Does reading literature make you a better human being? Or even a smarter one? For the intellectual elites around the world, the kind who read 'serious' novels, watch art-house movies, and disdain trashy pop culture, the answer is self-evident.
"Many who enjoy the hard-won pleasures of literature are not content to reap aesthetic rewards from their reading; they want to insist that the effort makes them more morally enlightened as well," observes philosopher Gregory Currie in the New York Times. Liberals tend to be more guilty of the sin of smugness than conservatives, who usually prefer to feed the knee-jerk fury it inspires among less erudite citizens. Intellectual righteousness provokes shrill rants on literary elitism, which in turn confirm the aforementioned sense of superiority. On and on we go in circles, whether it be a high vs low culture debate over the perils of reality TV or Chetan Bhagat novels.
But as both Currie and Teju Cole point out in different ways, there is little evidence that good literature is morally edifying. Cole, making his case in the New Yorker, cites the most visible example of American intellectualism, Barack Obama, "an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world" and a reading list that includes the likes of Philip Roth and Derek Walcott. Obama represented the ultimate liberal wet dream, offering a stinging counterpoint to the rube-like appeal of his predecessor, George Bush, whose administration's case for war proved every bit as untrustworthy as his grasp of grammar.
The giddy high of intellectual advantage has since withered -- at least for Cole -- in the face of relentless US drone attacks authorised by "a man for whom an imaginative engagement with literature is inseparable from life." An engagement that ought to have -- according to liberal gospel --engendered greater compassion and integrity.
"How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan."
Closer home, Manmohan Singh's fall from grace raises a far more damning question mark on the link between erudition and moral character. A man lauded as "soft-spoken, erudite, extremely civil" -- rare qualities in an Indian politician that were taken as proof of the even rarer quality of integrity -- has been stripped of his urbane veneer by a series of scandals. "The worst—and I hope untrue—conclusion to draw from Coalgate, 2G, etc is that the man is in love with being prime minister. And will do anything to stay put," writes a no less "disappointed" liberal, Vinod Mehta. MMS stands indicted today both as a failed leader and intellectual who "swapped his philosopher's gown for a kingly robe."
But can any leader's failings, however damning, be sufficient to debunk the literary pretension to morality? Gregory Currie thinks not, preferring instead to underline the lack of evidence.
Very few [studies] address questions about the effects of literature on moral and social development, far too few for us to conclude that literature either does or doesn't have positive moral effects. There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence — they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.
Philosophical theorising aside, at the lowlier level of lived experience, most of us have encountered as many good people who have read Marcel Proust or Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie as those who have not -- and the same holds true of the jerks. I'd go one step further to argue that not only are reading habits unrelated to personal character, so are political views -- a far more controversial view likely to provoke ideologues, left and right, who subscribe in equal vigour in their superior claims to morality. I know highly erudite liberals who advocate compassion and justice in the political sphere but seem to have little to spare for those they meet in the real world. And some of my favourite people -- gentle, kind and of impeccable integrity -- hold political views that I wholly disdain. Then again, I also know many wonderful liberals and right-wing creeps, as well.
Yet in our conversations, we slip continually into ascribing moral failings to those who disagree with our politics, hurling accusations of bad faith and character. Liberal journalists are hacks on the Congress party payroll. Modi supporters are Muslim-hating misogynists. It is hardly a coincidence that debates over intellectualism usually play out along ideological lines: rightwing redneck vs the liberal hipster; Macaulayputras vs the Bhumiputras. Fans of Chetan Bhagat are bracketed willy-nilly with Modi fanboys; Jaipur litfest regulars with Arundhati Roy-loving jholawalas.
While these conflations hold true some of the time, they are sufficiently inaccurate for us to question their value. Besides, they create a national debate defined by two, highly polarised ideological perspectives, pushing the many others who fall in between to the margins. No social good can come of erasing the multiplicity inherent in any human endeavor, be it politics or love. Engaging with the world -- testing ideas against reality or other people -- requires room for refinement, adjustment, even compromise. And this perpetual oscillation between certainty and doubt which shapes the human condition is the stuff of great literature.
A substantive novel teaches us that truths are neither universal nor eternal. What we believe is rarely true, but some times useful, though other times not. It We enter the worlds and minds of others who we may disdain or find uncomfortably familiar: a philandering Emma Bovary, a stockbroker-turned-fundamentalist Changez, the Lolita-loving Humbert Humbert, a ten year old Swaminathan.
Little else forces us to make that leap of empathy in our 21st century life. Be it online news or TV soaps or mass paperbacks, we are constantly consuming easy to digest pablum -- intellectual junk food that feeds our preconceived notions, designed to elicit instant salivation. Great literature may not make us better human beings, but it forces us to encounter the world -- and our self -- in its wondrous and fearsome complexity. For that alone, a good book is and will remain one of the great achievements of humanity.