Understanding Literature

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace claimed that literature is “sweet” and “useful.” Since then, literature has been traditionally understood, at least in Western cultures, as having the dual purpose of entertaining and educating its audience. Literary texts are constructed in effect as objects of beauty, sources of pleasure and as conveyors of messages and information. While authors often claim no practical purpose for their works, all literature constitutes an attempt at persuasively conveying certain values and ideas. The entertaining and beautiful aspect of literary works acts in reality as part of the appeal and attractiveness which the work tries to attach to the ideas which it seeks to convey. The beauty of literature is therefore a part of its rhetoric, a device intended to strengthen the overall persuasiveness and influence of the work on its audience. While the entertaining aspect of literature may be rather obvious, understanding the ideas or values which a text advances is not always a simple task. Part of the problem is the fact that the ideas of a literary text are almost always presented in indirect or “symbolic” form. —Fidel Fajardo-AcostaUnderstanding Literature (Creighton University)

6 thoughts on “Understanding Literature

  1. I didn’t take A Mathematician’s Apology out; I have a copy from when it was a required text for one of my courses! However, it is on the reading list for this term as one of the optional books, so maybe one of my students has it…

  2. Good point.

    Later on in his page, Acosta writes, “Given a set of basic symbolic oppositions, connections created by symbolic figures in a text are generally governed by similarities to and differences from the basic binary parameters. Being able to perceive similarities and differences between groups of images, words, and ideas in a text is therefore the first step toward the discovery of its underlying categories and structures of symbols and ideas.” That doesn’t seem to mesh with my understanding of deconstructionism, which aims to break down those binary opposties, rather than use them to make a rhetorical point.

    I’m guessing that he wrote that article for an undergraduate class, since the URL suggests he’s filed it under miscellaneous teaching. Given that context, he may have wanted to lay some critical groundwork before yanking it out from under his students, so to speak.

  3. I don’t agree that all literature is rhetorical, but I do believe that all literature has an ideological subtext. Ideology can be unconscious, whereas rhetoric is a conscious act in the way that I think of it. Maybe I’ve read too much postmodernist criticism, but what would Acosta have to say about anti-aesthetic literature, horror literature, and anti-realism?

  4. Of course, in classical times, even what we would consider to be serious academic works came out in verse. We’re reading the conclusion go Plato’s Republic in Media Aesthetics today. Plato argues that the arts have no place in the ideal state because the arts inflame the passions, and disrupts reason. But he concludes his Republic with a long fanciful vision of souls reconvening after spending 1000 years in heaven or hell. His serious intellectual treatise on good government includes an anecdote that provides emotional resonance, driving home the point he wants to make.

  5. So literature is “sweet” and “useful”? According to G. H. Hardy, mathematics should be “beautiful, elegant, and useless.” Hardy’s primary work was in number theory, and his work is used in keeping credit card numbers (and other numbers) safe. So much for useless!

    It’s interesting that the idea of mixing entertainment and education extends so far back. Perhaps Horace was a visionary – but he foresaw the infomercial!

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