This post made me want to take a closer look at Rita Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008). Felski’s intention is to bridge the gap between literary theory and common-sense beliefs about why we read literature.
Uses of Literature deals with four key elements of the reading experience: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. These four recall, as she acknowledges, the four “venerable aesthetic categories” of anagnorisis, beauty, mimesis, and the sublime. As I read this text, it is also of great value to the way we experience visual arts.
Since reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy I have become more and more interested in the uses of art. I do not – as de Botton – see art as therapy, but I do believe art has an important function in everyday life, both on an individual an a societal level. But, as Felski notes, it is really not comme il faut to speak of the use of literature – or art.
In her second chapter – Enchantment – Felski discusse the presumed problems of getting too involved in art, which one easily gets accused of if one wants to discuss the use of art.
For literary critics, she says, keeping one’s distance has been crucial. How can we exercise judgement, how can we critique a text’s ideological entanglements, if we are absorbed by its subliminal and mysteriously enchanting aspects? We would descend to the level of the child transfixed by the television cartoon or by the advertisement for the latest toy, our critical faculties disabled, ourselves deluded. Critics have historically tended to treat enchantment as something to which only “weaker” beings –women, children, gay people – fall victim, not the alert, stout-hearted male critic.
Felski sees things differently, she says:
Modern enchantments are those in which we are immersed but not submerged, bewitched but not beguiled, suspensions of disbelief that do not lose sight of the fictiveness of those fictions that enthrall us. Such enchantments are magical without requiring the intervention of the supernatural, reminders of the persistence of the mysterious, wondrous, and perplexing in a rationalized and at least partly secularized world.
Enchantment matters because one reason that people turn to works of art is to be taken out of themselves, to be pulled into an altered state of consciousness. While much modern thought relegates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises a less prejudicial and predetermined perspective. The experience of enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. Once we face up to the limits of demystification as a critical method and a theoretical ideal, once we relinquish the modern dogma that our lives should become thoroughly disenchanted, we can truly begin to engage the affective and absorptive, the sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience.
The sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience; this is exactly what I’m trying to find an appropriate language for –