Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

The letter kills but the spirit gives life (Part 2) Philosophy vs. literature

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Biological life and death are superficial aspects of real life and death. In this post I want to think about another aspect of real life and death: the ways in which literature and philosophy can bring life and death.

There’s a big difference between speaking and writing. For one thing, speaking makes use of sounds that are natural to human beings and are found in tiny children. Writing makes use of marks that are unnatural and conventional. Neither of them has intrinsic meaning, but speaking has something intrinsically human about it, while writing only uses a conventional craft to try to create images of human sounds.

The problems with literature go beyond its unresponsiveness to the reader. That’s a philosophical flaw to which Plato rightly objects. But even as an art it is flawed: it’s deficient both sensually and socially.

Oxford University provides vivid symptoms of the flaws. At Oxford the classics are called “literae humaniores,” which means “more humane letters,” – it usually being explained to those not in the know that “letters” are really studies, not meaningless alphabetic marks. At Oxford if you graduate with a degree in classics you have “read Greats at Oxford” which (again for those not in the know) means that you have studied, discussed, written about, thought about, and yes read classical writings. You may write the word “letters” in Latin. You may call them humane. But letters remain letters just the same.

No letter is any more humane than any other. In English there are 5 vowels and 21 consonants and the vowels are on the same level as the consonants. In Arab lands it’s an honor to be named Alif, after the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, which is also the first letter in the name of God. In the colonial US it was quite another thing to have the letter A (for adultery) burned into your forehead. Both letters have extravagant associations, but neither letter means anything at all. Neither is more humane than any other letter and neither is worth going up toOxfordto work on.

There is one ancient Greek who could never have gone up to Oxford, could never gain fame as a man of letters, and could never read Greats. I have in mind a certain poet who couldn’t even read, because he was blind. He gained minor fame by being able to declaim aloud the Iliad and the Odyssey, two works which have fortunately been rescued from obscurity by being put in writing by men of letters, so that they could be placed at the center of the Greats curriculum. Remember this: Homer knew nothing about letters!

We find another symptom of the flaws in the Wikipedia definition of literature.

Literature (from Latin litterae (plural); letter) is the art of written works …. The word literature literally means “acquaintance with letters” and the pars pro toto term [where we take the part for the whole] “letters” is sometimes used to signify “literature,” as in the figures of speecharts and letters” and “man of letters.”

Literature is essentially written art. The point is made forcibly by the etymology: literature is the art that uses letters. For the letters of the alphabet are present in written language but not in spoken language.

We don’t always define a whole in terms of its parts but we do here. And in the case of literature we analyze the meaningful whole into parts so small that they have lost all meaning. For chapters have meaning; so do paragraphs and sentences and even words; but the letters of the alphabet have no meaning at all.

So imagine defining architecture as the art of bricks. Music as the art of noises and sounds. Theater as the art of bodily movements plus sounds.  Photography as the art of pixels. Imagine defining a meaningful art solely in terms of its meaningless parts!

Literature literally means acquaintance with letters, but if we took that seriously we’d appoint proofreaders, typesetters, and font makers to chairs of literature. Bricklayers would gain fame as architects. John Cage would gain fame as a composer of music.

The definition signals an over-estimation of the written, an under-estimation of the heard. But literature lost something by becoming literature and being written. It lost the sound of the words, which the reader of poetry is called upon to imagine or allowed to forget. It lost its musical cadence. It lost the auditory essence it had before people could write.

When poetry became written it equally lost its social nature. You and your friend can see a movie together, visit a cathedral or a mosque together, hear a concert together, visit a museum together, engage in performance art together, even attend a poetry reading together. But one thing you cannot do with such success is read War and Peace together. The best you can do is read it to your friend. As reader you must spare some attention for the letters, as the musician attends to the musical score. But the reader like the performer now takes on the role of medium transmitting the art to the listener, who plays no such role and consequently spares no attention whatever for the letters or the score. To the extent – always partial – that you’re reading together with your listener, you too forget the letters that define the novel as a work of literature. You become once again a storyteller, something too noble to warrant a job atOxford. If you wish to “read” wholeheartedly together, you’ll need to stop reading, close the book, and simply tell the story.

A silent reader of Shakespeare’s sonnets may try to imagine the sounds. On the other hand, someone listening to War and Peace being read aloud might try to retain the book’s essential literary quality by imagining the letters on the page. Which of these exercises of the imagination would yield a more rewarding aesthetic experience?

A poetry reading is not a literary event. In order for the reading to offer the listener the virtues of the auditory and the virtues of the social, it has to sacrifice the vices of the literal. It has to conceal from the listener the meaningless alphabetic marks that the poet used. If you read War and Peace to a friend, you will have to do the same. And when you do you will strip the novel of the essential property that characterizes it as literature.

Nietzsche argues that tragedy was born from the spirit of music. But suppose that on the evening when tragedy was to have been conceived, the spirit of music was out drinking with friends and only the spirit of calligraphy dropped by. What disfigured fetus could have been born from the spirit of letters? I don’t think Aeschylus would have recognized the offspring.

In 1969 Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel in French, called La disparition (the disappearance), which did not contain a single occurrence of the letter “e.” It was translated e-lessly into English in 1994 by Gilbert Adair with the title A Void and into Turkish in 2006 by Cemal Yardımcı with the title Kayboluş. This sample from Adair’s English will give you an idea.

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign – but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.

Perec’s book is a true work of literature. But as we used to ask about the paintings of Jackson Pollock and the compositions of John Cage, is it art?

No, as for me I’m climbing back aboard the Yellow Submarine: “as we live a life of ease [not simply a life filled with non-Perecian “e”s, a non-Perecian life!], every one of us has all we need. Sky of blue and sea of green, in our yellow submarine.” On that magical conveyance we have not only vivid colors. We have Ringo’s articulation of Paul’s music, which you and I can enjoy together. And thanks to George Dunning’s magical film we also have a cosmic struggle of good against evil. In the film, that translates into a struggle of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band against the Blue Meanies – a struggle of music against silence, Yes against No, Love against Hate. In philosophy that translates into Reality against Appearance, Life against Death, the spirit against the letter. I’m hoping the spirit wins.


Written by shvoss

March 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hi Stephen,
    Maybe we should talk about this later.


    March 24, 2012 at 2:17 pm

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