Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Fiction begins with empathy, as a writer imagines what it would be like to be another individual. He or she puts him- or herself into another person’s shoes, except that, of course, the person is a literary character, rather than a flesh-and-blood man, woman, or child, whom the writer creates. The process works in reverse, too--or is claimed to do so: readers, identifying with literary characters, experience and understand life from these figures’ points of view. For this reason, literature is said to broaden and to deepen human experience.
Since the behavior of fictional characters models that of actual human beings, fiction provides the potential for making ethical decisions and statements about human behavior in general; it allows readers to assess, evaluate, and judge whether a character’s conduct is moral and beneficial or immoral and disadvantageous to him or her and to others, including society in general. Indeed, fiction can be--or has been, at least--a means of transmitting values to present and future generations and societies, as, for example, Beowulf did and as the Bible continues to do for many.
In previous posts, we have considered the types of values that horror fiction conveys. It shows what writers consider to be wrong, or evil, and it demonstrates, through the behavior of the protagonist, how such wickedness can be resisted or overcome, indicating, in the process, that terrible and horrific experiences, including the loss of life and limb, can be endured and that the truly important things in life have nothing to do with such petty pursuits as power, fame, and fortune.
Can the assertions that literature makes--the themes of stories--be proven to be true or false, as a scientist, for example, can demonstrate the truth of the theory that some microorganisms cause disease or that the bonding of oxygen and hydrogen molecules results in the substance we call “water”? No. Are such claims without value, then?
Until relatively recently, Sigmund Freud’s theory of human personality and behavior, psychoanalysis, was not only the predominant school of thought in this domain, but it was the domain, or, to use a different metaphor, it was the only game in town. Carl Jung’s psychology, like that of Alfred Adler’s, Erik Ericson’s, Ernest Jones’, Karen Horney’s, Jacques Lacan’s, Otto Rank’s, Erich Fromm’s, and others in the fold, were mere variations of Freud’s thought. Psychoanalysis was psychology.
It was not until Karl Popper and other critics asked Freud, as it were, to set his theory’s superego, ego, and id upon the examination table, the better to see and feel, taste and touch, smell and measure them, that psychoanalysis lost its devotees. It was considered unscientific because it consisted of ideas which, by definition, cannot be measured or quantified and, therefore, cannot be empirically verified. In other words, it was a myth, not a science.
Besides the triune composition of personality that Freud posited, other of his ideas were also found to be unscientific and suspect, such as his theory of psychosexual development as being comprised of discreet stages (oral, anal, Oedipal, and genital) and his view of the existence of an “unconscious mind.” His much-vaunted “talking cure” and his attributing all behavioral disorders to unresolved sexual problems related to childhood also came under serious attack, chiefly by feminists, who regard Freudian thought and, in particular, his references to “penis envy” and to women as wannabe men, as highly sexist and offensive. Once the end-all and the be-all of psychology, psychoanalysis took on the appearance of being little more than a modern version of ancient shamanism, with its practitioners considered more witchdoctors than scientists.
How is this related to the value of literature? The themes that literature expresses are of the same type as those which psychoanalysis makes--that is, they are speculative, not scientific; they cannot be quantified or verified. They cannot be scientifically proven or disproved. If, therefore, psychoanalysis is without value, literature would also seem to be without value, for the same reasons.
Those who believe that literature, including, for example, philosophical and religious texts, does have some kind of value have had to reevaluate the matter. Many, in doing so, adopt a position akin to that of the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argues that literature is not about the objective, measurable world of nature, but is, rather, about the inner man or woman.
In short, literary texts are about human experience, as it is understood consciously, by the person him- or herself, and, since people do not exist in a vacuum, but are products of their cultures and societies, literature also provides insights into the nature of such traditions and social groups. Moreover, literature is a means by which authors and readers may share such experiences and it is, as such, a sort of glue that helps to cement individuals and societies together and to suggest personal and social meanings for them that science, by nature, cannot suggest.
Since most other disciplines, scientific and otherwise, impinge upon literature (or literature impinges upon them), it creates a complex network of interrelated ideas which enriches the discussion of the artistic, moral, social, legal, philosophical, political, religious, and theological questions that literature often raises. Although many of these other domains are as unscientific as literature itself, they have value for the same reason that literature does: they unite human beings through shared experience. Men and women are more than natural objects among a world of other things. They are conscious. They think and feel, believe and desire, hope and strive. Science’s importance, notwithstanding, science has little to do with any of these subjective expressions and functions of the human soul.
Science may tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what should be, any more than it can tell us how what is feels or how we should think or feel about reality. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that, although, in principle, through science, the universe is known, he himself is left over, as “an unscientific postscript.” The domain of philosophy, religion, and literature in general, including horror fiction, is that of the “leftover” self, and these domains are about sharing the self with the other selves of the world. As long as people believe that they themselves and others have value and that their experience matters, literature and its themes will continue to have value as well.
Besides, literature can be pretty entertaining.