15 February 2013

The Deceit of Reading and Moral Seriousness

I opened my computer this morning to find this fascinating pair of pieces from First Things and the New Yorker, two great additions to my 'philosophy of reading' files. In the latter, Teju Cole chronicles his initial hope, and then disappointment, in our most recent 'literary president':
Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history-as befits a former law professor-and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction...We had, once again, a reader in chief, a man in the line of Jefferson and Lincoln... 
The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will. 
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.

We see here a great example of the fact that reading does not make us invincible. Whether one is the President of the United States or the president of his backyard, he is not immune to the shifts, struggles, and pressures of practical life in the every day. Reading doubtless shapes us, and has the potential to make us good or reprehensible people, but it doesn't not provide an impenetrable or permanent armor to the forces of the world. Reading is often promoted in this day and age as an absolute good-but what is it about reading that has caused us to associate being well-read with moral virtue, or even mistake love of books as the seat of morality itself? Is it because education has come to have a monopoly on virtue in the popular mind? Even so, it is a strange association to maintain. It is clearly evident that education, or even raw intelligence, is no automatic recipe for virtue. The greatest tyrants and dictators have been intellectuals, and the massive deceit of our 'fallen' heroes, a la Lance Armstrong, has demonstrated that it takes more savvy to cheat than to honestly compete. Some of the greatest saints were illiterate peasants.

What intrigues me most about the alleged connection between being literary and being morally upright is what it implies about the relationship between the contemplative and practical sides of life. In a world where the contemplative is so largely marginalized, both in industry and the popular imagination, there remains an underlying sense that contemplative habits (although in this case they be purely intellectual, not spiritual) are a guarantor, or at least indicative, of moral virtue. Perhaps the reason why this sentiment seems so strange is that it has become far more common to feign bookishness than to to actually be a literary connoisseur. As our society is now largely ruled by the morality of intention, rather than action, it should not come as any surprise that literary pretentiousness has become a moral bastion unto itself.

Helen Rittelmeyer responds at First Things:
The consensus rebuttal to the Teju Cole piece has been that he was wrong to assume that reading makes people more morally sensitive; the Nazis read Goethe, etc. I'm not sure what I think about that. The relationship between reading and conscience is complicated but they have something to do with each other, is my instinct. In any case, the population under examination here is not real l overs of books but vague fans of reading. Being well-read enough to bluff your way into a reputation for bookishness has many benefits-you have something to talk about with your friends, you feel a sense of belonging, often you meet attractive members of the opposite sex-but moral seriousness is not one of them.
In the end, I especially love how she describes the usual indelicacy of authenticity:
Many People are at their most in articulate precisely on the subject closest to their heart...maybe overly ingenious testimonies to the importance of reading deserve as much skepticism as overly insistent ones.
Read on, here and here.

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