Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What does literature teach people?

I've probably written this introduction before, but it's necessary. When I read fiction and watch movies, I have fun. I love movies. But I rarely learn from watching films. I'd say that probably only 1 out of every 100 movies or books is really intellectually stimulating the way even bad non-fiction is.

A lot of people, however, claim that some movies (the kind that win Oscars?) are "smart." I've never understood what that means. The classic novels and plays we read in high school are also supposed to be "deep" or "smart" but I don't understand why. Let me respond to obvious counterpoints if that sounds incredibly ignorant.

First, I'm not stupid. I understand that Othello is about jealous and that Romeo and Juliet speaks to the fickle and passion nature of love. I know one of the lessons of Hamlet is that indecision can be a (tragic) flaw. But none of those ideas are new. Little kids know jealousy is bad. Teens usually feel love long before they read Shakespeare and anyone who ever spent time agonizing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream understands Hamlet. So when I say those plays aren't "smart" what I mean is that their themes are things everyone already knows--and if you already know it, you aren't learning it. (Movies have the same problem: Star Wars is about the problems of relying too much on technology; The Hurt Locker shows how war changes people; Inception shows us experience is more important than reality. I don't think any of that is ground-breaking. Also, the Neo-luddite pretensions of Star Wars are the worst thing about it.)

Now not all movies and books have trite themes. Some are kind of novel. Before I read Brave New World I'd never thought much about the relative value of truth and happiness. If you've never read "Politics and the English Language," then 1984's commentary on the government's use of language to control the populace is interesting. Avatar has the most innovative idea I've seen in a movie: the planet can think. It's trees are connected like neurons and collectively they constitute analogous to a brain. Far out. That said, I think all of these only count as borderline "smart" art. Brave New World is completely wrong: happiness is vastly more important than the truth. It's completely implausible that a government would ever try to control people through language the way it does in 1984, which is way over the top in general (and vastly inferior to Orwell's more measured essays for that reason). And of course the implication in Avatar is that we need to protect our planet--but our planet can't think, which Cameron might have been trying to imply.

So my question is this: Can anyone point out something novel they learned from fiction? What brilliant insights did I miss in Shakespeare? What did you learn from Moby Dick? To count it has to be something someone reasonably acquainted with philosophy isn't familiar with and has to be scientifically correct. (Ruminations on pseudo-psychology don't count.)

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