Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Is Lit "Universal"?

Fie Upon this Quiet Life mentioned the universality of literature as the reason why we might read it in the last thread. Dr. Mon expressed a wariness of using an idea such as "universality" to substitute for "relatability."

I wanted to talk a bit about why I don't find "universal" a useful way to teach or think about literature.

My initial resistance to the idea of the "universal" comes out of my understanding of feminism. Most of what I was taught as "universal" as a kid was white, male, patriarchal, straight, etc. It pretended to universality, but really was about white, patriarchal imperialism pretending to represent humanity.

Now, one could say, all humans share certain universal characteristics and experiences. But I think there's a point where we reach a kind of emptiness if we truly reach towards universality. It's the same way that when everything is sexual in Freud, sex gets emptied because if sex is basically anything having to do with pleasure, then taking my contacts out when they feel itchy is sex. It's certainly pleasurable to take them out, but it makes sex a rather empty category compared to the complicated ways most of us experience our sexualities.

Back to the universal in lit. One might say that I haven't experienced war, but I've experienced conflict, so the conflict is universal. But I've never felt that my life was in danger in the way someone who's being shot at or gassed or bombed in war seems likely to. I imagine that's a really different experience, not a universal one.

I think the non-universal experiences someone can express in art are actually the most important artistic expressions. It's the specificity of expression that makes art so important to me.

That doesn't mean that shared common experiences aren't important; I have to be able to read (or be read to) to get lit. I have to be able to hear to listen to most music. But we can't make "universal" dependent on those things because there are lots of people who don't share those experiences, but who certainly need to be included in any universal humanity.

Put it this way: all humans breath. But reading about that universal experience doesn't sound like great lit to me. Who cares?

Contrast that with the non-universal experience related in Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est":

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I don't think that poem is brilliant because it connects with the universal human experience of breathing. I think it's brilliant because it expresses an experience that's not at all universal, but one that's specific to a time, place, and context. I stretch to read and understand the poem. It rewards my efforts many times over.


  1. I quite agree, and I too shy away from language of "universality" in teaching or talking about lit. One could say, for example, that in all times and places people have experienced the death of loved ones, but I think that the *meaning* that this loss has for them must vary so much among different cultures at different times. That's why I love literature, really -- for the chance to see/imagine what someone else's experience has been, since I work on the assumption that our experiences must be different.

  2. well, i think that things like responding to the emergency of the hour and experiencing the deaths of others are themes shared over time, place, culture; and reading these experiences expressed by another -- someone who has been someplace i will never be -- expands my universe and my understanding.

    and that is the point. literature is a way of expanding understanding beyond what one single person experiences in life.

  3. I actually just taught Owen's poem last night to a composition class. It is one of my favorite pieces to teach and my students always seem to enjoy it, despite our inability to directly relate to Owen's experiences. Last night we had to go over "Five-Nines" and mustard gas because my students had no idea what these things were. For many of them, this did not affect their enjoyment of the poem.

    I wonder when some discuss the "universality" of literature, if we are looking at it from the wrong end, meaning instead of "This book is 'universal' and you will like it," one means "I like this book even though I don't directly relate to it. It must transcend certain boundaries and therefore be universal."

  4. we do not have enough language to always have the right one-word summary, do we? universality is not quite there, but it might be a bit closer than "relatability," which just invites an easy rejection of that which we do not know personally.

    i dislike one-word summaries almost as much as i hate "sound bites" purporting to convey complex information. if we are going to