Thursday, November 12, 2009

American Literacy

[A response to Paul Mathers.]

Will I scandalize you if I question the pure virtue of literacy?

What I mean is, reading, in and of itself, has only a pragmatic value. Literacy is a tool. It happens to be an extremely useful tool, but it’s value is in it’s usefulness. Of what value is it if someone can read, but chooses not to, or reads only the back of his cereal box? Or Glenn Beck?

Merely reading anything isn’t going to get my praise. Illiterate cultures can still have a rich heritage of story and thought. Literate cultures can become impoverished. Commercially driven cookie-cutter prose trash isn’t going to preserve or further develop our cultural heritage. It isn’t going to put our literacy to the good use of developing our minds or our souls.

Now that I’ve outed myself as an elitist snob (actually that was done many years ago) let me say that highbrow “serious” literature isn’t the only literature of value. Have you ever read Chesterton’s defense of the penny dreadful? On the opposite side of the coin, the value of pulps or folk lore or what have you should not be used to insulate one’s self in an anti-intellectual cocoon, which is precisely what intellectual aphids like Glenn Beck are doing. Yeah, I know… messy mixing of insect metaphors.

My wife argues with me that I want everything to have meaning and that sometimes a person just wants to have fun. She’s right, of course. And there’s nothing wrong with letting loose and having fun. This country has a lot of fun. But not much joy. There is a lot of pursuit of pleasure, but not much happiness.

Art should help us figure out how to live. It should help us prepare for death. It should help us cope, help us grieve, it should help us fill our laughter with depth and an awareness of the joy that exists in sorrow that exists in joy. If you are thinking that one could substitute “religion” for “art” there, I would agree. Liturgical art considers god and man from the perspective of God. Art considers god and man from the perspective of man. If sometimes art follows Cain, it is not necessarily so.

Well, this is nearly a post in itself. Let me wrap up by saying that one should pursue value in literature, in all of art, for the same reason that one should pursue the bliss of the marriage bed over the surface pleasure of onanism—one gives life with pleasure that is physical, emotional and spiritual, the other gives pleasure that is only physical; one is an expression of community and relationship, looking inward and outward simultaneously, the other is self-directed with only a phantom of the ego and the pleasure center; one makes us more fully human, while the other is experienced solely in one’s exclusive limitation. To feel pleasure is not wrong. But it is a lesser good than the fullness in which we can take part. I don’t believe that 5 minutes with one’s self is going to damn a person to hell, and I don’t believe reading trash is the end of society as we know it. But if a society completely gave up on sexual intercourse for autoeroticism it would die off within the course of one lifetime. So too with our intellectual, spiritual, and emotional life.

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