Monday 22 December 2008

A Better Person?

"There is no doubt that after Auschwitz the idea that culture will make you better has become a bankrupt idea." This is how Antanas Sileika starts his brief video entitled "What art does not do," put out by TV Ontario, under the direction of Wodek Szemberg, producer of TVO's Big Ideas (click here). Antanas is artistic director of the Humber School for Writers, and author of three books of fiction, most recently Woman in bronze. You can watch his two-minute video by clicking here.

Antanas says: "To ask culture to make you a better human being is to ask the wrong question." It doesn't make us better, he says, but it can enrich us.

Partly I agree with Antanas, art and culture don't make you better, but I don't think we should give up on the idea of betterment through art. I think the problem is with the verb "to make," which puts the human being in too passive a position. Could one be made a better person in the same sort of way that bread is made into toast? Psychotherapy does not make one a better person. Rather, it is an activity that one may include in a project of trying to become a better person: more understanding of self, less selfish in relation to others. Similarly, reading literature or engaging in other kinds of art are activities one can do for various reasons, including increasing understanding of oneself and others.

In the West, at least since the time of Classical Greece, there has been a tradition of reading as part of the project of improving ourselves. It starts with the recognition that existed in Classical times, which Antanas also mentions, that we humans are flawed beings. So the question arises of how might we become better. In her 1994 book, Martha Nussbaum discusses this issue as seen by Greek philosophical schools that started with Plato and Aristotle. Their descendants were the Epicureans and Stoics who believed that philosophy, in which reading was central, was not principally about conceptual understanding. It was about how to become better. As Nussbaum says, it was about medicine for the soul.

In the West, from the time of the Epicureans and Stoics, as Brian Stock has shown in his 2007 book, Ethics through literature, reading has been seen as important to self improvement, and this reading has included narrative. (I have written a micro-review of this book for our list of books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can access by clicking here.) Until after about 1450, when print was invented, reading was an activity of a tiny minority. Stock points out, however, that from antiquity, throughout medieval and Renaissance times, and up to the present, there were always two aspects to it. He calls these the ascetic and the aesthetic. In Stock's usage, the ascetic does not primarily indicate self denial. It indicates the concern with how to become ethically a better person, that is to say in one's relationships with others. By contrast, the aesthetic indicates reading for pleasure, although this kind of reading can also have ascetic qualities.

Stock shows that the tradition that developed with such readers and writers as Augustine, Petrarch, and Montaigne, was of ascetic reading in a way that one would enter a state of calmness with one's book, exclude the outside world and take in the words, and then a second phase of contemplation and reflection, to incorporate the meanings as parts of oneself. He points out, too, that this account parallels in many ways the practices of meditation in the East, which of course, also aim at self-improvement.

In our research group, we have offered an account that has a continuity with the ancient Western traditions. Our findings (see most recently our post of Wednesday 3 December entitled "Broccoli of the Mind") suggest that reading fiction can enable us to become more understanding of others and to undertake small incremental transformations of ourselves.

Martha Nussbaum (1994). The therapy of desire: Theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Antanas Sileika (2004). Woman in bronze. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

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