Corruption from Lack of Literature

Literature can corrupt; and it is possible, too, to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all may be forever adrift in life, unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls “moral habits’ and by oral tradition.–Enemies of the Permanent Things, 44-45

Samuel Johnson on Fiction

I’m interested in hearing what you think about this essay.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler

No. 4. Saturday, 31 March 1750.

Simul et jucunda et idonea dicere vitae.

Horace, Ars Poetica

And join both profit and delight in one.


The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.This kind of writing may be termed not improperly the comedy of romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the rules of comic poetry. Its province is to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder: it is therefore precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in desarts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles. 1

I remember a remark made by Scaliger upon Potanus, that all his writings are filled with the same images; and that if you take from him his lillies and his roses, his satyrs and his dryads, he will have nothing left that can be called poetry.[1] In like manner, almost all the fictions of the last age will vanish, if you deprive them of a hermit and a wood, a battle and a shipwreck.

Why this wild strain of imagination found reception so long, in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while readers could be procured, the authors were willing to continue it: for when a man had by practice some fluency of language, he had no further care than to retire to his closet, let loose his invention, and heat his mind with incredibilities; a book was thus produced without fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with life. 2

The task of our present writers is very different; it requires, together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and accurate observation of the living world. Their performances have, as Horace expresses it, plus oneris quantum veniae minus,[2] little indulgence, and therefore more difficulty. They are engaged in portraits of which every one knows the original, and can detect any deviation from exactness of resemblance. Other writings are safe, except from the malice of learning, but these are in danger from every common reader; as the slipper ill executed was censured by a shoemaker who happened to stop in his way at the Venus of Apelles.[3]

But the fear of not being approved as just copyers of human manners, is not the most important concern that an author of this sort ought to have before him. These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

That the highest degree of reverence should be paid to youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears; are precepts extorted by sense and virtue from an ancient writer, by no means eminent for chastity of thought. The same kind, tho’ not the same degree of caution, is required in every thing which is laid before them, to secure them from unjust prejudices, perverse opinions, and incongruous combinations of images.

In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any application to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellences in common with himself.

But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behaviour and success to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.

For this reason these familiar histories may perhaps be made of greater use than the solemnities of professed morality, and convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions. But if the power of example is so great, as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.

The chief advantage which these fictions have over real life is, that their authors are at liberty, tho’ not to invent, yet to select objects, and to cull from the mass of mankind, those individuals upon which the attention ought most to be employ’d; as a diamond, though it cannot be made, may be polished by art, and placed in such a situation, as to display that lustre which before was buried among common stones.

It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion, or deformed by wickedness. If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.

It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn; nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience, for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good. The purpose of these writings is surely not only to show mankind, but to provide that they may be seen hereafter with less hazard; to teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by Treachery for Innocence, without infusing any wish for that superiority with which the betrayer flatters his vanity; to give the power of counteracting fraud, without the temptation to practise it; to initiate the youth by mock encounters in the art of necessary defense, and to increase prudence without impairing virtue.

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corruptors of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the art of murdering without pain. 4

Some have advanced, without due attention to the consequences of this notion, that certain virtues have their correspondent faults, and therefore that to exhibit either apart is to deviate from probability. Thus men are observed by Swift to be “grateful in the same degree as they are resentful.”

[1]See Scaliger’s Poetics, 6:4.[Back to text]

[2]See Epistles, 2:1:70.[Back to text]

[3]See Pliny’s Natural History, 35:36:85.[Back to text]

[4]See Swift’s Miscellanies, 2:354.[Back to text]

Imagination Concerning Marriage

It was then that he clearly understood for the first time what he had failed to understand when he led her out of the church after the wedding. He understood that she was not only close to him, but that he could not now tell where she ended and he began. He realized it from the agonizing feeling of division into two parts which he experienced at that moment. He felt hurt, but he immediately realized that he could not be offended with her because she was himself. For a moment he felt like a man who, receiving a sudden blow from behind, turns round angrily with the desire to return the blow only to find that he had accidentally struck himself and that there was no one to be angry with and he had to endure and do his best to assuage the pain.–Anna Karenina, 485

Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 4

The Odyssey, Books VIII-XVI, cont.

The realm of the Phaeacians is the epitome of peace, harmony, and civilization in the kingdom, to the point that it seems like an utopia. This may be why the ship-demolishing story—the ship returning home that is smashed before the eyes of the Phaecians—is included: so as to set off this kingdom as different. Why does Poseidon—and Zeus seems to encourage—the punishment of the Phaeacians? It seems that they were accustomed to gathering in those stranded from the sea—that is, Poseidon’s realm—so they overstepped their boundaries with respect to the gods, obliquely indicating that they were superior. The gods always show humans their limits, and they have set specific rules by which one must abide when it comes to the gods. This is the reason that the king of that realm that sped Odysseus home by binding the contrary wind in a bag, when Odysseus came back to him, rejected Odysseus: because of the curse of the gods.

The stories, particularly those of Odysseus, seem to mingle folk tales that were probably around at the time of the writing of the book. These stories are typical worldwide tales shared among sailors, like the episode of the Cyclops and other magical things. Homer marks Odysseus as a story teller, through Athena’s comment of it. It is an emphasis of the author to make us realize that he is a great story teller and that some of his stories may have been told merely to help Odysseus get home. Homer particularly makes sure to put most of what seems to be folk stories in the mouth of Odysseus, who tells these things without anyone being able to corroborate them. Only a few times are magical or folklore events in the mouth of the narrator.

When Odysseus makes himself known to his son, this is the beginning of Odysseus’ reclaiming of authority over his home and kingdom. The fact that Odysseus is magically transformed to a younger man may represent the perspective of Telemachus, that is, how Telemachus saw his father. Since Telemachus had not seen the young Odysseus, Telemachus is now allowed to see Odysseus in his full strength and youth, as Telemachus might have imagined him while his father was gone.

It is interesting that the Cyclops eats his guests in his own home, and Zeus—whose father ate his children (in his own home?)—punishes him for this (226).

It seems that The Aeneid is very similar to The Odyssey in that Odysseus and his men are continually tempted to quit their voyage though distractions that lure them to stay somewhere rather than to return. Nausicaa seems to be the human parallel to Dido, while Calypso and Circe seem to be her divine parallels. The difference between Homer’s books seems to be that while in The Odyssey the primary hero is moved forward chiefly by a love for country and for home, Aeneas seems to be moved primarily out of duty for country and seems more stoic. Odysseus also seems to follow his impulses more than Aeneas, and Odysseus seems to let fate happen, while Aeneas makes an effort to make it become what he knows it should become.

Homer goes out of his way to point out that the swineherd is the character one should love, being the only character for which the narrator uses the vocative, as with Patroclus. Perhaps the emphasis is that when the city is corrupt, one needs to be removed to the country (for example, as in As You Like It), as the swineherd and Odysseus’ father have done. Homer notes that the swineherd is virtuous, and he is continually offering sacrifices to the gods. The Odyssey is very aristocratic, and although the swineherd is in the lower classes, he is from noble birth. This also could show that there can be virtue among those that are subservient, even to evil people like the suitors.

Both in The Iliad and The Odyssey we have a civilization that is mingled with violence and plunder. The only way that they can afford the luxuries that they strongly desire is by plundering other nations, and this causes conflicts and tensions within society. Furthermore, in this society, honor is based on material goods; they are inseparable. Therefore, to show honor to someone, he must be given goods. For example, all the ships get 9 goats, but Odysseus’ ship gets 10, and that is how the hierarchy is established. The sailors cause the mutiny because they thought they didn’t get the plunder they deserved and let the wind out of the bag. Achilles’ fight with Agamemnon was precisely over plunder and honor related to it.

Additionally, the ethics in these books does not seem developed, or at least systematized. We are not told whether it is ethical for Odysseus to plunder a city on his way home from Troy or for the two fighters to deceive an enemy, telling him that they would spare him, if he told them information, and then they killed him. The swineherd does say that justice belongs to the gods, so Homer is somewhat concerned with this question, but Sophocles will deal with it more, and Plato yet more. Sophocles deals with the question of how one can establish civilization (justice system) with the furies (primitive gods), and the resolution is that the furies are transformed to eumenides, blessing those who revere the family, but they are no longer the supreme power in revenge. Sophocles questions how one can go from a society where kinship relationships are everything to one in which political relations and the commonwealth—though still valuing kinship—are the most important. Homer seems to note the development of the primitive gods to subordination, but no thoroughgoing theodicy exists until later (the time of Milton). Odysseus in Philoctetes is more or less a sophist.

Telemacus and Odysseus are shown to be very similar in tactic and wit. Telemachus seems to be his father’s and his mother’s son in every way with respect to words. The son is established when the father returns. This wit and scheming in problematic at times, because it includes deception.

Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 3

The Odyssey, Books VIII-XVI

The emphasis on strangers and hospitality continues in this section of The Odyssey. Being hospitable to strangers is considered a pious act, since Zeus is the god of strangers and suppliants. Those who mistreat their guests are treated as impious, as is the case of the Cyclops in Book IX (219-220, 226) and King Antipathes (243), and Zeus’s wrath is called upon to avenge strangers who were mistreated. Incidentally, it seems that the sole reason the gods are respected is their power, and if their power can be met with equal or greater strength, the being does not have to submit to the god (Cyclops, 220; Poseidon, 290-291). Telemachus knows that the suitors will mistreat Odysseus disguised as a beggar, though Telemachus’ house was a guest haven before the suitors had arrived (335, 340-341). Interestingly enough, though people who are devoted to the gods welcome strangers and give them hospitality, they seem not to do so if the guest is especially hated of the gods. King Aeolus chases Odysseus away when the warrior comes back, and Aeolus states that it is a “crime” to host or help someone who the gods hate (232-233).

Alcinous and Arete welcome and help Odysseus after they are informed of his adverse experiences, which were inflicted by the gods in Book XI (260). Their actions cause them to lose a ship in Book XIII, apparently because they defied the gods (particularly Poseidon) in helping Odysseus (292-293). What, then, should be the response of someone who finds a person cursed by the gods? It seems like they are not allowed to pity and help him, though the gods sometimes do. For example, right before Odysseus enters Circe’s palace in Book X, a god takes pity on him and sends him a stag to hunt and eat (235).

It seems odd that Odysseus is the cleverest of men, but most of his troubles come from folly (231, 233). In addition, it is hard to tell whether Odysseus’ stories are true or whether they are tales that he made up to survive, as the story he tells Athena upon arrival in Ithaca (296, 306, 347). Odysseus is also called a great bard (261), which may relate to the whole story being a song. Athena seems to tell him that now that he is home, he no longer needs to tell untrue stories, but he continues to tell them, for example, to the swineherd.

Finally, this section seems to include several threats to the homecoming of Odysseus and his men: the Lotus eaters (214), the Cyclops (228), Circe (237, 245), the Sirens (272), and of course, Poseidon himself. In these cases, Odysseus is either tempted to stay where he is or his life is threatened. He says that the greatest good is a realm wherein the dwellers have deep joy and can sit and feast around a bard, which seems to be an ordered and peaceful kingdom (211).

Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 2

The Odyssey has a different focus than The Iliad. It centers more on the home and a longing to reach home. It also has an emphasis on journeys—usually difficult journeys that result in great loss for the one traveling: loss of things, of comrades, of years. Related to this idea of home and loved ones is the idea of strangers and hospitality. Several strangers appear in familiar gatherings, and people are always curious to find out who the strangers are—in other words, to make them friends. For example, Athena (disguised as a man) is the first stranger to come on the scene at Ithaca in Book I, and Telemachus is anxious to hear the whole story about this “man,” who Telemachus suspects is his father’s friend. Once Telemachus sets out to find information about his father’s fate, he, too, becomes the stranger that Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen want to know. In Books VI-VIII, Odysseus becomes the mysterious stranger. Why this emphasis on strangers? At times, being hospitable to a stranger is said to be a mark of good breeding (192), but at others, strangers have caused havoc in the home, as was the case with the man who killed Agamemnon. Furthermore, it is said the gods are no strangers to each other (155).

In terms of god-likeness, The Odyssey seems to be very similar to The Iliad. As Odysseus tells in Book VII, the gods give some gifts to some men—and these gifts make them god-like, but they do not give a man all the gifts (197). It seems, though, that all kings have some sort of physical connection to deities—as king Alcinous, for example, tells of his lineage (181)—which might explain their majesty, or strength, or wisdom. A special emphasis in The Odyssey seems to be that the sons resemble their fathers, and if the father is majestic or godlike, the son will bear at least some of these traits. This is said of Telemachus (128-129, 143), as well as of Nestor’s son (131). Athena also continually works to present Odysseus as a god, and others mistake him for one (186).

Another emphasis in The Odyssey is that placed on goddesses and the likeness of women to goddesses. Nausicaa is likened to—almost confused with—Artemis (173). Odysseus prizes Penelope over a goddess (158-159). Helen’s status elevates Menelaus to acquiring immortality because he is the son-in-law of Zeus. The goddess Athena is the most prominent character among the gods, changing from one form to another to intervene on behalf of Odysseus.

All of these things are told in a song (“Sing, Muse”) and have bards as a important feature of the story. The songs usually cause people to weep constantly as they remember dead loved ones. What is the function of the weeping and the songs? How does it work in a comedy? Could it point out that success does not take place without a cost?