Poetry News

The Ethics of Literature: Elaine Scarry on Medieval Poetry at Boston Review

By Harriet Staff

At Boston Review, Elaine Scarry looks at Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, published last year, giving particular regard to increases in empathy, dispute, and beauty due to literacy revolutions. Firstly, empathy: "Pinker convincingly describes the effect of men reading best-selling novels such as Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie and thereby entering imaginatively into the lives of other people, including those without social power: women, servants, and children"—and what's perhaps more significant in the chronology, "the second attribute of literature that works against injury: the deliberative push embedded in poetry [our italics]." More:

The connection of poetic composition to deliberation—to the “pro” and “con” of debate—is in the very first description we have of the muses singing, the one Homer gives at the close of the first book of the Iliad. Thomas Hobbes, who was acutely interested in deliberation, writes in his 1676 translation, beginning with the feasting of the gods, “And all the day from morning unto night / Ambrosia they eat, and nectar drink. / Apollo played, and alternately / The Muses to him sung.” The alternating voices of the Muses are audible in Alexander Pope’s later translation, as in John Ogilby’s earlier one. Ogilby’s annotation to the lines states: “The Muses sung in course answering one the other . . . Anthem-wise; [the Greek Homer uses] being such Orations as were made pro and con upon the same argument.” He then invokes Virgil’s Eclogue, “The Muses always lov’d alternate Verse” and Hesiod’s Theogony, “Muses begin, and Muses end the Song.” The argumentative structure enacted by Homer’s Muses is registered in every English translation, with the exception of George Chapman’s. Samuel Butler writes, “The Muses lifted up their sweet voices, calling and answering to one another”; in Richmond Lattimore’s edition we read of the “antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing”; and Robert Fagles has the “Muses singing / voice to voice in chorus.” Medieval poems helped to give rise to new civic institutions.

The Iliad is an epic ignited by the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and we are more likely to associate dispute with epic poetry or with plays, as in the drama contests of fifth-century Greece. But many other genres of poetry have the debate structure built into them, as we can see by the word “anthem”—derived from “antiphone” or “verse response”—which surfaces in the translations. That an anthem, or hymn of praise, holds disputing voice within it reminds us that there is nothing anti-lyric about this deliberative structure.

Scarry continues to look at specific forms of "poetic disputation," and connects these to an overarching interest in injury:

Just as, then, Pinker and Hunt see the sudden rise of literacy, publishing, and the novel as instigating (or at least assisting) the legal reforms that together form the Humanitarian Revolution in the eighteenth century, so the dispute structure of poetry from Homer forward helps to nourish three arenas of disputation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries whose purpose—at least in the parliaments and law courts—is diminution of injury.

She also writes about beauty. We love this: "The third attribute of literature that contributes to the diminution of injury is its beauty. In this case, the reader herself may be the beneficiary; it is the reader’s own injuries that are diminished since—at least according to Walter Pater—reading extends her life":

...[B]eauty interrupts and gives us sudden relief from our own minds. Iris Murdoch says we undergo “an unselfing” in the presence of a beautiful thing; “self-preoccupation” and worries on one’s own behalf abruptly fall away. Simone Weil refers to this phenomenon as a “radical decentering.” I call it an “opiated adjacency,” an awkward term but one which reminds us that there are many things in life that make us feel acute pleasure (opiated) and many things in life that make us feel sidelined, but there is almost nothing—except beauty—that does the two simultaneously. Feeling acute pleasure at finding oneself on the margins is a first step in working toward fairness.

But it is the concluding remarks in this essay that give us pause:

No matter how loyal and unswerving one’s personal and public commitments—to a love partner, a country, an idea—part of our interior remains capable of change. It is this part of our interior—this region of reversibility that is like a sheet of spun fabric one nanometer thick—that literature addresses. Far from being a threat to our commitments, this interior silk fabric that makes us labile and open enables us actively to re-consent each day to the people and places we are ever more deeply committed to.

Don't take our decontextualizing for it. Read the full piece here.

Originally Published: August 1st, 2012
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