The just-released Spring 2008 issue of The American Scholar, contains a timely article by the New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd. Boyd wants to return literary scholarship to once again studying the “artfulness of literary art,” a topic I discussed in a recent post. But interestingly, Boyd wants to bring concepts from science into play as part of his strategy to reclaim literature for the arts.
Stories can offer so much pleasure that studying them hardly seems like work. Literary scholars have often sought to allay unease at being paid to enjoy the frissons of fiction by investigating literature as a form of history or moral education. And since the late 1960s, academic literature departments have tried especially to stress criticism as critique, as an agent of social transformation.
For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.
Literary academics have also been reluctant to deal with science, except to fantasize that they have engulfed and disarmed it by reducing it to “just another narrative,” or to dismiss it with a knowing sneer as presupposing a risibly naïve epistemological realism. They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.
To make a long argument short, Boyd, a Nabokov scholar, contends that “art is a form of cognitive play with pattern,” an idea that can help us better understand how literature works – without digressing from literature. Boyd offers up an extended pattern-recognition analysis of Lolita (sounds worse than it really is). We all know that patterns of every kind exist in literature; but Boyd wants to turn this equation around by suggesting that literature functions because of pattern. Admittedly, one would be hard-pressed to find a book more tailor-made to his thesis than Lolita; nevertheless, Boyd makes a convincing case. His summary:
What do these examples from Lolita suggest? A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the “meaning” or “meanings” of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.
Boyd mentions W.G. Sebald in passing and I have a sense that Sebald’s works, with their ever-shifting, constantly recurring patterns, would benefit from the kind of reading Boyd proposes.
Literary studies have no need to feel embarrassed at the art of literature or the pleasure we derive from it. Literature and other arts have helped extend our command of information patterns, and that singular command makes us who we are.