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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 25, Volume 8 Number 5, May - June 1982.

Editorial C.H.Sisson
 
IS literature any good for anything? The answer to that is Yes, as everyone who cares for it knows. There is, however, a stubborn debate, often in the hands of people who do not care for literature-or not much, which comes to the same thing. This debate is as to whether literary studies in schools, universities, and such places, serve any purpose of the kind most people call practical. A typical performer in this debate will say blandly that institutions of learning should turn out men and women who are useful-a proposition from which no one should dissent. This unexceptionable proposition, however, often conceals others which are questionable. It may be implied that useful people are those who have not wasted their time on Latin and Greek, or on the literature of their own or other languages, but have attended only to such studies as will enable them to devise new manufactures or manipulate saleable products, and so add to the palpable riches of the world.

The assumption is that literature is of no use except as a form of private entertainment, more or less sophisticated according to taste. Literature, in one of its aspects, is exactly that. Certainly if one cannot enjoy it one should not bother with it; or rather, since everyone can probably enjoy some literature, everyone should go the way his interests take him. There are besides several lines of apology for the public importance of literature, from Aristotle to-shall we say?-Leavis and beyond. Mine is of a humbler kind than most, but it has the advantage of possibly making an appeal to men of affairs who have put literature behind them with other frivolities of youth. It is that with a taste for literature there goes a certain affection for clarity of expression, and that clarity of expression is an essential element in the conduct of business-which is not to say that a certain talent for obfuscation is not an element too, though it may be observed that some of the best obfuscations are invented by men who know what they are doing, which requires a measure of literary sophistication.

The clarity of ordinary expression-not 'self-expression, but ordinary discourse about matters more or less objective-is a condition of efficiency in the transaction of any business. Anyone who has worked with scientists and technical experts of various kinds knows that- on all sides-ineptitude in the use and understanding of the language is a primary source of confusion. Each specialism has its own language, typically containing mathematical or other arcane elements, but the structures of human grammar and the habits of verbal usage are inescapable. The moment the specialist emerges from the internal relationships of his subject and tries to explain the significance of what he has been doing, the importance of the grammatical and verbal elements becomes overwhelming. Any ordinary practical project, in the world of government or of industry, requires at all stages the participation of a variety of specialists-a whole spectrum, so to speak, from the most abstruse to those vulgarians who best know the ways of the political and marketing worlds. The discourse that ensues has its pulls towards specialisms and its pulls towards the most commonly understood forms of speech. The specialisms are disintegrative, and ignore all but their particular range of facts; the common speech tends, typically, towards premature integrations in advance of an understanding of the import of the new knowledge. It is not a question of specialists versus generalists, as it is sometimes represented as being, for the specialists have no entrée into specialisms other than their own and what has to be established is a common circle of understanding. In practice, of course, much is taken on authority, and it cannot be otherwise: If we adopt courses 1, 2 or 3, will the specialists A, B, C, D or however many are involved, be content? But if A or B or C or whoever else is there has not understood what is involved in courses 1 to 3, things will go wrong. So in general, the quality of the decision will depend on the quality and richness of the discourse. It is unquestionable that this precision and richness will not be assured by making boys and girls read Homer; it is equally certain that it will not be promoted by a neglect of verbal disciplines ranging from the most sophisticated to the simplest.

It is arguable, moreover, that aside from those co-operations on complex projects which are characteristic: of the modern world, there is room for much more attention to be given to foreign languages. The penetration of western markets by eastern and particularly Japanese products has been facilitated not only by the wide diffusion of the English language in the East but by the almost universal ignorance of eastern languages in this country. Even in Europe, British politicians and businessmen alike have been singularly ill-equipped to understand the draw-backs and the opportunities of the Common Market. This is not merely a question of fluency in European languages, though British firms with an eye on export markets have not generally been very rich in this respect. It is also a question of employing people who really know something about the countries with which they are dealing. Politicians ignorant of the histories and literatures of Europe are likely to be cheated at every turn by the more sophisticated of their continental counterparts. And, because there is a close relationship between the minds of foreign countries, as exhibited in their histories and literatures, and their current practices, a certain depth of knowledge is not out of place in a man who is studying a market and the impediments to extending it. This applies in Europe; it applies, a fortiori, in the remote markets of Asia, including that of Japan, where western technologies have been grafted on a culture of which we have hardly scratched the surface.

All this amounts to no more than a footnote to the case for not regarding money spent on the teaching of language and literature in schools and universities as necessarily wasted: a case which, at this time, is a matter of immediate concern to many academics and others. One difficulty is that, the more depraved the standards of public discourse on the nation's affairs-a depravity to which the media have greatly contributed-the harder it is to get a hearing for civilised-or merely coherent- arguments.

Of course there will be mandarins who regard the considerations I have advanced as sordid. What of literature as a vehicle of 'value', and all that talk? There has been enough of it, in the last fifty years, and there is truth in it, as there may be a needle in a haystack. But if the study of literature is not just plain useful, as the term is ordinarily understood, it is vain to expect tax-payers, in the long run, to support even the most beautiful of academics. Pound said:


Language is the main means of human communication. If an animal's nervous system does not transmit sensations and stimuli, the animal atrophies.

If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.

This item is taken from PN Review 25, Volume 8 Number 5, May - June 1982.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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