Last year while frantically searching for material to use in an essay I came across a little-known modern poetics called ‘Art as Experience’ by John Dewey. His argument is simple, but it made me think hard about what we as literature students sometimes forget: the whole point of studying literature.
Dewey’s argument is that all art, including literature, from all eras and cultures, represents experiences common to a community, or what he calls ‘the collective life.’ The task of anyone who writes about literature is to ‘restore’ this link between the work and, as he puts it, ‘the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognised to constitute experience.’ According to Dewey, studying literature should be about studying experience: the way literature acts as a vessel to unite us in what we are all thinking, doing and feeling.
If this sounds familiar, it could well be because it’s the reason you fell in love with literature in the first place. Way before you’d heard of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, you knew the catharsis that comes from reading a book (or passage, or play) that seems to align perfectly with your current experiences, shedding light on them and (especially in times of suffering) making you feel less isolated. For me, these feelings were especially strong if the writer came from a very different background from me because then if I felt my problems were unique, the catharsis was also a wake-up call.
If literature is supposed to represent common experiences, why, when I sit down at my desk, do I ritualistically ‘shelve’ my own struggles, my own experiences, before beginning to write. Why do I pride myself on the obscurity and ‘nicheness’ of the concepts I use? That ‘real life’ stuff – hard relationships, sudden illnesses, fears for the future, whatever it may be – all ‘gets in the way’ of literature now, which is odd when you think that it’s the stuff of common experience and therefore it’s the stuff of literature.
The study of literature has become too abstract, too uninterested in what literature is really for. What we need is a Poetics of Real Life, a way to explore the relationship between a work of literature and that stock of joys and sufferings we call ‘experience’ in an academic way. We need to be wary of stretching works too far, making them do things they were never meant to do. Far from being dead, the author is what breathes life into a work. If we can work back deductively from the work itself to those formative experiences, we can shed new light on the work and, perhaps more importantly, on our own experiences.
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