Uses of Literature: Knowledge

The second of the four uses of literature that Felski outlines in her book is Knowledge. The chapter begins by illustrating two schools of thought regarding what kind of knowledge, if any, can be obtained from literature:

  1. Literature is seen as a semblance, shadow, illusion, or even counterfeit/imitation, in relationship to the world. It is secondary: a representation of reality, but not reality itself. An untruth.
  2. Literature is a reflection: a mirror of reality.

The question of literature’s relationship to knowledge remains open; much will depend, of course, on how we define the act of knowing. In my first chapter, I focused on literature’s potential merits as a guide to self-interpretation and self-understanding. I now turn to what literature discloses about the world beyond the self, to what it reveals about people and things, mores and manners, symbolic meanings and social stratification. Not all texts, of course, lend themselves equally well to such an analytical rubric; my concluding chapter centers on works that actively defy or disrupt our frameworks of social reference. But one motive for reading is the hope of gaining a deeper sense of every day experiences and the shape of social life. Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder out sense of how things are (Felski 83).

In other words, we’re moving from what we can learn about ourselves through literature, to what we can learn about the world. Felski seems to find both ideas above equally plausible, and offers an alternative way of seeing: “Once we relinquish the false picture of a reality ‘out there’ waiting to be found, we can think of literary conventions as devices for articulating truth rather than as obstacles to its discovery” (84). Here, she calls reality a false picture, but seems to favor truth – lower-case-t-truth (multiple truths?) versus capital-T-truth (one truth).

Felski uses the term mimesis, which is defined as imitation: you probably recognize the term “meme.” Memes are repeated images: sometimes the text changes, but because the core image is the same we recognize it and come to understand what it means, regardless of whether or not the text is present. Consider Success Kid. She invites her readers to imagine mimesis as a redescription, which makes sense. Every time a new meme is created with the Success Kid image, it is redescribed. It is not merely a copy, but an interpretive process. I like what she says about truth, quoting Ricoeur:

The world against which we measure the truth claims of the literary text is a world that is already mediated via stories, images, myths, jokes, commonsense assumptions, scraps of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, popular aphorisms, and the like (84-85).

Put simply, my truth is not your truth, because we each experience the world differently, so we cannot argue for some universal truth or a single reality, as it doesn’t exist. Therefore, literature is by default both truth and untruth, both representation and reflection, both illusion and reality. No matter where it falls on the spectrum here, it can teach us.

Felski introduces metaphor (figurative language – a representation and a reinterpretation, yes?) to the argument next, pointing out that even our use of language is “tangled up with our embeddedness in the world” (86). Basically, language use depends on context, and it both creates and is used to create reality. In the same way, worlds create selves (we are defined by the constraints of the world we live in) and selves perceive and react to worlds (we change and adapt to the world we live in). Language creates us, just as we create it. Felski says next that “what metaphor and mimesis share is the capacity to generate new perspectives, to make possible other ways of seeing, to intensify meaning by dynamically recreating a world already mediated by language” (86).

One gift of literature is intersubjectivity: the ability to share experience across more than one conscious mind. Through literature, particularly through well-written characters, we can come to know specific societies or communities from the inside, as if we were truly a part of that group. We share their inner monologues, their actions, their conversations. At the same time, this can backfire, particularly when characters are not accurately portrayed, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. This is why it is important that people tell their own stories, otherwise someone may speak for you, and they may not do you justice.

Felski uses one of my favorite poets as an example next, Pablo Neruda. She references his “Ode to Things” (one of my favorite poems is “Ode to My Socks”), reminding us that it isn’t just people, or places, or events that one can know as a result of literature; perhaps we should also know the inanimate objects we hold on to in our lives. Poetry, Felski argues, can do that.

Of course, literature can mislead us; it can even offend us. But as Felski says, “literature, by dint of it’s generic status as imaginative or fictional writing, cannot be automatically precluded from taking part in practices of knowing” (103). Though literature, and especially poetry, might be placed in the box or domain of creative writing, it is not without value: literature, according to Felski, is a “form of social knowledge…[texts] fictional and aesthetic dimensions, far from testifying to a failure of knowing, should be hailed as the source of their cognitive strength” (104).

Think about this as we read Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead.” Felski is talking about literature, but I would argue that much of her argument in this section of her book could apply to poetry. What can poetry do, for us? What good is poetry? What might it accomplish?


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