Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Richard Rorty on the value of literature

The inspirational value Rorty claims for literature lies in its capacity to "make people think there is more to this life than they ever imagined." He's writing in opposition to what he calls "knowingness," "a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe," that substitutes "theorization for awe."

The following excerpt echoes a passage, quoted earlier in the essay, from Frederic Jameson, who dismissively refers to "prophets, Great Writers, and demiurges," "the distinctive individual brush stroke," and "quaint romantic values such as that of the 'genius'":

Inspirational value is typically not produced by the operations of a method, a science, a discipline, or a profession. It is produced by the individual brush strokes of unprofessional prophets and demiurges. You cannot, for example, find inspirational value in a text at the same time that you are viewing it as the product of a mechanism of cultural production. To view a work in this way gives understanding but not hope, knowledge but not self-transformation. For knowledge is a matter of putting a work in a familiar context -- relating it to things already known.

If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe. Just as you cannot be swept off your feet by another human being at the same time that you recognize him or her as a good specimen of a certain type, so you cannot be simultaneously inspired by a work and be knowing about it. Later on -- when first love has been replaced by marriage -- you may acquire the ability to be both at once. But the really good marriages, the inspired marriages, are those which began in wild, unreflective infatuation.
Richard Rorty, "The Inspirational Value of Great Works," in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press, 1998)
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