the way in which stories frame the modern world we live in. On the surface it may appear that we live in a post-mythic / post-story society, but scratch the surface and look beyond the metrics, the data, the tech, and the noise. What you find is that we are all constantly engaged in stories – posting our own, liking others, following or disrupting the stories told to and about us, our community, our interests, our country, our history, and our future. It’s all stories and storytelling, all the way down.
Any final words to aspiring literature scholars out there?
In my classroom at my previous school I had a suitably tattered poster stuck next to the whiteboard. I think it is says what I believe, far better than I could.