A few months ago in one of the daily newspapers there was a discussion about whether reading literary masterpieces could influence a reader morally. I regret that I did not follow the discussion closely because I find the topic fascinating. Probably I began thinking about it seriously when I was a senior in college many years ago. The topic that I had chosen for my undergraduate thesis was related to questions about the nature of literature and other forms of art.
I certainly do not think that a literary masterpiece is the same as a sermon or a homily. In fact if an author’s motive in writing a work of literature is to teach morality in order to cause in the reader some kind of moral conversion, I would suspect that would seriously detract from the quality of the literary work.
Years ago Walker Percy confessed that he began to write novels because he wanted to reach a wider audience than he had reached through scholarly philosophical essays that he had written. Percy eventually wrote six novels, all critically acclaimed because he avoided preaching or proselytizing and created significant artistic works. However my opinion is that literary masterpieces can greatly influence readers, even morally, but they must be works of art rather than sermons or catechetical lessons.
The role that literary masterpieces, indeed any artistic masterpiece, can play in a person’s life interests me for a number of reasons. First I have a personal interest in art and that interest has increased and intensified because of the many years that I have been teaching philosophy.
In a number of courses that I have taught at St. John’s University the students and I have explored the nature of art and what qualifies as a masterpiece. Literary masterpieces deal with mystery. They often dramatize the experience of loving, of suffering, of freedom, of dying. Some dramatize the mystery of God either directly or indirectly.
I have found Flannery O’Connor’s insights into literature very helpful, wise and provocative. Insisting that the whole work of art must be experienced, that a work of fiction must be very much a self-contained dramatic unit, O’Connor writes the following in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962, pp. 237): “This means that it must carry its meaning inside it. It means that any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it.
It means that you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it. It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action. The writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” (pp. 76-77)
I think that the point Flannery is making about literature would also apply to theatre and film. My opinion is that to the extent that a play or a film preaches, it is a poor work of art.
I found especially provocative some comments that Flannery made about the virtue of hope and the writing and reading of novels. Noting that some people complain that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable, Flannery insists that a novel cannot be written without hope. She also insists that only people with hope read novels. She writes in Mystery and Manners:
“People without hope not only do not write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They do not take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience. And the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.” (p.78)
That all authors have some hope that motivates them to write seems obvious to me. However that hope is required to read a novel adds weight to the view that reading great literature can profoundly influence readers, even influence them morally. The lives of some people have been changed dramatically by reading great literature and often that dramatic change has involved a moral change.
The more I think about literary masterpieces, and indeed great theatre, great cinema, beautiful paintings and marvelous music, the more I appreciate God’s gift of creation and also the crucial role that human artists play in our experience in the world.
My guess is that the availability of artistic masterpieces has never been greater than at this moment in history because of the technological revolution. I plan to make some good resolutions about taking advantage of the wealth and blessing of great art.