Sunday Morning! “Literature: Why It Matters”


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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56 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Part of the problem is that you get a Klee or a Pollack and you look at their stuff and you might say “it’s crap”. This is not to say that “art is now cancelled” or however the kidz phrase it these days.

    If I see a Koons gets sold for $90 million and my first response is “this is obviously a money-laundering operation” rather than “I’m so pleased that at least one talented artist is *FINALLY* getting recognized in his lifetime!”, that doesn’t say anything about my attitudes toward “art”.

    When it comes to Literature and Why It Matters, I am assuming that while there may be a subset of troglodytes out there who don’t need no books without no picititures, there is also a subset out there who have had the Tolstoy vs. Dostoyevsky argument at one point and they see the current batch of Important Authors and start thinking that it’s not about the Literature but, like Koons, something else entirely is going on and disapproval of this something else entirely should not be mistaken for saying Literature does not Matter.


    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      I went to a bookstore today that had many brand new books by the writers who Really Matter Right Now in the NPR/CBC radio matrix and I really wondered if I’m just not going to make it as a reader in this century.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
    And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

    • I was gonna comment that yeah, a lot of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies seem to center on misplaced/overgrown ambition. I don’t know if that is a factor of the time in which they were written, or, perhaps, appealing a little bit to the monarch-at-the-time who doubtless would have been suspicious of anyone in her court who seemed to have too much ambition.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to fillyjonk says:

        Its a little of column A and a little of column B. This was a time in European history where knowing your station in life was important and chances of getting beyond that were small. And many of Shakespeare’s history plays were meant to really flatter Queen Elizabeth I directly or indirectly.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Macbeth was written while James 1 was king. In it, James’s ancestor Duncan, the rightful king, is murdered and replaced by a usurper, who at the end is killed and replaced by Malcolm, also Jame’s ancestor.Report

          • Macbeth was the first one to come to my mind. It really does seem like something new to treat ambition as an unambiguously positive trait. Or is that just how it strikes me?Report

            • Avatar James K in reply to Rufus F. says:

              I wonder if the egalitarianism of the Enlightenment is responsible for this change. If you believe the social hierarchy is fixed and ordained from on high, an ambitious person is a rebel against the natural order. But once you come to see hierarchies as mutable, and ambitious person may seen as someone worth emulating.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

                The philosophy book that changed my life (at age 23… yeah, what can you do) listed out a handful of virtues and one of the virtues was “Humbition”. It was humility and ambition, wrapped into one. Humility, all by it self, is useless. Ambition, all by itself, is downright sociopathic.

                But Humbition ended up being one of the engines of progress.

                I’ll let Kaufmann say it:

                The first lacks any single name but is a fusion of humility and aspiration. Humility consists in realizing one’s stark limitations and remembering that one may be wrong. But humility fused with smugness, with complacency, with resignation is no virtue to my mind. What I praise is not the meekness that squats in the dust, content to be lowly, eager not to stand out, but humility winged by ambition. There is no teacher of humility like great ambition. Petty aspirations can be satisfied and may be hostile to humility. Hence, ambition and humility are not two virtues: taken separately, they are not admirable. Fused, they represent the first cardinal virtue. Since there is no name for it we shall have to coin one-at the risk of sounding humorous: humbition… Meekness says: Judge not, that you be not judged! . . . Humbition replies: Judge, that you may be judged!

                I still kinda dig that.

                Pity that nobody reads Kaufmann anymore.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

                If it changed your life, I’ll read it. What’s the title?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Walter Kaufmann’s Faith of a Heretic. For a while there, it was out of print and the price was all wonky. Sometimes you could get copies of the paperback for $40 and I sighed and was glad I had one on the shelf. Sometimes the price was $5 and I had Maribou buy a couple for me to give away to people. There’s a new edition out now so you can even buy it new for cheap. (Or ask your library to get a copy without guilt.)

                If you say “ugh, Amazon… I want it *NOW*”, you can make do with the essay he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 1959. This is the essay that got such a response that it resulted in him writing the book.

                Now, I hear you ask, are there criticisms of Walter Kaufmann? Yes, there are! Some of which have even appeared in the hallowed pages of Ordinary Times!

                As such, I’ll just recommend that you start with the essay. If the essay leaves you cold, hey. You’ve saved yourself a week of reading and fifteen bucks. But if you are, instead, irritated that I haven’t mentioned him more often… well, then get the book and know that he’s written a handful more (and edited a *TON* of them).Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to James K says:

                Yeah, I’m sure the Enlightenment made a lot of ambitions seem less wicked and unseemly. It still kind of persists until the middle of last century at least. I just watched the Joan Crawford film Mildred Pierce, in which the ambitious daughter is almost comedically terrible.That was based on a James McCain novel from 41. I just can’t think of anyone in modern fiction who’s that terrible. There must be some.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Milo Minderbinder (depending on what you mean by “modern”.) I was going to say “Flem Snopes”, but he’s earlier than 1941.Report

              • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to Rufus F. says:

                I suspect at least in the first half of the 20th century, “ambition” in women was viewed less-positively than “ambition” in men.

                Heck, that’s likely STILL true, now that I think about it.

                I see a difference between ‘ambition to always benefit oneself only” (not so good) and “ambition to improve things, and maybe also benefit oneself” (mixed, but sometimes can be good).

                I suspect “ambition” is one of those things that, without an ethical sense to serve as a brake on it, things can go very bad very fast. Sort of like some of the “techbro” stuff we read about, or some of the more egregious forms of CEO behavior.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to fillyjonk says:

                Heck, that’s likely STILL true, now that I think about it.

                Only if they’re shrill.Report

  3. Avatar Aaron David says:

    My first wife tended to go back and forth between the big Russians, your Dostoyevsky’s and Nabokov’s, and MTV beach books. My next girlfriend got her Ph.D. in critical studies. I am not sure who got more out of literature, one who enjoyed it strictly as an escape, or the one who started with a love, but it was seemingly turned into a tool.

    My brother is currently the most ambitious of the family, working 60+ hours at his business. I was never the most ambitious, but due to frustration at people not getting shit done have usually stepped up to my own Peter principle. In any case, I seem to be mostly retired at 48. Oh well, gives me more time to read. Which is all I wanted to do in the first place.

    Proust seems to be backburned right now, as I read a really good critical piece on Ellroy lately. This has given a new light to his later books, the American Underground trilogy, of which I was originally unimpressed with the latter half of. So, back to them.

    Watched the original Solaris, with Aguirre-Wrath of God coming up next. One other movie was watched, but I am thinking of a piece about that and the nature of “problematic” art, so will remain mum for now.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Aaron David says:

      I watched Master Class: Werner Herzog Teaches Filmmaking, (which I found on the Internet during a period of boredom), and he relates a ton of fascinating stories about making Aguirre-Wrath of God and uses them to teach important aspects of filmmaking. Among these lessons is when a director should make a credible threat to murder the lead actor (I suppose leaving his body to rot in the jungle). He also talked about location scouting, and at one point during the filming the entire cast and crew lived in a local barn.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    There are.times where your posts and my brother’s posts read indistinguishably for each other. What I find is that many fans of speculative fiction do not like more literary novels like the Life and Times of Michael K. because they too realistic. They want literature to be about experiences nobody can ever have like going a wizard school or superhero stuff.

    The continual emphasis that education should focus on practical skills is depressing but possibly inevitable. Most people aren’t intellectuals and one of the purposes of mass education was always to create economically productive citizens. I think that many people really do want a nearly entirely vocational education or at least something that has real world impact like the maths and sciences even if we are doing the abstract, theoretically stuff. I think once you hit a certain point in the numbers of people going on to higher education, the more vocational and real world oriented it is going to get. Even the classic humanities like history, literature, and philosophy seem like intellectual wanking to many people regardless of their politics. They don’t have four years and unlimited money to do that. They need something less expensive and that will help them get a job.

    I think Anglophone society has always been a bit ambivalent about the late teens to early/mid/late twenties being something of a wonderlust period where people live and enjoy their youths. From what I could gather, which means I could be entirely wrong about this, continental European societies were always somewhat more supportive of the idea that at least some young people should enjoy their youths doing interesting things and then get to work. Anglophone societies, probably because of Protestantism, never really seemed to like that idea. Even as the marriage age increased, the idea was that you should always be building your life in a productive manner.Report

    • Avatar Blomster in reply to LeeEsq says:

      That’s very funny, because three sentences into this piece and I was thinking ‘Is Saul writing this?’Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “The continual emphasis that education should focus on practical skills is depressing but possibly inevitable. ”

      The people who talk about how college degrees result in higher lifetime earnings mean exactly this, though.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

        If a four-year college degree was achievable for a price that you could pay while working an entry-level job somewhere and end up with a level of debt that could be paid off by working full-time the first summer after graduation (assuming still living at home), I don’t think that anybody would find abstract degrees particularly notable. The Particularly Abstract would get a handful of employability jokes, but, at the end of the day, you know that the guy who can read Chaucer is a guy who can read Chaucer.

        It’s when you get $80,000 in debt to learn how to read Chaucer that you’re going to get people who realize that they wanted a very particular subset of “smart” and going $80K in debt to learn to read Chaucer puts them in a different particular subset of it.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

          The problem is that nobody actually knows what college does to make you successful, so they try to go to the best one they can get, hoping that it’ll do whatever-it-is-college-does better than a not-as-good one. As a result the best ones are in demand, and even the most basic first-year college student can tell you what happens when demand rises for fixed supply.

          That’s also why people like college courses for skills and STEM, because progress there is a lot easier to quantify and measure than stuff like reading Chaucer. Like, if the question is “use the vortex panel method to calculate the lift coefficient of an airfoil cross-section” then either I can do that or I can’t, there’s no ambiguity about the originality of my approach or whether my conclusions are supported by my reasoning.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I would be somewhat interested in seeing how it breaks down later in life. In my experience, I knew plenty of people who got degrees in impractical humanities subfields and then went on to “high powered” careers- which they got into with the help of family friends. Conversely, I’ve known plenty of coworkers in blue collar jobs who studied nights and got degrees in practical fields- which meant they had a few more responsibilities at work.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Rufus F. says:

          The way the socio-economic and class lines work on all this are all very blurry and mutable. FWIW, I feel like upper-middle class professionals split into roughly two camps when raising their kids on education and college majors:

          1. Camp # 1: “You are smart. You can study whatever you want and people will recognize it and you will land on your feet.”

          2. Camp # 2: “Your future is not secure. We have money but not do whatever you want money. Do you see this nice house? Do you know all those nice vacations we go on? You need to study something practical in school and then advance up a corporate career to get this and maintain it.”

          The camps always exist but one camp is stronger than the other at times based on a variety of factors. Since the Great Recession or maybe before, Camp # 2 is the dominating one because of feelings of income inequality, wealth inequality, and over all feelings of insecurity. There is also a general feeling right now that people in tech or finance (mainly finance) are gobbling up all the money and they need to get their kids into these fields at risk of starvation.

          Perhaps the conditions that allowed a huge number of people to study and appreciate the arts and humanities were very rare and almost impossible to replicate. There was technology but nothing so advanced as we have know. There was a need for a lot more local media so you could work the arts section of any decent daily and make a good living. Not as much anymore, etc. Adjunctification was not a thing.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Reading The King of Elfland’s Dautghter by Lord Dunsany, a fantasy novel from the 1920s. The prose is gorgeous, but if you drank a shot every time he called the mundane Earth “the fields we know” you’d be dead by chapter five.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      It is a beautifully written book, and I would suggest his Char Woman Shadow.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Aaron David says:

        Both of them were part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter, which amounts to a graduate course in the history of fantasy.Report

        • Avatar rexknobus in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Thanks for that link! I have long had a list of fantasy novels in memory that I “read long ago,” but couldn’t quite place in time. The “Precursor” series perfectly coincides with my high school and pre-service days. I read nearly all of them at that time. (Had a local tobacco store that stocked lots of paperbacks of weird sorts — guess I graduated from Doc Savage to the fantasies in about ’65 to ’66.) Went into the service in April of 1969 and, after that, only dipped occasionally into the books of the “Series Proper.” I met Lin Carter at the WorldCon in Kansas City in 1976. Can’t remember what we talked about, or if I just sat and listened to him and L. Sprague deCamp and Heinlein discuss stuff. (Hopefully I kept my mouth shut.)Report

        • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Over the years I have sold many of those editions, but never looked at a complete list of them, so thank you. There is some great, forgotten stuff there, lost in the rush to compete with Tolkien and Martin. William Hope Hodgson, William Morris, Hannes Bok, the history of the genre contains such greats.

          Sad what we are left with.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I checked this to update a Wikipedia page. 108 freaking times. (I am not making this up.)Report

  6. Avatar James K says:

    Trying to optimise your degree for marketability doesn’t even necessarily make sense form an income-maximisation standpoint.

    There are two main models to explain how education boosts income: The Human Capital Model (going to university teaches you skills employers value) and the Signalling Model (getting a degree proves you have intelligence, work ethic, ability to complete assignments etc. that employers value). To the extent the Signalling Model is true, and there’s a decent amount of empirical support behind it, then the subject of your degree doesn’t matter too much. So why not do something you enjoy?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

      Because the more students that signal that they went to college to do something that they enjoy, the more that it is signaled that, maybe, they won’t be a good fit for this particular job that is unpleasant but will pay the bills and give you nights and weekends to do things that you enjoy.

      This job requires someone capable of grinding out alienating and vaguely unpleasant work, not someone capable of getting a degree in Art History.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

        third option: employers are using college degrees as a filter for either “not black” or “black but able to keep your shit together long enough to get a college degree”, and for those purposes any sort of college degree is an acceptable signalReport

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to James K says:

      Couple issues here. Now that 35% of people age 25-29 have university degrees, it’s not the signal it used to be. Also, the signal isn’t uniform. Imagine someone with a physics degree and someone with a psychology degree. If you have to guess, which one do you think is smarter? Finally, some fields of study enhance human capital more than others, which is a big part of why people who studied those fields tend to make more money.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to James K says:

      There are lots of things going on here:

      1. We can have a real debate over how many people really enjoy the arts and the humanities. Obviously a lot of people do but I think that the truth is that a lot of people just don’t have a need for deep study and an intellectual and kind of abstract subject. A good but never possible experiment would be to look at the children of upper-middle class professionals and give them two options at 18. They can go to university or they can go to an apprenticeship at a big corporation to learn business skills like marketing, accounting, finance, etc. How many would pick the apprenticeships?

      2. The studies might be true but people generally don’t believe them. The Human Capital Model is winning the argument whether it is true or not. What you write about the Signalling Model may be true but the advocacy and empirical support is not convincing anyone including politicians and parents.

      3. There could be political reasons why certain people see the arts and humanities as dangerous and wish to dissuade people from being interested in them. I notice that a lot of quasi-authoritarian regimes and authoritarian regimes love STEM but hate the arts and humanities because the later cause people to question the existing power holders. Locke and Rawls and Arendt are dangerous in ways that Civil Engineering 202: Better bridges for tomorrow is not.Report

      • I enjoy at least some of the arts and humanities, and appreciate a class setting where someone has made some of the hard choices about what material to include and there are people to argue with as needed. OTOH, in college I disliked having to take those classes for a grade. STEM classes were different because I knew that I was going to go to work doing STEM in some field and that part of college was an apprenticeship. I have written here before about one of the weaknesses on both sides is that the curricula are set up to be apprenticeships; the six-hour math sequence I would design for non-STEM students would be very different than the math sequence for engineers; and it ought to be graded pass/fail.

        Much of the push for STEM these days is because people believe those are the fields that will produce something new that will provide a million jobs of various sorts. Automobiles, aircraft, and integrated circuits being some of the examples.Report

  7. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    From the “Study STEM- Learn To Code” files:

    Boeing Outsources 737 Max Software to $9-an-Hour Engineers”

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      seen this in a lot of tweets over the past couple of days

      a second alpha prove (Angle-Of-Attack indicator) would’ve fixed the problem, there’s no point blaming it on the software.

      and I’m absolutely certain that senior engineers in Boeing’s design department said “hey it’s kind of a problem to give full control authority(*) to a system that depends on one sensor that isn’t even designed to give the kind of precise measurements you need,” and the reply was “well if we don’t give the system full authority it won’t work the way we want, but we’ll make the second-sensor upgrade part of the baseline”. And then the marketing department said “hey, that second-sensor upgrade is an upgrade, not a baseline, you’ve just made our costs go up, take that back out,” and the reply was “oh, okay,” because people running this sort of business have a nasty tendency to forget conversations that they had five minutes ago.

      So, again, not really a software issue, more a matter of cost-cutting that deleted a redundant sensor that was needed on the new model but optional on the old one.

      And, thing is, even better-paid (read: American) (read further: white) software coders wouldn’t necessarily have done things any better, or even any differently. The code did exactly what it was supposed to do, given the inputs! The problem was the hardware.

      (*) in aerodynamic control terms, this means that the fly-by-wire computer control can move the controls all the way with a force greater than a human can counteract. Normally you don’t do this–either the control can only move a little bit, or it can’t move stronger than the pilot can push–because if your control system gets weird and you have full authority then you have, well, situations where the computer puts the plane into a nose-down dive and the pilots have no way to pull out.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck says:

        ‘alpha probe’, not ‘alpha prove’, apparently I’m so used to autocorrect replacing actual words with other words that I’m starting to do it for myself nowReport

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Also, the control rods should reduce nuclear reactivity, not increase it.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to DensityDuck says:

        You made an understandable assumption that Boeing hadn’t fired their senior engineers, saying “Our products are mature so you guys aren’t needed anymore.”

        That may explain far more about what’s going awry at the company than the hiring of Indian software companies.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      I get that you think you’re making some kind of cogent point here, but I’m not sure what it is. Are you trying to suggest that software developers are, in fact, not paid very well in the United States?Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        My point is that we hold up STEM jobs as the answer to automation and job displacement, when it is actually remarkably susceptible to AI and outsourcing.

        Whereas the skills which are hardest to automate are the ones requiring an understanding of human behavior and the nuances of emotion.

        Such as nursing, counseling, health care and teaching.

        I don’t believe for a moment that the volume of such skills can replace technical jobs, but the much-vaunted superiority of STEM skills over humanities seems misplaced.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          On the other hand, I’m not really sure that many nurses. counselors, health care workers, and even teachers really study the humanities that deeply. They instead study the vocational courses they need for their chosen profession; particularly nurses, health care workers, and teachers.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

            That’s a good point.
            Though I wonder who creates the curriculum, the framework of what the skills are for these jobs.
            I know that the little I have seen of counseling, it seems like the same chain of derivation like how engineering is applied physics, and physics is applied mathematics.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          Hrm… A job requiring “an understanding of human behavior and the nuances of emotion”, plus a deep knowledge of the humanities, art, literature, history, psychology, sociology, and human relations. A critical job that helps people make the best and most rewarding choices.

          Yeah. That job was at Blockbuster Video.

          Thanks. I’ll be here all week.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

            Has there every been an airport “How To Be A CEO” type book which didn’t just paraphrase vast amounts of pop psychology?

            Whereas, has there ever been an ad: “Wanted- CEO of Fortune 500 Corporation; Must be really, really good at coding- Human skill not necessary”Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          Hrm. This might need a thread.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          this’ll bake your noodle:

          Nursing is a technical job and not an empathy job

          Engineering is a communication job and not a technical job

          Teaching is an empathy job and not a communication jobReport

          • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to DensityDuck says:

            Sorry my noodle is only half baked…
            You could just as easily switch all those terms around.

            Are there really jobs that can be given such thumbnail descriptors? Doesn’t every job require all those things, in varying degrees? Like, engineers need to communicate, but also deal empathetically with people?

            “What is it you do here?”
            “I deal with customers so the engineers don’t have to- I’m a people person dammit!”


        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          Companies have been outsourcing software development for at least twenty years. Software engineers have also been automating their own jobs through the development of libraries, tools, and higher-level programming languages. After all that, salaries are at an all-time high.

          Health care, counseling, and teaching aren’t really “humanities.” If you want to be a nurse, you get a degree in nursing. To be a teacher, you get degree in education. These are curricula designed to teach specific vocational skills. Humanities curricula aren’t. In fact, they seem very proud of this.Report

          • Software engineers have also been automating their own jobs through the development of libraries, tools, and higher-level programming languages.

            With results that suggest sabotage. What could create more demand for programmers than yet another Javascript framework, Eclipse, and C++?Report